by Jason Wojciechowski
Jonathan Mahler has a piece about Moneyball, money, making the playoffs, the death of inefficiencies, and so forth. Mahler makes an interesting argument about the parallels between the A's and the state of capitalism, but his poor analysis about the state of baseball competition undermine his larger point.
Mahler's basic baseball argument is that Billy Beane is wrong when he complains that the rich teams have caught up in the Analysis Wars. Mahler appears to be making the claim that money matters very little for team success in baseball.
The problems, though, start right in the second paragraph, when Mahler uses the four teams remaining in the playoffs to argue that you don't need big money to succeed in baseball anymore. This, of course, eliminates the four teams that made the playoffs but did not advance, including the Yankees and Phillies. It also leaves out the two teams that missed the playoffs by so little as to be utterly meaningless as a matter of team-talent, the Braves and Red Sox. (It also omits the Rays and Diamondbacks, to be fair, teams that aren't exactly big spenders.) More importantly, we can use all the anecdotes about salary and making the league championship series we want, or we can do what Tom Tango did and look at the data. Guess whether, in the aggregate, payroll matters.
Mahler has a couple of paragraphs making arguments that three teams in particular illustrate his point. Not one holds up.
First, the Cardinals. Mahler's prime piece of evidence is the Lance Berkman contract. I'm not going to poke holes in this one, because Mahler does it himself: St. Louis "ask[ed] an aging Lance Berkman, who hadn’t been an everyday outfielder since 2004, to man right field." In Mahler's world, the fact that Berkman put up a 4.6-WARP season, his best since 2008 despite being 35 and losing quite a bit of time the last two years to injury, means the Cardinals were exceedingly smart rather than some combination of pretty smart and quite a bit lucky. I am not even going to mention that the Cardinals, who barely squeaked into the playoffs, had the 10th-highest payroll in baseball this year (per Baseball Prospectus), the second-highest in their division behind only the hopeless Cubs. Oh, oops, I just did mention it.
Next evidence? The Rangers, of course. Those small-market Rangers from Dallas-Fort Worth who spent in the top half of baseball, doubling the payroll of Kansas City, Tampa, Pittsburgh, San Diego, and Cleveland. The Rangers who had the wherewithal to meet Scott Boras's demands for Adrian Beltre despite already owing $16 million to Michael Young. I don't deny that the Rangers are a very smart team, but, as Jonah Keri wrote at Grantland, they're a potential dynasty because of money and smarts, not some Oakland/Tampa underdog.
Mahler also argues that the Brewers support his argument. Right as this might be on some level (they were a bottom-half team in payroll), Mahler's contentions contain the laughable statement that the team has "the sort of homegrown lineup — Ryan Braun, Prince Fielder, Rickie Weeks — that is not supposed to exist in the game’s modern era." Neither Billy Beane nor anybody else claims that you can't still develop top-notch hitters, especially when you have top-notch draft picks: Braun, Fielder, and Weeks were the 5th, 7th, and 2nd overall picks of their respective drafts, the product of a lengthy period of crappiness in Milwaukee that the A's, mediocre as they've been since the end of their early 2000's run, simply haven't matched, never finishing poorly enough to draft above the 10th spot in the first round. The Brewers are smart, sure, but they're maxing out their run of top picks just like the A's did with Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, and Eric Chavez, and it remains to be seen whether, in the post-Fielder era, Milwaukee will drop back to the NL Central pack the way Oakland has.
The real issue with Mahler's "analysis," though, the fundamental problem, isn't his selection of examples (and his baffling omission of the Rays and Diamondbacks as no-money playoff teams from his argument) -- it's his timeframe. Making large-scale structural arguments based on a single year of data is not just wrong, it's incompetent and should not be considered up to the standards of a publication that holds itself out as the Paper of Record.