The Beauty of Short Hops: Or, Come Back Ken Tremendous, a Nation Turns Its Lonely Eyes to You
Author Michael Lewis wrote this book around the turn of the century that has dominated baseball discussion, for good and bad, ever since. This book, Moneyball, dealt with the efforts of Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane to field a competitive team despite not having the payroll to compete for the best players.
Beane went with an approach known as sabermetrics, a form of statistical analysis, to assemble his team. And it was an approach that worked, for a time, for the A's and kept them competitive in a weak division. The approach swept through baseball with the Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Dodgers hiring former Beane assistants while the Boston Red Sox, one of those big money clubs, hired Theo Epstein, who employed a sabermetric approach while still being able to throw around as much money as he wanted for free agents.
This moneyball approach has been disliked by many in the old-guard baseball establishment -- the late, lamented Fire Joe Morgan blog found much humor with this dislike and in Joe Morgan's insistence that a book he admitted he hadn't read was to blame for all that was wrong with baseball.
There's a new book out that's meant to refute Moneyball. This new book is The Beauty of Short Hops, written by brothers Sheldon and Alan Hirsch. In short, they don't like Moneyball. And they don't like what they call this new misplaced emphasis on brand-new, never-before-existed stats that defy common sense and have attempted to take the unpredictability out of the game.
There is much that is wrong with this book. For one thing, they refute the overemphasis on stats in baseball by relying on stats. Then there's the insistence that, if they can't understand how a stat works, then that stat is no good. And even when there are stats that can be used to support their viewpoint for how baseball should be played -- e.g., the overblown importance attached to having a closer -- they dismiss these stats because this is all just common sense and no statistic should ever be allowed to override common sense.
Essentially, the authors don't want to think about baseball, or about what makes baseball work. They just want to sit and take it all in, and anybody who tries to make them actually think about the game is a heretic. Their approach is akin to those pushing intelligent design over evolution. They can't really refute the approach of sabermetrics, but they don't like it, so they're just going to make something up and hope that others fall for it.
There were a lot of problems with Lewis's book. He pretty much treated Beane as infallible. He failed to address the success of the Minnesota Twins, a team with the same financial constraints as the A's, but a team that didn't follow Beane's approach. He failed to address the A's lack of success in the postseason, and Lewis failed to address what would happen once other teams adopted Beane's approach to building a team.
It's on these topics that the Hirsch brothers jump. But they fail. They take delight in the failures of Beane, and when Beane bends his approach to try out new methods, they jump on this as the failure of moneyball instead of seeing it as an evolution of moneyball. And where Michael Lewis spent a year embedded with Beane and the A's, the Hirsch brothers approach the Twins by way of anecdotes and newspaper clippings -- they use the Twins as the anti-A's for building a small-market winning team; they just fail to actually give any clues as to what the Twins actually do to build a successful franchise.
The failure of the A's in the postseason is, to them, because the moneyball approach is a failure -- one just has to ignore the success of the Red Sox, a moneyball-type team, in the playoffs. And they fail to understand the central aspect of Lewis's book: the stats Beane used to find players were because he had to find undervalued assets because of his lack of funds. His shifting approach and use of new stats to find players isn't because the original approach failed, it's because lots and lots of other teams discovered the importance of those stats, meaning that those players were no longer undervalued, so he had to find another way to get the job done.
Come back, Ken Tremendous, come back.
If the authors had been serious about debunking the "myths" of Moneyball, they would have taken Lewis's approach. They would have embedded themselves for a year or two with a team like the Twins, and they would have figured out what it was the Twins did to win and how those ways were different from those used by Beane and the A's.
But that would involve some actual work and reporting. It's much easier to just use a smug attitude and bitch about stats ruining the game. It's just a shame that Ken Tremendous was much too busy writing one of the funniest programs on television to take these guys apart like he used to take apart Joe Morgan.