At the end of the first chapter of The MVP Machine, co-written by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik, lies one of the most memorable quotes about baseball in recent memory. It comes from an anonymous analyst in an MLB front office. It is profound in its simplicity:
I don’t think people realize that if you’re a Moneyball team right now, you’re getting your ass handed to you. When you hear the smart teams saying they use analytics now, they’re not saying they’re doing Moneyball. They’re saying they’re doing the thing that comes after.
Other than being perhaps the most famous book about baseball in existence, Moneyball is as much of an idea as it is a work of literature. The idea is twofold: figure out market inefficiencies and then exploit them. At the turn of the millennium, it involved the bare basics of sabermetrics, such as recognizing that on base percentage was more important than batting average. As time went on, it became clear that teams that utilized analytics did better than those that didn’t. Eventually, every team adopted Moneyball, insomuch that Moneyball was a proxy for the need to out-think and out-analyze your opponents.
But analytics is more than Moneyball, and Moneyball is more than analytics. When asked about the Kansas City Royals’ approach to analytics, a topic that has been much discussed recently in the wake of David Glass’ sale of the Royals to John Sherman, MLB.com reporter Jeffrey Flanagan offered an interesting answer:
Analytics are without doubt a part of the game, and they are a noteworthy part (just as is scouting, Minor League development, overall instruction, etc., are) of the Royals’ approach. But truth be told -- and this has been reported numerous times elsewhere -- the gap in analytics usage from team to team is not nearly as big as many assume.
As one rival executive told me this summer, “Everyone has the same data, everyone uses the same data. What separates teams in terms of analytics is, what is useful data and what is throw-away stuff. Too often, the term ‘analytics’ gets thrown around like it’s some great panacea to all problems. It’s not. You have to be smart about it, smart about what you use, use what is relevant.”
To paraphrase what Flanagan is reporting (and what Alec Lewis reported in The Athletic), the Royals are eager adopters of analytics and believe it can help them. However, every team has access to a lot of the same data, and the low-hanging fruit that Billy Beane was able to exploit in the early 2000s simply isn’t there anymore. Of more importance is how that data is used.
Unfortunately for the Royals, they are wrong. It’s not enough. One look at the Houston Astros tells us that’s true.
In the ten years before Kansas City’s drought-breaking playoff appearance in 2014 and Houston’s drought-breaking playoff appearance in 2015, both franchise lost 100 games three times. Both franchises had at least six consecutive years of losing records before their playoff appearance. Both franchises wasted first overall picks on pitchers who turned out to be busts.
Since the Royals made their first playoff series, they made it the next year, winning a World Series in the process. They have since won 278 games in the last four years. The Astros, meanwhile, have won 311. In their last three.
What everyone misses about analytics is that it’s not about adoption; it’s about innovation. The data is indeed out there. Every team has access to it. But what is separating the struggling organizations like the Royals to the thriving organizations like the Astros, yes, but also the Tampa Bay Rays, St. Louis Cardinals, Cleveland Indians, and Minnesota Twins—all teams of comparable market size to Kansas City—is an organization-wide commitment to innovation and implementation of the next thing in analytics (which, as Lindbergh and Sawchik note in their book, is using analytics to create better players).
I have no doubt that the Royals are a Moneyball team, whatever that means in 2019. It’s just not enough. There are 30 teams in Major League Baseball, and if you aren’t pushing the envelope and trying to get better, you are simply falling behind.
That’s unacceptable—it should be, at least. It’s the main reason why Royals fans are sitting at home now. The Royals are a Moneyball team now, but they need to do what comes after. Otherwise, Royals fans will continue to sit at home watching other teams play October baseball.