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J.J. Cooper: Looking Back At 'Moneyball' 20 Years Later



“Moneyball” is rightfully considered one of the most significant baseball books of all time.

Michael Lewis’ look at the 2002 Athletics managed to turn complex ideas into an engaging narrative. In doing so, the book helped birth a new generation of baseball executives.

It played a large role in shaping baseball in the 21st century. Before that, baseball knowledge was considered something largely gained from experience. Because scouting, player development and roster construction was more art than science, it was largely impenetrable to people, including team owners, without a long apprenticeship in the sport, either as a player, coach or scout.

“Moneyball” allowed owners to view baseball like they did their other businesses. It ushered in an era of assigning players value much like a balance sheet. Some were undervalued in the marketplace. Others were overvalued. 

It brought an economist’s view into the game. That led to the current wave of Ivy League front office executives, many of whom did not play, coach or scout. And not coincidentally, they generally speak in a language that is more understandable for MLB owners.

It’s hard to think of a book more equipped to change how MLB owners operate. It was a business book wrapped around a baseball story, written in a way business owners could understand and embrace.

For that alone, “Moneyball” deserves a place on the shelf of the most consequential and influential baseball books of all time. Not every one of the trends it helped spark has necessarily been good for the game, but the book still has been incredibly important.

It was the rare baseball book that broke through to the masses. Later, it served as the basis for one of the better baseball movies.

But Oakland’s quest to use data to cheaply replace Jason Giambi and find relief help was only half of the book. And if you re-read “Moneyball” now, the other half can be cringeworthy at times.

This year is the 20-year anniversary of the “Moneyball” draft of 2002, which means enough time has passed to give a full accounting of that draft class. Zack Greinke, Joey Votto and Charlie Morton are among the very few players from this draft class who are still active. Even many of that draft’s successful players have been retired for years.

But when “Moneyball” was revolutionizing baseball in 2003, ’04 and ’05, the results of that draft were still far off in the future. When everyone in baseball was debating the merits of scouts versus stats, the book’s passages about out-of-touch scouts and the Athletics adopting a data-driven draft approach were speculating about what was, at the time, an unknowable future. Re-read the passages that detail the draft strategy used by general manager Billy Beane and assistant GM Paul DePodesta now and they hit differently.

“Billy and Paul no longer think of the draft as a crapshoot. They are a pair of card counters at the blackjack tables; they think they have found a way to turn the odds inside the casino against the owner. They think they can take over the casino. Every time a team rolls the dice on a high school player, Billy punches his first in the air. When the Milwaukee Brewers select Prince Fielder with the eighth pick, the (draft) room explodes.”

At the time that was written, no one knew that Fielder would become a six-time all-star who hit 319 homers. But the entire foundational idea of that “Moneyball” draft was that the A’s knew better. They had figured out a way to outsmart the industry. And with seven picks in the top 39, the A’s had the chance to revolutionize their team and the game. What they learned instead is that the draft is still a crapshoot.

Thanks to Lewis’ access, we have a list of how Oakland’s board lined up. According to “Moneyball,” the Athletics’ “price is no object” board for the 2002 draft had 20 names on it. Being a pref list where signability was not a concern, it included players whom the A’s wouldn’t draft because of asking price, as well as players they expected to be gone before they picked for the first time at No. 16.

The Baseball America draft board, which attempts to reflect industry consensus, will stand in as a proxy for conventional wisdom.

There were five players on both the Athletics’ top 20 and the BA top 20: pitchers Bobby Brownlie, Jeremy Guthrie, Jeff Francis and Joe Blanton and shortstop Russ Adams.

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With the benefit of hindsight, Oakland’s “renegade” list fares incredibly poorly.

Of the 15 unique players on the Athletics’ list, three produced at least 1 WAR in MLB: outfielder Nick Swisher (No. 34 on the BA board), Khalil Greene (35) and Mark Teahen (134). Those 15 players combined to produce 33.6 WAR. Of the 11 players who ranked outside of the BA Top 50 who were on Oakland’s top 20, Teahen is the only one to produce at least 1 WAR.

Josh McCurdy (“might be the next Jeff Kent”), Brant Colamarino (“might be the best hitter in the country”), Ben Fritz (“third best righthander in the class”), Mark Kiger (“a machine for wearing down pitchers”) and Jeremy Brown (“we’re not selling jeans here”) all ended up being much closer to the industry’s evaluation of them than how the A’s viewed them at the time.

What about those 15 players who were coveted by “crusty scouts” from other teams? That list included Greinke, Cole Hamels, Scott Kazmir, Denard Span and B.J. Upton. Combined they have produced 211 WAR.

Yes, it is ironic that the 2002 draft would go on to be one of the best first rounds for high school pitchers, the draft demographic “Moneyball” most significantly poo-pooed.

Four of the players ranked in the BA top 20 failed to reach MLB. Another four failed to produce 1 WAR. One did not sign. Seven produced 10 WAR. Three produced 25 WAR.

Of Oakland’s top 20, 11 failed to reach MLB. Three more failed to produce 1 WAR. Three produced 10 WAR. None produced 25 WAR.

“Moneyball” was many things, but when it came to revolutionizing the draft, it mostly missed the mark. In 2002, the A’s had a kernel of an idea. College statistics were more useful than many teams realized at that time, but it took a few years, new metrics and further adjustments to figure out how to marry those stats and traditional scouting in a way that actually paid off.

We just didn’t have the data in 2002 to know that yet.

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