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Pittsburgh sports talk with the Trib columnist

Wakeup Call: How ‘Moneyball’ was hijacked by extremists

Some sporting thoughts before sunrise …

>> Neal Huntington never has considered himself a “Moneyball” guy, as columnist Joe Starkey reminds this morning. That’s one of  many reasons why I’ve long found it peculiar that those who who worship at that particular altar have attached themselves to him as if we were one with the group.

Huntington uses stats, and he even hired Dan Fox, a numbers-cruncher from Baseball Prospectus, and had pitching coach Joe Kerrigan prioritizing data over teaching. But he’s always been deeply into the scouting aspect, up to and including having strong faith in the late Chuck Tanner and Bill Lajoie, as well as the rest of his no-tuck, Hawaiian-shirt wearing special assistants.

I loved “Moneyball,” and I have done extensive reading on baseball metrics, applying them regularly to my stories. Just did it again earlier this week with that piece on the Pirates’ defense. But where I find clear separation between me and the disciples is that I don’t respond in a Pavlovian way to everything I see in a game that doesn’t follow the book’s preachings.

There really is value in having a steady closer for the ninth inning.

There really are hitters who rise to the occasion, though I believe more strongly in the absence of clutch than the presence of it. (Another argument for another day.)

There really are managers who make a difference, unlike the way Art Howe is portrayed as a jaw-jutting clod in the book. Strategies do matter. And sometimes the best strategies are instinctual.

There really is a way to tell that Hunter Pence, Derek Jeter and Freddy Sanchez are very good baseball players, even if a single iconic stat might not match the “Moneyball” pretexts.

There really exists no good way — yet — to gauge defense numerically. That gets proven year after year after year. And it will remain that way until player positioning and the velocity and angle of hits can be fully measured. And that’s not just me talking. Huntington and I agree on this.

What kills me the most, though, is that group’s blatant misuse of the term “objective” to describe their approach. It’s anything but. Look up “objective” in the dictionary, and it stresses having an open mind. I happen to believe that was among the original motives behind “Moneyball,” to take in all information and use it to assess. But some have used the term as a synonym for statistics. That’s as subjective as it gets. It’s creating a polar opposite to scouting, which was not what the A’s did.

If you want to be objective, try listening to all sides.

>> I have one thing to offer yesterday’s game: Heap it on, man.

>> We will have our weekly chat today at noon. You can begin submitting entries at 6 a.m. Or, if you’re one of the extremists described above, you can begin hurling some objective invectives my way at 6 a.m.


  1. JMB says:

    My biggest problem with the “Moneyball” concept that Billy Beane is a genius is that it doesn’t seem to take into account that many of those really successful A’s teams were allegedly fueled by ‘roids.


    Baseball entered the post ‘roid age around 2007, and Beane has been mediocre since then.

  2. buccos since '04 says:

    Ken r. insight on neal h. doesn’t sound good in terms of #heapiton. It speculation though.

  3. buccos since '04 says:

    Internet rumors is all we have but in the case of any truth to it let’s hope the FO don’t get in their own way

  4. Steve says:

    With or without the roids, my problem with the fame of Moneyball is that it only really worked when Beane had a rotation led by Zito, Mulder and Hudson all of which were tossing 200+ innings and with great ERAs. I’m here to tell ya…virtually any approach works when you have a rotation like that.

  5. Fat Jimmy says:

    Wow, Dejan. That entry above may be my favorite thing you’ve ever written! Obviously, we tend to like stuff more when it matches our own thinking, but you’ve just nailed it today.


    Although, one point that you missed mentioning above and I know that you agree with me on, is to call out the overemphasis of the Sabermetrics crowd of using stats as a predictive tool rather than a reflective one.

    Awesome entry this morning.

  6. JAL says:

    Some Summer breeze Morning Links


    MLB Transactions

    MLB Trade Rumors-Pirates

    Pirates Prospects

    Draft Picks Signing Tracker

  7. JAL says:

    Sports Radio

    The Pirate Way: “We can beat anybody today”

    Baseball Nation

    The Pittsburgh Pirates At The Trade Deadline: A Suggestion

    Bleacher Report

    Pittsburgh Pirates Potential Trade Acquisitions Before July 31st

  8. Curt says:

    My big concern is how they will make this interesting enough to make a movie out of it? I love baseball, but will never watch that movie. Lol.
    I think the past three games show that we need a big time bat in this lineup. There seems to be a slight, fragile balance from us getting close wins or loses.

  9. Curt says:

    Forgot to add this: Wanted to see what everyone thought of Ken Rosenthal’s comments about Neal?

  10. Starling Marte, prospect, Brad Lincoln, prospect, _________, prospect. Hunter Pence, ALL STAR, HEAP IT ON!

  11. Erik says:

    How do you submit questions for the chat ahead of time? Each time to go to the chat room it just says “This Event is in Standby Mode” and it doesn’t let you type in questions.

  12. Playoffs by 2012 says:


    I couldn’t agree with you more.

  13. Kirby Puckett says:

    I don’t know if Moneyball the movie will be any good, but you never know. Look how good The Social Network turned out to be. Who would have thought that a movie about Facebook would have been a solid flick?

  14. leefoo says:

    Gotta agree with Perotto…….why Grilli?

  15. pattonbb says:

    Fat Jimmy – you hit the proverbial nail on the head with your “overemphasis of the Sabermetrics crowd of using stats as a predictive tool rather than a reflective one” line. I have argued this exact point too many times to count. Sabermetrics can be a insightful tool, it’s not a Bible. There is no way to produce a “probability distribution of a given player’s predicted performance” by using the Player Empirical Comparison and Optimization Test Algorithm. There are way too many variables to consider.

  16. Karen22 says:


    I’m trying to submit a chat question but the chat link won’t let me, so I’ll echo what Curt just said. What do YOU think about this?

    “Rival GMs believe Pirates GM Neal Huntington over-values his prospects, so they’re suspicious that he can be an effective ‘buyer,’ according to Ken Rosenthal of FOX Sports.”

  17. Arriba Wilver says:

    I tried to submit a question to the chat and, after following the directions (I think) all I could get was a “standby mode” with no ability to submit a question.

  18. Naje says:

    Jimmy — echo your sentiments about DK’s piece today. And this is where Tabata gets explained: the eyes.

    Tabata has hands are fast, his eye is sharp and he’s a tough competitor. His eye and his bat are about as advanced as I’ve seen for PBC hitter at age 20, 21, 22. He plays with instincts for the game that are innate, born… not trained.

    When healthy, watch him compete with a pitcher… rarely overmatched; and when he is, he filters that away for another time. Baseball IQ and instincts as good as anyone on the team.

    And he can run. And steal bases with a high rate of success. And track a ball with ease in the outfield.

    Power indicators are there… for about 20 dingers a season with a very high OBP.

    To compare him right now to Pence may well be out of line. But watch him develop, mature and grow into one helluva ballplayer.

  19. dcpinpgh says:

    I always thought Neal Huntington has to think he is the smartest person in the room. He runs the Pirates so when he looks around he sees it that way. His traded players are better then what is already here(i.e. Joey Bats), if he drafted someone they have to be better then other people’s draft picks, and so on

  20. Bizrow says:

    @ leefoo – Re Grilli – I don’t know either other than there might be some connection between him and Hurdle.

    @ dcpinpgh – we think the same about Opie, I hope he is not over his head right now. He’s never been in this situation before, if you know what I mean.

  21. cfjohnsn says:

    I think that NH is getting a bad rap and it is apparent in the mindset that dcpinpgh is displaying.

    My point of view on this is that he (NH) is a smart man and is confident in his abilities and that sometimes rubs people the wrong way. I don’t believe that he goes around trying to gauge everyone’s IQ in an attempt to find his place in the pecking order

    I also think that the Rosenthal piece is a crock based on normal human nature. We all walk around he espousing unrealistic views about how much our players could get in return if they were traded. How many asinine trade offers of “Andy LaRoche, Pedro Ciriaco and Lastings Milledge for Alex Rodriguez” posts were made last year and continue to be made this year? How many people still complain that we should have gotten more for an aging, broken down, defense only shortstop that couldn’t play defense anymore and was due to make $6M?!

    Unlike a lot of people that post negatively about him, he’s been able to identify and try to learn from his mistakes. Here’s a response in one of his weekly “chats” to a question about Mr. Bautista:

    cybixler: I cringe every time I see how well Jose Bautista is playing in Blue Jays. What’s your take on that trade?

    Huntington: Obviously that has not worked out well for us. Jose and the Toronto coaching staff deserve a lot of credit. After essentially a full season in Toronto, Jose made a swing adjustment and has become a terrific hitter.

    I could probably pull up a least a dozen of those types of responses where he has taken responsibility for his and the team’s fault and has also given credit to others. That is something that is usually something that a person who believes that they are the smartest person in the room is diametrically opposed to.


  22. dcpinpgh says:

    @ cfjohnsn – I personally like Neil Huntington. I used to love hearing hearing the leader of the resistance, Rocco Demaro, interview him. I have debated people about the merits of all his trades.

    that being said, there a group of people out there in the IQ range of like 120-129 that are smarter then 90% of the people, but don’t have the firepower of the 130+ IQ range. they end up a tad touchy about how smart they really are.

    It could be he shows outwardly a very secure person but inwardly he isn’t as secure as he shows off.

    Either way you can see a pattern that needs to be fixed.

  23. Fat Jimmy says:

    CFJ, I’m willing to lay off the guy and give him a fresh slate. The team is winning, and that is the only thing that matters. It’s also not too late for him to do what needs to be done to help this team achieve in 2011; I’ll give him the benefit of the doubt that he will make that happen before it’s too late.

    But, at the same time, he hasn’t taken a lot of responsibility for some of the failed deals he made. The Bautista example isn’t a good one, because I think most reasonable people don’t blame him for that. He’s given us the runaround in the past with excuses such as how dried up the market has been for veteran for prospect trades. I would be very angry if “by coincidence” a market that was once didn’t let teams get good prospects for veteran players now has reversed and teams can’t trade a few good prospects for veterans. I think I’d blame the GM if that “coincidence” transpires.

    But we’ll see. The only thing that is clear is that the Pirates are getting sub-100 OPS+ out of 5 of the 8 positions and 6 of 9 if you include PH. In some respects, he’s got it easy — he doesn’t have limited options for where and how he improves the offense. There is a wide variety of positions that can be improved, so he isn’t locked in to, say, just acquiring a RF.

  24. Karen22 says:

    Still can’t submit chat questions: “Event is in standby mode.” I think the Trib needs an I.T. person…

  25. JMB says:

    Winning is all that matters, so I have definitely tempered my NH criticisms even though his once lauded drafts look less impressive by the year.

    I’m giving NH the benefit of the doubt as well, BUT if the team doesn’t make a significant deadline move and flounders (and doesn’t sign Bell on August 15), I can really see a lot of the current positivism turning into nasty heated debates on the various “objective” Pirate blogs.

    In the end, NH will still get his extension, but this overwhelming hope and excitement, if not consummated, will make for a testy off-season.

  26. cfjohnsn says:

    @dc and FJ,

    Please don’t read my post and label me an “Pro-Nutter” (did I just call for a barrage of Smizek readers?) and an FO apologist.

    The guy has made some horrible moves and has had some stubborn streaks that have cost the team some wins. I just get a little testy when reading the same negative views without any acknowledgment of the other side of the coin. Thanks for stating your positions and keeping an open mind (okay….now I’m channeling DK!) and being willing to wait for all of the evidence before giving a verdict.

  27. Arriba Wilver says:

    cf–just to take the counter rant–when people who back NH say stuff like “aging, broken down, defense only shortstop that couldn’t play defense anymore” and all the criticisms of Bay after he left, it only hurts your/their argument. If you have confidence in your argument, stick to the facts. When Wilson left he was one of the top defensive shortstops in the league (Perry Hill enhanced), and a part of one of the top defensive combinations up the middle in the league. To say, when he was traded, he couldn’t play defense anymore is demonstrably false.

    And I have a bit of a different take on Neal’s answer about Bautista that kind of illustrates the “smartest guy in the room” point. He couldn’t just say, yep, that didn’t work out for us. In the guise of praising Toronto and Jose, he had to add “after essentially a full season in Toronto, Jose made a swing adjustment.” What does that mean? It means, “hey, it even took them a year to figure him out, and I only had him for less than a year.” My take.

    All that being said, he is getting better, I think, at handling himself, and as long as the results are there now, it’s kind of a nitpick. Hopefully he can handle this new position that he is in in trying to upgrade a contender for the stretch run. (And no, I don’t want them to bring back Wilson this year). :-)

  28. chrisb says:

    bill conlin just wrote an article showing how moneyball has hit the wall for beane a’s are 45 games under 500 since 2006 and attendance stinks rbi and runs scored will always be important bill also credits pirates on going all in on young pitching talent lets hope he is right

  29. JMB says:

    Meeker to the 60 day DL.

    It’s too bad no one blew NH away for a trade of Meek last yr. They all smartly wanted Hanny.

  30. pattonbb says:

    Ciriaco and Harrison sent down.

  31. Fat Jimmy says:

    Can someone reach out to “chrisb” and help him find all of the punctuation marks on his keyboard?

  32. SouthSideBucsFan says:

    Per Biertempfel, Grilli officially signed and Cedeno called up, with Ciriaco and Harrison sent down. I’m guessing Leroux’s going down too, with Pearce coming up to fill his spot on the 25-man.

    Whew. That’s a lot to keep track of.

    Also per Biertempfel: Doumit beginning rehab today with Bradenton and Ohlendorf will make a start for Altoona Sunday.

    So it sounds like a lot of our injured guys are getting close to coming back, which we all pretty much expected. I guess the question is whether we want to see anyone in addition to those guys. My preference is still yes, provided it’s someone who can make a noticeable impact for a reasonable price. And those are the two key words … “noticeable” and “reasonable.” If the target only fits one of the two parameters, I don’t want to make the trade.

  33. Naje says:

    With regards to Rosenthal’s opine about Huntington over-valuing his prospects… that’s an outsider’s quick take and probably a rational one from that angle.

    I don’t think they’re over-valuing their prospects as much as they are understanding that this is the first wave of prospects coming through the system.

    In a year or two, when newer prospects are available to replace the 2008-2010 draftees, that’s when you will see the PBC more readily involved in dealing away a few.

    Think of it as a first crop of grapes from the vineyard… you have to keep planting, growing and developing to sustain your yearly output. Thinning out the farm system right now does the PBC more damage than good.

  34. Fat Jimmy says:

    Naje, where is this Rosenthal article?

  35. SouthSideBucsFan says:

    Karen, it worked fine for me…not sure why it isn’t for you.

  36. Naje says:

    Jimmy – someone linked to it somewhere in recent days… not sure if it was video/print, but he’s mentioned this before about Huntington… more to the point, my point, is that one man’s “overvaluing” is another man’s continuing to stockpile so that there are no holes in the system when it comes time to move young talent in trades.

  37. pattonbb says:

    Naje – I’m willing to bet Rosenthal is reporting what other GM’s and front office people are telling him, so maybe his take that NH is over-valuing his prospects isn’t so outside.

    But, to be honset, I hope Neal is over-valuing them. I’m OK with that. Unlike some, I don’t think we need a “big splash” signing. A couple smaller, more complimentary signings will do the job in my opinion. There’s no way he should be open to dealing one of our better minor league talents for a rental player. Having said that, if there is a chance for a Pence-like acquisition, that changes things a little.

  38. Naje says:

    pattonbb – The team really needs two more draft classes before sending guys away… the better the talent, the easier it is to move. There’s SOME talent in the system, but trading it now will leave big holes to fill and the system isn’t ready to plug those holes just yet. I don’t think the team needs a big splash right now, either… wait till the offseason to do that.

  39. CDBrewer says:

    Grilli does have a Hurdle connection – played for Colorado in 08-09.

  40. JoeBucco says:

    The one metric that I’ve never been able to figure out a way to measure, and the one that moneyball can’t capture, is the psychological approach to the game.

    How does a player hit when he’s riding an 0 for 10 streak? How does he hit after committing two errors on defense the previous inning? How does he bat after the team gave up 4 runs the previous inning? How does he bat after fouling one off his toe earlier in the same at bat? How does he pitch when his arm is a little sore that day? How does he pitch after eating some bad Chinese food for lunch that day? How does he hit after his wife chewed him out that morning for forgetting to take the trash out?

    Things like that are all real and integral parts of baseball, and I don’t know of any metrics that can measure that.

  41. Naje says:

    JOEBUCCO – That’s what guys like Clint Hurdle are paid to do: figure out the psyche of each player in their own way.

    No one can read minds or feelings… and thus, you can’t measure those things. You can, however, understand players the more you’re around them and watch them react to different situations and adversity… that stuff tells you a lot about a player’s psyche.

  42. Absolute59 says:

    DK: Having had seats at PNC Park in 116 just behind scouts I loved this description of the scouts

    “the rest of his no-tuck, Hawaiian-shirt wearing special assistants.”

    CDBrewer: In fact Grilli who sports a career 4.7ERA; 1.48Whip and a .268BAA had his best year in 2008 with Rockies when he had 2.93ERA; 1.4Whip and .241BAA

    However, the next year 2009 the last time he pitched in the ML he was 5.32ERA; 1.68Whip and .276 BAA.

    But as with a lot NH pick ups he has pedigree as he was a No. 1 pick 4th overall in 1997 and is 6’5″ so no doubt has the downward plane NH loves.

  43. SteveG says:

    In an earlier thread I asked you about the upper river walk at PNC Park, and said I hadn’t seen it open this year on off and away days. I watched closely each day since just before the all star break (I walk past each day as part of my lunch time walk). As I’d experienced earlier, I didn’t see it open any of the days regardless of whether they were home, away, or off.

    Today, I stopped to talk to some PNC Park employees, and they confirmed it hasn’t been opened this year, but they had no idea why.

    Obviously not a big deal, but if you think of it next time you talk to someone ‘in the know’ I wonder if you could ask about it?

  44. JoeBucco says:

    Yep, I agree Naje. That was kinda what I was getting at. There is no metric to figure that stuff out. The human factor. That’s where Moneyball comes up short. Sure, a guy may have gotten on base a ton last year and is a solid hitter, but this year, he’s having some rough things in life and about to get a divorce or something. You can’t capture that stuff in metrics. Heck, look at Correia last year. Huntington did a great job looking at him, the person and what he had to go through last year, rather than just the end of season numbers.

  45. Naje says:

    JoeB – And that’s what Hurdle has done as well. I think Hurdle is one of those reclamation coaching projects… he’s learned a lot from his past and is applying the best of his knowledge to this current team. He was coached by Whitey Herzog in KC and then spent some time with him in St. Louis as well… Whitey’s style fits pretty well with this team and PNC Park.

    And Hurdle brings a specific style with him from the NL West division… so many teams with really good arms and then his club at colorado having to adjust to being big boppers only, to developing a strong pitching staff to beat the likes of San Fran, LA and such… That NL West style plays pretty well in the NL Central.

    But Hurdle seems to have dialed-in to each player on the roster… extracting as much as he can from everyone not named Overbay.

  46. Bizrow says:

    The FAN was speculating one reason why Pena is not being looked at is although he has a one year 10 million deal, 5 million is deferred till next year, which means you would have to pay maybe up to 7 million for two months of the guy.

    Now I read we’re looking at DeJesus from Oakland

    I think he’s hitting 220something in 85 games, with all of 5 homers


  47. DMac says:

    I’m dipping a toe in to see if it’s okay…this is an unfamiliar place and it feels weird.

    Anyway, there are several players who were here last year that I think would have benefitted from Hurdle, but we move on.

    And as for DeJesus. Um, no. He isn’t hitting well in Oakland, though the Coliseum isn’t nearly as hitter-friendly as PNC is. I think it’s worth pointing out though, that the weather in Oakland is different than Pittsburgh…the latter of which is much closer to K.C. where DeJesus played last year, in terms of heat and humidity. The same could be said for Willingham, which I saw rumors on while I was in the Bay Area this past week.

  48. Dejan Kovacevic says:

    @Dee: Welcome! We don’t bite, I swear. You’ll find many, many familiar faces, even going back to the original free version of the blog.

    Not going to lie: Hasn’t been the same without you here.

    Oh, and don’t mind the delay. Only happens on your very first post. Helps keep the spam out.

  49. Baywatch says:

    DMac! Welcome back to Free DK Blogsville! Jump on in, the water’s fine!

    OK, as far as a big money guy the Pirates would bring in to help us toward the first-place finish line, I’ve settled on Hunter Pence and the guy I actually think they’re likely to pick up, Chris Davis, Rangers first baseman who has MLB experience and is currently tearing up AAA pitchers to the tune of 23 home runs.

    The onliest thing about Davis that has me a little concerned is that he REALLY hasn’t demonstrated he can hit big league pitching for average yet. And with the Jim Clement experiment a failure … I just don’t know.

    If push came to shove, I’d take Beltran.

  50. Dave G in Mason, OH says:

    Beltran and Pence are being eyed by much bigger fish than the Pirates. I having growing doubts that they land either one of them.

  51. Reading says:

    Unfortunately, starting to believe that Pirates will be left in the dust of the Braves, Giants, Phils, and even the Brewers when it comes to making a deadline deal. We can only do it with smoke and mirrors for so long. Come on Man! Our best player says “heap it on” and we are looking at guys batting 2.2 bills with 5 HRs.

  52. DMac says:

    At the very least I can post here without WebSense blocking the comment boxes, so that’s a promising start. As for the delay, thanks for clearing that up…I was starting to feel slightly offended. ;-)

    A couple of my fellow A’s fans were getting ahead of themselves last week…thinking they’d get Cutch for Wuertz and Willingham. Then got depressed for “settling” for Walker. I had to temper them a bit and let them know letting either of them go would probably be a good way for NH to be tossed off the Clemente Bridge. :-)

  53. Reading says:

    In any event, we need this new significant addition before we play the Cards, Braves, and Phils. After might be too late.

  54. Dejan Kovacevic says:

    @James: Curious as to your thoughts on a potential Wigginton acquisition.

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