There was one very logical reason for Michael Lewis not to base his 2003 best seller “Moneyball” on the New York Yankees: Americans don’t like rooting for Goliath. It’s in our fabric to favor the underdog, the little guy who everyone counts out. That’s what made the scrappy Oakland A’s the perfect choice for Lewis. They were the team competing with the Yankees with only a fraction of the payroll thanks to a quirky general manager and his staff full of number-crunchers who never let their gut-feeling get in the way.
But if Lewis’ book was about a progressive franchise exploiting market inefficiencies to overcome all the odds, then the 2009 season proved once and for all that the market has fully corrected itself. Thanks in part to “Moneyball,” in part to the guys at Baseball Prospectus and in part to the simple evolution of the game, every team now realizes that on base percentage is far more important than batting average and that RBIs or Wins aren’t the most telling statistics when assigning value to a player. Everyone has caught on.
And when everyone follows the same blueprint, Goliath becomes an even bigger favorite.
To say the Yankees bought their World Championship this wouldn’t be fair to the guys who got it done on the field all year, but it wouldn’t be totally inaccurate either. The Yankees bought this season the same way they bought third place last year or the Wild Card before that or those runner-up finishes earlier this decade.
What made the difference this year was they bought the right players this time around. With all due respect to the core four, as the media suddenly refers to Jeter, Rivera, Pettitte and Posada, the Yankees would have missed the playoffs again if they had not signed C.C. Sabathia and Mark Teixeira last winter.
We forget how poor the world’s richest sports franchise looked at the end of last season. They didn’t have a legitimate number two starter, let alone an ace pitcher. And for all the complaining about Alex Rodriguez not coming through in the clutch, the truth was ARod had very little protection in the lineup. An overhaul was needed.
Enter Sabathia and Teixeira. In Sabathia, the Yankees signed the most reliable starting pitcher in all of baseball. In Teixeira, they brought in the perfect complement to Rodriguez, the guy who would ensure ARod was going to see more pitches to hit. For the first time in recent memory, the team went out and purchased the best possible players, two guys in the prime of their careers, as opposed to the aging stars they usually seemed to end up with.
For a team that has had the highest payroll in baseball for over a decade, the Yankees may have spent their money more foolishly than anyone in the game. They couldn’t seal the deal with Manny Ramirez or ARod in 2000. They couldn’t land Vladimir Guerrero in 2004 or Carlos Beltran the following year. They even passed on trading for Johan Santana before last season.
Sure they were buying up loads of free agents every year, but they never seemed to land that top guy. That changed this year and the Yankees reaped the benefits. Sabathia and Teixeira, more than anyone else, delivered this championship.
And that’s how Moneyball really works. You perfect the art of winning an unfair game by exploiting your biggest strength – being unfair. It took almost an entire decade to figure it out, but now that they have, we all better watch out.