I recently picked up an e-book copy of Moneyball for 25 cents (thanks to Bill Ivie for the link!). I’ve been wanting to read it for a while – simply because it’s one of the most transformative and controversial baseball books of our generation – but the time just had not presented itself. I finally found the time.
I’m still in the first few chapters, and aside from the god-like presentation of Billy Beane and his Herculean talent (*ahem*), much of the book has so far spent its time unpacking and ridiculing the theories and practices of major league baseball scouts.
You’ve likely seen this in the movie. In the Brad Pitt version, scouts get into a room with Beane and proceed to show their own Hollywood-inspired idiocy. Focusing on pieces of information such as whether players have girlfriends or not, the old school clowns face off against the more sophisticated ring master – and the ring master wins (forgive me…I’m watching Dumbo with my children as I write this…circus metaphors are inevitable).
It’s sad that the film presentation of Moneyball so poorly distorted the book’s message. In the movie, scouts are buffoons falling all over themselves and their irrelevant information. But in the book…at least so far as I’ve read…the message is simply this: The way things have been done in the past doesn’t work for us, so let’s find a new way to do them.
But what about that old way? What was it that was so ineffectual in predicting success in young baseball players? Well, in the interest of time, let’s just say this…it was based on the idea that people who were baseball scouts had some innate ability and/or opportunity to see something in a player that no one else outside of their fraternity could see. They believed talent, skills, or tools could be identified in a raw state and then unearthed, brought out, or developed in the minor leagues. While this could happen, the risk was significant…and Beane’s As were looking for a way to minimize risk and still draft players had overlooked.
So what about these ludicrous concepts of “girlfriends” or – a phrase the book is fond of – “a good face”? Again, in short, these terms and traits – as well as others – are the result of attempts to predict a player’s psychological ability to “pull it together” and become a ball player that makes use of his tools. Call it psychological durability.
And it was the very thing that the book suggests prevented Billy Beane from becoming the greatest baseball player since wooden bat was first applied to leather ball (*ahem*).
Feel disoriented, yet? Exactly. And that could be the overriding theme of the book. The art of the baseball draft had become less an art and more a psychedelic journey into mystery. Beane sought to throw it all out the window and make the process as scientific as possible. Of course, that meant a reliance on what had actually occurred rather than guesses and possibilities.
In the past, scouts and baseball men had been reluctant to place too much emphasis on a prospect’s past performance for two simple reasons. One, the competition in college and/or high school simply wasn’t stiff enough to adequately gauge a player’s ability. Hitting .500 against a college pitcher throwing an 88 mph fastball was much different than facing, say, Randy Johnson or Greg Maddox. Two, they believed a player in college and/or high school wasn’t really the man or player he would become – he was simply too young.
On these concepts, Beane and his associate Paul were willing to concede at least two points. One, youth was a problem. High school players were incredibly unpredictable. If the difference between college competition and MLB competition was great, the difference between high school and MLB was titanic. That meant the risk involved in drafting a high school age player was huge. So, Billy and Paul settled on college players to minimize the risk. Scouts didn’t necessarily like drafting college players over high school players – there was a higher potential upside to a high school player as of yet undeveloped – but this would prove less controversial than Beane’s approach to the second point.
Level of competition was a valid concern when using past performance to select draft picks. There was simply no way around it. A player’s batting average in college could not be relied upon to predict an MLB batting average. On that point, Beane and the scouts mostly agreed.
So Beane stopped talking about batting average – and started talking about on-base percentage (OBP).
The basic belief – as Beane and Paul saw it – was that a player’s batting eye and command of the strike zone was more transferable from level to level than his batting average. For the most part, it was competition-independent. If a pitcher threw fastballs in the zone, a good hitter should hit them. But if a pitcher struggled with control, or nibbled at the corners looking for swings on stuff outside the zone, the good hitter with a good eye for the zone and willingness to take a walk would do just that – walk.
And that’s where the controversy came in. Scouts and old school baseball men despised the idea of drafting a player because he took walks. For some reason, walks were seen as less desirable than hits. Now, in large part, I can see their side. Unless the bases are loaded, a walk doesn’t produce an RBI. It takes two consecutive walks…or a runner on first with a walk…to advance a runner into scoring position. With a hit, a player can get a double, triple, or even a home run. Even the possibility of an error on a hit makes it a more desirable outcome than a walk.
But what if you combined the ability to be a decent “hitter” – in the traditional sense of the word – with an exceptional ability to draw walks? You get a high OBP and a desirable draft pick. And a pick who is likely to reproduce his success in college at the professional level.
I have to say, as I read this book, I realized just how much I myself used to be like the scouts lampooned in the movie and discussed in the book. Because it’s so difficult to eye-ball a player and determine his level of proficiency in the game compared to the thousands of other players across the country…I assumed scouts must have some hidden ability, perhaps from years of experience in professional baseball, to “see” good ball players. It never occurred to me that there was a better way.
Honestly, I think the perceived gap between my own beer league softball skills and a player like, say, Matt Holliday makes me transfer the same gap in ability to scouts and “baseball men.” I assume that because there is such a massive canyon between major league baseball players and myself, doesn’t the same gap between scouts and myself exist?
Okay, okay…I think I’ve worn out my welcome with such a long post, so let’s call it a day. I think in short, I’m enjoying the book. It’s well-written – better than The Extra 2% that I read last year – engaging, and does an excellent job giving us a peek into how things used to work in order to compare and contrast it to what is happening right now in many MLB front office meetings. I’m looking forward to reading more.
Thanks for reading! And…