Moneyball works for communities too

22 Oct 2020

Blog, Community, Letter from the CEO

The World Series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Tampa Bay Rays is tied at one game apiece. Not many people know that because not many people are watching; television viewership for game one on Tuesday was the lowest in history.


That’s too bad, because those who do watch will see a collision of divergent organizational styles brought about by economic realities. The most important message—there is always more than one way to win. 


The Dodgers are gorgeous. They play under the open LA sky. Their stars are fast, fluid and frequently have great hair. (Well, except Mookie Betts.)


They also planned to have the second highest payroll in baseball, at $105.5 million. (COVID-19 changed the actual numbers substantially.)


They Rays? Well, they are the opposite of a blue blood. The Dodgers were founded in 1883, the Rays in 1998. The Dodgers drew 3.9 million fans last year, the Rays 1.17 million.


And about that payroll. The Rays expected to pay their players $28.6 million in 2019. Here’s one way to look at that: The average Dodger is worth 3.7 times the average Ray.


Yet both teams led their league in wins this season and now they are competing for the World Series title.


Baseball is a curious game. Malcolm Gladwell, the social sciences writer and intellectual, has discussed what he calls “strong link” and “weak link” sports. Basketball is strong link: when victory is on the line, LeBron James demands the ball and goes one on one.


Soccer is the ultimate weak link sport. The Spanish national team once passed the ball 770 times in a World Cup game. And wound up tying 1-1.


If you’re trying to build a championship basketball team, Gladwell argues, you invest at the top. You go get James, whose teams have played in the NBA finals nine of the last 10 years. But if you want to win at soccer, spend your money on the weakest links, the last few players among the 11 who take the field. Winning happens down there.


Baseball falls in the middle because it is the only sport in which the defense has the ball. The pitcher is the ultimate strong link—97 mph followed by two wicked sliders and the Mighty Casey will strike out. But winning requires scoring ones, and it’s on offense that baseball is about the weakest link. There is almost no way to ensure a superstar will bat in the ninth (Kirk Gibson excepted). The batting order moves inexorably; every man gets his chance.


No team seems to understand this balance more than the Rays. Their pitching is unrivaled, but they also win by having the strongest weak links. Their MVP this postseason has been Randy Arozarena, a 25-year-old outfield from Cuba who was diagnosed with Coronavirus early in the season, spent his quarantine packing on weight by eating rice and chicken and doing 300 pushups a day, and came back with an antibody against fastballs.


The Rays find underappreciated dudes with particular talents (power, speed, a strong outfield arm) and plug them in based on game situations. Everybody has value and everybody is expected to perform. When it works, $28.6 million can equal $105.5 million.


There is a economic development lesson in this, one that politicians in particular would do well to heed. Our communities, our state, and our economy are neither basketball nor soccer. They are baseball. Winning requires building on strengths and limiting weaknesses. Thus when large company receives a tax break to support an expansion, we should all cheer, “Atta kid, keep firing.” We want our starting rotation at their best; their success benefits the entire team.


But just as important is the right fielder, the shortstop, the pinch hitters. Heck, the grounds crew. We like to say we’re for small business, but are we doing everything we can to ensure open markets and available talent? Is 26th in the nation in per pupil spending sufficient? Why does US News rank our state 39th for both Internet access and transportation infrastructure? And how can a single mom change the future for family if she can’t work because there is no childcare?


National politics today is about polarization, but here in Northwest Iowa we recognize that we are all linked. So let’s learn from the Rays and invest for value—up and down the lineup.