“The sheer quantity of brain power that hurled itself voluntarily and quixotically into the search for new baseball knowledge was either exhilarating or depressing, depending on how you felt about baseball. The same intellectual resources might have cured the common cold, or put a man on Pluto.”
-- Michael Lewis, “Moneyball”
Lewis’ seminal book was subtitled “The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.” It’s remarkable in retrospect: Bill James’ “Baseball Abstract” was first published nationally in 1982; “Moneyball” came out in 2003. It took 34 years since James introduced readers to sabermetrics and 13 years since Lewis explained the market inefficiencies Billy Beane’s small-market Oakland Athletics tried to exploit for all 30 front offices to fully enter the modern age of baseball.
The expulsion of Dave Stewart from the Diamondbacks (presumably to somewhere in the New Jersey Pine Barrens), with Mike Hazen of the Red Sox taking over as general manager, and the hiring of Derek Falvey and Thad Levine to run the baseball operations for the Twins to replace old-school scout Terry Ryan means that every franchise is now doing some heavy numbers-crunching. Not every team has an Ivy League whiz kid running things -- Al Avila of the Tigers, for example, has a 25-year history in the game, primarily as a scout -- but they all have an analytics department of various robustness and influence.
In other words, the brain power in the game has grown in multiples since Lewis penned his ode to Beane. The data to study and review have also grown exponentially. Many of the smartest analysts, once publishing to sites such as Baseball Prospectus, are now working for teams. As one person in the game told ESPN Insider contributor Eno Sarris at the winter meetings, "We were in an era where a lot of great statistical analysis was being done on the internet, but now the internet is far behind right now due to the proprietary data the teams have."
Last spring, we brought a member of one team’s analytics department to speak to ESPN baseball employees about his job. I asked him later what his bosses said he could and couldn’t talk about, even in an off-the-record gathering. “Nothing about the amateur draft,” he said. Years ago, Beane felt college players were a market inefficiency, that high school players were essentially getting overdrafted; his studies on the subject were pretty basic. Imagine the work teams put into the draft these days compared to 15 years ago -- from analytics and research to scouting that now itself includes more analytics.
All this means front offices are smarter and on more of an equal footing of knowledge than in 2003. Back then Lewis wrote, “It is the nature of being the general manager of a baseball team that you have to remain on familiar terms with people you are continually trying to screw.”
That’s no longer the case, because all front offices are more prepared, loaded with more information and more discerning of the game’s economics. Oh, you can make bad trades -- Beane would probably like a redo on the Josh Donaldson deal -- and you make lucky trades (Theo Epstein couldn’t have expected Jake Arrieta to turn into a Cy Young contender), but pulling one over on another front office is more difficult than ever.
On top of that, with spending caps on the draft and now on international signings, financial advantages in acquiring amateur talent have been minimized. It all suggests winning is harder than ever, and sustaining a high level of success even harder. Indeed, we can see this when comparing the five-year periods of 2011-2015 to 1998-2002. Conveniently, both periods had 42 teams win 90-plus games in a season, but what happened the following season reveals how smarter front offices have changed the game:
Teams in the more recent period not only had a lower average win total in the 90-win season, but suffered a bigger decline the following season, were less likely to win more games or to win 90 again and more likely to have a losing season. Winning now is more ephemeral: Winning 92 games and making the playoffs as opposed to winning 85 and falling short is often not just the residue of clever team-building, but to the vagaries of luck, injuries and random career seasons.
This suggests front offices have to take more risks. In a sense, that’s what Dave Dombrowski of the Red Sox and Mike Rizzo of the Nationals did in giving up several of the top prospects in the game to acquire Chris Sale and Adam Eaton. Conventional wisdom says prized prospects are to be kept, as they are invaluable lifeblood when veteran free agents cost so much to sign. It’s what Jerry Dipoto and Hazen did in the Taijuan Walker-for-Jean Segura deal, a rare exchange of talent for talent that could work for both teams or blow up for one.
But in this new world, the Red Sox and Nationals understood that repeating their success in 2016 isn’t necessarily guaranteed unless you make the team better. So they went out and made those trades.
As Jayson Stark wrote about Dombrowski,
He came to Boston to spray champagne and ride the duck boats, as confetti floats out of the New England sky. And if that means paying a price that the other baseball decision-makers of his era are too cautious to pay, then guess what?
Dave Dombrowski doesn't care. ...
"This is what Dave Dombrowski was brought there for," one rival AL executive said Tuesday, as he and his peers around baseball did their best to digest this whopper of a deal. "He was brought in there to take a good team with a good system and push them over the edge. And that's what he's done. This is a really good team."
With Sale, the Red Sox are more likely to win 93 games again, more likely to make the playoffs and thus more likely to win the World Series. With Eaton in the outfield, the Nationals believe they have a better chance of running down the Cubs. Every team is searching for and finding the small edges: shifting, pitch framing, spin rates, exit velocity and on and on, down to new sabermetric studies on things like nutrition, team chemistry and work ethic.
But Chris Sale isn’t a small edge; he’s a big edge. Yes, in five years maybe Yoan Moncada and Michael Kopech are starting in the All-Star Game. But finding an advantage in today’s game isn’t as simple as searching minor league numbers for hitters with a good on-base percentage or playing your second baseman 10 feet to his left.
Everybody has the data. Not every GM has the courage to risk making a trade that could get him fired.