Good news for all the baseball luddites in the room — assistant professor of legal studies Alan Hirsch has co-authored a new book entitled “The Beauty of Short Hops: How Chance and Circumstance Confound the Moneyball Approach to Baseball.”  The book purports to “expose the myths perpetuated” by Michael Lewis’ acclaimed best-seller, which also happens to be coming to the big screen this fall.  More faculty intervention in an area that students are perfectly capable of handling themselves.

A full review will have to wait until I get my hands on a copy of “Short Hops.”  By all indications, though, Hirsch and his co-author, brother Sheldon, have simply trotted out the same shop-worn “arguments” that others have offered ad nauseam for the past eight years.

The press release that accompanied the book’s release is a fine example of the genre.  I don’t mind the puffery — that’s what press releases are made for.  But the details are highly dubious.  First, according to the release, the “Moneyball” approach “fails on its own terms: it cannot make baseball a predictable game wholly understandable in numerical terms.”  It’s painful to have to address yawning overstatements like this for the umpteenth time, but here we go — “Moneyball” never professed to “wholly” describe anything.  Rather, the point of the book — insofar as a rich, character-based non-fiction narrative can be said to have a single point — was to highlight a strategy of finding inefficiencies within the game.  Statistics are the tool to find them.  The “Moneyball” approach is, fairly described, a complement to long-standing methods of player evaluation, development, and strategy.  This is not new ground.

That said, it gets worse.

Second, the Moneyball approach blocks out what is most compelling about the sport – its relentless capacity to surprise.

Oh really?  Now we’re informing others what they should like about things?  “You, Sergey, you enjoy ballet because of the athleticism of the dancers and the political message conveyed by the performances.  The costumes, you disdain.  The choreography, you are indifferent to.”  Good grief.  I’ll determine what I find most compelling about baseball, thank you very much.

Hirsch explains his approach in greater detail over at FrumForum.  The article is not well reasoned or particularly accurate.  For example, in doubling down on his grandiose claims (“The subtitle is perhaps too modest”), Hirsch offers as evidence the fact that the Oakland Athletics — the subject of “Moneyball” — “crashed and burned shortly after publication” of the initial book.  Initially, it’s not clear why exactly this is supposed to be particularly significant — books usually follow some interesting or notable accomplishment rather than anticipate it.  I mean, the guy from “The Big Short” hasn’t made another billion dollars yet — his approach must have been wrong!  Indeed, “Moneyball” was supposed to be the story of how the low-budget Athletics had been able to compete with the New York Yankees in the early part of the decade.  In any case, Hirsch is simply wrong about the crashing and the burning.  The A’s won 96 games and made the playoffs in 2003, the year the book came out.  They then won 90 games in two out of the next three seasons and went to the ALCS in 2006.

Later, Hirsch complains that a focus on statistics precludes any enjoyment of the aesthetic or emotional aspects of baseball.  To the statistically-inclined, “[t]he game itself conveys no beauty or meaning.”  It remains, of course, unclear why the two are mutually exclusive.  Practically every baseball fan I know enjoys both the greater understanding of the game that statistics bring AND the crack of a sharp liner over third.  All the same, Hirsch points to this guy as a big part of the problem:

The NBA’s Houston Rockets employ Sam Hinkie as “head of basketball analytics.”  In an article in the New York Times Magazine lauding Hinkie and the Rockets, Michael Lewis quotes Mr. Analytic as follows:  “I care a lot more about what ought to have happened than what actually happens.”  This staggering statement captures the impoverished perspective of sabermetrics: Sports as a plaything for social scientists, a laboratory to manipulate probabilities and chart results in order to assist the next simulation. … Every basketball fan understands the frustration when good defense is thwarted by bad luck, but surely such “near-random events” are phenomena to be embraced, not wished away. Hinkie doesn’t see it that way. To him, a wild shot is the sort of thing that happens but ought not, and thus undermines rather than enhances the sport.

Marc over at the USS Mariner sensibly responds:

Keep in mind that these quotes come from an employee of a particular team. He was hired, presumably, because he can help isolate estimates of true talent from the chaos of a game or season – he was hired specifically to strip out luck in order to help his team find more talented players. Hirsch’s problem doesn’t seem to be with sabermetrics, advanced statistics or Mr. Hinkie, it’s the entire enterprise of trying to separate talent from luck. He can’t seem to imagine why any team would have an employee who watched the game differently from a fan. …

Remember: Hinkie is an employee of a team, a team which just lost thanks to a wild shot from a bad player. Hirsch damns Hinkie for not giggling in child-like wonderment when the team that employs him loses on a lucky play. The last quote gives some insight into Hirsch’s problem with Moneyball: it was about strategy. He doesn’t seem to be promulgating a different, better strategy, he appears to be arguing that strategy itself is the enemy of the anarchic beauty of sport. The job of a general manager is to assemble the best possible team, not because doing so will eliminate luck from the equation, but because talent is something the GM can control. None of this, and I seriously can’t believe the idea didn’t occur to Hirsch, means fans and analysts hate luck – it just means that a team is better off identifying and acquiring the most talent they can given fiscal constraints than it is to ask fans to renew their season tickets for the chance to see a whole bunch of random occurrences.

Hopefully, the book has more to offer than has been seen thus far.


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