Steven Levitt is finally posting to his Freakonomics blog, and it didn't take him long to stir up a hornet's nest. Levitt is skeptical of Billy Beane's genius, as described in Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game (read here, here, and here). Levitt lays out a simple test to answer this debate:
In the spirit of data, the skeptics amongst you should tell me how many games the A's need to win this year or over the next five years so that they would feel that Moneyball is validated. My own view is that if the A's win 81 games a year for the next five years, it is more likely that Beane was lucky than good. If they win 97 a year, I'll happily concede that Beane is the best. Even an average of 90 games
a year and I will acknowledge he is brilliant.
Beane has a worshipful following among the sabermetric crowd, so they've responded in force with comments to Levitt's posts. I'm not entirely clear what is being debated, and so it's not clear to me that the above test is the right test.
Is the question whether Beane has succeeded because of the skills attributed to him in Moneyball? That would require some clarification of what those were (I loaned my copy of Moneyball out to someone and can't remember who that was). Even then, I'm not sure that all of Billy Beane's tactics were revealed in the book (Beane wouldn't be that smart if he gave away his recipe to a reporter to publish in a book), and now that several other teams are operating with similar tactics (the Red Sox and the teams run by his former assistants, the Dodgers and Blue Jays), it's likely that he's had to adjust his strategy.
If the question is simply whether Beane can maintain a 90 win a season team with a small to mid-market budget, then the test is better, but not perfect. Just a bit of bad luck, a severe injury to one of the team's offensive or pitching stars, can derail a 90 win season. And it's possible the A's will elevate their payroll in the future, introducing a new variable to the test. Incidentally, the A's have won 90 games a season for the last five seasons, and it's not the first time in their history they've done that. To add another five 90 win seasons to that would be a string that I believe has only been done by only one team in history, the 1947-1958 Yankees (someone please correct me if I'm wrong). If Beane can do that, then Levitt is right, Beane is on to something.
Now that the A's have traded away Mulder and Hudson, people can no longer claim that the A's success is purely a result of the Big Three. I'm curious to see what happens, and personally I do think Beane is a very good general manager.
Meanwhile, Levitt lives up to his reputation as an original. I was going to say contrarian, but I'm not sure Beane's philosophy is widespread enough to qualify as conventional wisdom. Economist bloggers, when they aren't discussing interest rates, are among the most interesting voices on the web.