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"What Moneyball Missed"

2009 April 3
by Skip Sauer

Interesting piece by Adam Fleisher at the American.

The heart of the claim:

The only problem was that Lewis’s explanation for the A s success was the same as Commissioner Selig’s: the team was an aberration. Since most every other team looks at the market pretty much the same way, as Lewis explained, if every team tried to exploit these same inefficiencies, then no team could. The market would correct, and the most valuable players i.e. the players with the attributes most likely to produce wins would be bought by the wealthiest teams. The championship would be for sale again.

But it isn t. Moneyball missed something. That something is known as the reserve clause.

I don’t think it matters much whether Lewis’ book had an explicit discussion of the reserve clause and how that factored into the A’s menu. Implicitly, of course, it’s effects are described throughout the book, with the A’s focus on young (underpaid) players, and in particular on the Giambi trade replacement of Giambi’s talent, when he became eligible for free agency.

Fleisher’s three key claims are that:

1) “Well-run teams” are exploiting the “reserve clause inefficiency.”

2) This will create a “smoothing of salary distribution throughout players careers.” (as in the Longoria contract, which supposedly locks him and the DRays together). Young players will not be as inexpensive and older players will not be as overpaid. Top free agents will become scarcer over time; their hometown teams have found a way to keep them.

3) “Payroll will matter less and less, management will matter more and more, and the game will stay competitive.”

Regarding the first point, low-payroll teams have focused on trying to win with young, “underpaid” players for decades. The A’s were unusually successful because of their particular mechanism for doing this. I disagree with the latter two points, and again, the Jason Giambi trade move from the A’s to the Yanks is illustrative: the best players are worth more in Yankee stadium than elsewhere. Absent additional league rules designed to inhibit the flow of talent, the market will allocate players to where they are most highly valued.

In short, this is an interesting piece, but at several critical junctures the economics are unsound. Regardless, it’s a piece worth discussing over a beer or two.

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