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Sunday, September 07, 2003

Baseball norms

It's Sunday, so I'm thinking about baseball even more than usual.

I just learned yesterday that my personal copy of Michael Lewis's Moneyball has been shipped and should be in my hands this week. Of course, I've already seen a lot of reviews, heard the author on NPR, and read one of his earlier magazine articles (was that in The New Yorker?). Still, I'm looking forward to reading it through.

Serious scholars have been giving it some attention, such as Chicago's Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler.

If you don't know the book, it is the story of Billy Beane, General Manager of the Oakland Athletics. With one of the American League's lowest payrolls, Beane has employed a variety of statistical tools and "sabermetric" insights to build a consistent winner. He absorbed a lot of knowledge by reading the works of Bill James, hired some statistically-minded assistants, and developed and employed some of his own tools.

Other teams are starting to follow suit. The Boston Red Sox hired Bill James and the Toronto Blue Jays hired J.P. Ricciardi, a top Beane assistant to serve as GM, and Keith Law of Baseball Prospectus. Boston is on pace to have the highest team slugging percentage since the 1927 Yankees.

I'm a KC Royals fan and that team too has said it is following the A's model -- supposedly coaching its hitters to exhibit great selectivity at the plate and clearly drafting mostly college players this past June. Of course, manager Tony Pena bunts again and again, so the James/Beane message has perhaps not been embraced throughout the organization.

In any case, it is interesting that baseball norms are changing. The Sunstein/Thaler review of Moneyball emphasizes how Beane's approach contrasts to "the Book," an unwritten guide that has guided baseball people for decades.

Obviously, teams are motivated to win and make money. Often, as economist Andrew Zimbalist demonstrated in Baseball and Billions, those go hand-in-hand. Thus, teams are implementing sabermetrics for fairly strong instrumental reasons.

Yet, the most significant changes in the game may well be social. Individuals are starting to embrace an idea about the best way to run a baseball team. While the "tipping point" has perhaps not yet been reached, it seems obvious that many teams are starting to embrace sabermetrics. It's a norm cascade!

If you watch baseball, consider how often announcers now mention on-base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS (on-base plus slugging, a term that even Peter Gammons now employs regularly), and pitch counts. Just 20 years ago, none of these topics was ever discussed on broadcasts.

Once the new norms are embraced by baseball's "community," important chapters of the so-called "book" will have been rewritten. I think there's going to be a structural transformation, but who knows how it will turn out.

Eventually, if the system is transformed, GMs like Billy Beane are going to lose their comparative advantages. Indeed, it seems quite likely that NEW sabermetrically-informed research will eventually move a restructured game in unexpected ways. Perhaps in a future blog, I'll try to summarize some of the latest research that might have a large effect on the game's future.


P.S. I've been reading a number of blogs and fully intend to engage some of them when I'm more settled into this. It does make me feel like this is rather a small world. For example, Larry Solum (of the Legal Theory Blog) and I both taught at a workshop in Texas about 20 years ago. Larry's academic website has a large number of his publications and I'm planning to check out some of his writings on Habermas, which is a mutual interest.

About 15 years ago, the writer Helena Cobban (of Just World News) and I were SSCR-MacArthur fellows and attended a couple of annual conferences. Helena has been keeping a fairly close eye on the Blair-Kelly affair. Check out her blog.

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