One of the 20th Century’s greatest economists died Saturday: Earl Weaver, former manager of the Baltimore Orioles.
He had no formal training as an economist and would likely be surprised to be referenced that way. However, he was a natural economist who wrote one of the finest introductory textbooks on microeconomics, Weaver on Strategy.
As a young baseball fan, I read any book on baseball I could get my hands on. I must have been 10 or 11 years old when I stumbled upon Mr. Weaver’s book and it changed the way I thought about the game.
From the book I understood how costly the sacrifice bunt is and why carrying fewer pitchers on a roster is better. A few years later when I took an introductory course in microeconomics, we were taught concepts such as opportunity cost and comparative advantage and immediately recognized that these appeared heavily in Mr. Weaver’s book (though he did not use those terms).
It piqued my interest in economics and I do not believe I would be an economist today if I had not first read it. Outside of Milton Friedman no one has influenced my thinking on economics more.
Weaver on Strategy contains Ten Laws of Baseball, most of which can be translated directly into microeconomics.
I use the fourth law, “your most precious possessions on offense are your 27 outs,” as the basis of questions on economics tests.
Mr. Weaver understood that baseball offenses work under a budget constraint, 27 outs, and the use of an out entails an opportunity cost. One-run strategies, such as the sacrifice bunt, use up these resources and rarely pass a cost-benefit test. Mr. Weaver codified this concept in his sixth law, stating “don’t play for one run unless you know that run will win a ballgame.”
In putting together a roster, there are two large budget constraints – a financial one as well as a limited number of roster spots.
Mr. Weaver long argued that teams spent their roster spots too lavishly on carrying extra pitchers. Between his seventh law “it’s easier to find four good starters than five” and the section of the book titled TEN PITCHERS IS TOO MANY, Mr. Weaver performs a cost-benefit analysis (without the name) showing that carrying an extra outfielder has far more benefit than an extra pitcher who “will likely only be used in blowouts”.
Perhaps more than any other manager in baseball history, Mr. Weaver focused on specialization and comparative advantage. He wanted players who could perform one task very well rather than one could do a little bit of everything. As analyst Bill James put it, “what Weaver NEVER used were the guy who didn’t do anything specific, but looked good in the uniform.” Baseball writer Joe Posnanski elaborated on this point by adding:
"Weaver always had a point to everything he did. That was his strength. That’s what made his teams great. Every move had a specific purpose. This guy played because he was sensational defensively, and this guy played because he got on base at a very high rate, and this guy played because he destroyed right handed pitching ... And so on. There was always purpose to the moves. Earl didn’t want guys who could ‘play baseball.’ He wanted guys who could ‘do something.’"
With this kind of thinking, Weaver was a natural trade economist, recognizing the benefits to specialization.
The best example of Weaver’s use of this strategy was his left-fielders in 1982. Weaver used three low-salary, low-profile players that other teams did not want.
John Lowenstein was selected off of waivers from the Texas Rangers. Gary Roenicke was acquired as a throw-in in a trade with the Montreal Expos. Benny Ayala was traded from the St. Louis Cardinals in exchange for bench player Mike Dimmel. Mr. Dimmel would play in only three major league games after the trade.
By matching up each player against a pitcher who was well-suited to his skills, Mr. Weaver’s left-fielders hit .283 with 36 home runs, 104 RBI and 79 walks, nearly identical to the MVP candidate numbers of big dollar free agent Dave Winfield. Now the three players did take up two more roster spots, but Mr. Weaver also used the players to pinch-hit and as defensive replacements.
Weaver often preached that managers should look for what a player can do, not what he cannot do, as it is the things they can do that wins ballgames. This is a good lesson for any organization; I frequently recommend Mr. Weaver’s book to my HBA and MBA students who are thinking of starting or running their own organizations.
Although Mr. Weaver will likely be remembered for his confrontations with umpires, his natural skills as an economist should not be forgotten. As someone who was heavily influenced by him, I was deeply saddened by the news of his death.