March 4, 2008
Is Moneyball Dead?
The news that Jeremy Brown was hanging up his spikes due to "personal issues" made more of a stir last week than you'd expect from the retirement of a 28-year-old catcher who's spent the last two years in Triple-A. Our prospects expert, Kevin Goldstein, gave Brown an extremely evenhanded send-off over on Unfiltered; others have been less charitable, invoking imaginary choruses of scouts cheering the end of Brown's career. At least, I hope the cheering is imaginary: it'd take a Grinch-sized heart to rejoice in the end of someone's big-league dreams, unless their name is, say, Ben Christensen. The reason that Brown is the focus of such attention and schadenfreude is because the A's drafted him in the first round of the 2002 draft-an overdraft which, by itself, wouldn't be that noteworthy-and because Michael Lewis wrote a best-selling book which hailed Brown's selection as the bellwether of a new way of doing business, which the author dubbed "Moneyball" in the book of the same name. Apparently, those celebrating Brown's retirement are marking the occasion as the death of Moneyball acumen-a festive wake, with dancing and ironic toasts.
Now, Brown never asked to be the Luke Skywalker of a sabermetric revolution. He was a guy who was already going to face a fair amount of hazing in the minors because his body was not quite one that Calvin Klein would put on a billboard. After Moneyball was published, not only was he much more famous than the average 35th overall pick, the negative aspects of his physique were cataloged in the book for ease of heckling. Saddling him with the additional burden of representing the A's organizational philosophy-as interpreted by Lewis-was never particularly fair. However, five years removed from the book's initial release, it is a reasonable time to look back at the 2002 draft, and at the A's organization in general, and ask: is Moneyball really dead?
History hasn't been particularly kind to the book. The organization's failure to reach the World Series, and the substantial fall-off suffered after back-to-back 100-win seasons in 2001/2002, have certainly diminished Oakland's mystique. Also, some of the players and executives derided in Moneyball have flourished, while many of the players Lewis touted have faltered. While Billy Beane's Athletics only won one Division Series over a seven-year stretch of contention, one of his purportedly clueless foils in the book, Kenny Williams, got a World Series ring in 2005. While plus-sized A's draftees like Brown were mired in the minors in 2007, Prince Fielder, who Lewis claimed was "too fat even for the Oakland A's" was hitting 50 homers for the Brewers, and other high school players that Lewis scoffed it was a "not-so-bright" decision to draft, like Scott Kazmir, have become established major league pitchers. These days, it's a little hard to laugh along with Lewis about the absurdity of Steve Phillips selecting Kazmir, seeing that Kazmir led the AL in strikeouts last season.
However, when criticizing the 2002 draft, it's important to remember that what the A's thought of Fielder or Kazmir is largely irrelevant. You can't fault the A's for not taking them-or B.J. Upton, or Zack Greinke, or Jeff Francis, or Jeremy Hermida, or Khalil Greene-because none of those players was available when they made their first selection, with the 16th overall pick. Whether the Oakland front office thought those grapes were sour-and it's unclear whether the insulting comments about these guys are Beane's opinions or Lewis's-doesn't matter because they couldn't reach them. Taking things a step further, I think everyone can agree that the A's first two picks of the draft, Nick Swisher at 16 and Joe Blanton at 24, were good picks who proved to be major league regulars within three years of being drafted. It's hard, then, to take Oakland to task for not drafting Cole Hamels, James Loney, Jeff Francoeur, or Matt Cain, since those guys would have come at the expense of Swisher or Blanton.
Claiming, as some have, that the A's went 4-for-7 on their first-round picks, while the rest of the league was 20 for 32 (this "critique" excludes the last two picks of the round, ending it right after the A's got Mark Teahen) is also a bit ridiculous. First of all, it ignores the fact that high draft picks (particularly the top ten overall) are much more likely to make it to the majors than the players picked later in the first round. Most of the A's selections were in the bottom third of the round's 41 picks. Second, it puts all prospects who've reached the majors for any amount of time on equal footing-counting Brown's ten career at-bats, Drew Meyer's 14, and Dan Meyer's and Bryan Bullington's respective 18 1/3 innings as successes. Impose some minimums on the total major league playing time needed to consider a prospect successful (I've arbitrarily chosen about a half-season's worth of regular playing tine, 300 PA or 100 IP) and count all the picks, and the A's went 3-for-7 with their first-rounders, while the field was 15 for 34, which is pretty close to even.
That aside, any serious critique of "the Moneyball draft" would have to start with the 26th pick, John McCurdy. Hailed as a Jeff Kent type, McCurdy wasn't what you'd expect in an Oakland draftee-his plate discipline wasn't terribly good, and his on-base percentage was based largely on hit by pitches rather than walks (42 walks and 22 HBP against 460 at-bats in college). He didn't get on base enough in the minors, and his power never developed, either, so he was released before the 2007 season. Right-hander Ben Fritz, selected at 30, was sidelined by injuries, including Tommy John surgery. He's still in the organization, but his velocity hasn't come back to where it was when he was drafted. Those two were full-price flops, signed for roughly what you'd expect at those slots. The next three selections were signed for a savings. Brown (35th overall) got a bonus of $350,000, about a third of what the players selected with the picks before and after him cost. The next two, pitcher Steve Obenchain (37) and Mark Teahen (39), signed for $750,000 and $725,000 respectively, about $150-200K less than what the other players around them at the bottom of the first round could expect.
Teahen's the only one of the three-indeed, the only player in the last 16 picks of the first round-to get significant major league playing time. Obenchain hit the ceiling at Double-A; he split last year between the independents Northern and Frontier leagues. As Kevin mentioned in his Unfiltered piece, Brown showed evidence of a decent bat (posting a .263 EqA in Sacramento last year), but not the defensive acumen to start behind the plate or even join the Fraternal Order of Backup Catchers. It's possible that, if not for the personal problems that drove him to quit, Brown might have found a place in The Show, but it likely wasn't going to be as anything more than a spare part.
The evaluation of the 2002 draft doesn't end with the first round, however. The book presented a list of eight college hitters the team was targeting. Aside from Brown and McCurdy, the list included John Baker, Brant Colamarino, Mark Kiger, Shaun Larkin, Steve Stanley, and Brian Stavisky. The team was able to draft seven of the eight players, missing out only on Larkin, who was picked up by the Cleveland Indians. None of these guys have made it to the majors, and since the youngest of them is entering his age-27 season, we can safely say that they're no longer prospects. Colamarino, who Paul DePodesta claimed in Moneyball was "the best hitter in the draft," spent 2007 in the Texas League, posting a .215 EqA. Aside from the first-rounders we've already discussed, only three of the A's other 2002 draftees have made it to the majors. Put together, pitchers Jared Burton, Shane Komine, and Bill Murphy have fewer than 70 career innings, and Burton and Murphy are no longer with Oakland.
Six players reach the majors from a team's draft, three of them become regulars-those aren't the worst results a team has received from a major league draft. Unlike other professional sports, baseball's draft is a low-yield proposition. However, it is disappointing, mainly because of the breathless way in which Lewis described the draft and the A's preparations for it. It'd be easy to chalk this up to Lewis getting carried away in the moment, but the A's seemed to get just about all of the ballplayers they wanted from the 2002 draft, which made the expectations of a superior haul reasonable.
Since it started to become evident that the 2002 draft wouldn't be the bonanza the book made it out to be, many commentators have pointed to signs that the Athletics have turned away from the "Moneyball philosophy," and become a more orthodox organization again. These critics point to the organization's recent drafting of high school pitchers-described as a major draft-day no-no in the book-as an indication that Moneyball is dead as Dillinger. Adding to that impression is the fact that the team has seemed eager to put some distance between itself and the book. If the A's won't stand up for the philosophy, why should anyone else?
Whether or not one views the Moneyball acumen as being in good or poor health typically depends on what definition of Moneyball one subscribes to. Many people have defined Moneyball based upon specific rules or strategies outlined in the book: "Don't draft high school pitchers," "College players are better than high school players," or, "Get fat guys that walk a lot and hit for power." By each of those rules, Moneyball may not be doing so well. The team's home run power has declined since the book's publication. Where the Moneyball A's seemed indifferent to defense, the acquisition of players like Mark Kotsay showed a renewed interest in glove work.
However, this focus on the specifics seems to put Moneyball's tools ahead of its overall methodology. The idea of the book was that the A's were using performance-based valuation techniques to look for bargains in the baseball talent market. Fat guys who walk weren't just a good source of on-base percentage, but a cheap source, as well. High school pitchers weren't bad so much as being too risky for the price you'd pay them in draft bonuses. And while those were likely the conditions in 2002, if you want to look at baseball as if it was the stock market, you have to keep in mind that markets aren't static. Yesterday's bargain could be bid through the roof tomorrow, and no longer be a good buy. This is particularly likely to happen if someone writes a bestselling book popularizing your methods so that others imitate them. In any case, new bargains would replace the old ones-maybe it's defensive wizards with injury problems this time out.
The fact that the Oakland front office doesn't like the Moneyball tag doesn't mean that the philosophy's dead, either. While Lewis had incredible access to the A's operation, his book was hardly a team-sanctioned public relations brochure. No sooner did Moneyball hit bookstores then the A's front office started to distance itself from it. There was fallout from Beane's trading partners, like Williams, many of whom had been characterized by Lewis as stupid, gullible, and/or ignorant. The book's portrait of Paul DePodesta-who was already a top GM candidate prior to Moneyball's publication-as a man/laptop hybrid did him no favors, as DePodesta went to work for the Dodgers with a Moneyball-branded bullseye on his back. You can't blame the Oakland front office for wanting to define itself rather than being defined by Lewis's book, particularly in light of all the bile that was directed at poor Jeremy Brown.
Rany Jazayerli, MD: Doctoring the Numbers-The Draft. For anyone interested in knowing more about the draft, the good doctor's epic twelve-part series is a must-read, which discusses issues such as high school vs. college, draft bonuses, and the value of each pick.
Nate Silver: Lies, Damned Lies-A Mulligan on Guzman. For anyone who's interested in looking at baseball talent in terms of market values, this article describes the Marginal Value Over Replacement (MORP) statistic, which is featured on the PECOTA player cards, to predict how much salary the player is projected to be worth.