Moneyball Draft; Moneyball Daft

By Keith Glab, 5/7/05

For anyone who has not read it, Michael Lewis’ Moneyball is an extremely well written, entertaining, and provocative book. It underscores the lack of logic behind much of traditional baseball thinking in a way that causes the reader to mock teams that have not adopted the Billy Beane/Oakland A’s strategy of doing things. However to do so, Lewis has used hyperbolic rhetoric that has not stood the test of time. What follows is a partial list of the theories, strategies, and transactions praised by Lewis in the book that have not stood the test of time.

 

"The fewest games a minimum-wage baseball team would win during a 162-game season is something like 49." p. XIII

Amusingly enough, the 2003 Detroit Tigers debunked this figure shortly after Moneyball got published. These Tigers were not among the five lowest payrolls in the Majors, and certainly wasn’t anywhere near the $7 million league minimum, yet won just 43 games. Basically, a poorly-run minimum-wage baseball team would win some games, but manage something closer to a minimum of 29 games than Lewis’ figure of 49.

"Plate discipline…an innate trait" p. 34

One of the central themes of the book concerns the inability of plate discipline to be taught to those players who have not exhibited it at lower levels. Beane, DePodesta, and Lewis all singled out Eric Chavez and Miguel Tejada as particularly good evidence of this. Well, last year Eric Chavez led the AL in walks despite playing in only 125 games. They've made a good point regarding Tejada, though.

"Sure about Swisher" p. 29

Although it’s admitted on page 104 that Beane was less than objective about Nick Swisher, he and Moneyball both succeeded in over-hyping the 16th overall pick in the 2002 draft. In fact, Swisher represents the converse of my earlier point: a player who had excellent plate discipline in the Minors, but completely lost in the Majors, amassing 21 K’s to just three walks before landing on the DL early this year. Nick may yet develop into a fine player, but he is far from the sure thing that Billy boasted about, and good evidence that an eye at the plate can indeed develop and erode as other batting skills do.

Nick is also an example of teams reading too much into a player’s family history. His father , Steve Swisher, was an awful hitting catcher in the late 70’s (.216/.279/.303). "That’s huge," Beane decides. "A great chip in his favor. Those guys succeed." Okay, so everyone is looking for the next Ken Griffey Jr. But anyone who doesn’t realize that Griffey is an exceptional case should look up the career statistics for Pete Rose Jr. or Cy Young’s brothers. Heck, you’d think that Beane’s experience with Ben Grieve (Tom’s son) would temper his resolve on this issue. Players related to other Major Leaguers get into the spotlight and receive more chances than an anonymous player with the same numbers would (ex: Gary Mathews Jr.). But they’re not necessarily better players.

"Prince Fielder is too fat even for the Oakland A’s." p. 109

Speaking of family histories, Beane rather contradicts himself on the issue by chastising Prince Fielder for being Cecil’s son. Rather than figure that Prince would hit like his father, Beane assumed that he would let himself go like Cecil, instead. That has not been the case. Jeremy Brown, the fat catcher drafted by Beane in the 1st round of the 2002 draft has had further weight problems, despite promising to address the issue before the draft, and has been unable to even approach his college numbers. Prince Fielder, on the other hand, has worked hard to become a terrific looking physical specimen, and should be ready to contribute at the major league level this year. Consistency is all I ask, but beyond that, isn’t it common sense to want your catcher to be more athletic than your first baseman?

"Billy made us take Zito" p. 39

It’s the 9th pick of the 1999 draft, and both Barry Zito and Ben Sheets are available. After the 2002 season, it looked as though Zito was clearly the correct choice, and Billy Beane can’t be faulted for bragging about it then. Similarly, I can’t be faulted for pointing out now that there isn’t a GM in baseball who wouldn’t prefer to have Sheets on their team. Last season, he posted a 2.70 ERA, a 264/32 K/BB ratio, and allowed 36 fewer hits than innings pitched. Zito put up a 4.48 ERA alongside his 163/81 K/BB ratio, allowing 3 more hits than innings pitched.

Of course, there is a chance that Zito will regain his Cy Young caliber form and wind up having a better career than Sheets. That’s why our analysis of Billy Beane, the Oakland A’s, and the ideas presented in Moneyball is a work in progress. We can only report on what has happened so far, and apart from these few quibbles, it looks as though the Oakland Athletics franchise is in good hands….

…until they move to Las Vegas.

 

Keith has been an Oakland A's fan since the days of Dwayne Murphy, the rangiest center fielder ever. Email Keith if you'd like him to write your eye off about the franchise.