May 19, 2003



"Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game"

I read "Moneyball" last Friday. Not like "I read it last Friday." I read it last Friday - in one sitting. Well, actually, in one lying down. I don't know that I have ever been able to read a non-school-related book while sitting. Anyway, it's freaking awesome!

You know how Ebert and the guy who took over for Siskel give "two thumbs up" when a movie is really good? My stamp of approval is saying it was "freaking awesome." That and reading the book in a single night, without stopping for so much as a bathroom break or to take my dog out (don't worry, we both have good bladders).

So, how good was it exactly? It's tough to say at this point. I think I will have to wait a little while to see if I get the urge to read it again. I feel confident in saying it is not as good as my all-time favorite book, sports and non-sports, "Ball Four." However, I have read Ball Four about 12 times over the last few years, so it would be tough for any book to be better than it in my mind, particularly after I've read it only once.

After "it's not better than Ball Four," I am not sure there is another qualifier to put on it - it's that good. For me, the ultimate test for how good a book was is the immediate reaction I get after reading the very last word on the last page. There seems to be three basic reactions that I have:

1) Boy that sucked, what a waste of time.

2) Wow, that was really good.

3) Why the hell is it only 288 pages?! I need more!

No doubt about it, Moneyball is a #3 book. Not only did I feel sad when the book was over, I felt sad when I knew I was getting close to the end of the book. I was on the second-to-last chapter and I started thinking, "There is only one more chapter that I get to read before I have finished this book!"

The book is an inside look at the Oakland A's, during the 2002 season. As the book's author, Michael Lewis says several times, the book looks to answer the question of how a team with one of the lowest payrolls in the league can win so many ballgames (the A's are 383-264, a .591 winning %, since 1999).

Without giving away too much of the book, here are some things I enjoyed:

1) The characters.

The author, Michael Lewis, is a phenomenal story-teller and, like any good story-teller, he does a fantastic job introducing the important characters to the audience. Whether it is (from left to right) Billy Beane, Bill James, Scott Hatteberg, Paul DePodesta, Chad Bradford or Jeremy Brown, Lewis makes the reader interested in what they say, what they do and what happens to them.

2) The story.

As good a story-teller as Lewis is, he wouldn't have a great book on his hands unless there was a great story to be told. The success of the A's is an interesting story, the man that runs the A's is an interesting story, the way the A's are run is an interesting story, the reactions of others to the way the A's are run is an interesting story - the list goes on and on and on. Of course, not everyone could tell the stories as interestingly as Lewis does.

3) The fly-on-the-wall moments.

As I am sure is the case with a lot of baseball nuts, I often dream about getting a chance to sit in a room with guys like Billy Beane and make decisions for a major league baseball team. I've said it many times before on this blog: Working in a front office is my #1 dream job. Always has been and always will be.

Moneyball is perfect for those of us with those dreams, because it has a ton of fly-on-the-wall moments. And they aren't G-rated or censored ones either. In other words, they are extremely interesting to read.

You get to be there to experience what goes on in the "draft room" prior to and during the draft. How do they rank players? What imput do the scouts have? Who makes the final decisions?

You'll also get to watch Billy Beane at his best, wheeling and dealing. He's shopping for Ray Durham and Ricky Rincon, he has a passing interest in Cliff Floyd, he's trying to unload Mike Venafro's salary, he's on the phone with Peter Gammons, he's trying to get his owner to open the purse-strings a little bit - it's all there to read.

You get to basically hang around in the A's front office, listening to the conversations.

4) The A's philosophy.

This is really the star of the book.

I think most people would agree that the A's are a low-budget team that has a unique, unorthodox organizational philosophy. They make lots of trades, they aren't worried when star players leave for free agency, they like to sign minor league veterans and give them a chance to play in the majors, they love walks, plate discipline and on-base %, and they like to draft college players.

Moneyball goes into why they do all those those things and why they have the beliefs they do.

I think the main thing I took away from from Moneyball is that the A's are operating under strict financial constraints and would love to be able to spend money on players that they find most attractive, like the Yankees or the Red Sox do. But they can't and they realize that trying to "play the same game" as the big budget teams is pointless. Instead, they look for players that are undervalued because of things they aren't.

Maybe Scott Hatteberg wasn't a particularly good defensive catcher and can't throw any more because of arm surgery. The A's see that, but they also see a guy who is always among the league leaders in pitches seen per plate appearances. They see a guy who has a career batting average of .270 and who likes to work long counts and take walks. And, most of all, they see a guy who not a whole lot of other teams want, but who can be a valuable piece of their team for a very limited amount of money.

And that is the key, finding valuable pieces for very little money. The A's simply cannot afford to acquire players that have all the skills a baseball player can have. They can't go out and trade for an Andruw Jones or sign Vladimir Guerrero as a free agent. Instead, they have decided that there are some skills that are both disproportionately valuable and disproportionately cheap. Specifically: Plate disicipline.

Speed costs money. Defense costs money. Power costs money. Batting average costs money. Athleticism costs money. The one thing that the A's believe doesn't cost as much as all the other things is a player with the ability to see lots of pitches, work lots of counts, draw lots of walks and get on-base. Getting on-base is also the most important skill for a hitter to have, or so the A's say.

Assuming you agree with the A's that on-base % is the single most important stat for a hitter (and many around baseball do not agree, obviously) then you can't see the way they are running their organization as anything but pure genius. They have a severe financial handicap, but have somehow found a way to acquire players that possess what they believe is the single most important skill, and they have done so at a reduced price and within their limited financial means.

I think Oakland's philosophy can be shown perfectly with the case of Scott Hatteberg.

Hatteberg hit .280/.374/.433 with 15 homers in 136 games for the A's last season, as their starting first baseman. Those aren't great numbers for sure. He doesn't hit for a great batting average and he doesn't hit for much power. What he does do is get on base. His OBP of .374 was about 11% better than the adjusted league-average in the AL last season (.337).

The A's can't afford to go out and get a Jim Thome and they can't even afford to keep the star first baseman they already had, Jason Giambi. No, they only have X amount of dollars to spend and spending a gigantic chunk of it on someone like Jason Giambi is just not an option. Giambi hit for average, he walked, he hit for huge power - he was a complete package at first base. Instead of him, the A's concede the downgrade at the position and attempt to find a player that can do the most important (in Oakland's mind) thing that Giambi was good at - get on base. In their quest to find someone like that, they come across a former catcher that can't throw and who has never had more than 400 at bats in his career and hasn't had even 300 in years. And they find him for less than a million dollars.

Scott Hatteberg did not have a great season by any means. He was basically a league-average first baseman. According to Baseball Prospectus' EqA and RARP stats, he was the 8th best starting first baseman in the American League. He is not a player that wins pennants for you, but he is a player that pushes you towards a pennant and he does it for only $900,000.

The A's succeed because they are able to identify players that other teams do not value highly, simply because of what those players cannot do and the A's recognize that there is value in what they can do.

Whether it is Scott Hatteberg, whom no one wanted and whom the A's turned into a league-average first baseman for less than a million bucks, or Chad Bradford, who was toiling away in Triple-A, before the A's traded for him and made them their ace reliever (112 innings and an ERA of 2.97 in 2001 and 2002). Or Jeremy Brown, an overweight college catcher, whom the A's drafted in the first round of the 2001 draft, as everyone laughed at them.

Baseball America, one of the most respected baseball publications out there, one of the leading "draft experts" and one of the only magazines that I subscribe to, did not have Jeremy Brown ranked among the top 25 catching prospects in the 2002 draft. Not the top 25 overall prospects, the top 25 catching prospects. BA also did not list Jeremy Brown among their "Top 250 Prospects" in the 2002 draft. 250! Heck, BA had Brown ranked as the 12th best player from the state of Alabama.

And yet, Billy Beane and the Oakland A's selected Jeremy Brown, the fat catcher from the U of Alabama that no one was even paying attention to and that most people probably didn't even have on their draft list, with the 35th pick in the entire draft. They then signed Brown for $350,000. The guy picked directly in front of him signed for $1,000,000 and the guy picked directly behind him signed for $1,050,000.

Brown hit .307/.451/.516 in his first pro season and Baseball America, the same people that did not rank him among the top 250 players in the 2002 draft, ranked him as the #4 prospect in the entire Oakland organization, and said:

"Brown's short, squat body turned off many scouts and doesn't fit the mold of the more athletic modern big league catcher. But the A's general manager Billy Beane said, 'We're not selling jeans here.' If [Brown] continues to perform well, he'll be on the fast track to the majors."

In the span of less than a year, Brown went from a guy they didn't think deserved to be picked in the first 10 rounds of a draft, to a guy "on the fast track to the majors." And that's no knock against Baseball America, it just tells you a little bit about Billy Beane and the A's.

Numerous times throughout the book, Billy Beane says that same line about the A's "not selling jeans." He often says it to his own scouts when they start talking about a baseball player not looking good in his uniform or another player having "a perfect baseball body." The point of the line is, I think, that Billy Beane cares solely about one thing: Winning baseball games.

He doesn't care if a guy runs fast or has six-pack abs. He doesn't care if the guy is a 5-tool player or a 0-tool player. He cares about whether or not the player can help the Oakland Athletics win baseball games. And not just win baseball games, but win baseball games under a strict financial budget that creates huge limitations in both player development and talent acquisition. The Jeremy Browns of the world are the players that can do that.

Oakland can't afford to go after the 5-tool hitters with blazing speed and the ability to fill out a uniform in a way that scouts like. Instead, they go after guys that have been overlooked because of their body or their footspeed or their lack whatever it is that most scouts are looking for.

They can't afford to take a risk on an 18 year old high school pitcher that is 6 foot 5 and throws 99 miles per hour. Instead, they go after a short right-hander from the the Auburn University and take him in the 6th round. Or they take a lefty from Southern Cal that most scouts see as a possible #4 or #5 starter because he doesn't throw hard, and they make him the 9th overall pick in the 1999 draft.

It is all about finding players that you can afford and minimizing risk. The A's have deemed high school players and 5-tool talents both too risky and much too expensive. Instead, they focus on the players that people say can't do this or can't do that, players that are missing a few of those tools or missing a few MPH on their fastballs. They don't care about all of that, because the only thing they care about is winning baseball games.

If someone where to ask me "what are the Oakland A's and Billy Beane doing?" I think I would be able to answer that question pretty well after reading Moneyball.

They are working with one of the tightest budgets in baseball and are, at the same time, creating a game winning machine. They win hundreds of baseball games and they do so, not only with less resources than other teams, but after losing players like Jason Giambi and Jason Isringhausen and Johnny Damon. And soon, they will be doing it without Miguel Tejada. But losing him will not matter (yes, I said will not matter) because he is simply a part of the machine.

When he leaves, the A's will fill his spot with a cheaper alternative that may not produce as much or be as valuable, but will be good nonetheless. Whether it is Mark Ellis sliding over to SS or Bobby Crosby being called up, or even a free agent being signed, the A's will find a way to fill that hole with a valuable player and they will do so with almost no money.

What Billy Beane has created, or is at least trying to create, is a neverending cycle of winning. It doesn't matter who leaves, because the system will always be able to replace parts within the financial restrictions. They draft college players because they are cheaper, less risky and a lot closer to contributing at the major league level. They sign players that other teams don't deem valuable because they are cheaper, less risky and fit the Oakland system.

In a few years, I am confident the A's will be without Zito (that lefty from Southern Cal) and Mulder and Tejada and Chavez and Hudson (the short righty from Auburn) and Durazo. But it won't matter, as long as Billy Beane (and Paul DePodesta) are running things. They will replace those players cheaply and efficiently and they will find new star players with which to build around. And when those new stars get to expensive to keep under their tight budget, they will repeat the process again.

The Oakland A's are a machine. One part leaves, it gets replaced with a cheaper, more efficient part. The winning continues.

You've gotta read the book. - "Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game"

Today's picks:

Montreal (Vazquez) -160 over Florida (Willis)

New York (Weaver) +185 over Boston (Martinez)

Detroit (Bernero) +140 over Cleveland (Westbrook)

Oakland (Hudson) -180 over Minnesota (Reed)

Total to date: + $1,350

W/L record: 87-84 (Still shell-shocked from my 0-5 Friday, I made only one pick yesterday and won $100.)

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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