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The biggest baseball story of 2003 (so far) actually took place in 2002. It hasn't been anything we've seen since opening day or any historical achievement reached by a team or player. Nothing in the game has generated as much interest and discussion as a book, Moneyball, which was written throughout last season. The story Michael Lewis penned about the success of the Oakland Athletics has caused quite a stir.
Let me begin by saying that I thoroughly enjoyed the book. It took me two sittings and under five hours to finish, and there were only a few minutes of those that I wasn't engrossed in thought. I'd recommend it to anyone who enjoys baseball, and even those who simply enjoy a good story. Lewis is a good writer telling a good story, and it makes for interesting reading.
I believe my perspective on my favorite parts of the book differ greatly from most others who will read the book. As someone who follows the minor leagues more closely than the major leagues, the discussion of evaluation, scouting, and statistical analysis' role in player development was of particular interest to me. Jeremy Brown, Nick Swisher, and Mark Teahen are household names to we who follow the minor leagues. These players have been introduced to most of the baseball world as major characters in Moneyball, but there is a subgroup of baseball fans who watched the story unfold before it was published.
Throughout my two years of writing this column, I've usually been labeled a stathead and one who prefers objective analysis to traditional scouting. I've picked the A's to win the AL West each of the past four seasons. I've preached the virtues of on-base percentage, plate discipline, and other sabermetric philosophies. Most people have come to expect me to agree with most decisions the A's make. Usually, they are right, and its not a secret that I believe Billy Beane is in charge of the best-run franchise in baseball right now.
So, hopefully I'm allowed a little bit of leeway after I say that some of the player evaluation theories espoused in Moneyball are a crock, and if everything written is accurate, the A's will soon find themselves on the short end of the amateur talent pool. While Oakland has been one of the most successful teams in baseball the past four seasons, they have not done it for the reasons given by Lewis or the evaluation system that is so highly praised throughout the book.
The second chapter of the book deals with the 2002 draft, which is largely what we will focus on here. Last summer, the A's focused exclusively on college players, using their first 23 picks on college players and signing a grand total of one American high school player. One of the reasons given by Lewis is the tremendous difference in risk between high school and college players:
"In any case, you had only to study the history of the draft to see that high school pitchers were twice less likely than college pitchers, and four times less likely than college position players, to make it to the big leagues."
This theory comes from a study Bill James did on the drafts from 1965-1983.
There's no way around the fact that that statement is now simply incorrect. Jim Callis did a study for Baseball America covering the draft from 1990-1997. This study includes 2,115 players who signed in the first ten rounds of those drafts. There were 100 more college players selected, and they reached the major leagues at a 39 percent rate. Their high school counterparts reached the majors at only a 28 percent rate.
However, as Jim shows in the subscriber-only column that accompanies the study, nearly all of that difference comes from replacement level players who fill part-time roles or only stick around the major leagues for a short time. The difference between high school and college players who become regular major-league starters is half a percent (8.8 for college, 8.4 for high school). High school draftees have grown into more above-average players and more stars than their college counterparts over those seven years.
That isn't to say that drafting college players has no merit. If a team drafted all high school players in the first ten rounds, the average cost of signing those players would have been $5.7 million. Had they drafted all college players, it would have been $4.9 million in output. However, the difference of $800,000 over ten players is not the great financial boon that most believe comes with drafting college players.
In the same chapter, Lewis will refer to the A's 2001 draft as "an expensive disaster" and point to it as the reason former scouting director Grady Fuson is now in Texas and why the club has abandoned high-school talent on draft day. That "disaster" was led by the selection of college shortstop Bobby Crosby, who has been anointed the heir to Miguel Tejada's throne. It was, however, the selection of high-school right-hander Jeremy Bonderman that is especially ridiculed. Lewis writes "Taking a high-school pitcherand spending $1.2 million signing himis exactly what happens when you let the scouts have their way."
A year later, Bonderman was a premium prospect who fetched an all-star starting pitcher in return. The A's would use him to acquire Ted Lilly and the bargaining chips later used for Erubiel Durazo, and Bonderman proceeded to make the Detroit Tigers' starting rotation this spring. Somehow, this pick is qualified as a disaster, which is patently absurd. No matter how risky high-school pitching prospects are, there is no arguing that Jeremy Bonderman is one of the most valuable pieces in MLB, and there are 28 other teams who would love to have him in their organization.
The second chapter of Moneyball spends twenty-nine pages explaining the coup that Billy Beane pulled off by ignoring his scouts and using statistical analysis to determine major-league talents. For those being introduced to the names of the players Oakland drafted last summer, it would appear as though they are already major-league stars. Lewis writes the chapter as though the A's deviation from the norm has been vindicated and proven correct, and Beane's haul from having seven first-round picks will give Oakland more talent than any organization known to man.
Lewis' job is to write a good story. My job is to explain the truth about minor-league prospects, as best as I know it. The stories of these players are in the process of being written, and most of them still have less than 400 professional at-bats. While it is premature to draw any conclusions on their careers, they have given us early signs to how their development is coming along.
The argument goes that college players show their value more quickly, and thus become better trade bait by skipping the developing-player stage. With that in mind, you'd expect these developed players to be having a good amount of success in the minor leagues. So, without further ado, here is an update on the stars of the Oakland A's revolutionary "college-only" approach to the draft:
Nick Swisher, OF, 16th pick. The one player that the Oakland scouts agreed upon is having an impressive professional debut. He's tearing through the high-A California League, posting a .314/.450/.533 line and emerging as one of the better prospects in the game. He should be promoted to AA soon, and Swisher is one that nearly everyone agrees should have a fine major-league career.
Joe Blanton, RHP, 24th pick. Blanton has done nothing but pitch well since signing, though he's still in low-A ball and has yet to face serious competition. His control has been impeccable (just 8 walks in 53 innings), but his strikeout rate isn't what you'd hope for in the Midwest League. His questionable mechanics were part of the reason he was still available at number 24, and scouts still question whether he can sustain long-term health with his motion.
John McCurdy, SS, 26th pick. You can't call anyone a bust during their first professional year, but McCurdy is about as close as you can get. The A's drafted him knowing he'd eventually have to move from shortstop but hoping he could field well enough to be a Jeff Kent-type second baseman. Unfortunately, his defense has been as advertised (read: awful), he failed to hit in short season ball last year, and he's posting a poor .256/.320/.306 line in low-A ball to start 2003. He's not walking or hitting for power, and nearly all the scouts projected him to struggle with wood. McCurdy's going to have to turn it around in a hurry or we'll chalk one up for subjective analysis.
Ben Fritz, RHP, 30th pick. Fritz has showed the stuff that made him a first-round pick, but not the command that makes one a successful pitcher. His walk rate is nearly 4.5 per 9 innings in the California League and his ERA is close to 6.00. His strikeout rate is good enough and his problems stem from giving up a large amount of hits, so expect improvement. He's hardly looking like a first-round steal, however.
Jeremy Brown, C, 35th pick. Brown is one of the stars of Moneyball, as his story is told of one who is lucky to be drafted turning into a first-round pick because of his ability to work the count. He's managed to make it all the way to AA in quick fashion and is posting a .383 on base percentage, which the A's have to love. However, lost in the "Jeremy Brown is great" hoopla is the fact that he's become the power equivalent of Luis Castillo. A minuscule 16 percent of his hits are going for extra bases, which is poor for even a gold-glove middle infielder.
Beane claims that power often develops later on, pointing to Jason Giambi as an example. My research has shown that very few players will develop into major-league power hitters after slapping singles in the minor leagues. Brown's going to have to start getting some extra-base hits or I'm not going to be optimistic about his future.
Steve Obenchain, RHP, 37th pick. Obenchain has been limited to 15 very mediocre innings this year after being placed on the disabled list on April 20th. His injury is not the usual pitching injury, though. He was hit in the head while shagging fly balls and suffered a concussion. Needless to say, we don't really have much to go on here, besides the fact that he would make a horrible outfielder.
Mark Teahen, 3B, 39th pick. Like Brown, Teahen was a guy that the scouts had no interest in but Beane selected anyway. Most saw him as a Bill Mueller-type third baseman with questionable power for a corner infield spot. Early on, he's exactly that, posting a solid .397 on-base percentage but seeing just 23 percent of his hits go for extra bases in the California League. History is littered with guys who could not maintain their minor-league walk rates without a threat of scaring high-level pitchers. His power may come eventually, but Teahen isn't going to appear on any top prospect lists this summer.
Overall, the first nine hitters the A's selected have combined to hit .285/.382/.393 and draw a good number of walks. However, they've also seen 75 percent of all their hits go for singles, and history is not kind to players with a that type of skill set. Eliminating Nick Swisher (who even the scouts loved) from the equation brings the slugging percentage down to .377 and the XBH percentage to 23.7 percent. The early returns suggest that Beane may have spent several million dollars for the right to develop a new crop of David Ecksteins.
Clearly, it is too early to judge the success of the A's new draft philosophy. This is not meant to condemn the drafting of college players, or even the specific players that the A's selected. However, Lewis' writing suggests that Beane has found the Holy Grail of player development. At this point in time, its just as likely that he's simply found a wooden cup.
The book states that Lewis wanted to tell the story of how the A's managed to win with so little money. Unfortunately, there are but passing mentions of pitching coach Rick Peterson and his three aces. Precious little time is devoted to the development of Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, and Tim Hudson. Perhaps, this is because it is much tougher to create a genius-level hero out of someone who built his staff around the number-two and number-nine picks in the draft.
Mark Mulder was the consensus best pitcher in America when the A's selected him. Barry Zito, despite the book's claims that he was not a scout's favorite, was a surefire first-round pick when the A's selected him ninth overall. Tim Hudson's development as a 6th round pick has as much to do with the foresight of Grady Fuson and the tutelage of the A's coaching staff as it does with any new insights that statistical analysis bring to the game.
The book's emphasis on the A's offensive philosophy does a disservice to the real reason Oakland has been a force the past three seasons. Their pitching staff has carried a mediocre offense into the playoffs, and the offense has been built around players who don't conform to the A's philosophy. The true heroes of the success of the Oakland Athletics lie with Rick Peterson and the minor-league pitching coordinators who have created a pitching development factory.
I walked away from Moneyball satisfied that I had read a terrific book. I also walked away hoping that people would not take the assertions Lewis made about player development at face value. The A's are an extremely successful organization, but it isn't their stress on on-base percentage or newfound love of college players that has led them to their current heights. Grady Fuson is a minor character in Moneyball, but he was a major architect of the A's team that was the center of the book. Billy Beane may consider Paul DePodesta his right hand man, but he should not underestimate the impact that Fuson's old school mentality had on building what he currently oversees.
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David Cameron is writing his own insider book. Explain that "Diary of a Madman" has already been used, and that Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria may not want his own spin-off reality show at firstname.lastname@example.org.