By the Numbers: Moneyball helped let undervalued stat out of the bag

Greg Jayne: By the Numbers

By Greg Jayne, Columbian opinion editor

Published:

 

In retrospect, Billy Beane might have been his own worst enemy.

A decade ago, Beane was general manager of an Oakland Athletics team on its way to 103 wins and the third of four straight playoff appearances, despite having one of the lowest payrolls in baseball. He was a magician, but he made the mistake of allowing the public to peek behind the curtain.

In 2003, Michael Lewis' book "Moneyball" was released — probably one of the best and certainly one of the most important books ever written about baseball. That's where Beane became his own worst enemy, even if they got Brad Pitt to play him in the movie.

The gist of "Moneyball" wasn't that the ability to get on base is the end-all to a winning baseball team. The gist is that the skill was undervalued at the time. It was an important skill that Beane could afford to purchase with his team's miniscule budget.

It's hard to believe, really, that on-base percentage was undervalued. It is the single most important skill in the game, and yet for more than 100 years many so-called experts in front offices throughout the major leagues had little understanding of its importance.

As recently as the 1970s, Rod Carew was regarded as a great offensive player because he would hit .350 in a good year. Carew was a very good offensive player, but he didn't put as many runs on the board as Bobby Abreu has with a .293 average, copious walks, and good power. Abreu's career batting average is 35 points lower than Carew's, but his OBP is four points higher.

Baseball officials and even fans understand that now. Which, as much as anything, is the everlasting contribution that Bill James and others like him have made to the game. They questioned conventional wisdom, and they kept questioning until answers were found.

Beane brought that understanding into the front office, and his problem now is that every front office understands it.

Oh, it's probably unfair to say that Beane is his own worst enemy. With an influx of young scouts and young general managers who grew up reading about modern baseball analysis, it was only a matter of time before the curve caught up with him. But "Moneyball" probably sped up the process.

All of which brings us to the Oakland Athletics of today. Beane still is the general manager, but on-base percentage no longer is undervalued. No longer can you pick up part-time players who possess this important ability and get them at bargain basement prices.

Which helps explain why this year's A's are putting up some of the worst offensive numbers in the history of the game.

Through Thursday, the A's were batting .214 as a team. They were averaging 3.40 runs per game, and they ranked last in the American League in runs, batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage. The 1906 White Sox were known as "The Hitless Wonders," but at least they batted .230.

Remember the Seattle Mariners of 2010, the Mariners who threatened to revive the Deadball Era? Well, the A's of 2012 are giving them a run in the race for infamy.

The Athletics have Josh Donaldson, he of the .148 batting average and .146 on-base percentage (that's difficult to do), and have sent him onto the field for 25 games this year. They have Coco Crisp and his .169 average. They have Cliff Pennington and his .196 average -- and he's the everyday shortstop.

Oakland has scored 20 fewer runs than the next-worst offense in the American League, but at least there is a silver lining for Beane and the Athletics: They entered the weekend a half-game ahead of the Mariners in the standings.

Question or comment for By the Numbers? You can contact Greg Jayne, Sports editor of The Columbian, at 360-759-4531, or by e-mail at greg.jayne@columbian.com. To read his blog, go to columbian.com/weblogs/GregJayne