The book Moneyball, now a movie starring Brad Pitt, describes how the 2002 Oakland Athletics baseball team competed with teams from major markets that had payrolls twice or three times the size of its own. The book’s hero is statistics, wielded by general manager Billy Beane. Beane believes that the statistics and evaluation procedures used by baseball scouts and front offices are flawed - too subjective and too limited by what could be measured and analyzed during baseball’s early days.
The use of statistics, or sabermetrics, allows Beane to acquire players whose contribution is undervalued by the market, giving the team an edge that helps them make the playoffs despite their financial disadvantage.
The problem for the Athletics, of course, is that everyone else adopted sabermetrics. Beane was a student of early proponents for objective statistical analysis in baseball, and his success empowered its other acolytes. The film Moneyball ends with the owner of the Boston Red Sox - the second richest team in baseball - offering Beane a big salary bump to come “play Moneyball” as Boston’s general manager.
As the entire league turned to sabermetrics, the market for baseball talent reflected its insights, neutralizing Oakland’s advantage. The only way to gain an edge was to find new insights.
Today, baseball general managers' search for a undervalued players has led them to sign and play catchers who are better cheaters. Or, more charitably, catchers with a talent for convincing umpires that a ball was actually a strike.
The Wall Street Journal reported this weekend on Tampa Bay catcher Jose Molina, the “strike zone illusionist.” The mystery of Molina is that although he appears to be at the twilight of a career as a serial backup, he is starting regularly for a playoff caliber team.
But what he does better than anyone else in baseball is frame every pitch to look as if it was a strike. The Journal quotes a Tampa Bay pitcher:
"It just seems like every pitch you throw, he's able to catch it clean, frame it and make it look like a strike. We love him for it."
According to the cold logic of sabermetrics, as calculated by an analytics firm used by a number of MLB teams, “13.4% of all pitches thrown to Molina that were outside the strike zone have been called as strikes, which is by far the highest rate among regular catchers.”
Tampa Bay is not the only team to look at a catcher’s ability to fool the umpire. The article reports that the New York Yankees’ catchers are the best in baseball at fooling umpires. They get 11.9% of pitches called as strikes when they were actually balls, and their general manager has conceded to being “big into that.”
In business, the importance of metrics that quantify performance is understood through sayings like "you are what you measure." Whether it’s a CEO reacting to the stock price of his company or a baseball player prioritizing the skills that scouts and general managers record, people optimize for the metrics that are being quantified.
The idea of framing pitches as a catcher is not new, but clearly measuring it will surely increase its importance in the catcher skill set. Catchers are already asking Jose Molina for pointers on framing pitches.
The question is the relative importance of deceiving a referee compared to other skills. The Journal quotes Baseball Prospectus, which estimates that Molina's strike zone illusions saved Tampa Bay 50 runs last year. In sports like basketball or soccer, winning undeserved free throws or penalty shots can determine the fate of a game. Will moneyball prove flopping to be among a player's most valuable skills?