10 Degrees: How 'Moneyball' caused the largest changes to baseball since integration

·MLB columnist

“Moneyball” arrived in bookstores 15 years ago today, and it set into motion the most significant changes in baseball since Jackie Robinson integrated the game in 1947. Everything in Major League Baseball, from how organizations are run to how players play to what fans understand, exists because Michael Lewis told the stirring tale of the 2002 Oakland A’s.

MLB would have ended up where it is now, at a crossroads entirely attributable to the sabermetric revolution, had Lewis not mainstreamed analytics with a tidy, readable narrative. Eventually teams would have understood that running a baseball-operations department purely on subjective decision-making was malpractice. “Moneyball” just hastened the process. It said teams were making their championship drive in a Model T, and it came with receipts.

And now, as analytics run entire organizations, including that of the reigning champion Houston Astros, the consequences of “smarter” baseball are clear. Think it’s an exaggeration that analytics are the cause of the greatest change in the game since integration? Consider:

The proliferation of the three true outcomes: “Moneyball” was a book about exploiting inefficiencies in the face of a decided financial disadvantage. Taking walks was extremely valuable – and extremely underpriced. Not only did “Moneyball” expertly lay out the simple math behind on-base percentage’s value – the more you’re on, the likelier you are to score, and the entire object of the game is scoring more runs than the other team – but it showed the inverse. The best way to prevent hitters from getting on base is by not letting them put the ball in play and get a chance. In 2002, the so-called three true outcomes – walk, strikeout, home run – comprised 28.24 percent of plays. Today, it’s at 34.26 percent, and MLB is on pace for more strikeouts than hits for the first time in history.

Defensive shifts: They are a pure distillation of knowledge gleaned from the objective study of the game. Find out where players hit the ball; position more fielders in that vicinity. The earliest adopters, the Tampa Bay Rays, may have been the closest emulators of the virtues espoused by “Moneyball”: use knowledge to win games in spite of a meager payroll.

Bullpen usage: Numbers show starting pitchers are hit significantly harder the third time through the order. The average starter now goes fewer than 5½ innings per outing.

Velocity spike: Pitchers who throw harder are more successful. That is a fact, and the average fastball velocity has jumped from 88.9 mph the year “Moneyball” was released to 92.2 mph today, according to FanGraphs.

Author Michael Lewis released “Moneyball” 15 years ago. (REUTERS)
Author Michael Lewis released “Moneyball” 15 years ago. (REUTERS)

Countless other examples endure. Baseball is how it is today because of analytics, and analytics infiltrated baseball in the manner they did because of “Moneyball.” Earnshaw Cook and Allan Roth tilted at windmills. Bill James called the baseball establishment know-nothings to an audience of a few thousand. The genius of “Moneyball” was Lewis’ ability to take something as opaque as numbers and make them entirely relatable.

Following its publication, every team needed its cadre of nerds, and while that caused a cognitive dissonance among the old-time baseball men, eventually they understood the choice was binary: adapt or die. Today they don’t complain about it so much as they do lament what sabermetrics have done to the game, and as much as it sounded like trying to stave of obsolescence, they were onto something.

While pre-sabermetric baseball may have lacked efficiency, the upshot of efficiency is a game that leaves …

1. Rob Manfred asking a lot of difficult questions. Is the game too long? Is the pace too slow? Are there too many strikeouts? And if so, how do we rein them in? Why is the average age of our TV viewer 57? And – gulp – why are we bleeding fans in person?

At the owners’ meetings last week, all of these questions came up, and no definitive answers emerged. In fact, the closest thing to change seemed to be Manfred’s indication that he was open to legislation limiting teams’ ability to shift. Yes. That will bring back the 1,800 fans per game missing compared to last season. Even the …

2. Seattle Mariners, one of the best stories in baseball, are barely up year-over-year. That should change as the summer goes along, because as one executive and another manager said earlier this week: The Mariners are going to the playoffs.

How are they so sure? Seattle is 46-26. Those 20 games over .500 are booked. That is eight games ahead of the team nearest to them, the Los Angeles Angels, who currently sport a disabled list 15 names long. The next-best team after that is the Oakland A’s. They are 36-36.

Now, weird things can and will happen. These are, after all, the Mariners. They head to New York for three games against the Yankees this week and go to Boston for three more after that. They’ve got a dozen games against the Angels and Colorado Rockies heading into the All-Star break, too. Plow through those at .500 and it’s better than good. Hell, go .500 for the rest of the season and the Mariners are a 91-win team. That won’t put them ahead of the …

3. Houston Astros in the American League West, but it would almost certainly be good enough for the second wild-card spot and a return trip to either Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park. The Astros are cruising, winners of 11 in a row after a sweep of the Kansas City Royals. Their 383 runs are the most in baseball. Their 226 runs allowed are the fewest. That is how you win ballgames.

“Ten wins in a row, 20 wins in a row – everyone’s saying that we’re playing well,” Astros third baseman Alex Bregman told the Yahoo Sports MLB Podcast in an interview that will be part of Tuesday’s episode. “We’ll let everyone know when we’re playing well. We’re playing all right. We’ll let people know when we’re playing well.”

Hold on. Eleven straight. A plus-157 run differential. And not playing well?

“There’s a complete new level,” Bregman said. “Some teams know because they’ve played in the postseason and they’ve had success in the postseason what it takes to win there. We’re one of those few teams. We’ll be ready. We’re not playing our best. We’ll let everybody know when we’re playing well. And they’ll know. They’ll just know.”

Consider that a warning for all comers: Thou doth not trifle with the Astros. It’s a lesson …

4. Trevor Bauer may learn sooner than later. In the midst of a cogent criticism of MLB’s foreign-substance rule, Bauer intimated Astros pitchers could be using pine tar or another substance to generate more spin on their pitches. The Astros did not take kindly to this.

The result could manifest itself in as deliciously petty a fashion as baseball has seen in years. Trevor Bauer, it turns out, is really, really good. His 2.69 ERA is sixth among AL starters. His 121 strikeouts are third. Bauer’s 2.31 FIP – fielding-independent pitching, which is calculated using the three true outcomes – is even better than likely AL All-Star starter Justin Verlander’s.

Well … guess who’s managing the AL team? That would be the Astros’ A.J. Hinch. The first five starting pitcher spots are decided via player vote, and the likelihood is they’ll be filled by Verlander, Corey Kluber, Gerrit Cole, Chris Sale and Luis Severino. The players pick three relief pitchers, too, leaving four spots open. While the new All-Star Game rules say the league fills out the roster, surely Hinch will be consulted on the matter.

One is almost certain to go to Charlie Morton, the standout Astros starter. Make it three spots. Kelvin Herrera is the only deserving Kansas City All-Star. That’s two. Blake Treinen could be the A’s rep. One. And the chances of Hinch using that one spot on the guy who accused his pitchers of doing something against the rules? Exactly.

Which would be a bit of a shame because Bauer is fun to watch, and Bauer airing it out in a one-inning appearance would be even more fun. His saving grace could be injuries or starters who throw the Sunday before the All-Star Game and must be replaced on the roster. If Bauer keeps pitching like he has, there’s almost an imperative to reward him somehow, so long as the goal is to get the best players on the roster.

In the case where there aren’t any particularly worthy players at a position, like first base this year, you could have understood if fans chose …

5. Miguel Cabrera purely on account of his history. Well, a ruptured biceps tendon has ended Cabrera’s season, and the 35-year-old now has five years and $162 million remaining on his deal.

It’s the latest on the growing list of nine-figure deals to blow up. Chris Davis is on the bench with 4½ years left on his seven-year, $161 million deal. Five years remain on Robinson Cano’s contract, and he’s serving a PED suspension. Albert Pujols is in his second straight year with a sub-.700 OPS. Don’t forget Homer Bailey, either. In the five years since Cincinnati guaranteed him $106 million, he has been worth -1.0 Wins Above Replacement

It’s not always dire in deals that look like they’ve gone sour. Matt Kemp has been the savior of the Dodgers, who assumed they were going to cut him when they traded for him. Shin-Soo Choo looks better than he ever has with the Texas Rangers. Jason Heyward’s OPS is near .750. Baby steps.

Monster busts illustrate why teams so value guys like …

6. Andrelton Simmons, who signed his seven-year, $58 million deal in 2014. Simmons, who returned earlier than expected from the DL over the weekend, is having the kind of season worth noting, and not because of his career-high OPS or his amazing-as-ever glove.

In 253 plate appearances this year, Simmons has struck out 10 times. That’s a 3.95 percent strikeout rate. The last player to end the season with a lower rate of punchouts: Tony Gwynn in 1998.

How remarkable is Simmons? He played 29 games in June and struck out twice in 125 plate appearances. This season, hitters have had three strikeouts in a single game 746 times. And four strikeouts 91 times. And five in one game? Of course. Seven times.

Simmons doesn’t walk much, either, and he’s not much of a home run hitter, which leaves him at the opposite end of the three true outcomes chart from …

7. Matt Davidson, the TTO king of 2018. Going into the weekend, nearly 55 percent of his plate appearances had ended with a home run, strikeout or walk. Davidson did nothing to dispel his tendencies against Detroit on Saturday (four PA, three Ks) or Sunday (four PA, one K, one HR). It’s not exactly harming him, either. Davidson’s .835 OPS is well above his career average.

This actually applied to the rest of the top 10. There are a lot of good players on it. In order: Joey Gallo, Aaron Judge, Yoan Moncada, Chris Davis, Bryce Harper, Kyle Schwarber, Paul Goldschmidt, Rhys Hoskins, Giancarlo Stanton and …

8. Mike Trout, who happens to lead the AL in home runs and walks, which makes his inclusion far from ignominious. Trout, as I wrote earlier this week, is on pace for an all-time great season. Which is obscuring a pair of other seasons alongside him.

Cleveland third baseman Jose Ramirez entered Sunday with 4.6 WAR, according to FanGraphs. Even after he missed two weeks, Mookie Betts still has 4.2 WAR. Take each of their per-game WAR this season and extrapolate it over their teams’ remaining games, and Betts would finish the season with 11.3 and Ramirez 10.8.

The only time three players have finished with 10-plus WAR in the same season: 1927, when Babe Ruth had 13.0, Lou Gehrig 12.5 and Rogers Hornsby 10.4. Not only is that possible this year, all three are in the same league. If nothing else, Betts and Ramirez give Trout competition in the AL MVP race and a league without much in terms of playoff excitement a little boost.

One by one teams have fallen out of the picture, even wannabe contenders like Toronto, which Monday may get a better sense of how the …

9. Roberto Osuna case is going to shake out. Osuna, their 23-year-old closer, has been on administrative leave since allegedly assaulting a woman in May. Though details of the case have not emerged, multiple sources familiar with it used the same word: “Ugly.”

His lawyer is expected to appear in court Monday, where he will see the prosecution’s evidence. This is simply the beginning of the case, and the chances of Osuna returning this season, sources said, are slim.

Will he ever be back with Toronto? Considering domestic-violence issues could prevent him from traveling to and from the United States, the answer may be no. Beyond that, MLB could levy a suspension based strictly on the evidence and without any sort of conviction. It’s up to …

10. Rob Manfred, and one of his signature measures as commissioner was the implementation of the league’s domestic-violence policy. Suspensions have ranged from 15 to 100 games.

Part of being commissioner is coming up with policy to guide the sport forward, and though MLB’s domestic-violence guidelines can be murky, it’s a marked improvement on the league’s previous tack – no policy at all – and leaves room for enhancement going forward.

In fact, there’s some wisdom in “Moneyball” offered by Billy Beane, the A’s president and the hero of the book, that illustrates what Manfred faces in trying to placate his core audience that likes things just … the … way… they … are and the audience of people he wants to be baseball fans who just aren’t down with the game as it’s played.

“No matter how successful you are, change is always good,” Beane said. “There can never be a status quo.”

Now, Beane said this in a particular context – the A’s lack of payroll limited them to short-term solutions, meaning they needed to be a revolving door of players – but it’s keen advice anyway. If baseball were as stagnant as its reputation says, there would be no shifts. One-third of plate appearances wouldn’t end with one of the TTOs. Complete games would be a thing. More guys would throw 88 and get away with it. Perhaps a better way to put it is this: “If you challenge conventional wisdom, you will find ways to do things much better than they are currently done.”

That’s from Bill James, and it’s almost like he said it as a challenge to everyone in baseball, particularly Manfred. Conventional wisdom is the sort of thing that says to limit shifts. But let’s be honest: People not watching baseball don’t do so because of shifts. Russell Carleton’s research, in fact, showed shifts actually can have a negative impact for the teams that use them.

All of the talk of what ails baseball caused one scout earlier this week to rant via text: “If you ask people that are the target audience what they like, millennials will tell you guys throwing 100, crazy breaking stuff, homers and the emotion and shareable clips. And the league is actively fighting all of those. Because they’re close-minded, scared, rich old white men that have no idea how to sell their product.”

Scouts vs. stats is a tired debate, one that should’ve been sent to its maker long ago. The question now is: The game baseball is vs. the one it wants to be. The one it is goes directly back to the emergence of analytics. The one it wants to be? Well, that’s still not entirely clear, though if MLB wants it to change, it ought figure that out sooner than later, lest it find the roots of “Moneyball” even deeper than they already are.

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