Moneyball, Ten Years Later

A post on a message board recently reminded me that the Moneyball movie will be emerging from development hell soon. Despite the fact that the book was crucial to the formation my baseball fandom (before reading it, I was more of a casual fan, as opposed to the lifer I am now), I hadn’t read it or even really thought about it in years. It’s not a particularly heavy read, though, so I’ve been reacquainting myself with it over the last few days.

It’s kind of odd, though, reading it this far in retrospect. When the book first came out, it was close enough to the events that were being portrayed that there was still some uncertainty in how things would eventually turn out. It’s hard to criticize, say, the selection of Jeremy Brown back in 2003, because he still has plenty of time to turn himself into a good player, and he would hardly have been the unlikeliest player to ever have a major league career. Now, though, enough time has passed that we can begin to make substantive judgments. The youngest players taken in the “Moneyball draft” are now in their age 27 seasons — if they’re going to become something, they’ll have done it by now. A number of those selections have retired or been forced out of the game.

Michael Lewis’s thesis, in Moneyball, is that pro baseball had become too hidebound and traditionalist, that it was so enamored with its history and its intangibles and its unspoken rules, that a management team that was willing to go against the grain and make decisions based on empirical evidence would have a tremendous competitive advantage, regardless of other factors like payroll. As evidence, he cites the Oakland A’s during the first few years of the last decade, who were able to put together immensely strong teams despite spending as little as a third of some of its competitors on players. The book goes into great detail of how the A’s operated differently from other players… from scouting and the draft (where they shunned high school players and emphasized statistics in order to increase their odds of getting a major league contributor) to game strategy (where they all but eliminated bunting, stealing, and defensive ability in search of superior on-base percentages) to roster construction (where they ruthlessly shuffled around prospects and parts in search of configuration that could win).

The problem is that Lewis overstates his case. He overstates the role of fringey, complementary parts of the team, like Scott Hatteberg and Chad Bradford. They make for a better story, since they were undervalued and the process of digging them up is more interesting, but they’re not the reason those teams were so good. Finding those kinds of guys does help, but you can’t win a pennant on Scott Hattebergs alone. The core of the 2002 A’s — Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, Miguel Tejada, and Eric Chavez — is touched on only in passing in the book, but they’re the primary reasons the A’s won so much for so little, not saving a few bucks on Dave Justice or robbing Kenny Williams of half a season of Ray Durham. Rather, the A’s won for the same reason most teams that aren’t headquartered in the northeast win: Drafting and developing a collection of young stars, and filling in the holes around them with role-players. Without spending a ton on free agents, this is pretty much the only way to compete in the game of baseball, but you don’t need a book to tell you that.

The draft chapters, unfortunately, are a total disaster, almost painful to read in retrospect. Lewis’s sneering narration that only a fool would draft high schoolers or based on physical skills is both entirely incorrect and a big part of the reason the book was so controversial back in the day. It’s extremely telling that of all the players the A’s took in the 2002 draft, the only ones who panned out were players every team knew were good prospects, guys like Nick Swisher and Joe Blanton, while their undervalued, empirical, stat-based selections flopped, almost to a man. There’s a lesson here, too: While baseball may be more of a game of skill than an athletic event, athleticism still matters. It doesn’t matter if you’ve got the skills to be a great hitter if you don’t have the physical ability to exploit it. Of all the areas of running a professional baseball team, amateur scouting is an area where traditional scouting is still at its most valid — for a poor team to compete, they need superstars, and the only way for a poor team to find superstars is to draft and develop them. That means taking chances on guys with superstar potential, even if they’re higher-risk than a college player whose ceiling is mediocre major leaguer.  At one point, Billy Beane advocates taking Jeremy Brown because not one catcher in the draft could hit. He was wrong, though, because the Braves took one in the second round of that very draft — out of high school.

Now, all that said, the book was still a kick in the pants for an industry that needed one very badly. While the book may not be right on every particular (and is generally more interested in fitting events into its narrative than giving good team-building advice), it still makes a compelling case for the value of rationality in the game of baseball — and its lessons are well-learned, as evidenced by the fact that nearly every team has incorporated its innovations. The days of “Stats versus Scouts” are over and done with now, with most teams using both, but we never would have gotten there if a number of GMs, owners, and scouts hadn’t been forced to reconsider a lot of the ways things have always been done. You can blame Moneyball, at least in part, for the correction in the free agent market in recent years — nobody finds Scott Hattebergs lying on the scrap heap anymore. You can also point to it as the reason GMs are so tightfisted with prospects these days — they’ve learned that crusty veteran goodness isn’t so valuable as to trade young, cheap upside for it. I don’t know if the publication of Moneyball is the biggest shock to baseball’s system in the last ten years (I might put my money on the steroid policy)… but it’s up there. And if you’re writing a nonfiction book, that’s about the best you can hope for, isn’t it?

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