A's Have Struggled To Live Up To 'Moneyball's' Promises
OAKLAND—It seems so long ago, when a book managed to capture the conversation around baseball and captivate readers who yearned for something new in a sport filled with tradition.
That was 2003, when "Moneyball" hit the bookstores and became the primary topic of discussion around the game. In the brashest of terms, the book told the story of Athletics general manager Billy Beane and his staffers, and how their collective brilliance allowed the cash-starved A's, who were on the way to their fourth straight playoff appearance, to compete in the big-money world of major league baseball.
No book so rocked the game since Jim Bouton's "Ball Four," which in 1970 told about the real lives of players. "Moneyball" was very different. It directly confronted the baseball establishment, showing how the smart guys were about to take over the game from those old curmudgeons; how objective analysis was superior to the subjective opinions of scouts. "Moneyball" did not just challenge the traditional ways of thinking, it ridiculed them.
Publicly and privately, industry officials reviled the work. ESPN analyst Joe Morgan became almost a spokesman for the establishment, criticizing the book and accusing Beane of doing the writing. Of course, Beane did not pen the book. That was done by Michael Lewis, a business writer from Berkeley, a BART ride away from the Oakland Coliseum.
Years passed and the discussion faded. Baseball wrestled with bigger matters as steroid revelations displaced just about every other subject. But "Moneyball" was not about to be forgotten. The book that shook baseball is now a major motion picture, starring Brad Pitt as Beane, with the same flipped hair and crinkly smile, looking so much alike they could be confused in a dark corner of a clubhouse.
The movie tells a fictionalized story of a plucky band of innovative daredevils who found a new path to victory. And while the throngs see the movie, the A's languish in the American League West, out of the race since the all-star break. Many of the concepts espoused in "Moneyball" have been abandoned. The once-heralded draft picks and trade acquisitions have floundered.
This was not the way it was supposed to be
The Org Of The Future
The book told the compelling story of Beane and then-assistant GM Paul DePodesta searching out a new way to compete. It was David and Goliath, "Hidalgo" and "The Bad News Bears" all combined into one kind of, sort of, almost true story. The A's provided Lewis with enormous access to the inside workings of the team. He spent much of the 2002 season with the A's, an organization that had reached the playoffs the previous two seasons despite small payrolls. In Northern California, at least, Beane had already been draped with that dreaded genius tag.
The book was not just about how the Athletics had succeeded: it was a dictum on how the organization would continue to excel by using new tactics in the draft. According to the book, the A's had developed a new way to evaluate talent. With computers and statistical analysis, they wouldn't have to rely on those stodgy old scouts with their individualistic and inconsistent evaluations. Amateur talent and the draft had always been a haphazard, subjective process. Now it could become objective and consistent.
From the beginning, this was more about Lewis's vision of the A's than reality. Beane was never so arrogant that he believed scouts were outmoded and worthless. He had been an advance scout himself, with a terrific eye for talent. He knew there were things scouts could know that computers could not. He had maintained a scouting corps that included both veteran and young scouts under the guidance of former scouting director Grady Fuson, who had built a reputation of his own as a draft guru after such selections as Eric Chavez, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Tim Hudson. Yet Lewis presents Fuson as the foil—and fool—of the book.
Beane and Fuson did have a falling out of sorts at the 2001 draft. Moments before the draft, Beane screamed a profanity and threw a chair against a wall as he looked at Fuson's draft board. Fuson wanted a high school pitcher, either Jeremy Bonderman or Cole Hamels, and prep pitchers did not fit the Moneyball plan. Fuson liked them enough to deviate from the plan, and he selected Bonderman. He left the A's after the season and was an assistant GM with the Rangers when Lewis received access to the Athletics' inner sanctum in 2002.
After Fuson's departure, the A's embraced advanced metrics even more. Beane knew how inexact scouting and development were—he had been a touted first-round draft pick of the Mets, only to stumble through a mediocre career as a backup outfielder—and if all these numbers could make the process more scientific, then bring on the numbers. The A's plan was always about finding inefficiencies in the system. Baseball organizations usually play follow-the-leader, and Beane sought to be the leader, not the follower. A big part of this was the emphasis of on-base percentage, and it did work, to some degree, at the big league level. In post-expansion, steroid-fueled baseball, finding hitters who could take pitches would wear down a pitching staff and lead to short starts and reliance on bullpens. As more and more strike throwers came into the league, the philosophy became less effective.
For scouting amateurs, it never paid the dividends predicted in the book. But Lewis saw only the first year of the new era in A's scouting, and he told the story with a brash "we're smarter than you" perspective. Baseball has a tradition of humility, almost to the point of superstition, and that carries into the front offices. And there was absolutely nothing humble about "Moneyball." So before the A's scout-by-the-numbers plan even had time to evolve, it was presented in a national best-seller as the future of baseball. Lewis placed Beane in the bizarre position of being labeled a genius for a plan that had not even been tested. Eight seasons later, as the movie hits theaters, how has the whole Magnificent Athletics Plan For the Future worked out?
Little short of a disaster.
That 2002 draft was to be the beginning of a rebuild. The A's had seven of the first 39 picks because of free-agent departures, and a big draft could mean a big future. With Fuson gone to Texas, this was the year Beane instituted a new way of thinking. Lewis reported how Beane and DePodesta took over the 2002 draft meeting, and DePodesta put up a list of targeted players, many of whom were not highly valued by traditional scouting standards: Jeremy Brown, Stephen Stanley, John Baker, Mark Kiger, Shaun Larkin, John McCurdy, Brant Colamarino and Brian Stavisky.
Don't bother to check the all-star rosters. Only Baker has had significant big league time, as a backup catcher. The '02 draft did produce Nick Swisher, Mark Teahen and Joe Blanton among the A's first seven picks, but Swisher and Blanton were both consensus first-round talents. Teahen has survived in the majors mostly as a backup.
Oakland did another by-the-numbers draft in '03, selecting pitcher Brad Sullivan and third baseman Brian Snyder in the first round. Sullivan was a top-ranked pitcher who was coming back from injuries, and that gamble did not work out. Snyder went the way of the other Moneyballers. Second-rounder Andre Ethier became a star after being traded to the Dodgers, but the athletic outfielder does not fit the Moneyball prototype.
A Slumping System
The A's would reach the playoffs again, in 2006, making it to the American League Championship Series before losing to the Tigers. Beane then began a rebuilding effort that has moved in fits and starts but never really come together. The once-prized minor league system has fallen into mediocrity, still recovering from the bad drafts of the Moneyball era and numerous trades that failed to produce.
Beane took over as GM in 1997, building on a firm foundation left by Sandy Alderson. Beane fostered an atmosphere of mutual respect around the organization that led to shared success among scouts and instructors, and the A's were Baseball America's Organization of the Year in 1999. After Fuson's departure and the beginning of the Moneyball era, things started to change. The once single-minded Beane emerged as a celebrity, serving on corporate boards, becoming a highly paid motivational speaker and pursuing an interest in international soccer. DePodesta left before the 2004 season to become GM of the Dodgers. He lasted two years, caught on with the Padres and this year joined Alderson and the Mets as vice president of scouting and player development.
The A's quietly stepped away from the mantras of "Moneyball." By 2006, they used their top pick on high school pitcher Trevor Cahill, a refutation of the principles that dictated that premium picks should not be squandered on prep pitchers. Fuson returned to the organization before the 2010 season as a special adviser.
The draft strategy that Lewis touted simply did not work. The A's elevated on-base ability to the level of the most coveted tool, and the organization found itself with one-dimensional players who could not find positions or excel in the majors, leaving the A's short on talent and struggling at the big league level. For a small-market team, drafting and development is critical, and the draft had failed the Athletics.
So as "Moneyball," the movie, hits theaters, Moneyball, the philosophy, collapses into rubble, and "Moneyball," the book, begins to look like a literary antiquity.
Old hands will call this the wages of hubris and mutter about the Baseball Gods. In retrospect, it was preposterous to boast about the genius of a plan that had never been tested. Viewing the book now, eight years after publication, is like walking through a museum of the obsolete. Not only does Lewis gloat about the inevitable success of the A's new approach, but he extols the virtues of derivatives and Wall Street brilliance. That does not carry the same luster in 2011.
One irony of Lewis's tirade against the old guard is that other teams have sought (and found) different ways to succeed in the wake of "Moneyball." One American League scout said, "The book made you realize there are other ways to think. It made people look at things from a different perspective." The Twins and Rays, to cite two examples, have put together sustained success while battling payroll issues. Most teams now use sabermetrics both in scouting and to prepare for upcoming opponents. Teams are always looking for an edge, and "Moneyball" made creative thinking more acceptable.
So "Moneyball" did change baseball, just not in the ways Lewis predicted. Scouts remain highly respected, and most teams (even the A's) seek athletes over statisticians' delights. While other teams have found creative ways to thrive, the A's experimented and failed. This would not have been such a big deal had there not been a national bestseller trumpeting its inevitable success. With the movie shining the spotlight again, the oddest twist of fate may be that other teams benefited far more from "Moneyball" than the A's.
Any book that attempts to predict the future in some way will look a little dated in hindsight, but when it comes to "Moneyball" and the draft, there were some parts of the book that look especially bad eight years later. Here are some draft snippets from the book
P.19 — "Grady (Fuson) and his scouts had ignored Paul (DePodesta) when he said they ought to check out a college pitcher named Kirk Saarloos.
P.21 — "The Creature (David Beck) was the first thing to come out of Paul's computer that the A's scouting department signed."
P.31 — "I hate to say it, but if you want to talk about another Jason Giambi, this guy (Teahen) could be it."
P.35 — "Billy takes a step toward the Big Board, sticks Brown's name onto the top of the Big Board's second column, the seventeenth slot, and says, 'All right, push him down, guys.' Jeremy Brown is now a high second-round, or even low first-round, draft pick."
P.40 — "'They are the eight guys we definitely want. And we want all eight of these guys' He reads a list:
P.109 — "And that was a problem: picking a high school pitcher like Kazmir is exactly the sort of not-so-bright decision both franchises (Detroit Tigers, Milwaukee Brewers) has a knack for making.
P.109 — "Here's an astonishing fact: Prince Fielder is too fat even for the OaklandA's."
P.113 — "McCurdy was an ugly-looking fielder with the highest slugging percentage in the country. They'd turn him into a second baseman, where his fielding would matter less. Billy thought McCurdy might be the next Jeff Kent."
P.114 — "Benjamin Fritz, right-handed pitcher from Fresno State. Third best right-handed pitcher in the draft, in the opinion of Paul DePodesta's computer."
P.116 — "'No one else in baseball will agree,' (DePodesta) says, 'but Colamarino might be the best hitter in the country.'"