Moneyball and the Pirates: Will it Work Today?

Tonight, I watched the movie form of Moneyball for the second time, first in my own home with my laptop nearby.  One of my family members remarked, while watching/listening to the movie from another room, “Why can’t the Pirates do something like this?”  So I started thinking if something like Moneyball would work in the MLB today.

After the jump is a bunch of stats and pictures.

All Moneyball was about was the flaws of scouting and “traditional” statistical analysis in baseball, mainly the overrating of RBIs, batting average, and stolen bases.  The two statistics better than those three are OBP, on base percentage, and SLG, slugging average (yes, an average.  Slugging average is the average number of bases per at-bat.  Tip of the hat to Patrick Reddick for pointing that out).  Let’s see our best players based off of who has the highest on base percentage.

Rk Pos Age G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP ▾ SLG OPS OPS+ TB GDP HBP SH SF IBB
1 CF Andrew McCutchen 24 158 678 572 87 148 34 5 23 89 23 10 89 126 .259 .364 .456 .820 127 261 7 9 2 6 3
2 LF Jose Tabata 22 91 382 334 53 89 18 1 4 21 16 7 40 61 .266 .349 .362 .711 98 121 8 4 1 3 1
3 2B Neil Walker# 25 159 662 596 76 163 36 4 12 83 9 6 54 112 .273 .334 .408 .742 105 243 15 4 0 8 5
4 RF Garrett Jones* 30 148 477 423 51 103 30 1 16 58 6 3 48 104 .243 .321 .433 .753 107 183 7 2 0 4 2
5 1B Lyle Overbay* 34 103 391 352 40 80 17 1 8 37 1 1 36 77 .227 .300 .349 .649 80 123 12 1 1 1 1
6 SS Ronny Cedeno 28 128 454 413 43 103 25 3 2 32 2 5 30 93 .249 .297 .339 .636 76 140 11 0 6 5 7
Team Totals 27.1 162 6063 5421 610 1325 277 35 107 580 108 52 489 1308 .244 .309 .368 .676 87 1993 123 34 75 44 31
Rank in 16 NL teams 14 14 14 7 7 14 7 2 11 3 12 12 14 14 15 15 3
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/23/2012.

I believe that nobody can really argue ANYTHING about that list (players must have had a minimum of 300 at bats to qualify for the list).  Let’s look at what slugging average says:

Rk Pos Age G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG ▾ OPS OPS+ TB GDP HBP SH SF IBB
1 CF Andrew McCutchen 24 158 678 572 87 148 34 5 23 89 23 10 89 126 .259 .364 .456 .820 127 261 7 9 2 6 3
2 RF Garrett Jones* 30 148 477 423 51 103 30 1 16 58 6 3 48 104 .243 .321 .433 .753 107 183 7 2 0 4 2
3 2B Neil Walker# 25 159 662 596 76 163 36 4 12 83 9 6 54 112 .273 .334 .408 .742 105 243 15 4 0 8 5
4 LF Jose Tabata 22 91 382 334 53 89 18 1 4 21 16 7 40 61 .266 .349 .362 .711 98 121 8 4 1 3 1
5 1B Lyle Overbay* 34 103 391 352 40 80 17 1 8 37 1 1 36 77 .227 .300 .349 .649 80 123 12 1 1 1 1
6 SS Ronny Cedeno 28 128 454 413 43 103 25 3 2 32 2 5 30 93 .249 .297 .339 .636 76 140 11 0 6 5 7
Team Totals 27.1 162 6063 5421 610 1325 277 35 107 580 108 52 489 1308 .244 .309 .368 .676 87 1993 123 34 75 44 31
Rank in 16 NL teams 14 14 14 7 7 14 7 2 11 3 12 12 14 14 15 15 3
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 1/23/2012.

Slugging average can really change the list, but if you take out the main outlier (hint: his name is Garrett Jones), this is basically the exact same list as on base percentage.

 

Now, if we were to go after players in free agency using Billy Beane’s parameters for a first baseman, oddly enough our need as well, this would be the list:

Nick Johnson would be our #1 priority for a first baseman because (points to Paul DePodesta) he gets on base.  He gets on base at a .401 clip according to his career OBP.   He hasn’t played in the MLB since 2010, and even then he didn’t play much (98 plate appearances).

 

Our second option would be Prince Fielder.  He had an OBP of .415 in 2011, but the reason he is below Johnson is because his career .390 OBP.  He’s also a power threat.

Our third option would be David Ortiz.  Despite being a DH as of late, he has a career OBP of .378 and an OPS of .922.

 

The bad part about Beane’s strategy is that it has been semi-adopted by every team in the MLB.  The only way to find a player who is in the price range for the Pirates (a la <$5MM) probably has an OBP of .320 or less.  A .320 OBP is one point above MLB average in 2011 and for the Pirates’ price range of $480k-$5MM, league average will either not cut it for $5MM or will not sign for league minimum.

In short, a Moneyball type strategy will NOT work in today’s MLB because of how many people have adopted a less extreme version of Beane’s idea.  Even Beane has inched down on the abstractness of his sabermetric-based team.

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