Friday, October 23, 2009

I Now Feel Sympathy for the People of Odessa, Texas

Irony: an outcome of events contrary to what was, or might have been, expected. For example, a noted critic of blogs illustrating the usefulness of new media by drafting a piece in a traditional media outlet that is rife with shoddy arguments. Maybe The New Republic was looking to pay homage to running a famously inaccurate piece by Betsy McCaughey attacking the Clinton Administration's 1994 health care reform proposal. Maybe TNR was scratching its noted itch to print pieces that go against conventional wisdom. Otherwise, I'm at a loss to otherwise explain how they ran this screed by Buzz Bissinger attacking Moneyball six years after its publication.

Buzz starts by arguing that money is important after all:
Whatever happens in the National League and American League Championship series unfolding over the next week or so, one outcome has already been decided--the effective end of the theories of Moneyball as a viable way to build a playoff-caliber baseball team when you don't have the money. That no doubt sounds like heresy to the millions who embraced Michael Lewis's 2003 book, but all you need to do is keep in mind one number this postseason: 528,620,438. That's the amount of money in payroll spent this season by the teams still in it--the New York Yankees, the Los Angeles Angels, the Philadelphia Phillies, and the Los Angeles Dodgers. Moneyball? You bet it's Moneyball, true Moneyball, like it always has been in baseball and always will be.
But this is exactly the point that Lewis was trying to make in the book! Lewis viewed Billy Beane as a man ahead of his time because he was able to field a competitive team despite the fact that the Oakland A's had far less money than its rivals and money is important in building a winner. Beane figured out that the wealthy teams could afford players who had everything - athleticism, a good batting eye, power, speed, defensive ability, etc. - and that he had to prioritize certain skills over others because he couldn't afford complete players. Beane figured out that a batting eye was the most important skill for a baseball player and that it was undervalued in the market, so he focused on finding players with that skill. The fact that big money teams have coopted that model doesn't mean that Beane was wrong; it means that he was right and that the market corrected itself. (In his defense, Bissinger does acknowledge that Beane's methods were copied later in the article, but Bissinger doesn't understand that this fact defeats his argument that Moneyball is an overrated book.)

Bissinger then tries to pin all of Oakland's success on Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito:
Looking largely at the narrow time frame of 2000 through 2002, Lewis attempted to explain the phenomenon of how the A's had done so well (they made the playoffs all three of those years) with such little dough. The explanation was dazzling, although Lewis barely mentioned the three reasons the A's had been so successful--pitchers Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, and Tim Hudson. The three won an astounding 149 games during that span. Each of them were 20-game winners in at least one of those seasons. The odds of three young pitchers coming together like that on one team was basically a matter of baseball luck, in the same vein at least of Beane saying success in the postseason was a matter of luck because of the limited number of games played (his teams during the 2000-02 period never got past the first round).
Bissinger then attacks Beane's preference for drafting college pitchers:
Except it just hasn't proven itself to work consistently. His theory that only college pitchers should be drafted over high school ones because of their experience sounded plausible. But it flew in the face of the Atlanta Braves, who won their division 14 years in a row from 1991 to 2005, and relied on pitchers drafted straight out of high school all the while.
Buzz, there's this thing called the Internet. And on the Internet, there's this thing called If you are indeed a baseball fan, then you might find it interesting. On, you can find from where every modern player was drafted. Lo and behold, it took me five minutes to figure out that Hudson, Mulder, and Zito were all drafted by the A's from college, thus validating Beane's preference. But kudos, in any event, for contradicting yourself within a matter of paragraphs. You're doing a fine job of being the flag-bearer for traditional journalism.

As for the reference to the Braves, Atlanta has exploited a market inefficiency in its own way by concentrating its drafting efforts on local products. The Braves have decided that it's foolish to assume that they can know everything about thousands of players from all around the world, so they are going to focus their scouting efforts on Atlanta and the surrounding areas, thus gaining an advantage over other teams by knowing more about the players that they are drafting. This approach isn't full-proof. Bissinger extols the Braves, but whom did the local baseball collective take in the first round in 2002? Jeff Francoeur, a toolsy outfielder who lacks the batting eye to be a successful major leaguer. In other words, the Braves took a player who validates Beane's criticism of many scouts.

Buzz then moves on to deriding the A's 2002 draft as overrated:
Beane had seven first-round draft picks that year, each of them extolled by Lewis for their buried-treasure status. Three of them are still playing in the majors, none with anything close to superstar careers and all of them long gone from the A's. Three others were busts. Poor Jeremy Brown never stopped being fat and slow and finished with a grand total of 10 major league at-bats before retirement.
Here is the compete 2002 first round. Bissinger has the gall to criticize Beane's draft in an October in which his first pick - Nick Swisher - is starting for the likely AL champions and his second pick - Joe Blanton - is starting for the NL champions. Beane drafted Swisher and Blanton from colleges. The fact that Oakland didn't have the money to keep either player doesn't change the fact that Beane made good picks. OK, Jeremy Brown didn't pan out. You know who else didn't pan out? The guys taken before (Dan Meyer) and after (Chadd Blasko) him. The hit rate for picks in the 30s just isn't very good. But you're a baseball fan, Buzz, you know that. You wouldn't dream of misleadingly labeling Brown a first-round bust, hoping that readers will conflate the value of an NFL or NBA first round pick with that of a MLB first round pick. Right?

This is the paragraph that convinced me that Bissinger is having a laugh, because it can be refuted with one name:
Two of Beane's greatest disciples, Paul DePodesta and J.P. Ricciardi, moved out from the long shadow of their boss to become general managers. DePodesta lasted two seasons with the Los Angeles Dodgers, his last season in 2005 marked by 91 losses and a team chemistry so healthy that barbs of racism were traded back and forth among players. He is now with the San Diego Padres. Ricciardi went to the Toronto Blue Jays and was recently fired after eight seasons. He never made the playoffs, a difficult feat to accomplish when you are in the same division as the Yankees and Boston Red Sox. But he also made some hideous decisions, signing Vernon Wells to an insane seven-year deal for $127 million and Frank Thomas to a two-year $18 million deal.
Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein. Theo Epstein.

Right, Billy Beane is not the "man who changed baseball" . . . other than the fact that big market teams appropriated his methods and one of them used his approach to win its first World Series in 86 years.


peacedog said...

Braves have done a decent - I can't say if it's better or worse than average; I'm inclined to say better but nothing beats evidence" - job or turning out pitching. But "take highschoolers" has had very mixed results.

There were misses like Dennis Burlingame (I think a HS kid), whose arm went to shit after several years int he minors where he vaulted to top prospect status alongside Avery (you can't guess when an arm is going to shit, usually).

there are misses like Chad Hutchinson, who never signed (and was not good when we eventually wound up with the Cardinals after playing football).

There are lots of misses like Jacob Shumate, who never found anything remotely close to the strike zone and never made it out of low level ball. You might cateogirize the Braves approach as high risk/reward. At least under JS; they loved taking kids with signability issues or whom fell due to health concerns. Highschool kids better fit that bill for whatever reason. I don't think Wren is doing quite the same thing; there is still a highschool emphasis but we've taken more college players of late (again anecdotal) and we have made signability part of our draft strategy (if not to the extent of other teams. We allegedly didn't take the HS kid from Cali this last draft because of signability, and also probably because we didn't have him scouter the way we did Wheeler, who happened to go the pick before).

Jesse said...

Bissinger is a pompous ass and I can't read anything of his objectively anymore. I'm sure the only people who still take anythign he says seriously are those that are just as pompous.

Outside of that, he does provide plenty of material for us in the digital age to make fun of while we Boo Radley's all sit in our mother's basement in our underwear.

John Beatty said...

Bissinger also conveniently omitted the "Greek God of Walks" character from Moneyball. I've heard his done well for himself and is close to a 'superstar', however subjective that label is.

What was his name again? I know I hear it often during the season. Euk..Yuki...Yucky...Youkilis?

Samsonite! I was way off.

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