I finally read Moneyball two months ago, which is about eight years later than I should’ve. The perspective that comes with all those years — most notably in the way that the 2002 June draft Lewis writes about didn’t exactly change the game — is presumably the sort of thing that your more seethingly anti-idea Buzz Bissinger types take some sort of satisfaction in. “See, it didn’t work,” they might say. “Here is my new 370-page manuscript about the friendship between Joe McEwing and Tony LaRussa. I will now go on the radio and shriek about bloggers.”
But while the passage of time has rendered some of Michael Lewis’s Scott Hatteberg-related rhapsodizing sort of silly — although Hatteberg really was worth 2.7 WAR in ’02, and really got paid $900,000 for it — the book and the idea behind it are so cogent that it’s kind of amazing that people are still arguing about any of it. Joe Morgan is going to do what Joe Morgan is going to do (which is talk in perfectly circular cliches), and Bissinger is going to do what he is going to do (not follow sports very closely and lovingly tend to an Old Faithful-caliber ulcer). But the Diamondbacks purposefully trading Dan Haren for Joe Saunders because Saunders won 17 games once and the Mets paying Alex Cora $2 million for strictly notional contributions — or Jerry Manuel saving Francisco Rodriguez for save situations because “that’s baseball” — seems all the more ridiculous given how un-revolutionary the pursuit of undervalued commodities through the use of more sensitive metrics has become. This approach has changed baseball and basketball, and the balance of power has shifted in those sports because of that; the near-ubiquity and general effectiveness of this broader approach feels a lot more than eight years old. Which is to say that we’re probably still about 10 years shy of the NFL embracing anything like it.
There are reasons for this beyond NFL executives being willfully backwards and the sport itself being Tancredo-grade conservative and change-averse, although those reasons are obviously kind of important. But while the football version of sabermetrics is still kind of nascent — this stuff is interesting, but I don’t really get it — the idea of finding and exploiting undervalued commodities should be as appealing in the NFL as it is elsewhere. In this piece for Slate, Robert Weintraub starts with an argument that looks almost like a joke — that the Cincinnati Bengals’ ongoing knucklehead-rehab program reflects a quasi-Moneyball tactical approach to getting premium talent at sub-premium prices — and follows it in some interesting directions. He doesn’t totally close the circuit, but this is one of those Provocatively Contrarian Slate Pieces that actually delivers some interesting things to think about:
T.O. and Ochocinco have never been in legal trouble. (Owens, however, was suspended by the Eagles in 2005 for “conduct detrimental to the team.”) You can’t say the same for many of their teammates, including such police blotter mainstays as Adam “Pacman” Jones, Matt Jones, and Tank Johnson. For the Bengals, this accumulation of troubled talent doesn’t seem like a coincidence. Owner and general manager Mike Brown isn’t some bighearted, naÃ¯ve humanist straight out of Boys Town, offering second chances to wayward athletes. Rather, he has developed a sabermetric stratagem worthy of Moneyball’s Billy Beane: signing players with questionable backgrounds at bargain prices.
In order to compete with the NFL’s bluebloods, a not-so-sexy franchise like the Bengals needs to find market inefficiencies to exploit. In the Roger Goodell era, with football reprobates getting suspended left and right by the iron-fisted commissioner, both past offenders and potential malcontents can be had for a fraction of the cost they might once have commanded. The low price means the risk is mimimal, the potential upside huge.
Again, Weintraub doesn’t really engage his own argument as well as he could — it’s a short piece, and too much of it is spent detailing the facts of Cedric Benson’s bar fight-y rap sheet and too little on the on- and off-field impacts of the Celebrity Rehab approach to roster building. But it’s a really interesting idea, and even if it’s only implicit and only barely engaged, I’m up for any comparison between Tank Johnson and Chad Bradford.