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Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Beane Counters

The daughter already had skipped west, seduced by dreams of Hollywood. Now the son approached the father, thanking him for that Harvard education but explaining that he would pursue a career in professional sports.

He resisted the lure of proper jobs for the Ivy League graduate, the ones with six-figure salaries — investment banker, management consultant and the like.

John DePodesta — a Harvard grad himself, lawyer, and co-founder of an international telecommunications company — listened as his son Paul declared he would work for no salary, throwing T-shirts into the stands as an intern for a Canadian Football League team.

"I told him to go for it," John DePodesta said. "Having spent much of my life dealing with lawyers, investment bankers and consultants, and hearing how frustrated they were in midcareer by not following their passions, I could not foreclose an opportunity for my son to pursue that."

"Foreclose" -- it's a funny, lawyerly choice of words introducing a story in today's Times about the "new" generation of statistics-based GMs in the business. While the Times previously has made idiotic comments as if guys like Branch Rickey weren't paying attention to this back in the day, this time they manage to get it right:
Branch Rickey, the Dodgers' legendary general manager, wrote about the importance of reaching base half a century before the term "on-base percentage" crept into the vernacular. Earl Weaver, the Baltimore Orioles' Hall of Fame manager, sat back and waited for a three-run homer three decades before anyone had calculated the value of playing for one run against the chance of scoring three.
When DePodesta thinks about the additional resources the Dodgers (supposedly) have versus the A's,
... he doesn't necessarily mean pumping money into the pockets of free agents.

"You can spend more on player payroll, which is great," he said. "You can actually spend more off the field too, whether it be on scouts or systems or video or software. I'm actually as excited, if not more excited, about that kind of stuff than I am about having the player payroll."

Interesting, then that in Anaheim, they're feeling threatened by all of this:
"Our guys can use a computer too, but there's a lot more to it," Angel scouting director Eddie Bane said last fall. "There are computer teams out there, trying to take a hit at scouts. Myself and some of the other guys are trying to prove them wrong. It's really a threat to our industry."
Well, I wish them all the luck in the world. I've said in the past that Moneyball isn't enough information to run a ballclub with; if Beane and company were smart, they'd keep their mouths shut, or let Michael Lewis paint an incomplete, inaccurate picture. I still think that's true. It doesn't erase gleaned wisdom like Voros' work that K/9 and BB/9 are more important than ERA or win-loss numbers when evaluating pitchers, but it does mean that subjective evaluations are decidedly under the gun to produce -- as they should be.

Let me give you an example from my own life. I work for a company that specializes in comparison shopping. It's a free service we provide to our site visitors, but our customers are the retailers who sell the products. To them, we're a kind of advertising -- a new and different kind in that they can look (if they choose, and the better among them do) to see exactly how many prospects we referred to them become customers. One reason we've prospered is because potential buyers leaving our site become actual buyers at a higher rate than most others in our business. There's an old saying regarding advertising: "I'm wasting half my ad budget, but I don't know which half." And that's always been true in traditional media, because it's so difficult to tell the effect an ad had on a particular customer. Well, for on-line advertising, that saw is absolutely untrue: you can tell almost immediately where you're wasting your money. Does our success mean that billboards, print, radio, and TV are suddenly obsolete? No, but it might inspire some ad buyers to get more scientific about understanding the results of their spending.

And that's the point, I think, of Moneyball: you have to be able to back up assertions. That doesn't obsolete the presence of a traditional scouting staff; the A's certainly have one. But you can bet they're run differently than most of the other scouting staffs in baseball.


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