Myth of Moneyball

Posted By on August 26, 2011 10:00 am

Been spending a lot of time over the past month putting together a special Moneyball section in Athletics magazine. If you are an A’s fan, or even if you are just interested in the book and movie, I recommend you give it a look.

The main piece of the package tells the true story behind those 2002 A’s, who overcame the loss of Jason Giambi and won 103 games on a shoestring budget. The Hollywood version of the story — as best as I can tell, from the trailer — seems to be a real underdog tale. I heard the phrase “island of misfit toys” in the trailer, no doubt in reference to guys like Scott Hatteberg and Chad Bradford, who were cast off by other teams before the A’s scooped them up.

The movie’s producers want you to believe that’s why the A’s were so good. But, actually, that’s what I call the Myth of Moneyball.

Billy Beane himself says this, in the Athletics magazine story…

“Complementary players and additions like that mean nothing unless you have a real strong foundation and core, which we obviously did.”

Mark Mulder adds…

“It’s not like we were this handicapped team that was thrown together with a bunch of castoffs who couldn’t make it on other teams. That was an extremely talented team that really played well.”

The A’s opening day payroll was $40 million, compared with the Yankees’ $125 million. However, I submit that the A’s payroll was not so low because Beane had seen value where other teams didn’t, but because the economics of baseball are set up so that young players have no leverage to earn what they are worth. The confluence of so many such players is the result of good scouting and player development — and, yes, luck — more than exploiting market inefficiencies.

Here are seven core players, with their 2002 salaries and their 2005 salaries, after they’d accumulated enough service time to start getting paid at a level more fitting their talent.

Ramon Hernandez$497K$4.3M
Miguel Tejada$3.6M$11M
Eric Chavez$2.1M$8.5M
Terrence Long$675K$4.8M
Barry Zito$295K$5.6M
Tim Hudson$875K$6.5M
Mark Mulder$800K$6.1M

The same seven guys went from earning $8.8 million to $46.8 million, and none of them got significantly better from 2002 to 2005. They simply got older, and their salaries went up exponentially because that’s how the economics of baseball work.

This is certainly true of all young players. They all make a heckuva lot more money in Year 5 than in Year 2. What’s rare is to have so many good, young players together, all outperforming their age by so much that they could play like a $125-million team for $40 million.

Yes, the 2002 A’s were remarkable. Yes, Billy Beane deserves credit for assembling this group.

But not for the reasons that Hollywood wants you to believe.

(If you are interested in more of the Hollywood angle of the movie, specifically the trials and tribulations of the production, I urge you to read this and this.)


3 Responses to “Myth of Moneyball”

  1. Marvin says:

    Has Beane essentially become a guru because of 2002 and the book. His success since then has not been that great.

  2. Brandon says:

    Excellent perspective. I never looked af the payroll disparity then let alone now in that light.

  3. rob says:

    Good point. I also think that the A’s pitching of that time gets overlooked when people talk about Moneyball — Hatteberg and OBP don’t mean much without Mulder, Zito, and Hudson.

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