Do the Recent Failures of the Oakland A’s Discredit Moneyball Strategies in Baseball and Academia?

Like many academics, I have praised the “Moneyball” strategies adopted by Oakland A’s GM Billy Beane. Beane’s innovative use of statistical methods for evaluating player performance built the small-market A’s into a powerhouse that posted records as good as those of top teams with much higher payrolls, including the Red Sox and Yankees. Meanwhile, in the academic world, my employer, the George Mason University School of Law, used similar strategies to identify and hire undervalued scholars, an approach that enabled the school to rise rapidly in the US News rankings (from around 90th or so in the late 90s, to a peak of 34th in 2007 and 41st today). GMU’s moneyball approach also enjoyed impressive successes on measures of faculty quality, such as Brian Leiter’s citation count study, in which we ranked 21st in 2007. Like the A’s, GMU has outperformed competitors with much greater financial resources (we charge lower tuition and have a much smaller endowment than most of our peer schools).

However, as ESPN writer Howard Bryant explains in this article, the A’s poor performance over the last three years has led many people to doubt the effectiveness of Beane’s approach. Although GMU’s rankings haven’t fallen anywhere near as much as the A’s place in the American League standings, we have fallen a few slots in US News over the last two years.

In my view, the the A’s recent problems in no way discredit Moneyball strategies. In both baseball and academia, Moneyball hiring is still a success. And, while the A’s may not have a bright future, I am cautiously optimistic that GMU does.

I. The A’s Problems are Caused by Moneyball’s Success.

As Daniel Drezner explains, the A’s have slipped not because Moneyball strategies stopped working, but because other teams with bigger payrolls (most notably, my beloved Red Sox) successfully copied them. So long as the A’s were the only ones rigorously applying Moneyball strategies, they could outperform bigger-spending rivals with inferior approaches. But once the Red Sox and other larger market teams copied the A’s approach, it got much harder for Beane to keep up. If the A’s were defeated by clubs relying on pre-Moneyball conventional wisdom, that would indeed discredit their approach. Being defeated by better-heeled imitators actually vindicates it.

Furthermore, Beane’s overall record as GM is still very impressive. Since he took over in 1999, the A’s have made five playoff appearances and had two other seasons when they won around 90 games and just missed the postseason. I hate to admit it, but this is almost as good as the Red Sox’ record over the same period (6 playoff appearances and one other 90 win season) – and the Red Sox spent more than twice as much as the A’s on payroll during that time. The Red Sox of the last ten years are usually considered one of the best-run teams in baseball. Had Beane been given as much money to play with as Boston’s GMs, the A’s would probably have been a lot better than the Sox – or any other AL franchise.

II. Implications for GMU and Legal Academia.

Nonetheless, the recent decline of the A’s does raise the question of whether GMU will suffer a similar decline as better-funded competitors mimic some of our hiring strategies. It certainly could happen, but I am guardedly optimistic that it won’t. Competitive pressure in academia is much weaker than in professional sports, where losing GMs tend to get fired and owners of losing teams suffer big financial losses. In the academic world, faculty who perform poorly relative to their competitors are unlikely to lose either funding or tenure. Even law school deans are unlikely to lose their jobs merely because the school’s ranking stagnates or declines.

Thus, GMU’s innovations are less likely to be copied widely than those of the A’s. Even so, some have spread. The three undervalued faculty assets that GMU has historically pursued include 1) law and economics scholars, 2) conservative and libertarian academics who might have gone to higher-ranked schools but for ideological discrimination, and 3) academics with strong publication records who were overlooked by higher-ranked schools because they didn’t have a prestigious clerkship or didn’t get their JDs at a top-5 school. I think it’s clear that law and econ scholars are no longer undervalued by most of our competitors. Ideological discrimination and school/clerkship snobbery persist, but both are less intense than ten years ago. In particular, our rivals are beginning to realize that past publication record is a better predictor of the quality of future scholarship than who you clerked for or where you got your JD (this is similar to Beane’s famous insistence on evaluating prospects based on minor league and college stats rather than whether they looked good to tradition-minded scouts).

Overall, one of our comparative advantages has been completely eliminated by the market, and the other two have at least been eroded. On the other hand, we have several edges that the A’s don’t. Unlike the A’s, we can close the financial gap that separates us from our rivals by building up our endowment over time (the A’s resources, by contrast, are constrained by their status as a small-market team). The school’s rise in the rankings and increased public profile make fundraising easier. Converting a temporary innovative edge into longterm financial success is much easier in academia than baseball.

In addition, ideological discrimination and school/clerkship snobbery are likely to persist to a significant degree. We can therefore continue to exploit these two shortcomings of many of our peer schools. Finally, GMU has an important advantage stemming from its geographic location near Washington, DC – an attractive site for people interested in law, history, and public policy. I doubt that GMU will rise as fast in the rankings over the next ten years as it did over the last ten. But if we continue to follow good hiring strategies, we should be able to hold on to our gains and hopefully make some additional progress.

UPDATE: I do not wish to suggest that US News rankings are anywhere close to perfect indicators of a law school’s relative quality. Like many other academics, I have criticized them in the past. However, rising 50 slots in the rankings, as GMU did, is probably an indicator of significant progress. In addition, GMU actually does better on more objective measures of faculty quality, such as Leiter’s citation counts (where we are close to the top 20), and SSRN download counts (where we rank 18th over the last year, and 11th if one controls for the relatively small size of our faculty).

UPDATE #2: My colleague Josh Wright (a prominent rising star in law and economics), makes some good points on these issues at Truth on the Market. Josh points out that, even though law and economics scholars are no longer undervalued as a group, some specific types of L&E research still haven’t gotten as much cache as they deserve in legal academia. Thus, there are still some undervalued assets in law and economics that GMU (and perhaps other pioneering schools) can exploit. I agree. Josh also believes that ideological discrimination and school/clerkship snobbery have not diminished as much as I assume. I still believe that they have, but I admit that the issue requires systematic study.