Moneyball/Big Short article thoughts

Earlier today there was a thoughtful article written up entitled Moneyball, The Big Short, and the Ultimate Bait-And-Switch. I enjoy a good big-picture examination, and I appreciate a fitting metaphor in such efforts, so it was a good read.

But the underlying thinking of the article is...questionable. It starts off well enough, offering the right correction of a commonly-held misconception regarding the thesis of Moneyball - which was much more about finding and exploiting market inefficiencies than it was about "building a winner on the cheap". But from there...let's take a look.

"Just as the central figures in The Big Short bet against the housing market, the Sox are betting against the market regulating premium player contracts in Major League Baseball."

This is a mountain of presumption. What was generally understood when Boston moved on from DD was that his building of a champion MLB team out of a great collection of assets did not come with a process that would continue to offer up an assets advantage over time. The "system" was weak, and growing weaker. With the Dodgers having taken the Tampa Bay Rays model (more complex than worth going into detail on that here) and adapted it for a top-market team, it seems that the Red Sox ownership wanted to aim for the same for their tier-two-market franchise (only the Dodgers and Yankees are in tier one; look at the numbers and see how the Red Sox fall much closer to the likes of the Cubs and Giants and such than those two giants). The inherited landscape was strong at the MLB level, but top-heavy, and surprisingly inflexible in the short term with finances - meaning, changes would happen one way or the other - and the minor league system was pretty bereft. Whatever exactly the new process aimed to be, it would take time to implement if it were going to aim for the sort of combination of MLB talent and system supplements that the Dodgers have rolled out for some time now. Trying to boil down the current attempted process to "betting against the current market for top players" seems remarkably...well, straw man. It's easy to invalidate a process if one misrepresents (intentionally or accidentally) said process, and while that may (or may not) be a component of what franchise leadership has in mind it without a doubt isn't close to the full monty.

"Without any other plausible explanation, it increasingly looks like the Sox are expecting the league’s financial model to implode around them at around the exact point their hard work in building a bottom-up organization reaches maturity and makes them World Series contenders for years, and that we are to support them in advance of this achievement. They want the sport to go to absolute shit, then take it over."

That last sentence is ridiculous ("want"? Really?), and who knows about the middle part...but this article seems to infer that any notion that the current baseball contract market is inflated is wrong. Scratch that...later on, it states "The market is plainly not going to burst". Oh really? That's curious, given that things have unfolded in exactly the same way in the past in baseball history. The period that sticks out to me most is the early 2000s, when even weaker-market teams started to hand out eye-popping contracts like drunken sailors. Some figured this was just a new status quo, but plenty of people thought it was crazy...and just 2-3 seasons later, crazy it was proved to be, as teams started to gag on these anchor contracts and the market pulled back hard. Those who don't learn from history are doomed yada yada. I'm not saying things will go boom this time around, but to dismiss the possibility (whether Boston is truly counting on that or not) is unwise.

FYI, assuming Boston indeed has some kind of Moneyball mindset here, it's a pretty big stretch to unilaterally figure that the front office is betting on the top contract current market going belly up. If this is really Moneyball, Boston has simply concluded that the price these players require isn't worth the return, and that there are better ways to spend. No upcoming sea change in the sport's contract economics is required for that to prove out. Whether Boston is right in its assessments of poor and strong value types of players will remain to be seen (exploiting inefficiencies is only as effective as one's ability to both ID the right targets and then to successfully acquire them), but even if they're right it's common sense that pivoting this way will take some time.

"Whereas The Big Short’s protagonists had reams of hard-to-find data to support their claims, we have vibes, and the vibes are "money is a contstruct, maaaaan.""
If you honestly think that the Boston front office is making moves based on gut instinct and vibes and not oodles and oodles of research and data...then, well, I have a large sum of money belonging to an heiress that is tied up with red tape and just needs your account information to be freed up. Contact me and once you've helped you'll be handsomely rewarded!

"The Red Sox won four World Series from 2004-2018 by trying their hardest. Now, they’ve plainly stopped doing so, and they’re leaning on the times they did try to justify their current approach."
Yeah, sorry, this is bogus.
1) Paying everyone up for a contract whatever he wants and importing more big free agents is not the same as "trying your hardest". If anything, you have to work harder to find better moves than handing out big and easy contracts. Have we forgotten that the "easy" free agent low-hanging fruit (e.g. Lackey, Sandoval, etc) has often bitten back the hardest?
2) Trying to define the 2003 (not 2004) to 2018 Red Sox by any single process is fraudulent, given that Boston's approach changed with each new leading figure in charge of the front office. Epstein was hired to bring in a process, and unlike with our present he was given a longtime championship drought to break and so it isn't unreasonable that he would keep pushing spending at the MLB level while rebuilding the organization. Since then, there have been "bridge years", talks of "cycles", a GM who was too much into building the system and not leveraging that progress at the MLB level, and a GM who did the exact opposite. What a joke to conveniently forget part temporary happenings such as the "bridge year" in favor of, yes, another straw man representation of past and present. No, Boston did not always pushed to the max during the overall wonderful period of 2003-2018, and lest we forget there was some disappointing and even fallow times in that stretch.

"It is worth repeating forever and ever that the 2018 Red Sox were not just a great team that won the World Series. They were a historically great team with a young core, which the Sox traded in, three years for this. There is nothing about a rebuild that is inherently right or wrong, but when it comes at the cost of dismantling the best team in franchise history..."
And the misrepresentations keep on coming. Look back at the 2018 Red Sox and see that much of the team was the culmination of short-term pieces, not some loaded core that needed work to screw up. Betts was the centerpiece, sure, but Bogaerts was only just emerging as a true star piece (before that, he was half projection, not fully formed) and Devers was just getting started. The actual second centerpiece of the lineup was JDM, and his star was expected to start dimming any time (which is exactly how it has gone). Next-biggest was actually Andrew Benintendi, but that was his final year on a continued ascent to superstardom before it all started to crumble. What else was in the core? Nobody knew what the deal was with Vazquez at that point. Moreland was a short-term piece. Pearce was an in-season-addition hero whose career was about to end. 2B didn't have a piece in place, and JBJ was established as a part to round out a lineup, not build around. In the rotation, you had Sale continuing his thing, but beyond that? Porcello was a sturdy vet who wasn't figured to be around long, cracks were showing with Price, ERod was a young semi-enigma, and Eovaldi was a youngish-vet journeyman in-season addition. The bullpen was entirely veteran too.

No, outside of a few megatalents, that was a roster everyone understood would go through an evolution in the years to come. And to really dump on the thesis quoted above, the Red Sox essentially kept the 2018 band together for 2019 and emerged with only 84 wins. Think about that for a second: the article is pitching that a misguided front office foolishly dismantled a megateam that should have stayed mega for years to come, which blatantly whiffs on the actuality that the team was almost entirely kept together for one more season and the result was no better than what we just saw in 2022 (merely 6 more wins, and given how much worse the division was in 2019 after adjustment the same overall level of play as 2022). A ton of that same group was then around for the 2020 disaster, and swapping Betts and his usual wins boost back into that mix wouldn't have changed much. You have it backwards: this group failed to show it would stick for the long haul and confirmed that an evolution was needed. Sure, swapping Betts out wasn't a desired way to make that happen, but there is still the thorny issue that nobody alive has remotely demonstrated that Boston had any opportunity to retain Betts beyond 2020 no matter what it reasonably did.

"The Sox are acting like the smartest guys in the room by creating a losing product in a closed system that rewards good teams."
Well, this is the final insult of a misrepresentation. Nevermind that this is the same franchise that was in the ALCS just the year before last; this was also a team that won 78 games in one of the best divisions in recent memory (hardly an insult), and that was only after:
1) The ace that this front office had no say in missed the start of the year when he had been expected to be good to go in his surgery recover.
2) Entering the day a solid 48-44, the team saw the loss of a newly-returned-and-needed Sale, a loss that killed momentum and optimism for the rest of the season.
3) The front office understandably did not throw more assets into a stalling season, most notably in the bullpen; had just the Sale thing gone differently, the front office very likely was prepared to invest in the right places to round the team out for a push.
4) The final insult to injury of Sale confirming the end of a lost season by breaking his hand.

ONE player (the highest-paid on the team, with a contract given out by the prior front office) just having a reasonable by-projection season and all likely would have been different, a solid follow-up to a bleeping ALCS season! Add maybe 4 wins for a reasonably-healthy Sale, a few more wins for a minor addition here and there with the team feeling it had a chance at a run in the playoffs, and just like that we have 85+ with no other adjustments - right in the playoff hunt even in a year with its share of ups and downs. But no, the team loses its biggest compensation (and most important?) asset through no fault of its own multiple times, changing the direction of the season to a holding pattern, and then because of the random BS of 78 wins somehow amounting to "last place" (note: Boston was a whopping 16 wins better than one FOURTH place team and 9-12 wins better than all but one of the others) it's instantly a proven awful process?

"If they’re plainly wrong, it’s for one reason: In any given year, a team on a shorter boom-and-bust scale will be more willing to go all-in for a title than the financially prudent-above-all-else team, which will lead to the Sox never, likely, ending up as title favorites. I prefer the former approach, because it won the Sox four World Series titles, but, sadly, that’s no longer how they want to butter their bread."
This bit near the end doubles down on its misrepresentation of the 2003-2018 era, and I have to double down on reminding how things actually worked. Theo Epstein actually even laid out his philosophy for year-to-year teambuilding: aim for 95 wins. Far from targeting occasional seasons as a "favorite", Epstein concluded that the nature of baseball's playoffs (a nature since amplified even more, not less) defied much benefit to being a "favorite" versus just being a contender, or even just in the dance at all. The best way to win a championship was to make the playoffs as often as possible, and at the time results spoke to a 95 win general target for being confident in that happening. Epstein literally aimed for the exact opposite of what the author claimed, which is a pretty magnificent whiff in an effort to force a point. And yes, while we don't want Boston setting the target bar too low, I will remind that 95 wins back in the 2000s was not a level that would render a team a "favorite"; it was Epstein's playoff bar.

"The fact is that when they actually want to win they’re going to have to spend money..."
This might be a good time to recall that Boston formally offered Bogaerts a contract averaging $27M a year, and if he had accepted (it was on the table, and not far off from what projections had thought would work for him before his deal blew projections out of the water more than any other so far this offseason) Boston's luxury tax payroll would be at about $211M, good for 7th at present and just ahead of those penny-pinching Dodgers. Hmm. Not so avoiding of spending, it seems, and no reasonable person will fault a team for not talking money it had offered to one and immediately trying to spend it on someone/anyone. Spend it right, rather than on, umm, another Story. Speaking of which...weren't the Red Sox around 5th in luxury tax payroll last year? And 4th the year prior? If this year proves to be a year in which it notably pulls back on spending, it'll be the first in a while, not another in a new normal.


Anyways...this is all rather barf. Sports fandom seems to really be in a decline. There was a time when teams were allowed some time to change things up - time to prove whether it would actually work or not, rather than declaring failure every six months or less when things slide). There was a time when a championship just a few years ago wouldn't already be rendered irrelevant. There was a time when franchises were allowed at least one "oh well, that went wrong, let's see how next year goes" mulligan when it just missed going to the World Series just the year prior. There was a time when just the day-to-day pleasure of watching games actually meant something, especially minus the pressure of a prolonged period without a ring.

Heck, there was a time when an ownership breaking a near-century championship drought with a whopping 4 over just 15 years, all while investing big in preserving a ticket-restricted iconic ballpark, would have remained appreciated overall even if it proved later on to have lost its way. Maybe that is the case, but it would be nice to actually wait long enough for that to be demonstrated beyond a reasonable doubt - and even so, the attitude should still be one of net positivity, even accounting for recency bias.

There was a time...when being a Red Sox fan meant the ability to be glad we were part of the this fan base, championships or not, rather than being stuck with the choking force of entitlement and unpleasant imperiousness of Yankees, Cowboys, and Lakers/Bulls fans. No more, it seems. If the way so many represent the fan base online has anything to say about it, we've exchanged one curse for another - all or nothing, what have you done for me lately, destination entirely over journey, etc. How sad.

P.S. And just to be clear, I'm not remotely suggesting that anyone shouldn't be unhappy in any way with the present state of the team. If one's enjoyment of the team is lessened in the absence of Betts and now Bogaerts - I get that. If even a single non-playoff year turns one off from enjoying a season, you're entitled to those feelings. How one calibrates one's satisfaction and lack thereof is up to each and every individual. Just, understand that subjective (dis)satisfaction is not an excuse to misrepresent what can (or cannot) be objectively determined. Preferring that the team make different decisions is different than prematurely declaring wrong the decisions the team makes, exaggerating the negatives of decisions, or pretending to knowing outcomes that are still to come.

And I don't remotely "defend" the current front office, in that I have yet to be at all convinced that what they're doing "will" work in its due time and course. I just don't see sufficient evidence to make many of the negative declarations about this front office that I've come across, is all. Doubt away and disagree; you don't need my or anyone's permission for those.