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March 30, 2012

Pebble Hunting

Moneyball: The Prequel

by Sam Miller

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I spend a lot of time going through archives, and any time spent in archives inevitably leads to more time in archives, because an awful lot of things found in archives seem ironic or significant in retrospect. Like this:

That’s from 1983, and coming across it by accident was like picking up a piece of litter on the ground and discovering that it’s a discarded love letter written 40 years ago by my dad to my mom. That headline is from 14 years before Billy Beane became the A’s general manager, three years before Tony LaRussa became their manager, and the first year that Sandy Alderson was their GM. It’s also a kind of a prequel to Moneyball, with some of the same themes but a different execution, more slapstick and a very different outcome.

As the story starts, Steve Boros is hired to be the A’s manager. He’s a brainy type who studied literature at the University of Michigan and is considered, if anything, too nice for Major League Baseball. During his job interview, the first question he asks is reportedly whether he’ll have access to computers. Oakland’s answer is “yes,” and Oakland’s other answer is “you’re hired.”

Plot point 1: Stirrings of success

The Associated Press:

Steve Boros played “computer baseball” against the Detroit Tigers, and it paid off in big numbers for the Oakland A’s.

“We thought maybe the pressure of batting cleanup was getting to him,” said Boros of Murphy, who was hitting only .172 and had driven in only eight runs going into Thursday’s game.

“However, I went back to my room and looked at my computer readouts and saw that Murphy had gone 4 for 9 against Petry while batting fourth last year. So I decided to leave him right there. I’m glad I did.”

Plot point 2: World takes notice. Look at this thing disrupting the system. Newspaper graphics.

Los Angeles Times:

The A’s have begun to extensively use an Apple II computer to help formulate managerial and management strategy this season. Boros has instant access to an extraordinary amount of statistical information about the A’s, their opponents and the A’s minor league prospects.

Plot point 3: The establishment strikes back.

 

The Evening Independent:

“I’d hate to run a ballclub with a computer,” (says Red Sox manager Ralph Houk), rolling his chaw of tobacco around in his mouth. “When you’ve been around, you know who can hit and who can pitch.”

Plot point 4: Success fades.

The Associated Press:

"There was a feeling on the part of the front office that in light of the way the club had not only performed but the attitudes and lack of aggressiveness that the players had demonstrated that there was a need for a change in leadership."

Plot point 5: Oh that? That was nothing all along. Montage showing fade to obscurity.

The Associated Press:

“Its use last year was overstated,” Boros said. He added that “5 to 10 percent” of his decisions were based on information supplied in computer printouts. The 1983 computer costs, including travel expenses for the A’s employee who operated it, was close to $100,000.

Los Angeles Times:

Eisenhardt remarked that the computer’s information mostly just confirmed what Boros and his coaches already thought.

The New York Times:

Although the computer would be retained, it would no longer be fed data on a daily basis.

Plot point 6: Eventually, unsatisfying partial redemption.

Milwaukee Sentinel: “LaRussa is one of those who manages by computer.”

Philadelphia Inquirer: “He charts his defense with computers.”

Plot point 7: Postscript

Los Angeles Times:

Asked about statistical applications to strategy, he smiled: "I don't want to say I use a computer, because the players don't like that.”

Obviously, the use of computers was nothing like the use of advanced analytics. “Four for nine against Petry while batting cleanup last year” is like the traditionalist’s strawiest straw man about statistics. Still, interesting to see that Oakland—and Sandy Alderson, and poor too-darn-nice Steve Boros—were trying to win on the margins two decades before Ricardo Rincon. If you're interested in more about the experiment with computers, a blog called Misc. Baseball actually wrote beautifully about this three years ago, with excerpts from a whole different set of archives.

Sam Miller is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Sam's other articles. You can contact Sam by clicking here

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