Michael Lewis' quintessential Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game no doubt represents the entry point into sabermetrics for many of us, and now that Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, and Phillip Seymour Hoffman are starring in the film, maybe now would be a good time to ask if the book is still relevant?
In case you haven't read it, here's a quick synopsis: the book centers around Billy Beane, the Oakland A's, and the unorthodox approach that Beane uses to turn around the financially disadvantaged A's to compete with much higher spending clubs like the Yankees.
While most of the concepts are way past needing explanation at this point (on base percentage and slugging are better than average and RBIs?!), the important part here -- and often underplayed thesis -- is that the smaller salaried clubs should be looking for, pursuing, and signing undervalued talent. Essentially: find players with a skill set that most teams overlook and exploit the market deficiency.
Sounds easy enough, right?
Of course not. As with any well-run business model (at least the modern sort), what works is copied, and what's copied loses value (relative to scarcity). When Moneyball was released, on base percentage still wasn't that widely used to describe players conversationally, now ... I'm pretty sure most of us think about players as a triple slash. .300/.400/.500. That's a great player. But it's not just us that changed the way we think, the big money clubs took notice and changed what they valued as well. Naturally, the market on "guys that get on base" shrank and prices went up.
What remains, I believe, is a ghost of an idea victim to the teams with more money to see it through. If MoneybalI was the launching point of low salary clubs competing using under-valued skill sets, then the sabermetric revolution has been the launching point to ensure that those that have both money and brains remain at the top of the standings throughout.
I'm not sure if the book or even the concept of undervalued talent is still relevant, honestly. Don't forget the second part of that title: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. Perhaps the book leaves us and our new pitcher-dominant league looking for new market deficiencies like defense and speed (more specifically: range and SB%)?
Isn't that where we started?