Tuesday, June 17, 2003
We’re in the Money(ball)
Rob Neyer, baseball writer for espn.com and author of Rob Neyer’s Big Book of Baseball Lineups, holds a weekly chat on espn.com. This week, Jim from Arizona wrote with a good comment/question:
Jim (Phoenix, AZ): I only had funds to purchase one baseball book this summer and, because of your recommendation it was Moneyball. Thanks. Maybe I'll find your book at a yard sale someday.
Rob Neyer: Good choice, Jim! My book's a lot of fun, I think, but if you don't read Moneyball you're going to be left out of a lot of discussions over the next few years.
I finished Moneyball this weekend. All 286 pages, plus the preface, introduction and Appendix. I haven’t read that many pages in a number of years put together! That alone should tell you just how interesting the book is. High level, Moneyball is the story of the 2002 Oakland A’s. In-depth, it is an organization’s business plan with examples of how they go about accomplishing each of their goals. Many of their concepts completely go against some of the things that have been “just the way it is” in baseball for a long time. There are some concepts I agree with and some that I probably don’t agree with. The beauty of this book is that it presents a number of baseball issues that are very interesting, and as Neyer’s reply above notes, will be discussed for a few years! Below, I will highlight a couple of those ideas and express my opinions on them.
The full title of the book is Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. The preface basically explains that the A’s, like many other teams, are financially strapped. Money doesn’t grow on trees everywhere, like it does in New York. Some people, including commissioner Bud Selig seem to think that this disparity in money spent somehow affects whether or not a team can win or not. Look at Oakland’s three straight post-season trips. Last year’s World Champion Anaheim Angels played with a small budget. How about the Twins? What do these teams have in common? They both seem to have a plan. The Twins go about their routine one way (develop from within), the A’s plan is now documented in this book.
To fully understand this philosophy, it is important to understand the background of a couple of people. A’s GM, Billy Beane, was once a first-round draft pick who took the money, even though I think on some level, he knew he wasn’t that great. He was the epitome of the “tools” player. Great speed, perfect “baseball body”, strong arm, but there were things that he wasn’t (namely, a good hitter). He came up with the Mets, but also played with the Twins and Tigers. He uses his experiences as a player to understand the types of players and types of people that get to the major leagues.
Paul DePodesta is Billy Beane’s assistant. He’s a Harvard grad who lugs around a laptop, and doesn’t care about “tools”, just stats.
Bill James is one of the big leaders of SABR (Society for American Baseball Research). He wrote many Baseball Abstracts up until about 15 years ago. He researched baseball stats and created new stats to more fully look at a player’s statistics. SABR created Win Shares, Runs Created, OPS and other stats. But he was really ostracized by the baseball community. They thought his numbers were not important to the major leagues.
The Oakland A’s (Billy Beane’s) philosophy on the draft has already been widely discussed. Sports Illustrated highlighted this portion of the book on their draft, and so did Baseball America. I find this to be one of the most interesting chapters of the book. The thinking that goes into the draft. Although the philosophy of the A’s is completely different from most other teams, Michael Lewis does a great job of illustrating how “tools” scouts think. They don’t look at player’s playing stats, they look at their stats like running time, height, weight, etc. Billy Beane’s philosophy is that he wants guys who walk. Guys with high on-base percentages, guys with good slugging percentage (hence, a high OPS). Beane also believes that it’s easier to predict a college player’s stats than a high schooler’s, and last year, when the A’s had 7 first round draft picks, they didn’t want to risk any money on college players. They drafted the players they wanted, even though most teams would not have drafted them anywhere near there. The best example always discussed is Catcher Jeremy Brown. He wasn’t even listed among Baseball America’s top 250 prospects in the 2002 draft, yet the A’s took him with the 3rd of their first round picks. They worked out a pre-draft deal with him so he signed for far less than his slot should have got.
My thoughts - I think that it’s good to pick the players that you want, and to have the college philosophy is good. In actuality, the entire draft is basically a crap shoot. Number 1 picks like Brien Taylor have never made it, and Mike Piazza was drafted in the 62nd round and become a star. But again, I like that they have a philosophy and stick to it. My question would be, however, if Brown wasn’t even among the top 250 prospects, why did they find it necessary to use a first round draft pick on him, if they could have drafted him in the 10th round, or later?
(See Aaron’s Baseball Blog article for Monday. He shows how their 2002 draftees are doing.)
The A’s had to make plenty of decisions after the 2001 season. Do they re-sign closer Jason Isringhausen? Johnny Damon? Jason Giambi?
I don’t want to give away much from the book. But, the A’s have a definite philosophy on the role of the closer and how much that was worth to them. Note - Isringhausen signed with the St. Louis Cardinals. Damon has a lot of speed, but the A’s have a definite philosophy on losing outs unnecessarily on the base paths. They don’t do it. Damon signed with Boston Red Sox. Replacing Giambi was tough though. He was exactly what the A’s look for in a hitter. Power, average, but most importantly, he takes a lot of pitches. The A’s look for guys that don’t make outs, guys that have high on-base percentages, and guys who take a lot of pitches and make the pitcher work hard. Giambi did all of that, and well. However, the A’s couldn’t afford to match the $126 million that the Yankees gave him, especially considering their goal is a team salary under $40 million.
How they go about replacing those players is so interesting. They new they couldn’t replace Giambi with just one guy, so they strategized how to encapsulate all those phases into a couple players. One of those players was Scott Hatteberg. Hatteberg had always been an OK backup catcher with the Red Sox. But, they certainly didn’t appreciate his style. Hatteberg was also a guy who takes a lot of pitches, and goes to the plate every time with a plan. Perfect for the A’s. So, the day he became a free agent, Paul DePodesta called him just a minute after midnight. They signed him, then they moved him to 1B, even though he’d never played there.
Defense doesn’t seem to really matter to the A’s. Former Twin Ron Washington is the 3rd base coach, but also an infield coach. He’s hilarious in describing how bad Hatteberg was in learning 1B. To me, this is the 3rd most interesting chapter of the book.
To fill the spot between my favorite chapter (the draft room) and the Hatteberg chapter, is the chapter on how Billy Beane works other GMs near the trade deadline. He’s been quite successful getting needed players the last couple of July’s. I found myself feeling like I was right in the room with Beane, watching him work the phones, and work the other GMs. Again, a tribute to Michael Lewis’ writing.
So, the A’s have philosophies on the type of hitter they want (take lots of pitches, get on-base), baserunning (They don’t! Ask Ray Durham), and defense (it’s secondary to offensive production.). What about pitching? The funny thing about this book is very little is written about Cy Young winner Barry Zito, Tim Hudson or Mark Mulder, and that’s really too bad. BUT, there is a great chapter on their best reliever, Chad Bradford, the submariner. They want guys who don’t give up home runs, don’t walk people and can strike out hitters. They very closely follow an interesting theory developed by Voros McCracken. To paraphrase, it says that a pitcher can control the number of walks and home runs he gives up, and the number of strikeouts he gets. However, once the batter puts the ball in play, it’s a lot of luck. That’s hard to argue with. Bloopers and Texas League hits happen all the time. And, “At ‘em” balls happen just as frequently.
Random Thoughts on the Book -
I loved it, as I said, I don’t agree with it all. If I were Miguel Tejada, I would be upset. Frequently in the book, Billy Beane calls Tejada “Mr. Swing at Everything”. He is a free agent, and the A’s have said that they can’t sign him. After reading this book, I now know that the fact is that they don’t want him back.
It was never mentioned that Miguel Tejada won the MVP (and if I had a vote, he would have had mine) last year. Eric Chavez had a great year (and he was an A’s 1st round pick… out of high school!). And again, the lack of giving enough credit to Zito, Mulder and Hudson doesn’t make sense. That’s why I say that on the high level, it may look like a story of the 2002 A’s. But, the examples in this paragraph would certainly get a lot more attention if it was.
I also can see why the A’s love Bobby Kielty so much. His ability to work a pitcher into deep counts, get on-base and hit for some power are all reasons the A’s like him. (Not that he’s done anything like that in the last 3 or 4 weeks)
I also think a hitter can be a good hitter without walking all the time. I happen to think the Shea Hillenbrand is a good hitter, and he’s a guy that has been bashed by such baseball statisticians because he doesn’t walk much.
Billy Beane really comes off as a jerk in the book, I think. He comes across as a “My Way is the ONLY smart way to get it done.”, “I’m smarter than everyone else” attitude. He won’t even watch the game. He thinks that by watching a game, he would look subjectively at a player rather than objectively. As if the ‘baseball people’ don’t have a clue. My personal opinion is that there needs to be some middle ground. That baseball people need to use these new statistics in their decisions, but sometimes seeing a player do some things on the field to evaluate them.
Beane was said to have thrown a chair into a wall after the A’s took Jeremy Bonderman with their first round pick in 2001. Bonderman was a high school kid who actually had just finished his Junior year but because he was already 18, took the GED and entered the draft. Totally went against the college players only draft philosophy Beane insisted upon. Well, nowhere was it mentioned that Beane traded Bonderman to the Tigers. And, the book came out just after Jeremy Bonderman, at age 20, threw a 3-hit shutout against the A’s earlier this year.
So, to summarize. I love this book. I would encourage anyone who loves baseball to buy the book and read it. I don’t necessarily agree with every philosophy the A’s have (defense should have importance, aggressiveness on the base paths can be good and has a place), but I do agree with some of their ideas. I just am impressed that not only the A’s have this philosophy, but also that all of the moves they make seem to directly correlate with it. It’s consistent. I wonder if all major league organizations have as stringent a philosophy throughout their organization.
It’s interesting to see with the success of Beane and the A’s, some other teams are seeing the benefit of using some of these numbers. JP Ricciardi is the GM of the Toronto Blue Jays. Theo Epstein is the GM of the Boston Red Sox, and they have hired Bill James and Voros McCracken as advisors.
One final thought, with all this, the Minnesota Twins still beat the A’s in last year’s playoffs. So, is this plan foolproof? The A’s took a lot of heat for not ‘manufacturing runs’, and that would affect them in the playoffs. Billy Beane basically said that his plan is to build a winner over a season. The playoffs (best of 5 or even best of 7 series) are just too small of a sample-size. That the playoffs really are based on luck. That, I also very much agree with.
So, for all Twins fans who think the Twins will make the playoffs but will need to do X and Y to be able to compete in the playoffs, take heart, the playoffs are all luck! The best team doesn’t always win. The key is to get to the playoffs and give yourself the best chance to win!
Twins Thoughts -
Last night’s game- Kyle Lohse did his best Brad Radke impression, giving up 5 runs in 5 innings, including a big 3-run homer by Mike Sweeney. Tony Fiore had a very impressive Tony Fiore like impression, going 2 innings, and giving up 3 runs. Michael Nakamura looked impressive. I have to wonder what the difference is between Fiore and Nakamura. Fiore has a trick pitch (palm ball). Nakamura has a trick delivery (submarinish). Nakamura will probably be sent down when Rick Reed comes off the Disabled List, but Fiore shouldn’t feel to safe. With Mike Fetters due to come off the 60 Day Disabled list toward the end of the month, they’ll need to drop someone from the 40-Man Roster, and that could (should) be Tony Fiore.
Lew Ford looking impressive again in his backup roll. Entering the game for Torii Hunter, Ford hit a double in his first at bat, and hit a 3-run homer in his second at bat. A homer that cut the lead to just three.
Justin Morneau was brought up to play, right? Not to play 2 out of 3 games! Just a thought!
What a comeback though. Down 8-0. They picked up 2 runs in the 7th, and added 3 runs in the 8th. In the 9th, the Royals brought enigmatic closer Mike MacDougal in to close it. Jones led off with a bloop single. Guzman lined a another single. Corey Koskie singled in Jones. Matthew Lecroy came up and with still nobody out, he found the left-centerfield gap, scoring both Guzman and Koskie and tying the game at 8 apiece. Lew Ford then walked. Mientkiewicz hit a shallow fly ball to right field, and Tom Prince, running for Lecroy, made a very veteran, intelligent move tagging up and running to second. And, rally killer Dustan Mohr grounded into an inning ending 4-6-3 Double Play on the first pitch! But, hey, they came back from down 8-0 to tie it up at 8!
And, in the bottom of the 9th, our hero, Never Easy Eddie Guardado walked Carlos Beltran and wild pitched him to 2B from where he scored the winning run on a Raul Ibanez single.
Twins lose 9-8. If the Twins had come back and lost 8-7, I think they would have won the next 3 games of the series. After losing this way, I think they should be more than happy with a split!
Sidenote - Did anyone else realize that following his complete game 1-hitter last night, Florida rookie left-hander Dontrelle Willis is now 6-1!?
Have a great Tuesday!
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