Moneyball II: Vitriolic Boogaloo
Lunchtime brought a surprise in my mailbox on Thursday: the latest issue of Sports Illustrated, with a seven-page Moneyball
follow-up from author Michael Lewis that's worth the cover price on the newstand (y'know, off-line
). Those expecting an epilogue tracking the progress of Scott Hatteberg, Chad Bradford, Jeremy Brown or Nick Swisher will be disappointed; nary a mention do they receive here. Instead Lewis focuses on the reaction the book provoked from the baseball establishment and its guardian, the mainstream sports press. His tone is blistering when describing both, and he pulls no punches, countering some of the more egregious and idiotic attacks on the book from the likes of Joe Morgan, Tracy Ringolsby, Richard Griffin, and Pat Gillick.
Lewis 's view of baseball front offices is the Peter Principle
The game itself is a ruthless competition. Unless you're very good at it you don't survive in it. But in the space just off the field of play there really is no level of incompetence that won't be tolerated.
There are many reasons for this, but the big one is that baseball is structured less as a business than as a social club. The Club includes not only the people in the front office who operate the team but also, in a kind of women's auxiliary, many of the writers and broadcasters who follow the game and purport to explain it. The Club is exclusive, but the criteria for admission and retention are nebulous. There are many ways to embarrass the Club, but being bad at your job isn't one of them.
...Club insiders have a remarkable talent for hanging around -- scouting, opining on the game -- until some other high-level job opens up. There are no real standards, because no one wants to put too fine a point on the question: What qualifies these people for these jobs? Taking into account any quality other than Clubability would make everyone's membership a little less secure.
Gloves off, baby! Lewis goes on to retrace the background of his story, how he came to write about the Oakland A's front office, GM Billy Beane, and the rethinking of baseball in general, pointing out that the A's and Beane really didn't pay him too much mind at the time:
As far as they knew, I wasn't even writing a book about the Oakland A's. I was writing a book about the collision of reason and conventional baseball wisdom. (They weren't the only ones whose eyes glazed over when I tired to explain what I was up to.)
The irony is that once the book was out, Beane, not Lewis, became the lightning rod for criticism. The author points out that twice in ESPN.com chats, Morgan attacked the book, both times laboring under the mistaken notion that Beane himself had penned the book. From his second chat
: "I wouldn't be Billy Beane first of all. I wouldn't write the book Moneyball
!" Writes Lewis, "It was in a perverse way, an author's dream: The people most upset about my book were the ones unable to divine that I had written it... the people most certain they had nothing to learn from the book were in the front offices of other major-league teams." Meanwhile, the literate world sat up and took notice; the book was a hit, and its memes took hold as teams from other sports, Fortune 500 companies, and amateur baseball programs adapted its lessons, reappraising the terrain on which their assumptions rested.
Lewis goes on to examine the progress of the Toronto Blue Jays, who hired former Beane sideman J.P. Ricciardi as their GM in late 2001, cut the payroll 40 percent, and turned the team's fortunes around -- but in doing so drew the ire of Tweedledumb and Tweedledumber at the Toronto Star
. In a classic ignorance of the concept of sample size, Geoff Baker attacked Ricciardi's moves
as racially motivated. The public took Baker to task for what the National Post
called "a smear job," and Jays' players such as Carlos Delgado came to the organization's defense. Hey, you'd be glad to get rid of Raul Mondesi, too.
Meanwhile, the Star
's Richard Griffin, a frequent target on Baseball Primer
, showed his misunderstanding of baseball history: "... Ricciardi along with Billy Beane and other new-wavers believe in building offense through patience at the plate and taking no chances on the bases. That's pre-WWII style of play. Under those criteria, Jackie Robinson could not have played in the majors." Ugh. Never mind that Robinson's high on-base percentage, plate discipline, power and undervaluing in the eyes of the pre-integration Club would have made him a prime target for Beane and his disciples. As Lewis writes, "One way of looking at the revolution in baseball management is as a search for the new Jackie Robinsons: players who, for one irrational reason or another, often because of their appearance, have been maligned and underestimated by the market."
The lesson Lewis takes from the Moneyball
aftermath is that "if you look long enough for an argument against reason, you will find it." It's a bittersweet coda, and while the article is satisfying from a folding-metal-chair-swinging standpoint (the Ringolsby stuff
is a great below-the-belt-buckle swing), one can't help but wish Lewis had followed up some of the more positive angles of the book, such as the increased popularity of the stathead approach among fans and writers, or the progress of the seven
first-rounders the A's drafted in 2002. In the interest of doing just that, I pulled some quick stats together:
Hitter-'03 age Team-Level PA AVG OBP SLG HR
Jeremy Brown-23 Midland-AA 378 .275 .388 .391 5
Nick Swisher-22 Modesto-A+ 237 .296 .418 .550 10
Midland-AA 336 .230 .324 .380 5
Mark Teahen-22 Modesto-A+ 530 .283 .377 .380 3
John Mccurdy-22 Kane County-A 571 .274 .331 .365 4
Pitcher-'03 age Team-Level IP ERA K/9 K/W
Ben Fritz-22 Modesto-A+ 77 4.91 9.0 2.3
Steve Obenchain-22 Modesto-A+ 44 5.15 3.9 1.0
Kane County-A 49 2.57 5.5 2.3
Joe Blanton-22 Midland-AA 36 1.26 7.6 4.3
Kane County-A 133 2.57 9.7 7.6
Without delving too deeply, that doesn't look too bad for seven guys with two years' experience in pro ball. All of them have progressed past the rookie and low-A levels, four of them spent time in high-A, and three of them reached AA. Swisher struggled at Midland and Obenchain at Modesto, but only McCurdy's performance in Kane County looks like a disappointment at this stage. All of the other hitters have shown the appropriate plate discipline and strike zone judgment, though Swisher seems to be the only one whose power is developing. Time and Billy Beane are still on their side.
But that's not to say the establishment can't look at that tall glass as half-empty. Discussing the Dodgers' hiring of Paul DePodesta, Baseball America
writer Jim Callis takes the A's draft to task by comparing it to the Dodgers' recent track record:
DePodesta comes from Oakland, where he was the top assistant to Billy Beane, who presides over the draft with a heavier hand than most GMs. In the last two years, the Athletics have had 28 picks in the first 10 rounds and spent all of them on college players. They haven't selected a high schooler before the 19th round.
[Dodger scouting director Logan] White, an Orioles crosschecker before coming to Los Angeles in December 2001, was allowed a free rein with the draft by former Dodgers GM Dan Evans. In his first two drafts for the club, he has had 22 choices in the first 10 rounds and used 16 of them on high school players. White hasn't tabbed a four-year college player before the seventh round.
...Based on the initial returns from their clubs' 2002 and 2003 drafts, DePodesta could learn a lot from White. No one wrote a fawning best-seller about how the Dodgers built their team and revolutionized the draft, but they have outdrafted the A's the last two years.
Before anyone points out the first half of the word "Moneyball," consider that Oakland spent roughly $14 million on those two drafts, compared to $11 million for Los Angeles.
Never mind the fact that two years is an awfully short time frame to exalt or dismiss a draft class, or that the Dodger had considerably more money to spend on scouting these players, or that the A's seven first-rounders (due to compensation picks for lost free agents) were able to command signing money that was, if not overwhelming, then at least better than most lower-round players. The old guard's ways must be defended! Did anyone bother to ask how much money the Dodgers spent on scouting those players? My guess is that the difference is more than made up for in the bottom line. But this is still an apples-to-oranges comparison. The A's strategy is a reaction to their limited resources, and the Dodgers' strategy reflects the breadth of theirs; they can afford risks the A's are unwilling to take.
While he does go on to show that DePodesta and White share some common ground in their analytical nature and are apparently off to a good start in their relationship, he cites a Baseball America study he did
showing "that high school picks yield a higher percentage of above-average big league regulars and stars than college choices." What he doesn't mention is that for the time frame of the study (1990-1997), a slightly higher percentage college players reached "regular or better status" overall (8.8 percent to 8.4), and significantly more high school players were complete flops, never even making the majors for a cup of coffee (71.8 percent to 61.1). And if one focuses on the upper rounds, the college edge becomes more clear: 18.1 percent of the 326 college players in rounds 1-3 reached "regular or better" status, while 14.5 percent of the 379 high-schoolers did so (junior college players did badly across the board, but since BA separates them out, I am as well). Overall for the ten rounds studied, the ratio of flops to regular-plusses is 8.5:1 for high-schoolers, 6.9:1 for college players. In that light, the A's strategy of minimizing their risk and maximizing their yield makes perfect sense.
Back to Lewis, I certainly wouldn't put it past such a shrewd observer to be taking good notes on all of this. For all that I know, he's planning a sequel. The Ricciardi and DePodesta regimes, as well as that of Theo Epstein in Boston, should provide ample material once a longer view can be taken. But like those A's draftees, that will have to wait for another day.
Baseball Musings caught my eye with a brief entry
on Expos pitching prospect Chad Bentz, a walking human-interest story in the Jim Abbott
traditon: Bentz was born with fingers only on one hand and has had some success in professional baseball. This winter he made the team's 40-man roster, and he's in camp fighting for the second lefty spot out of the bullpen, up against former Yankee yo-yo Randy Choate, who was traded with Nick Johnson and Juan Rivera for Javier Vazquez.
The reason I bring this up is that I saw Bentz pitch
two and a half years ago for the Vermont Expos against the Brooklyn Cyclones. He was impressive, sliding his glove off onto his non-throwing "hand" after retrieving the ball, then replacing it after delivering the pitch so effortlessly that you barely notice. The Cyclones could barely touch him on the night I watched, though he left the game with a lower back strain. Last year at AA Harrisburg
of the Eastern League, Bentz was 1-4 with a 2.55 ERA and 16 saves in 84.2 innings. He's got some minor control issues, walking 39 men to his 56 strikeouts (6.0 per 9 IP), but he got by somehow, allowing only a .260 average on balls in play. Regarding his impediment, Bentz told the Winnipeg Sun
"I don't consider it a handicap," said Bentz. "If I did, I would get a parking sticker.
"It doesn't prevent me from doing anything. I call it a birthmark. I think it would be boring to catch normally, without switching the glove, but I'm sure it's not normal for anyone else."
In addition to his Abbott-like distinction, Bentz is also trying to become the second Alaska-raised player in the majors. This Juneau Empire piece
adds a hometown touch to the Bentz story for those interested.
Though he's been hampered by a nerve injury
in his foot, one that wasn't properly repaired until the second surgery and shortened his first two pro seasons, Bentz has fared pretty well overall. In his three years of organized ball, he's got a 3.36 ERA in 150 innings with 128 strikeouts (7.7 per 9 IP) against 64 walks. He's reportedly got a 93 MPH fastball and a developing curve and changeup. My guess is that he needs a year in AAA but if he can get ahead of the hitters regularly and cut down his walks, he has a decent shot at the bigs eventually. I'll be pulling for him.
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Those of you wondering about my sparse output lately can look forward to my contributions to a couple of Yankee-related previews over at Alex Belth's Bronx Banter
blog. One is a lengthy profile of Jorge Posada that should run Thursday or Friday; pieces by Steven Goldman (Jason Giambi), Ben Jacobs (Mike Mussina) and Alex and Rich Lederer (Derek Jeter and Bernie Wiliams) have already run and are worth checking out for their quality and variety. Another is a roundtable with various bloggers and writers about the Yankees in general, for which I filled out a long questionnaire. I'll be elaborating on my own takes on the topics discussed there once the roundtable has run.