ST PETERSBURG, FL: The Tampa Bay Rays celebrate their victory over the New York Yankees at Tropicana Field in St. Petersburg, Florida. (Photo by J. Meric/Getty Images)
Anyone who wants to know if "Moneyball" still works need only pay attention to what the Tampa Bay Rays have been doing for the last four seasons.
Tom Verducci wrote a really good article in last week's Sports Illustrated. You probably saw the cover, which is designed to appeal to every known gender. But Verducci's article -- "The New Moneyball: The Art of Winning an (Even More) Unfair Game" -- is even better than the nifty cover.
In fact, there's just one eensy-weensy problem with the piece ...
It's about the wrong team.
It's about the Red Sox. The thesis of the article, if I'm reading it correctly (and I think I am), is that Billy Beane's version of Moneyball just doesn't work any more. But the Red Sox' version of Moneyball works wonderfully, because in addition to their smarts they've got (you guessed it!) money.
But then it's not really Moneyball any more, is it? Moneyball was about winning without money.
And how is the game unfair to the Red Sox, exactly? They can outspend everyone but the Yankees, and they don't have to actually beat the Yankees to win a championship. Granted, they have beaten the Yankees on their way to championships; in 2004 they beat them in the League Championship Series, and in 2007 they beat them in the American League East. More often than not, Boston's path to the World Series will lead them through the Bronx.
Nevertheless, the Red Sox have reached the playoffs twice in the last four seasons.
Meanwhile, the Tampa Bay Rays? Three times in the last four seasons.
Granted, the Red Sox have won more games than the Rays in those four seasons.
Well, not games. Game. The Sox are ahead, 369 to 368.
How has this happened?
Pitchers. And it really hasn't mattered much, which pitchers.
Do you know how many of this season's starters were in Tampa Bay's rotation in 2008, just four seasons ago?
One. James Shields.
In 2010, they added Wade Davis.
In 2011, they added Jeremy Hellickson.
The amazing thing about the Rays' starters this season? There's never been anything wrong with any of them. Physically wrong, I mean. Since joining the rotation, those five 2011 starters have combined for 13 pitcher-seasons and averaged 30 starts per season.
Dumb luck? Maybe. Probably not. The Rays' track record with their young and homegrown starters is simply too impressive to attribute merely to luck.
The Red Sox pay more than the recommended signing bonuses of the commissioner's office -- so-called "slot money" -- but their draft costs are also high because they hoard picks by letting free agents leave. In the past five years, for instance, Boston has had 12 first-round picks. (The Yankees have had half as many.) Moneyball ended the hidden value of OBP, what Beane called a market inefficiency. "I've been giving the same answer for years," Epstein says of the next inefficiency. "It's keeping pitchers healthy and, and it's better drafting."
Over the last two seasons, Boston's top five starters -- that is, the five starters they wanted in their rotations -- combined for 249 starts. Meanwhile, Tampa Bay's top five starters combined for 302 starts. In both seasons, the Red Sox missed the playoffs while winning six fewer games than the Rays. It's self-evident, isn't it, that those six fewer wins can largely be explained by that difference of 37 starts?
This year's one-game difference, for sure. Last year's five-game difference, maybe not. But close, for sure. For really sure.
At the beginning of Moneyball: The Movie, we see a clip of the A's losing to the Yankees in their 2001 Division Series. But as a stark graphic suggests, we can hardly blame the A's for losing, considering the vast financial chasm between them and the Yankees. I'm making up these numbers because I don't remember them, but here's an approximation of that graphic, describing those teams' 2001 payrolls:
Well, if someone ever makes a movie about what the Rays did to the Red Sox this season -- and of course between Wednesday night and this book, there's plenty of source material -- they can run a graphic like this, comparing the 2011 Opening Day payrolls of the Red Sox and the Rays:
We're 10 years on and the story is almost exactly the same. Except this time, the underdog with absolutely no hope of competing financially is actually winning. This is easily the biggest and most interesting baseball story in a long time, and it seems just a bit odd that nobody's really paying much attention.