Further to the Z Man’s latest, excellent piece on health care, let’s talk about baseball.
Betcha didn’t see that coming!
As previously mentioned, Moneyball is a 2003 book by financial journalist Michael Lewis, in which he explores the “sabermetric revolution” going on within the Oakland A’s organization. The A’s’ system is pretty simple, but as its fundamental assumptions go against everything “everybody knows” about scouting ballplayers, the baseball world’s reaction to the book tells you everything you need to know about True Believers. It’s worth reading the new edition for the afterword, where Lewis details some of the hate he, A’s General Manager Billy Beane, and the A’s organization itself got in the book’s wake. For the record, none of the following are in any way shape or form the point of Moneyball:
- There is one correct way to scout baseball players.
- Billy Beane is the greatest General Manager in baseball history.
- Michael Lewis is a genius who knows more about baseball than the players.
- You can build a championship team entirely on paper.
Problem is, Moneyball’s actual thesis is so simple, so commonsensical, so “no shit, Sherlock” that it can’t be right. Boiled down to its fundamentals, Moneyball’s thesis is:
Nothing else matters in the game of baseball but outs.
You get a maximum of 27 outs in a standard baseball game. Take the likelihood of a given guy making one of those 27 outs, divide it into his yearly salary, and that’s how much he’s really costing you.
It’s a bit more complicated than that, but not much. Adam Dunn hits 40 homers a year, but strikes out 200 times a year. Thanks to those 200 strikeouts, Adam Dunn’s opportunity cost is much greater than his value added — if nothing else, you have 200 less chances to just put the ball in play and see what happens. Meanwhile, Skinny McNobody hasn’t hit a homer since high school, but walks 100 times a year and rarely strikes out. So he’s on base at least 100 more times, and anything can happen with a runner on first. Similarly, a high school kid who throws 95 mph might turn into Roger Clemens…but he probably turns into Steve Dalkowski.* A college pitcher who couldn’t reach 95 with a bazooka, but with a sub-3.00 ERA, already gets guys out, lots of them, and at a much higher level of competition than the high school phenom ever faced. That’s why a smart team, a team that has to make every dollar count, drafts Jeremy Brown over Justin Verlander.**
BUUUUUT, everybody in baseball asked, what about fielding? What about the sac bunt, the stolen base, the suicide squeeze? What about scouting, for pete’s sake? Sure, Adam Dunn’s a lifetime .237 hitter and is the #3 strikeout leader in baseball history, but man, you gotta see this guy….
And that’s the problem right there. Philosophy folks call this a category error; Billy Beane says “we’re not selling jeans here, people.” Just because the guy looks like a future Hall of Famer doesn’t mean he plays like one, and in fact the Hall of Fame is full of guys who look like big ol’ unathletic dorks.*** The computer can fool you — GIGO — but not like the naked eye can. As most everyone does with most everything, baseball scouts see what they want to see.
Which brings us to health care. The Z Man lays down three fundamental truths of health care:
- No health care plan or system can ever be taken seriously unless it addresses, up front, how it will say “No, you cannot have it” to people who want it.
- The current insurance model is just a wealth transfer from the middle-class to the health care industry, in order to cover the cost of poor people and the metastasizing layer of people who live off the system.
- Health services are a massive skimming operation.
Should he come over here and read this, I hope the Z Man knows I mean this in the best possible way: No duh. You’re the Billy Beane of heath care, dude, and again, I mean that as a very high compliment. Read Moneyball, and it just seems obvious — like, hit-you-over-the-head, brain-blisteringly obvious — that baseball is about making outs, not selling jeans. And yet, there are hundreds, probably thousands, of guys — collectively making millions of dollars a year — who don’t see that. Who, in fact, refuse to see it — in his afterword, Lewis claims lots of baseball people, e.g. ESPN announcer (and Hall of Famer!) Joe Morgan, take pride in not having read his book. And so the A’s keep fielding a competitive team, year after year, at about 1/100th of the Yankees’ payroll…. and a whole bunch of professional baseball people keep claiming to be baffled by that.
So, too, with all those fools who talk about “health care” as if it’s just the mean ol’ Republicans keeping anyone from getting everything he wants. Or those fools who insist that socialized medicine will raise quality and lower costs. Or that there won’t be “death panels.” Of course there will be death panels! Needs are infinite; resources are finite. This seems like the most obvious thing in the world… but it’s not. Just ask all those baseball scouts whose prospects are now jean models. Sometimes there’s great value in stating the should-be-obvious, especially now.
*For those un-steeped in baseball history, Dalkowski was the inspiration for “Nuke” LaLoosh (Tim Robbins) in the movie Bull Durham.
**Jeremy Brown is internet famous as Moneyball’s “fat catcher;” Verlander was a high-school fireballer who flamed out, albeit after a brief (and briefly electric) major league career. The fact that Brown never made it to the Show — and, in fact, most of the ballyhooed Moneyball draft class didn’t — should tell you all you need to know about the predictive power of any system featuring human beings.
*** For non-baseball fans, I give you Greg Maddux, arguably the greatest pitcher of all time.