Book of the Month: Moneyball

As we wrap up October, I would like to return to our monthly book. This month, we are talking about Moneyball by Michael Lewis. Moneyball has attracted more comment, positive and negative, than any other baseball book in recent years. Recently, Buzz Bissinger, author of Friday Night Lights, gave it a very negative review in The New Republic, despite the fact that the book came out in 2003. That gives you some sense of the impact of the book. Let’s start with a brief overview, mention important missing data, and wrap up with an evaluation of one of the book’s central events.

Lewis sets out to tell the story of Billy Beane and the Oakland A’s. He focuses on the question of how low payroll teams can compete against high payroll juggernauts like the New York Yankees. The book hones in on the 2002 season, with the rest of the information functioning as background to illumine this single campaign. Beane, according to Lewis, found ways to exploit market inefficiencies. Given that necessity is the mother of invention, Beane found ways to win despite a lack of money. In particular, he found players that were overlooked by the rest of baseball for reasons not relevant to their ability to contribute to winning teams. He focused in on players that did not look right, and he put the greatest emphasis on hitters with a good ability to get on base. He evaluated players by looking at their past statistical performance and de-emphasized the eyewitness accounts of his scouts. By doing this, Beane was able to craft a consistent winner in the early 2000’s.

What’s missing from this account? Two big stories remain essentially untold. The A’s success in this period is dependent upon their dominant pitching staff of Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito. While Lewis talks briefly about the draft of Zito, the other two are essentially undiscussed. When the big three pitchers are broken up, the A’s have quickly regressed to the mean. As important as high OBP hitters are, they tell at best half the story of the Oakland A’s. Second, there is no discussion of steroids. On p. 32, Lewis notes that “Giambi was a natural hitter who developed power only after the Oakland A’s drafted him.” Where is the acknowledgement that Giambi was lucky to be drafted by a team with easy access to BALCO? Steroids, given the links to Jason and Jeremy Giambi, Miguel Tejada, and others, was a key factor in the A’s success.

Finally, let us look at the first round of the A’s 2002 draft. This draft is given prominence by Lewis in discussing the genius of Beane’s methods. So how did he do?
16 – Nick Swisher – In the World Series with the Yankees. Hitting .245/.357/.460 in 761 games.
24 – Joe Blanton – In the World Series with the Phillies. Career ERA of 4.21 in 162 starts. A solid #4 starter.
26 – John McCurdy – Never made AAA, let along the pros. Out of baseball after the 2006 season.
30 – Ben Fritz – Never made the pros. Out of baseball after the 2008 season.
35 – Jeremy Brown – Played five games in the pros in 2006. Out of baseball after the 2007 season.
37 – Steve Obenchain – Never even made AAA. Out of baseball after the 2007 season.
39 – Mark Teahen – Sent to Kansas City in 2004, as part of a 3-team trade that sent Octavio Dotel to the A’s. Hitting .269/.331/.419 in 676 career games, none with Oakland.

This great draft produced three MLB regulars with 7 first round picks.

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3 Comments on “Book of the Month: Moneyball”

  1. One note on Teahen, he was traded for closer Dotel, but in the book Beane talks about how he doesn’t like closers. He calls them overrated. To me it’s just a little funny it works out that way.

  2. ekogan Says:

    This great draft produced three MLB regulars with 7 first round picks.

    That might sound bad, unless one realizes how big the failure rate of draft picks is. Producing 3 regulars out of 7 late first round draft picks is a successful draft. Not a homerun, but single or a double

  3. sportsphd Says:

    Sort of. Two of the three regulars, Swisher and Blanton, were picks in the middle of the round. Teahen is the only regular from 5 late first round picks. In getting them, they missed on Joey Votto, Jon Lester, and Brian McCann, all of whom went in Round 2. The A’s don’t have an awful draft, it’s true. But it is hard to look at this draft and argue that it will change the face of baseball, as Lewis and Beane seemed to imply.

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