Friday, October 10, 2008

Beating the Rays, Or The Evolution of Moneyball

I won't go into series analysis today; the previews across the web have done a fine job giving effective coverage to all angles. Personally, I recommend Paul SF's excellent dissection over at YFSF and Evan Brunell's exploration of key series factors at Fire Brand of the American League, but suffice it to say that all commentary points to another tight ALCS with a good potential for Red Sox victory. Boston in seven games sounds like a good call to me.

No, what inspired me to put fingers to keyboard this morning is an article on The Process, Theo Epstein's term for the Red Sox player development system. As we all know, Boston's heavy investment in its farm system has paid enormous dividends: Ellsbury, Pedroia, Youkilis, Lowrie, Masterson, Delcarmen, and Papelbon are all homegrown and all key components in Boston's championship-level success in the past two years. What intrigues me about the Globe's description of The Process - as necessarily undetailed, beyond the description of a consistent manual of development used by every level of the organization, as it may be - is that we are witnessing the next level of evolution in the scientific process of player development made famous (and infamous) in Moneyball.

Moneyball was all about the use of statistics to determine player value. Its development by Billy Beane was the result of the need to produce results in the straightened circumstances of Oakland A's baseball, but a perfect storm of circumstance lead to its adoption by other number-minded GMs across the sport. In the process, it won approval among the population of statistically-minded fans, popularized a revolution in how people watch and comment on the game, etc. But as Moneyball and more vocal stats organs like Fire Joe Morgan make clear, using statistics to predict future performance explicitly denies the use of any other predictive system. You know, like intangibles. Make up. Whatever black magic it is that scouts use when they look at players in high school and college.

We all know that Epstein is a Beane disciple from back in the day. But here's where the evolution comes in: when Theo talks about the club's pre-draft evaluation of player make up:
"We sit down and brainstorm about what we're looking for, which attributes we think make a major league player successful, and then we question our own assumptions," Epstein says. "OK, we think we want players who are tough and gritty. Well, what does that really mean? Can you actually see that in a 17-year-old, in a 21-year-old? Does it look different when he's 17 than when he's 25? We think we want players who are intense and baseball-centric, who are focused on the game. Well, what about players who are too intense and too focused? Do they put too much pressure on themselves?"

In essence, applying science (through sports psychology) to the profiles of players whose statistics attract organization attention, adding a layer of filtering to the selection of players that Boston hopes will do well in the big leagues. Taking the idea even further - since I'm sure the Rays, with their own intensive focus on player development, have a process similar to that of Boston - this ALCS might well be a demonstration of the powers of science in player selection. Given the parity between the two clubs and the expectation of a long, fun series, seeing this type of science in play has to be a good thing for fans of the sport.