erik lundegaard

Tuesday September 27, 2011

Moneyball: Revisited

This past week, for obvious reasons, I've been reading Michael Lewis's  “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” for the first time since I reviewed it for The Seattle Times back in 2003

Being a fan of Bill James, who, in the 1980s and '90s, revolutionized the way we looked at baseball statistics, I never doubted the efficacy of what Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane, the first Jamesian in a Major League Baseball front office, was doing. I.e.,:

  • "Moneyball" by Michael LewisTo compete in an unfair game, in which your opponent has three times your payroll (now: five times your payroll), you have to find what is undervalued and buy it, and what is overvalued and sell it.
  • What was undervalued, in 2002, was on-base percentage, which is a more reliable measure of a hitter's potential to score runs, and thus help win games, than batting average, the measure of hitting prowess for most of baseball history.
  • The plate discipline necessary to create a high on-base percentage was a less teachable trait than people believed. At the same time, it was translatable from the college to the professional level: a guy with a high OBP in college would tend to have a high OBP in the Majors. Thus college-level players with high OBPs were players worth drafting.

Since 2003, whenever anyone's disparaged “Moneyball” and Beane, and it's happened a lot (here, for example), I've defended. If the Oakland A's were having a hard time of it recently, I argued, it's not because the concepts of “Moneyball” failed; it's because they succeeded all too well and were adopted by other, richer GMs, such as Brian Cashman of the much-hated New York Yankees, who made OBP his touchstone, too. That particular market inefficiency, which Beane had exploited for years, had corrected itself. Thanks in large part to Michael Lewis's book.

*  *  *

But the Jamesian stuff is only one aspect of the philosophy conflated into the term “Moneyball.” Beane also attempted to upend long-standing baseball traditions because of his own sad experience with the national pastime.

In 1980, he had been a prized, five-tool, high school player, a first-round draft pick with a “good baseball body” who never quite panned out, even as less-talented but gung-ho teammates such as Lenny Dykstra became stars. From this, Beane, the GM, concluded the following:

  • Scouts are overvalued.
  • Body type doesn't matter. (“We're not selling jeans.”)
  • High school players, particularly pitchers, aren't worth a first-round draft pick.

Basically he never wanted to draft himself.

Reading in 2003, a part of my brain went, “Wait. Ken Griffey, Jr. and Alex Rodriguez were drafted out of high school.” But such thoughts were pushed aside as Michael Lewis's narrative propeled me along.

Re-reading in 2011, these thoughts weren't pushed aside.

There's a big set piece in the book, the June 2002 draft, and reading it in 2003 one accepted Lewis's interpretations of Beane's assumptions because the drafted names were just that: names. They meant nothing. Now they do ... or don't. Now they're superstars ... or not.

This, for example, was Billy Beane's wish-list for the 2002 draft:

  • Jeremy Guthrie
  • Joe Blanton
  • Jeff Francis
  • Luke Hagerty
  • Ben Fritz
  • Robert Brownlie
  • Stephen Obenchain
  • Bill Murphy
  • Nick Swisher
  • Russ Adams
  • Khalil Greene
  • John McCurdy
  • Mark Teahan
  • Jeremy Brown
  • Steve Stanley
  • John Baker
  • Mark Kiger
  • Brian Stavisky
  • Shaun Larkin
  • Brant Colamarino

Just names back then. Now they have numbers, too.

Nick Swisher was Beane's baby, and he took him with the 16th overall pick, and Swisher has panned out more or less: first for the Oakland A's, then for the Chicago White Sox, and now, most famously (and ironically), with the New York Yankees. His career batting average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage are: .254/.360/.467. Not stellar but pretty good.

Meanwhile, Prince Fielder, who was disparaged in the book as “too fat even for the Oakland A's,” and was picked 7th overall by the Milwaukee Brewers (saps!), is having a better career: .281/.388/.537. He's a star. Swisher's a character but he's not a star.

Obviously the A's, with their 16th pick, couldn't have chosen Fielder; but here's the thing: they wouldn't have chosen him anyway. He was a high school player. And that was too close to Beane's own experience.

How about the player who went after Swisher? The 17th overall pick belonged to the Philadelphia Phillies who chose, yep, a high school pitcher (saps!), named Cole Hamels, who, after making the bigs in 2006, has gone 74-54, with a 3.54 ERA and a 3.75 K/BB ratio.

I don't doubt the efficacy of the basic Bill James lessons from “Moneyball.” But, re-reading, I'm beginning to doubt the efficacy of the lessons Billy Beane culled from his own sad experience with the national pastime. Maybe scouts are more necessary than he thinks. Maybe high school players should be considered in the first round.

*  *  *

Let's check.

In the five years after the “Moneyball” amateur draft, from 2003 to 2007, 189 players were chosen in the first round of the draft. Of those 189, 85 were high school players. Of those 85, eight have become Major League All-Stars, including current NL MVP candidate Justin Upton, current NL Cy Young candidate Clayton Kershaw, and Pittsburgh Pirates center fielder Andrew McCutchen.

Of the remaining 104 first-round draft picks, all out of college, 17 have become All-Stars, including current AL Cy Young candidate Justin Verlander, current NL MVP candidate Ryan Braun, and former Cy Young award winner Tim Lincecum.

The odds of drafting a future All-Star are greater with college players, at least in this small sample size, 16 percent to nine percent; but given the chance on a Justin Upton or Clayton Kershaw, not to mention a Ken Griffey, Jr. or Alex Rodriguez, why not take it? Why ask to see the B.A.?

The A's were one of only two teams—the White Sox were the other—who didn't draft a high school player in the first round during these five years. Here's who Beane chose instead:

Only the three hyperlinked names made it to the bigs. Of those three, none has a career OBP above .325.

*  *  *

So is Billy Beane misreading the lessons of his own life? If so, he wouldn't be the first.

What was the problem with Beane as a young player? Was it his body type? His five-tool talent? The fact that he was merely a high school player? Not really. The real problem, delineated by Lewis but subsequently ignored by Lewis for the larger narrative, was his personality, which didn't handle failure well. He obsessed over it. He began assuming he wouldn't succeed and wound up not succeeding. Guys like Lenny Dykstra? They never doubted. (Which ultimately, after baseball, brought Dykstra down, too.)

And for those with doubt? There are coaches like Ron Washington, “Wash” to his friends, who, during the 2002 season, took a former catcher, Scott Hatteburg, necessary because he came cheap and had a talent for getting on base, and turned him into a “pickin' machine” at first base. Wash is now manager of the Texas Rangers, who won the American League penannt last year, something Beane's A's (and my sad, sad Seattle Mariners, for that matter) have yet to do.

The scouts in the book come off as daft oldsters who pay attention to the inconsequential (“a good baseball face”) and miss the bigger picture (the Jamesian stats). But maybe sabermetricians like Beane and his assistant, Paul DePodestra, are missing the bigger picture, too. Maybe the point isn't upending conventional wisdom so much as balancing it with their own unconventional wisdom. Maybe the point, as in so many areas of baseball, is simply balance.

Baseball cards for Billy Beane and Jeremy Brown

*  *  *

There are a lot of ifs associated with “Moneyball.” If only Tim Hudson had pitched up to his usual standards in the 2002 ALDS and the A's had gotten past the Minnesota Twins and eventually to the World Series. If only Jeremy Brown, the fat Alabama catcher with the gaudy OBP drafted in the first round by Beane, had panned out. (Jerry Crasnick suggests the attention from “Moneyball” did him no favors, but, to his credit, he did retire with a .864 OPS.) If only Brian Cashman was like most Yankees fans and didn't read.

The book feels poignant now. It's full of regrets.

Does Michael Lewis have any? Billy Beane helped change the game but so did Lewis. His best-seller stabilized the market inefficiencies Beane had been exploiting. It was as if Lewis had shown David's playbook to Goliath. When the two returned to the field, Goliath had a slingshot of his own.

More, does Lewis regret the following analogy? It is, without a doubt, the most shocking thing about reading “Moneyball” in 2011 rather than 2003.

First, a little backstory. Baseball is often about luck. A pitcher may make a good pitch, a batter may mistakenly swing at that pitcher's good pitch, but it still might result in a bloop single to left. Old baseball hands say such luck evens out over a season, and a career, and maybe it does, but the stats people would still like to remove it from the equation. They would like to get a truer picture of past performance and thus a better indicator of future performance. They would like to minimize risk.

In Chapter Six of “Moneyball,” Lewis writes about a company that is doing just that: AVM Systems, run by two former Chicago stockbrokers, Ken Mauriello and Jack Ambruster. These guys take a baseball field, divide it up into thousands of mini-grids, then track every baseball hit during a game by velocity and trajectory and landing point (point #643, for example), and place value judgements on every action. Was the hit a true hit? Was the right fielder properly positioned? Would an average right fielder have caught the ball? Etc.

These guys are part of Moneyball strategy, too, and Lewis writes about them in glowing terms. He even compares what they do—the cutting up a baseball field into thousands of meaningless fragements—to what was then a very successful, very lucrative, and virtually riskless area of Wall Street: derivatives. The cutting up of stocks and mortgages into meaningless fragments, and bundled together to minimize risk.

The kinds of people who were transforming baseball for the better, in other words, were thus just like the kinds of people who had transformed Wall Street for the better. Both were minimizing, or, in Lewis's words, “more accurately” pricing, risk. He writes:

The chief economic consequence of the creation of derivative securities was to price risk more accurately, and distribute it more efficiently, than ever before in the long, risk-obsessed history of financial man.

If only that had been the chief economic consequence of the creation of derivative securities.

Posted at 06:56 AM on Tuesday September 27, 2011 in category Books  
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