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Moneyball : the art of winning an unfair game online

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STATS Inc. The original contribution to new baseball knowledge
of AVM Systems was how much more precisely it analyzed data,
and how much more exactly it valued the performances of the
players. Mauriello and Armbruster began by turning every major
league diamond into a mathematical matrix ot location points.
Every point they marked with a number. Thev then reclassified
every ball that was hit. There was no sucb thing in their record as
a double; that was too sloppy. There were no such thing as pop
flies, line drives, and grounders: finer distinctions needed to be
made. A ball was hit with a certain velocity and trajectory to a cer-
tain grid on the field. In the AVM recording of a baseball game, a
line drive double in the left-center gap became a ball hit with a
certain force that landed on point #64.^.

The system then carved up what happened in every baseball
play into countless tiny, meaningful fragments. Derivatives.
"There are all sorts of things that happen in the context of a base-
ball play," said Armbruster, "that just never got recorded." A tiny
example: after a single to right tield a runner who had been on tirst
base, seeing that Raul Mondesi is the right fielder, stops at second
base instead of dashing to third. Runners seldom tried to go from
first to third on balls hit to right field when Raul Mondesi was
playing there. That was obviously worth something: what? Just as
it never occurred to anyone on Wall Street to think about the
value of pieces of a stock or a bond until there was a pile of money



THE SCIENCE OF WINNING AN UNFAIR GAME 133

to be made from the exercise, it never occurred to anyone in the
market for baseball players to assign values to the minute compo-
nents of a baseball player's performance — until baseball players
became breathtakingly expensive.

Bill James's work had been all about challenging the traditional
understanding of the game, by questioning the meaning of its sta-
tistics. The financial experts at AVM took this idea even further,
by recording the events that occurred on a baseball field without
any reference whatsoever to the traditional statistics. It wasn't
just circumstantial statistics such as "RBIs" and "saves" that the
AVM model ignored. It ignored all conventional baseball statis-
tics. The system replaced the game seen by the ordinary fan with
an abstraction. In AVM's computers the game became a collection
of derivatives, a parallel world in which baseball players could be
evaluated more accurately than they were evaluated in the real
world.

Paul DePodesta was an intern for the Cleveland Indians when
he met the former Wall Street traders turned baseball analysts,
making their first sales trip around Major League Baseball. He
remembers his reaction to their presentation: Oh my God. "It
opened my eyes for me," said Paul. "The biggest thing that AVM
does is extract the element of luck. Everyone in baseball knows
how much luck is involved in the game but they all say, 'The luck
evens out.' What AVM was saying is that it doesn't. It's not good
enough to say, 'Aw, it just evens out.'"

An insight born in the financial markets took root in the minds
of a young man who would soon have the power to put it to use
inside Major League Baseball. Not long after Billy Beane had hired
Paul DePodesta, in 1998, Paul persuaded Billy to hire AVM Sys-
tems. "They were still interesting to me," Paul said, "because
they weren't churning conventional statistics in unconventional
ways, which is what everyone else does." AVM Systems was a lux-
ury only a rich team could afford but that only a poor team, des-
perate for any edge, would think to use. Billy and Paul used the



134 MONEYBflLL

AVM system for a couple of years and then, to save money, copied
what AVM did. Once Paul finished replicating the parallel world
of derivatives, he and Billy could hegin to answer more accurately
the question about Johnny Damon's defense.

Every event on a baseball field Paul understood as having an
"expected run value." You don't need to be able to calculate
expected run values to understand them. Everything that happens
on a baseball field alters, often very subtlv, a team's chances of
scoring runs. Every event im a baseball field changes, often imper-
ceptibly, the state of the game. For example, the value of having
no runners on base with nobody on base and no count on the bat-
ter is roughly ..SS runs, because that is what a baseball team, on
average, will score in that situation. If the batter smacks a double,
he changes the "state" of the game: it's now nobodv out with a
runner on second base. The expected run value ni that new "state"
IS 1.1 runs. It follows that the contribution oi a leadotf double to
a team's expected runs is SS runs |1.1 minus ..S.Sl. It the batter,
instead of hitting a double, strikes out, he lowers the team's
expected run value to roughly ..^0 runs. The cost of making that
out was therefore .25 runs — the difference between the value of
the original state of the game and the state the batter left it in.

But those calculations rcallv only scratch the surface of the
problem. If vou want to strip out the luck and get to n deeper
understanding of the value ni a player's performance you have to
pose the baseball equivalent of existential questions. For instance:
what IS a double-' It really isn't enough to say that a double is
when a runner hits a ball and gets to second base without a
fielder's error. Anyone who has seen a baseball game knows that
all doubles are not alike. There are doubles that should have been
caught — iust as there are balls that are hit that should have been
doubles but were plucked from the air by preternaturally gifted
fielders. There are lucky doubles and unlucky outs. To strip out
the luck what you need, really, is something like a Platonic idea
of a double.



THE SCIENCE OF WINNING AN UNFAIR GAME 135

A set of Platonic ideas is one of the gifts the Wall Street traders
gave to Paul DePodesta. The precision of the AVM system, copied
by Paul, enabled him to think about every event that occurred on
a baseball field in a new and more satisfying way. Any ball hit any-
place on a baseball field had been hit just that way thousands of
times before: the average of all those hits was the Platonic idea.
Call it a line drive hit at x trajectory and y speed to point #968.
From the ten years worth of data, you can see that there have been
8,642 practically identical hits. You can see that 92 percent of the
time the hit went for a double, 4 percent for a single, and 4 percent
it was caught. Suppose the average value of that event is .50 of a
run. No matter what actually happened, the system credits the
hitter with having generated .50 of a run, and the pitcher with
having given up .50 of a run. If Johnny Damon happens to get one
of his trademark jumps and makes a sprawling catch, he is cred-
ited with saving his team .50 of a run.

The beauty of the value of that hit (or catch) was that the game
gave it to you; the game told you how valuable every event was,
by telling you how valuable it had been, on average, over the past
ten years. By listening to what the game told him about the value
of events, Paul could take every ball hit between in the area
broadly defined as center field and determine its "expected run
value."

Which brings us back to Johnny Damon. Over the 2001 season
many hundreds of balls had been hit by opponents of the Oakland
A's in the vicinity typically covered by the center fielder. By total-
ing up the outcomes when Johnny Damon was in the field, and
comparing them to the average, Paul was able to see how many
runs Damon had saved the team. He was also able to estimate how
many runs Damon's likely replacement, Terrence Long, would cost
the team. Some of this you could see with the naked eye, of
course. You could see Johnny Damon break the instant the ball
left the bat. You could see Terrence Long freeze, or even take off
in the wrong direction, when the ball was in midflight. You didn't



136 MONEYBflLL

really need Wall Street traders to tell you which one was the bet-
ter center tielder. The system born on Wall Street smiply helped
Paul to put a price on the difterence. There was no k)nger any need
to guess. There was no need for gut instinct, or conventional field-
ing statistics. The total cost of having Terrence Long, rather than
Johnny Damon, in center field was fifteen runs, or about a run
every ten games.

Fifteen runs was not a trivial number. In the end, Paul con-
cluded that Johnny Damon's fielding was more important than
Billy Beane believed — the first pamphlet Billv had read on the sub-
ject had said that fielding was "no more than ,S%" ot baseball — but
not so much more that you wanted to pay Johnnv Damon the $8
million a year his agent was asking for. And the truth was that you
still couldn't make perfectly definitive statements about fielding.
"There was still no exact number," Paul said, "because the svstem
doesn't measure where a defensive player started from. It doesn't
tell vou how far a guv had to go to catch a ball." What looked like
superior defense might have been brilliant detensive positioning
by the bench coach.

There was one other big glitch: these sorts of calculations could
value onlv past performance. No matter how accurately you val-
ued past performance, it waN still an uncertain guide to future per-
formance, lohnnv L^amon (or Terrence Long) might lose a step.
Johnny Damon (or Terrence Long) might take to drink, or get
divorced. Johnny Damon (or Terrence Long) might decide that
he'd made enough money already and lose his middle-class enthu-
siasm for running down fly balls. In human behavior there was
always uncertainty and risk. The goal of the Oakland front office
was simply to minimize the risk. Their solution wasn't perfect, it
was just better than the hoary alternative, rendering decisions by
gut feeling.

Of one thing they were certain: their system brought you a lot
closer to the true value of a player's performances than anything
else like it. And it reinforced the Oakland A's working theory that



THE SCIENCE OF WINNING AN UNFAIR GAME 137

a guy's hitting ability had a far greater effect than his fielding abil-
ity on a team's performance. Albert Belle missed more fly balls
than any other left fielder in baseball, but the system proved that
he more than made up for it by swatting more doubles. Or as Paul
put it, "The variance between the best and worst fielders on the
outcome of a game is a lot smaller than the variance between the
best hitters and the worst hitters." The market as a whole failed
to grasp this fact, and so placed higher prices than it should on
defensive skills. Thus the practical answer to the question about
Johnny Damon's defense: it would probably cost more to replace
than it was worth. Anyone who could play center field so well as
Damon was either a lot worse offensively than Damon, or over-
priced. The most efficient way to offset the loss of Johnny
Damon's defense was to add more offense.

The Blue Ribbon Panel Report believed that a poor team could
never survive the loss to free agency of its proven stars. But the
business was more complicated than that. The departures of
Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen, both proven stars, were
not great blows to the Oakland A's. The loss of Isringhausen was
not really a loss at all but a piece of ruthless profiteering. Damon's
was a loss but nothing like the $32 million for four years the Red
Sox had guaranteed him. If the Oakland A's had lost just those two
players Paul's computer might have predicted that the team in
2002 would win as many games as they had in 2001. But they'd
also lost Jason Giambi, and Jason Giambi was another matter.
Giambi was maybe the worst defensive first baseman in the big
leagues but he was a machine for creating runs, one of the most
efficient offensive players in the game. Worse, Giambi was back in
Oakland, playing for the other team.



Chapter Seven



We're going tn run the organization trom the top down.

We're controlhng player personnel. That's our |oh. I don't

apologize tor that. There's this hehef that a hasehall team

starts with the manager first. It doesn't.

— Billv Bcjnc, quoted in the Wosfnn Hcriihi, Unuar^- 16, 200.1



THE OAKLAND AS cluhhousc \v;is tanKmslv the cheapest
and least charming real estate in prcitessKmal hasehall and
the vide(i nidin was the meanest corner ot it. Ott-limits to
reporters, just a tew yards down the hall from the showers, the
video room was where the players came to hide from newspaper
reporters, and to study themselves. One wall was stacked with old
tapes of A's games, the other with decrepit video equipment.
Stained Formica desks, a pair of old video screens on each one,
squatted on either end of the room. The only decoration was a
plastic map of the United States — hecause occasionally the play-
ers wanted to see which states they'd fly over on the next road
trip — and two pieces of a hat split against one of the Formica desks
by former A's outfielder Matt Stairs. Ahout six baseball players
could fit inside the room at once, and often did.

Between Matt Stairs's broken bat and the U.S. map usually sat
a young man named Dan Feinstcin — Feiny, everyone called him.
Twenty minutes before game time all that was left of the players

138



GIAMBI'S HOLE 139

in the video room was Miguel Tejada's Fig Newton wrappers.
Feiny spotted them and shook his head. The A's shortstop was one
of those people who had to be told to clean up his own mess, and
Feiny was one of those people who wouldn't hesitate to do it.

Feiny was putting his college degree in medieval European his-
tory to work preparing videotapes for the Oakland A's. He took
pride in his decrepit little space. Feiny argued that while rich
teams had far more expansive and tasteful facilities, they paid a
price for their luxury: their players never had to share close quar-
ters. They weren't forced to get to know one another by smell.
Feiny came to know all of the Oakland players, by smell and
swing, and he was determined that they should also know them-
selves. The night I arrived, the A's were playing the New York
Yankees, for whom David Wells was scheduled to pitch. Next to
Feiny there was a long row of tapes: Tejada vs. Wells. Menechino
vs. Wells. Chavez vs. Wells. I looked at the tapes, and then at
Feiny, who said, "1 don't have a good feeling about tonight." "Why
not?" I asked. "They're better than us," he said.

Next to Feiny, at one end of the video room, sat David Forst,
twenty-five-year-old former Harvard shortstop. Two years earlier,
after he'd graduated with an honors degree in sociology, Forst had
been invited to the Red Sox spring training camp. Dismissed in
the final cut, he sent his resume around big league front offices
and it caught Paul DePodesta's eye. And so, surely for the first
time since the dead ball era, the Harvard Old Boys' network came
to baseball. Paul himself sat at the desk on the other end of the
room. I ask them if it ever troubled them to devote their lives, and
expensive educations, to a trivial game. They look at me as if I've
lost my mind, and Paul actually laughed. "Oh, you mean as
opposed to working in some deeply meaningful job on Wall
Street?" he said.

It wasn't hard to see what Billy had seen in Paul when he'd
hired him: an antidote to himself. Billy was an undisciplined
omnivore. He let everything in and then worried about the conse-



140 MONEYBflLL

quences later. He ate about ten thousand calories of junk food
each day on the assumption that he could always run them off.
Ideas he consumed as rapidly and indiscriminately as cheese puffs.
He had been put on this earth to devour all of it; Paul, on the other
hand, seemed to be trying to establish some kind of record for fuel
efficiency. Food he treated with suspicion, as if the world's chefs
were conspiring to poison him. He'd somehow gotten thrcuigh a
private prep school and college without ever allowing a sip of alco-
hol to pass his lips, not because he had any conventional moral
objection to drinking but because research had established that
alcohol killed brain cells. About bis career he was fantastically
deliberate. He'd already turned down one lucrative offer, from the
Toronto Blue Jays, to become, at twenty-eight, the youngest gen-
eral manager in the history- of baseball, and he was prepared to
turn down more until exactly the right one came along. Paul was
finicky about ideas, too, but he had let in one big one: that there
was still such a thing as new baseball knowledge.

Paul was obviously a creature of reason but, beneath his reason,
other qualities percolated. He'd played sports in high school, and
then proved that a young man with the build of St. Francis of
Assisi could play wide receiver for the Harvard varsity football
team. ("He had the big heart," said his former coach, Mac Single-
ton.) Paul wasn't the sort of person who typically rises to power
inside a big league organization, and yet be had. He was an out-
sider who had found a way to enter a place designed to keep out-
siders out. Billy Beane had turned himself into a human bridge
between two warring countries — the fiefdom of Playing Pro Ball
and the Republic of Thinking About How to Play Pro Ball — and
Paul was dashing across it. Under his arm he carried both the
toolkit and the spirit of Bill James. "The thing that Bill James did
that we try to do," Paul said, "is that he asked the question why."

The question Paul might have been asking on this night early
in the 2002 season was: why the hell did we let Jason Giambi



GIAMBI'S HOLE 141

leave? The question that he had, in fact, asked was: why does it
matter that we let Jason Giambi leave?

The A's front office realized right away, of course, that they
couldn't replace Jason Giambi with another first baseman just like
him. There wasn't another first baseman just like him and if there
were they couldn't have afforded him and in any case that's not
how they thought about the holes they had to fill. "The important
thing is not to recreate the individual," Billy Beane would later
say. "The important thing is to recreate the aggregate." He couldn't
and wouldn't find another Jason Giambi; but he could find the
pieces of Giambi he could least afford to be without, and buy them
for a tiny fraction of the cost of Giambi himself.

The A's front office had broken down Giambi into his obvious
offensive statistics — walks, singles, doubles, home runs — along
with his less obvious ones — pitches seen per plate appearance,
walk to strikeout ratio — and asked: which can we afford to
replace? And they realized that they could afford, in a roundabout
way, to replace his most critical offensive trait, his on-base per-
centage, along with several less obvious ones.

The previous season Giambi's on-base percentage had been
.477, the highest in the American League by 50 points. (Seattle's
Edgar Martinez had been second at .423; the average American
League on-base percentage was .334.) There was no one player
who got on base half the time he came to bat that the A's could
afford; on the other hand, Jason Giambi wasn't the only player in
the Oakland A's lineup who needed replacing. Johnny Damon (on-
base percentage .324) was gone from center field, and the desig-
nated hitter Olmedo Saenz (.291) was headed for the bench. The
average on-base percentage of those three players (.364) was what
Billy and Paul had set out to replace. They went looking for three
players who could play, between them, first base, outfield, and
DH, and who shared an ability to get on base at a rate thirty points
higher than the average big league player. The astonishing thing,



142 MONEYBflLL

given how important on-base percentage was, or the Oakland A's
front office beheved it was, was how Httlc it cost. To buy it they
simply had to be willmg to sacrifice other qualities m a player —
such as the ability to outrun the hot dog vendor in a sixty-yard
dash. "We don't get the guys who are perfect," said Paul. "There
has to be something wrong with them tor them to get to us." To
fill the hole left by Giambi, the As had gone out and acquired, or
promoted from within the organization, three players most teams
didn't want have anything to do with: former Yankee outfielder
David Justice; former Red Sox catcher Scott Hatteberg; and lason
Giambi's little brother, leremy. They ct)uld only afford them, Paul
explained, because all were widelv viewed by Man)r League Base-
ball executives as defective.

As the Oakland As trot out to their positions in the field, Paul
takes his usual seat in front of one of the video screens. The cam-
era pans to left field. There stands leremy Giambi, shifting back
and forth unhappilv, like a man waiting for an unpleasant phone
call. He must know that he is standmg m a place where he faces
almost certain public humiliation. Paul can guess what leremy is
thinking: Please don't hit it to inc. Perhaps also: It you do hit it to
me, please be so kind as to hit it at inc.

On the second pitch of the game, Alfonso Soriano doesn't. The
Yankees' second baseman takes a tastball m ilic middle ot the
plate trom A's pitcher Eric Hilius and smacks it deep into lett tield.
Jeremy Giambi makes his way franticallv back toward the left
field wall, like a postman trying to escape a mad dog. He is the
slowest man on the slowest team in professional baseball. When
he runs, he manages somehow at the same time to convey per-
sonal embarrassment. He is too busy right now to wonder why he
is playing left field at all, but he well might. He is playing left field
not because he has any particular gift for plucking balls from the
air but because he is even more gloriously inept when faced with
the task of picking them up off the ground. Jeremy Giambi is in



GIAMBI'S HOLE 143

left field, to be exact, because the most efficient distribution of the
A's resources was to stick him there.

Jeremy Giambi believes he has reached the wall before he does.
He gropes the air behind him with his free hand, then he looks up.
Somewhere in the night sky is a ball; where, apparently, he is
unsure. He jumps, or, at any rate, simulates the act of jumping.
The ball somehow flies under his glove and bangs off the wall for
a double. As Soriano zips around first base, I yell at the televi-
sion — I hadn't come here to watch the underdog lose — and only
just stop myself from saying that the fans should sue for malprac-
tice. There was something indecent about hurling abuse at Oak-
land A's fielders, like hollering at cripples. It wasn't their fault
they'd landed in the middle of a lab experiment. Jeremy Giambi
never asked to play left field.

Paul DePodesta hardly blinks. Life with no money was filled
with embarrassing little trade-offs. The trick is to know precisely
what trade-offs you were making. A farce in left field is merely the
price of doing business with Jeremy Giambi's bat. But it's a com-
plex transaction. The game is only two pitches old and already the
cost is felt.

Soriano is standing on third base and Derek Jeter on first (infield
single) when Jason Giambi first comes to the plate. The three Yan-
kees on the field will be paid nearly as much this year as the A's
entire twenty-five-man roster. Giambi — Giambi's money — trans-
forms the arena. If you drilled a hole in either the roof or the front
wall of the video room you would quickly reach the largest crowd
in Oakland A's history: 54,513 people had come tonight, and not
merely because the New York Yankees were in town. They'd
come because the past two years the A's had been within a few
outs of knocking the Yankees from the play-offs. They'd come to
watch the latest plot twist in one of the great David and Goliath
stories in professional sports: Goliath, dissatisfied with his size
advantage, has bought David's sling. The Oakland fans wave signs



144 MONEYBHLL

at Giambi: traitor, sellout, greed. They scream worse things.
Yet in here, in the video room, their voices still cannot be heard.
Six television screens display a soundless frenzy. No one in the
video room so much as sighs. They have no interest m morality
tales. Morality is for fans.

As Jason Giambi steps into the hatter's box, the TV cameras
flash back and forth between him and his vounger brother in left
field. The announcers wish to draw out a tew comparisons. Poor
Jeremy. He still needed a baseball genius to divine his true worth
but any moron could see the value ot his older brother, at the
plate. In all of baseball for the past few years there has been onlv


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Online LibraryMichael (Michael M.) LewisMoneyball : the art of winning an unfair game → online text (page 12 of 24)