In 2017 (according to Forbes Magazine) the MLB teams with the lowest valuations were the Tampa Bay Rays, Oakland A’s, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, and Milwaukee Brewers. Yet three out of those five teams made the playoffs in 2018 and four finished with a winning record. So how are these relatively low budget teams competing with large market teams such as the Yankees, Dodgers and Red Sox? In a word, sabermetrics. So what is sabermetrics and how is it affecting the game of baseball?
The formal definition of sabermetrics is the use of statistical analysis to analyze baseball records and make determinations about player performance. Bill James, the founder of sabermetrics, defines the term as, “the search for objective knowledge about baseball.” Baseball is a game of statistics and each one of those statistics means something different. Sabermetricians believe some of those statistics are either overvalued or undervalued. For example, sabermetricians believe that RBIs (Runs Batted In) is a meaningless statistic. In order for a player to have a lot of RBIs, he must consistently have runners on base when he is up to bat. It is impossible for the hitter to control how many people are on base when he is up to bat. Therefore RBIs do not accurately represent his value as a hitter. Sabermetricians are always looking at data and asking questions about how to apply that data to find the best players for their team. One of the most famous sabermetricians is Billy Beane. Beane is the general manager of the Oakland A’s and is well known for using data to exploit undervalued skills to create a playoff caliber team.
The Old Way of Thinking
As long as baseball has existed scouts have watched players and judged them based on their appearance and athleticism. Teams then draft or sign a player based on the “gut feelings” their scouts have after watching that player a few times. Sabermetrics has changed this old way of thinking. The front offices of many Major League teams have adopted the statistician approach. The chart below shows the bottom five team valuations in 2017. Of the bottom five teams, three made the 2018 playoffs and four had a winning record. This shows that money is not the only way to be successful in the league. One of the statistics that sabermetricians believe is extremely valuable is OPS (On Base Percentage plus Slugging). In 2018 Cleveland and Oakland finished in the top five in OPS while Milwaukee finished in the top ten. This shows that teams can find undervalued players that have high OPS and be successful. This has shifted the way that front offices scout players. Teams that do not have huge valuations look for affordable players with high OPS. The old way of thinking was to pay millions for players with large RBIs and high batting averages. Or to draft a player that passed the “eye test.”
“Moneyball,” a book and later a movie, marked a turning point in the thinking of low budget teams. The book was based on the Oakland Athletics’ historic 2002 season. This team was the first known front office to prioritize statistics and data to make personnel decisions. Billy Beane, the general manager, and the rest of his front office believed in the simple logic that getting on base led directly to scoring runs and that scoring runs would lead to wins. After the movie was released, many low budget teams followed the A’s approach. Of the teams that followed are the Brewers, the Indians, and the Rays. All of which, including Beane’s Athletics, have had great success in 2018.
Low Budget Teams Problems with Sabermetrics
Although it seems like every low budget team that has followed the Athletics approach has had success, that is not necessarily the case. Every team’s ultimate goal is to win the World Series and none of these teams have won the World Series since 2002. The Indians came close but lost to the Cubs in the 2016 World Series. So far in the 2018 playoffs, the A’s have lost to the powerhouse Yankees and the Indians have already lost to the big budget Astros. The problem with sabermetrics is that it still favors big budget teams. Three of the most prominent teams that have adopted the “Moneyball” approach are the Cubs, the Astros and the Red Sox. Since these teams have much bigger budgets, they are able to buy the statistics that they want. They are able to sign the big name players who have all of the assets that sabermetricians love. Low budget teams such as the Athletics have to develop a lot of younger talent to believe in the system they are trying to create. The Red Sox broke the Curse of the Bambino and won the World Series after hiring Theo Epstein. Epstein is a big believer in sabermetrics. The Cubs later hired Epstein and won the World Series after a 108-year drought. The difference between Epstein’s teams and Beane’s Athletics is that Epstein had the budget to fulfill all of the sabermetric statistics he wanted.
Can the Brewers win the Fall Classic?
Sabermetrics are without a doubt changing the way that general managers evaluate players; but, at the end of the day, money still buys wins. Big budgets afford the players that statisticians adore. In the 2018 playoffs two of the three low valuation teams have already been eliminated. While the big budget Red Sox, Astros, and Dodgers still compete. The Brewers are the last low budget team remaining. The world is waiting to see if the Brewers can shock the world and win the fall classic while utilizing sabermetrics as a low budget team.