At some point during the writing of my dissertation, my advisor mentioned in passing that writing that blank was "a product of its time" was a doleful cliche. And like most cliches, you can immediately see the appeal and the pratfall inherent in the phrase: historical context is often important, especially as we move further into the past, but then again, everything is a product of its time, unless we choose another shopworn phrase and argue that it is timeless.
In any case, the specifics of Moneyball are of their time. There were some appalling levels of ignorance in high places in the world of MLB at the turn of the last century. It's hard to imagine that there was actually a battle of ideas around on-base percentage, but there was. If you weren't around online back then, God bless you, because it was painfully annoying. (Ah, the days of Buster Olney's ill-fated "productive outs" crusade!) Similarly, while it was much maligned at the time, thanks to commonsense measures related to pitch counts and innings counts, we've seen a marked reduction in dramatic pitcher injuries. While the injury rate is still higher for pitchers, the days of seemingly half the young arms in the game being burned out by their mid-20s are behind us.
The player development side has also changed since Lewis's book came out. Changed drastically. The new consensus in layer development is a counter-intuitive one: the best way to get value is to spend big. While teams now have an established appreciation for lower-cost college draft picks, they are only, at most, a portion of a healthy draft diet. While the return of the glorified bonus babies and the importance of scouting has been a vindication of old-school approaches, it is also potentially a poison pill for small-market teams like the Royals. If everyone understands that spending big on the amateur market is actually a bargain, then eventually, won't the Royals be left behind again? I also think we're entering an era of diminishing returns. One of the subtexts of the whole Moneyball era was of an industry maturing, of more or less common management practices from outside of sports finally reaching the game in a profound way. As I wrote last week, the most clueless and dysfunctional front office today would be middle of the pack, if not in the top 10, for 2000.
Of course, there is an avenue of achieving an advantage by doing what everyone else is doing, just doing it better. And this is, by all accounts 100% of what the Royals are about. However, as we move deeper into the 21st century, I wonder what the next new approach or shifting strategy will be.
Here are some possible ideas, new frontiers, that frequently get presented:
- Aggressively and creatively using Pitch f/x, Hit f/x, Field f/x, etc. These tools are essentially codified bits of scouting information. There are reports that the Royals are already extremely invested in this type of data. While hitting has always been the easiest aspect of the game to evaluate, the digitized data on fielding and pitching are giving those who want to pay for it absurd amounts of raw data. While much of it is minutiae, the right combination of scouting insight (knowing what to look for) and data mining skill should produce good results.
- New international markets and approaches. International scouting and spending still varies greatly from team to team, making this a particularly volatile area. A baseball academy in, say, Brazil, probably won't benefit the GM or owner who builds it, but if it generates one all-star and a handful or organizational guys, it's probably worth it. Or maybe, we go in the other direction. Maybe Team X says, "look, every team has a Dominican presence now, it's over-saturated and too corrupt," we're better off spending elsewhere.
- Managing health. It sure seems like aside from a few outliers at each end, 25 or so teams do the exact same thing when it comes to managing and trying to prevent player health. In the grand scheme of things, doubling or even tripling the medical/trainer/etc budget for a professional sports franchise might be a good investment. Baseball, with so many hundreds of players banging around the minor leagues presents a great opportunity for growth. Although I'm a Dr. of Philosophy, I won't try to guess at what training and rehab methods might be beneficial, but surely there are possibilities.
- Roster management. Everyone has the same roster now: a five man rotation, way too many relievers (most of whom barely pitch) and a bench that is essentially emergency backups and an extra catcher or two. Whether its a four (or six, who knows?) man rotation, a dramatic innovation in reliever usage, some funky attempts at building platoons or the like, there's room for change. Nobody is going to get fired for being like everyone else, but the entire industry is sleepwalking through the team building aspect of team building.
- Major League contracts & spending. Barring a major change in the collective bargaining agreement, there won't be major room for changes in how contracts are structured, but that doesn't mean teams should explore new paths. There's also the possibility that at some point young prospects become over valued in the market and free agent veterans are the best bargains.
- The hitting/fielding spectrum. Aside from DHs, all position players hit and field. In recent years, we've seen a decided swing towards valuing defense. Defense is also frequently cheaper to acquire, as the minors are full of guys who can't hit enough to advance. Is the best move to zig where others are zagging?
- Creative revenue generation. This is more the business side of the ledger, but would the Royals benefit from barnstorming through the midwest? Would a team generate more money by going to a pay-per-view model? Or building a 100,000 seat stadium? Or a 10,000 seat stadium?