Why Rickey is the True Creator of Moneyball
Detractors and proponents of the idea greatly misunderstand the concept of Moneyball. It’s not about advanced statistics or on-base percentage but rather taking advantage of market inefficiencies and building the most efficient baseball team. When the 2002 Oakland Athletics and Brad Pitt in 2011 made the concept famous, on-base percentage and more telling stats just happened to be the things that were not being taken advantage of by teams at the time. To put it simply, Moneyball is about innovation, and Rickey embodied innovation.
Rickey is most known for signing Jackie Robinson and breaking the color barrier in America’s Past Time in an America that was still divided by Jim Crow laws. Many legendary baseball players like Hank Aaron, Willie Mays, Frank Thomas, Ken Griffey Jr., and Tony Gwynn, as well as stars of today like Andrew McCutchen, Mookie Betts, Tim Anderson, and Lorenzo Cain, have Rickey and Robinson to thank for being able to play Major League Baseball.
You could argue that this was an innovation of itself from Rickey. An entire league of extremely talented baseball players was held back by the racist views of the time. Rickey broke the social and political norms of baseball and the United States, signing Jackie. After Robinson joined the Dodgers in 1947, Cleveland would then sign Larry Doby, who was the first African American in the American League. Rickey’s former team, the St. Louis Browns, would then sign two African American players named Hank Thompson and Willard Brown the same year.
A massive innovation he introduced to baseball was the farm system. Rickey ran into the same issues faced by low-budget teams of today. Minor league players were auctioned off to the highest bidder, and the Browns/Cardinals were what you would consider a small market. In 1919, Rickey started to plan player development, and when Sam Breadon bought St. Louis, Rickey would have the financial resources to put his plan into motion.
Rickey would use his new-found resources to buy 18% of the Houston Buffalos of the Texas League. Then he would buy out Fort Smith of the Western Association. The Cardinals then would hold sponsor tryout camps to fill the rosters of the now-affiliated minor league teams. Before this, the minor leagues worked more like independent league teams, as players were not bound to a single team. Just six years after Rickey put his plan into full swing, the Cardinals would win the World Series, thanks to players like Ray Blades, Heinie Mueller, and Jim Bottomley, who were the first players Rickey had signed to develop back in 1920.
While Moneyball isn’t about on-base percentage, the stat has its roots planted in Branch Rickey’s history. Rickey, alongside Allan Roth, were the creators of the statistic. Allan Roth had worked as a salesman and writer for the National Hockey League as he used his knowledge of hockey statistics in articles for the NHL. Roth had previously written letters to the Dodgers’ president at the time, Larry MacPhail, with little to no success, which is when he turned his attention to hockey.
However, in 1947, Roth had convinced Rickey of the importance of statistics and was hired for a $5,000 salary (equivalent to about $66,800 today). Rickey hired Roth to record statistics for the Montreal Royals, the Brooklyn Dodgers’ minor league team. Rickey was receptive to Roth’s ideas of on-base percentage and situational statistics (such as splits vs. LHP/RHP and RBI percentage). In 1948, Roth pointed out to Rickey how well Robinson performed when he came to the plate with runners in scoring position but only received 301 plate appearances with men on base. The Dodgers then moved Robinson down in the order from the two-hole to the clean-up spot, and he recorded 398 plate appearances with men on and helped the Dodgers score 30 more runs from ‘47 to ‘48.
Sandy Koufax also has Roth to thank for his success. In 1961, Roth noted to Koufax that the lefty was more effective against righties than lefties. Koufax, with this knowledge, changed his curveball grip to be more effective against same-handed hitting. Koufax lowered his ERA the next season by nearly a whole run from 3.52 to 2.54. After ‘61, Koufax became much more receptive to Roth’s work, going so far as to state to Allan’s son Michael “I learned more about this game from your dad than I ever learned playing it.” Coincidentally, ‘62 was the first of five straight seasons where Koufax would lead the league in ERA and post a sub-2.00 ERA three times. The Dodgers also ranked 1st or 2nd in the NL in 14 of Roth’s 18 seasons with the Dodgers and won three World Series rings.
Although Branch Rickey didn’t invent Spring Training, he was the man who completely revolutionized pre-season. After buying a military base in Vero, Florida, in 1948, he would run players through innovative exercises, sliding training in sand pits, batting cages, and pitch machines. It was also a way for Rickey and his coaches to perform player evaluations. Many of baseball’s standard equipment became popular here, like batting helmets and the aforementioned pitch machines and batting cages.