Majoring In Moneyball

Few baseball books have prompted as much discussion in baseball circles in recent years as Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball.”

Lewis, who made his name writing about Wall Street investors, realized another investment game was being played out in baseball, notably by the Athletics. He gained inside access to A’s general manager Billy Beane and got a look at how Beane’s A’s value players differently than other teams.

A quintessential small-market club, the A’s can’t afford superstar talent when they have to compete in an open market for it. Lewis explained how the A’s value players and use them in unconventional ways to maximize their value, all while seeking ways to minimize risk when they invest in a player and still get a good return on their investment.

The bottom line is that the A’s have to find players who can contribute in ways that other organizations don’t value as much. The organization assesses offensive production differently than others, stressing on-base percentage and power, de-emphasizing stolen bases and putting the ball in play. It has engendered an approach to acquiring talent based as much on statistical achievement as on traditional tools, an approach that has gripped some franchises (the Blue Jays and Red Sox, particularly) and galled many traditionalists.

When Nebraska baseball coach Mike Anderson heard about “Moneyball,” he grabbed a copy and devoured it in a short reading. He says in some regards, reading “Moneyball” was almost like reading his own program’s playbook.

“I simply called my assistants and told them, ‘Hey, they do what we do,’ ” says Anderson, who is entering his second year as head coach of the Cornhuskers. “On the offensive side, they look for the same things we look for–getting on base, guys who can hit with power, working the count. It was really interesting. My whole staff read it.”

Of course, the same “Moneyball” debates that continue to rage among scouts and major league officials broke out in the Huskers baseball office. Anderson says while he’s a believer in many of the same offensive principles in the book, his pitching coach and top recruiter, Rob Childress, remains a skeptic. “He’s a traditional guy,” Anderson says with a laugh. “Maybe it’s because he’s the pitching guy and I’m geared toward the offense. But we have two different ways of looking at the game.”

The “Moneyball” debate has raged for months and will continue to be a hot topic at the annual American Baseball Coaches Association convention in San Antonio, where college and amateur coaches from around the country gather each year.

Yet in many ways, “Moneyball” came to college campuses long before the book arrived in stores last spring.

When Boston College coach Pete Hughes read his copy of Lewis’ tome, he had heard plenty of buzz about it. After all, the BC coach had read the Boston papers all winter about the Red Sox trying to lure Beane from Oakland to be their GM, only to settle instead for 29-year-old Theo Epstein. Hughes shrugged at some of the ideas pitched in the book because he realized they were far from revolutionary; his Eagles program already was operating in much the same fashion.

“We parallel what the A’s are doing in many ways,” Hughes says. “We’re not fully funded, so we can’t compete for recruits with pro ball. When I read an excerpt from the book, I said to myself, ‘That’s what we do.’

“The guys who show five or four tools and are the showcase superstars, those guys are overpriced for us.”

BC and numerous other schools that don’t offer the NCAA-mandated full allotment of 11.7 scholarships might as well be the A’s with their $50 million payroll jousting with the Yankees and Red Sox and others with payrolls over $100 million. The Eagles offer just three scholarships, yet have climbed into the upper half of the Big East Conference standings in recent years and are poised to make a run at a regional bid this year with possibly their best team ever.

Part of BC’s success is luck. Ace righthander Chris Lambert wasn’t heavily recruited as a prep infielder from New Hampshire but developed a mid-90s fastball after joining the Eagles as a last-minute recruit.

Most of Hughes’ players, though, don’t have Lambert’s tools. The Eagles’ leading hitter last year, outfielder Drew Locke, is a perfect example of a college “Moneyball” player. Locke doesn’t run 60 yards in less than seven seconds, and most scouts won’t touch a player with such below-average speed unless his other tools stand out significantly, especially his power.

When Locke was a senior at Boston College High, scouts and other colleges locked in on Locke’s teammate, outfielder Mike Conroy, who could run and throw better and was drafted by the Indians with a supplemental first-round pick. Even though Locke consistently outhit his more athletic teammate, Locke’s only other significant college suitor was Dartmouth.

Hughes was doing his own performance-based recruiting, and it has paid off. In two years with the Eagles, Locke has led the team in hitting twice, owns a career .377 average and has nearly as many walks (28) as strikeouts (41). Yet to scouts who value tools, Locke fell far short of meeting the standards for pro ball.

“He doesn’t look pretty in a uniform,” Hughes says, “but if you watch how hard he plays, he’s not giving you a 6.7 (60) time but he’s going home with three or four hits a game.

“I think the biggest similarity we have to the A’s is, we target the bat first when we go out and get players, because those are the kinds of kids we can get. That’s the kind of kid Drew is. Defense is secondary for us everywhere on the field except catcher and shortstop.”

Anderson and the Huskers emphasize many of the same offensive principles, but Nebraska is as fully funded as a program gets. Just because they have plenty of scholarships doesn’t mean Anderson wants to squander them, though. The Huskers can recruit speed and tools but also have relied on a “Moneyball” approach to scoring runs.

They consistently have ranked near the top of the national charts in walks since Anderson became hitting coach in 1997, producing on-base and slugging machines like first baseman Dan Johnson and catcher Jed Morris, the Huskers’ leading hitters in 2001 and 2002, when they went to the College World Series. Not coincidentally, both Johnson and Morris were drafted by the A’s.

“There are so many kids out there who can hit or can pitch but just don’t have tools the pros want,” Anderson says. “The guys with the tools don’t always show up at your door, because they’ve signed pro contracts.

“Dan Johnson led the country in walks (63) for us in 2001, and led the Big 12 Conference in home runs and RBIs. The fact that he learned plate discipline, he really helped himself and our team. He didn’t walk a lot when he got here, and he really took off when he developed plate discipline.”

Walks and working counts are central principles in the “Moneyball” universe, and several college coaches agree with Anderson that elevating the pitch counts of opposing starters is an important element of offense.

“That guy in the bullpen throwing middle relief isn’t getting nearly as much scholarship money as the starter,” Georgia coach Dave Perno says. “It’s really important to do that on the first game of a series. College baseball is so oriented around a three-game series, and if you get into the opposing bullpen a little earlier on Friday, you can disrupt how they use their bullpen all weekend.

“The (Southeastern Conference) is mostly hitter’s parks; there are only a few places where the ball doesn’t really fly out. Our league is a big-inning league, and you can have some big innings taking your walks and getting that big fly ball against a guy they really don’t want to have in the game.”

Anderson and Perno agree college teams can do statistical analysis on their own to try to maximize what their offenses can do. But where statistical analysis has become most important in college baseball is in recruiting junior college players.

“You can’t really use high school stats to recruit,” says Mississippi assistant coach Dan McDonnell. “There’s some validity to some of them, but in general they don’t tell you much. It’s the exact opposite with junior college players. We really crunch the stats, and the JC’s in California, Texas, Florida and Arizona are really good about updating their stats on the Internet. We check them all the time. They narrow down who you’re going to watch.”

Essentially, recruiting junior college players is akin to a big league team scouting and signing college players. Teams like Boston, Oakland and Toronto are attracted to players with a track record, an essential part of the “Moneyball” approach of assessing a player’s value. It’s not altogether different for colleges relying on the most information available when recruiting players themselves.

When Cal State Northridge won the Big West Conference in 2002, its offensive leader was second baseman Shaun Larkin. Second base might be the most “Moneyball” friendly position in college, because it’s often a dead-end position populated by one-dimensional players who might hit but lack a pro body or all-around skills.

At 5-foot-9, 170 pounds, Larkin was such a player, a California native who had two years of juco experience and played one year at Texas Tech before transferring to Northridge. The scrappy Larkin used his experience, plate discipline and lefthanded swing to put together a monster year for the Matadors in ’02, hitting .361-15-49 with 59 walks, a .507 on-base percentage and a .668 slugging percentage. He’s now in the Indians organization and hit .266-20-80 with more walks (73) than strikeouts (70) in his first full season, playing for Class A Lake County.

“We don’t come out to our players and say, ‘Walk a lot,’ ” says Matadors coach Steve Rousey, who was an assistant on the ’02 club. “But our plate approach is similar to what the A’s do, to what’s described in the book. Mostly, we do a lot of the same offensive stuff they do. Larkin already was doing it. He had a track record.

“If you’re recruiting a junior college player like Larkin, you want them to produce right away because you might only have him for one year. So you can use his stats to know what kind of player he is.”

Perhaps the greatest positive effect “Moneyball” has had on college baseball involves the draft. The A’s now draft almost exclusively college players, a trend that has spread to other franchises. College coaches and scouts agree that the more major league clubs draft college players, the more high school talent will find its way to college campuses. And that should do nothing but elevate the level of play in college baseball.

“The longer a player has been playing, the more you can predict what kind of player he’s going to be, and the more the stats bear that out,” says Lamar coach Jim Gilligan, who while being firmly in the traditionalist camp essentially spells out the rationale for drafting more college players. “There’s so much learning players at this level have to do. I like to think that we’re pretty good at teaching it at the college level.”

Thanks to the A’s and the clubs that have followed their lead, Gilligan and his peers should have more and talent to teach in the years to come.

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