Old News: Billy Beane vs. Steven Levitt

This is what’s known in the industry as a “hilarious joke.”

Perhaps you’re the sort of person who knew this, but I, Carson Cistulli, am not.

In any case, some Paul DePodesta-related googling has verified it: apparently, back in April of 2005, Steven Levitt — progenitor of the Freakonomics brand — wrote a series of three posts for his blog in which he questioned the underlying causes of the A’s success under Billy Beane.

From one such post:

I am not necessarily implying that Billy Beane isn’t a good general manager who can stretch a small budget into a respectable record through good use of data, clever trades, etc. My only point is that there are a lot of people who are above average at their jobs, but they don’t become the subject of best-selling books. He had a book written about him because against all odds his team has been winning almost 100 games a year. And in the book, Michael Lewis sure makes it seem like the main reason is the clever stuff the A’s have done with analyzing hitting. And I am simply saying that is not the reason the A’s win.

In the spirit of data, the skeptics amongst you should tell me how many games the A’s need to win this year or over the next five years so that they would feel that Moneyball is validated. My own view is that if the A’s win 81 games a year for the next five years, it is more likely that Beane was lucky than good. If they win 97 a year, I’ll happily concede that Beane is the best. Even an average of 90 games
a year and I will acknowledge he is brilliant.

The A’s averaged just above 90 wins for the two seasons after Levitt’s statement, but then only 75 per year for the three seasons after that (i.e. through 2009). Here are the win totals, precisely: 88, 93, 76, 75, 75. Is that conclusive in either direction? I don’t know.

In a fourth post, from October of the same year, Levitt announced — with thinly veiled glee* — that Paul DePodesta had been fired from the Dodgers — partially confirming, for Levitt, that the Moneyball narrative was suspect.

*The post is called, perhaps a little too enthusiastically, “Unemployment-ball?”

I have only one real comment on Levitt’s claims — namely, I’m glad I wasn’t aware them at the time. Beane and Levitt are like the Santa Claus and Tooth Fairy of the baseballing world. Which, imagine if the Tooth Fairy started publicly questioning Santa’s ability to make lists and check them twice? That’s not fun for anybody.

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Carson Cistulli has just published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

2 Responses to “Old News: Billy Beane vs. Steven Levitt”

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  1. Alex says:

    Beane’s club averaged 94 wins in the eight seasons from 1999 to 2006, finishing first or second in the West each year, before falling under .500 in 2007. Considering the rate of turnover for big league clubs and the fact that his tricks were common practice by the end of that run, I’m willing to conclude that Beane was more than just competent and lucky.

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  2. Doug says:

    Steven’s problems seem to be issues of sample size, but what he seems to neglect is that the skills which create a good gm (or more to the point a good record which seems to be how levitt would evaluate the quality of a GM) in 2001, might not be the same as the skills needed to do so in 2011. The book is about identifying undervalued assets and taking advantage of them. OBP is not as undervalued as it was ten years ago, and the market in general features less inequalities as front offices have moved further towards advanced statistics and the type of methods of player evaluation emphasized in Oakland in that time. In a more efficient market, perhaps a “good GM” just isn’t able to find enough inequalities to make up for inequalities in payroll. That in ten years almost every team, even the scouting heavy ones, has moved closer towards the methods of player evaluation used by Beane and A’s in moneyball says a lot about the value of those methods and their ability to strengthen an organization.

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