As Game 3 brings Philadelphia its first taste of the World Series since 2009, you’ll see the fact that the Phillies’ president of baseball operations is now the first executive to lead four different franchises to the pennant. You might miss that he was really the only person to do it with three. But when we look back 10 or 20 years later, when perhaps Dombrowski was inducted into the Hall of Fame, what might be more impressive than his success record is that in the GM era ushered in by “Moneyball” and Billy Bean, Dombrowski was fired. twice in spite of everything.
More recently, it has often been seen as a point of comparison to “old school,” a one-man referendum on the ways baseball teams are or aren’t built.
From the spark of baseball’s information age to its soaring acceleration beyond the eye spectrum of casual fans in recent seasons, the concepts at the heart of “moneyball”—and the terms it introduced into the sport’s lexicon—have become ingrained, flat, bogeyman and stripped of all meaning for decades of Excessive crosstalk.
It’s worth remembering the simple idea that started it all: look for advantages that most of the competition doesn’t appreciate. Moneyball, as defined by economists after seeing it in action for years, is “buying assets that are undervalued by other teams and selling assets that are overvalued by other teams.”
And when you look at it this way, a surprising result emerges: Dave Dombrowski is, in many ways, a cash ball for baseball 2022.
What goes against the mainstream now means in MLB
First, let’s talk about “Moneyball”.
Michael Lewis’s 2003 book documenting Penn’s purposeful zigzags with the Oakland Athletics glorified and reshaped the task of running a baseball front office. With Beane’s successful strategies illustrated and validated, the former underground movement to measure player performance and value quickly took root everywhere, even with teams not operating on Oakland’s meager budget.
There are two levels of perpetual ripple effects that we still briefly call Moneyball, and they are important to differentiate between them.
At the level of practical decision-making in baseball, Beane’s central vision emphasized that quantitative analysis should be used in addition to the qualitative recommendations of scouts to evaluate players and assign the best team. There is still a push and pull to find the right balance, but for now that is just common sense.
At a higher level beyond the GM job and into the ownership suite, “Moneyball” unleashed an efficiency mania.
There’s a separate (and interesting) conversation to be had about the ways in which the new information has led to a more stagnant and smooth game on the field. But this has mostly been an accidental snowball effect of many people trying to do their jobs while the MLB has, until recently, failed to use the same data to create protective barriers.
At that higher level, the effects were more intentional. Team owners gravitated toward strategies that allowed them to spend smaller and smaller portions of their vast wealth and revenue streams while continuing to sell fans on the idea that they were trying as hard as they could to win the World Series. They have cultivated the idea that large contracts for star players can be detrimental, and in many cases should be avoided. They coined and championed the new buzzword-building holy grails of list-building: financial resilience and sustainability.
Dombrowski’s status as a baseball pro makes it easy to print. Definitely silver-haired, it memorably outperformed the teams that preceded the Moneyball revolution. So when the Red Sox hired Dombrowski in 2015, there was a lot of comments made by team owner John Henry that the team had developed a “heavy reliance” on analytics.
Indeed, Dombrowski found the department lacking in this process and oversaw its expansion as well as the ostensibly apparent expansion of the player’s payroll. The result was, in 2018, the most successful team in Red Sox history—perhaps the most successful team of the 21st century so far. Less than a year later, he abruptly fired Henry Dombrowski and introduced his successor, Tampa Bay Rays alum Chaim Bloom, by essentially declaring that he wanted to get along with his cost-conscious brethren.
“He possesses the essential qualities to create a sustainable baseball operation throughout the organization,” the press release said, attributing the comment to Chairman Tom Werner, “with an eye on long-term success at the major league level.”
The intervening seasons provided clarification to company talk: Dombrowski was promptly fired as the league’s top payroll fell to 84 wins. Two of the Bloom’s three teams are dead last in the AL East, but they were cheaper. So he is still in power.
Dombrowski represents Felice’s refreshing ambition
You can find “new money ball” on almost every good team, and the tactic or player preference they relied on resulted in the wins. I did it myself! But what Dombrowski represents is not a new or innovative plan to win baseball games and is more (relatively) pure in approach.
The vast majority of MLB teams in 2022 play sastinaball, and the Phils are doing something else—something that, ironically, might be more aptly called Moneyball.
One of the key pieces of information that makes efficiency and sustainability seem particularly attractive qualities for a baseball team is postseason randomness. Like it or not, American sports awards tournaments across leagues, not the most telling regular season results, and baseball’s playoff results particularly separate from the endless summer trials.
Logic says that building an organization that consistently spews teams good enough to win a dice roll, is your best shot at winning the ultimate prize.
The Phillies attempted something like this in a one-day-delayed and dollar-short rebuilding, but failed. By the time team owner John Middleton demoted former general manager Matt Klentak and convinced Dombrowski to join, the team was already pulling from Dombrowski’s playbook. Klentak signed Bryce Harper to a 13-year, $330 million deal and traded for JT Realmuto, a rare all-star catcher, in an effort to get the team off the hump.
Dombrowski is the person you bring to shoot for the moon, to take great risks in the hope of reaping great rewards. This season’s squad also includes several big money signings that Dombrowski has signed, including Kyle Schwarber and Nick Castellanos.
Not all of his moves were successful, far from it. Castellanos had his worst season ever. Closer Corey Nibble was exhaustingly inconsistent, and then he was hit. He bought a Texas bill of goods when he dealt with Kyle Gibson in 2021.
But with Middleton’s support, Dombrowski errs on the side of ambition rather than frugality. At Boston, he was fired during an 84-win season and replaced by Nizam who replaced Mookie Betts when he did not agree to a less-than-market extension. In Philadelphia, he followed up a disappointing sub-. 500 season by locking Realmuto out with a long-term deal.
They’re fourth on the payroll in 2022, and perhaps more tellingly, they have the second largest amount already set aside for the 2023 season, the same for the 2025 season.
Whether you want your team to hire Dombrowski is almost philosophical, I guess no one in Philadelphia will have to worry about that as they flock to Citizens Bank Park this week. But it’s worth thinking twice before accepting the team owner’s assurances that the best path forward includes disappointing seasons and exits for beloved stars, and before we write off the Phillies as aberrations in a hot October. At least one other team—the San Diego Padres that the Phillies fielded in the NLCS—has veered toward a receiver-over-future approach with similar highs and lows.
Teams like Dombrowski, who tend to be top-heavy, will almost always have the potential for regular bankruptcy in the season. What it works in is building a strong critical mass, the kind that can feel unbeatable in flashy typical theater but is so impossible to measure that we use to name a champion. It wasn’t until they cycled through a bunch of quarterbacks, shortstops, and relief pitchers that the Phillies achieved this until they fired Joe Girardi and promoted Rob Thomson, but they made it happen.
Everyone remembers Billy Beane’s famous line, that “s*** doesn’t work in the playoffs.”
Dave Dombrowski does. Whether they’re impactful — like whether the Phillies are as good in 2025 — is a question for a different day.