Michael (Michael M.) Lewis.

Moneyball : the art of winning an unfair game online

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one batter more useful to an ottense: Harry Bonds. Giambi has all
the crude offensive attributes — home runs, high batting average, a
perennially high number ot RBls. He also has the subtler attrib-
utes. When he's in the lineup, for instance, the opposing pitcher is
forced to throw a lot more pitches than when he isn't. The more
pitches the opposing starting pitcher throws, the earlier he'll be
relieved. Reliet pitchers aren't starting pitchers tor a reason: they
aren't as good. When a team wades into the opponent's bullpen in
the first game ot a series, it teasts, in games two and three, on
pitching that is not merely inferior but exhausted. "Baseball is a
war of attrition," Billv Beane was fond of saying, "and what's
being attrited is pitchers' arms."

A hitter like Giambi performed many imperceptible services for
his team. His abilitv to wear down first string pitchers gave every-
one else more chances to hit against the second string. This abil-
ity, like every other, grew directly from his perfect understanding
of the strike zone. He had the hitter's equivalent of perfect pitch,
and the young men in the video room are attuned to its value.

"Watch," says Paul, as SI 7 million a year of hitter steps up to
the plate and stares blankly at S237,S00 of pitcher. "Giambi's cut
the strike zone completely in half." It isn't Giambi's obvious pow-
ers that have him excited. It's his self-control, and the effect it has
on pitchers. Giambi makes it nearly impossible for even a very



GIAMBI'S HOLE 145

good pitcher to do what he routinely does with lesser hitters: con-
trol the encounter. And Eric Hiljus isn't, tonight, a very good
pitcher.

David points to the screen and shows me the sliver of the plate
over which a pitch must pass for Giambi to swing at it. The line
he traces omits a chunk of the inner half of the plate. "He has a
hole on the inside where he can't do much with a pitch and so he
lays off it/' says David.

Every hitter has a hole. "The strike zone is too big to cover it
all," as Paul says. Ted Williams wrote a book, called The Science
of Hitting, in which he imagined the strike zone as a grid of
seventy-seven baseballs and further imagined what he could, and
couldn't, do with a baseball thrown to each of the seventy-seven
spots. There were eleven spots, all low and most away, where, if
the pitch was thrown to them and Ted Williams swung, he hit
under .270. Barry Bonds, during spring training, had given an inter-
view with ESPN in which he as much as said, "if you make your
pitch, you can get me out." The issue wasn't whether a hitter had
a weakness, but where it was. Every pitcher in the big leagues
knew that Giambi's hole was waist-high, on the inside corner of
the plate. It was about the size of a pint of milk, two baseballs in
height and one baseball in width.

Which raised an obvious question: why don't the pitchers just
aim for the milk pint? When I ask it, Feiny smiles and shakes his
head. "They do," David says. "But he's so good he'll step back and
rip one foul into the upper deck. After that, the pitcher won't ever
go inside again."

"And his weakness is right next to his greatest strength," says
Paul. "If they miss by two inches over the plate, the ball is gone.
The pitcher is out there thinking: 'I can get him out there. But if I
miss by even a fraction, he'll destroy me.'"

It's not clear what Eric Hiljus is thinking — other than he has no
interest in flirting with the inside part of the plate. His first pitch
is a ball just off the outside corner; his second pitch, a fastball,



146 MONEYBflLL

closer to the middle. Giambi yanks it into right field for a single
that drives Soriano home.

The A's hitters go quietly in the first. In the top of the second,
Eric HilJLis contmues to mdiilge Yankee hitters with fastballs
down the middle of the plate and thev strike for fcuir more runs,
three on a home run hy Derek leter. About the third time that I
shout while the rest of the video room remains silent, I reahze I
am not only watching the game differently but am watching a dif-
ferent game. My eyes keep drifting to the one TV screen that,
almost apologetically, displays the commercial broadcast. They
focus on a different screen — an internal feed directlv from the cen-
ter field camera — that offers them the clearest view ot the strike
zone. I'm watching the whole game, and responding the way an
ordinary fan responds. I'm looking for story lines and dramatic
events and other fuel tor mv emotions. Thev're watching frag-
ments — not the game itselt but derivatives ot the game — and
responding, so tar as I can tell, not at all. Finally, I say something
about it.

"It's looking at process rather than outcomes," Paul says. "Too
many people make decisions based on outcomes rather than
process."

The route a pitch takes to the catcher's mitt ;.s an outcome, I
say. It's iust a more subtle outcome.

"It's not what happened, " says Paul, "it's how our guy
approached it."

It's impossible to determine, from the stands or the dugout or
the luxury suites or even the commercial broadcast, whether a
ball traveling 90 miles an hour was half an inch off or half an inch
over home plate. Only here, in the video room, can they see the
biggest thing thev feel they need to know to evaluate their play-
ers: whether a pitch is a ball or a strike. "The strike zone is the
heart of the game," Bill James had written, and their behavior
underscored the fact.

When the Yankees finish pummeling Eric Hiljus, and the A's



GIAMBI'S HOLE 147

come to bat, David pulls out a neatly typed piece of paper that
hints at Paul's meaning. It reads:

Tejada: 38%
Chavez: 34%
Long: 31%
Hernandez: 29%
Pena: 27%
Menechino: 19%
Justice: 18%
Giambi: 17%
Hatteberg: 14%

The A's front office record every pitch thrown to Oakland A's
hitters, both by type and location. They've mined these to deter-
mine the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone each player
has swung at. Each plate appearance they think of as a miniature
game in itself, in which the odds shift constantly. The odds
depend on who is pitching and who is hitting, of course, but they
also depend on the minute events within the event. Every plate
appearance was like a hand of blackjack; the tone of it changed
with each dealt card. A first-pitch strike, for instance, lowered a
hitter's batting average by about seventy-five points, and a first-
pitch ball raised them about as much. But it wasn't the first pitch
that held the most drama for the cognoscenti; it was the third.
"The difference between 1-2 and 2-1 in terms of expected out-
comes is just enormous," says Paul. "It's the largest variance of
expected outcomes of any one pitch. On 2-1 most average major
league hitters become all-stars, yet on 1-2 they become anemic
nine-hole hitters. People talk about first-pitch strikes. But it's
really the first two out of three."

Any ball out of the strike zone was an opportunity for a batter
to shift the odds in his favor. All you had to do was: not swing!
The bottom half of the A's lineup was systematically, willfully.



148 MONEYBflLL

shifting the odds in the pitchers' tavor. "I envy casino managers,"
says Paul. "At least they can be sure that their blackjack dealers
won't hit on 19."

The entire bottom half of the A's lineup — Miguel Tejada, Eric
Chavez, Ramon Hernandez, Carlos Pena, and Terrence Long — is
playing a different, more reckless game than the top half — Jeremy
Giambi, Scott Hatteberg, David Justice, Frank Menechino. The
top half is hitting with discipline, and avoiding swinging at bad
pitches. The bottom half is hacking awav. The odd thing about
this is that the top half was acquired through trades from other
clubs, and the bottom half, with the exception of Terrence Long
and Carlos Pena, is homegrown.

The guys who aren't behaving properly at the plate are precisely
those who have had the approach drilled into them by A's hitting
coaches from the moment they became pro players. The seem-
ingly inverse correlation between the amount of discipline exhib-
ited by a big league hitter and the amount of time his team has
spent trying to tecich him discipline has led Billy Beane to con-
clude that discipline can't be taught. (Actually what he says is, "It
can be taught, but we'd have to take guys in diapers to do it."l You
could see lust by looking at David's list why Billy felt he had to
seize control of the amateur draft from his scouts. What most
scouts thought of as a learned skill of secondary importance the
A's management had come, through hard experience, to view vir-
tually as a genetic trait, and the one most likely to lead to baseball
success.

Which raises another obvious question: if Miguel Tejada and
Ramon Hernandez and Eric Chavez are still swinging at bad
pitches after years of being told not to, how can any list make a
difference' This time when I ask it, Feiny doesn't smile at my stu-
pidity. "They've spent five years with Miggy [they all call Tejada
"Miggy"] in here trying to teach him what not to swing at," he
says, "and he still swings at it."

"When you have it on paper, it's evidence," says David. "They



GIAMBI'S HOLE 149

say they don't believe you, but when you show them they're hit-
ting .140 when they swing at the first pitch, it gets their attention.
Sometimes."

David Justice interrupts the conversation. Seconds after the A's
come into the dugout, Justice, who has been playing right field,
appears in the video room "Feiny, can I see my at bat?" he asks.
He's not even breathing hard. The great thing about baseball play-
ers, from the point of view of personal hygiene, is how seldom
they break a sweat.

Justice sits and watches a replay of himself being called out on
strikes. The third strike was clearly off the plate by about three
inches. He races through the first few pitches to get to the bad call.
"The ump set up on the inside," Justice says, when he gets to the
final pitch. "He can't even see that outside pitch."

He has a point: an umpire has to choose which of the catcher's
shoulders to look out over and he's chosen to look out over the
inside part of the plate. Justice wants to rewind the tape and prove
his case all over again, but the A's least disciplined hitters are up
and out with amazing speed. The war of attrition is turning into a
rout. Eric Hiljus has thrown fifty-four pitches in the first two
innings. David Wells throws twelve pitches in the first and just six
more — two each to Tejada, Chavez, and Long — in the second
before he strolls back to the dugout. Justice can't even finish com-
plaining before he has to run out and play right field.

Justice was the second of three defective parts the A's front
office had hired to replace Jason Giambi's bat. "Defective" wasn't
actually the word Paul had used. "Warts" was. As in, "What gets
me really excited about a guy is when he has warts, and everyone
knows he has warts, and the warts just don't matter." All you had
to do to see what Paul might mean by warts was to stroll through
the Oakland A's clubhouse as the players emerged from the show-
ers: not a pretty sight. Justice was an exception, however. Justice
was still a physical specimen. He looked as handsome and cocky
and fit as ever. Warts? For chrissake, I thought, he's David Justice.



mm



150 MONEYBflLL

He has more postseason hits than any player in history. He's Halle
Berry's ex. Whatever had happened hetween hun and Halle Berry,
it was hard to find any obvious tault with David lustice.

"What's wrong with him'" 1 ask, once he's gone.

"He's thirty-six," says Paul.

The previous year Justice had started to show his age. He'd
taken swings in the World Series that looked positively amateur-
ish. But he'd also played most of the year injured and it was hard
to say how much ot his drastic decline was a result of the injury
and how much of it was caused hv old age. A baseball player typ-
ically ripens in his late twenties; as he enters his mid-thirties, he's
treated as guiltv until he proves his innocence. Last year justice
had as much as confessed to the baseball crime oi aging. And this
is what had made him an Oakland A. In his prime, justice had
been the sort of sensational hitter the Oakland A's could never
have afforded to buv on the open market. Thev could afford him
now only because no one else wanted him: the rest ot baseball
looked at Justice and saw a has-been. Billv Beane had cut a deal
with the Yankees that left the A's with Justice for one year at a
salary of $3.,S million, halt what the Yankees had paid him the
year before. The Yankees picked up the other halt. The Yankees
were, in effect, paying David Justice to play against them. I tell
Paul that doesn't sound like a good way to beat the Yankees.

"He's an experiment for us," says Paul. "We see this as a game
of skill, not an athletic event. What we want to see is: at an age of
physical decline does the skill maintain its level, even when a
player no longer has the physical ability to expltMt it!"'

It was a funny way to put it: an experiment. What general truth
could be found out from the study of one man'

Justice isn't one man, Paul says. He's a type: an aging slugger of
a particular sort. Paul has made another study. He'd found that an
extraordinary ability to get on base was more likely to stay with a
player to the end of his career than, say, an extraordinary ability to
hit home runs. Players who walked a lot tended actually to walk



GIAMBI'S HOLE 151

even more as they got older, and Justice walked a lot. Just a few
years ago Justice's ability to wait for pitches he could drive — to not
get himself out by swinging at a pitcher's pitch — had enabled him
to hit lots of home runs, too. Much of his power was now gone.
His new Oakland teammates witnessed his dissipation up close.
After he'd hit a long fly ball, Justice would return to the A's dugout
and say, matter of factly, "That used to be out." There was some-
thing morbid about it, like watching a death, play-by-play.

The A's front office didn't care. They sought only to milk the
last few ounces of superior on-base percentage out of David Justice
before he expired.

"Does Justice have any idea that you think of him this way?" I
asked.

"No."

He didn't. None of them did. At no point were the lab rats
informed of the details of the experiment. They were praised for
their walks, and criticized for swinging at pitches out of the strike
zone. But they weren't ever told that the front office had reduced
offense to a science, or thought they had. They had no idea that
their management had reduced them to their essential baseball
ingredients and these did not include guts or heart or determina-
tion or anything else that ordinary fans, or their mothers, would
love them for. The players were simply aware that some higher
power guided their actions. They were also aware that the higher
power was not, as on most teams, the field manager. Terrence
Long complained that the A's front office didn't let him steal
bases. Miguel Tejada said he was aware that Billy Beane wanted
him to be a more patient hitter. "If 1 don't take twenty walks," he
said, "Billy Beane send me to Mexico." Eric Chavez recalled, in an
interview with Baseball America, how oddly the A's system, over
which Billy had presided, trained him. "The A's started showing
me these numbers," Chavez said, "how guys' on-base percentages
are important. It was like they didn't want me to hit for average or
for home runs, but walks would get me to the big leagues." Billy



tm^



152 MONEYBflLL

Beane was a character in his players' imaginations — though not a
terrihly well drawn one.

The A's scored a run in the bottom ot the third. Goliath 5, David
1. Finally I ask: "Where is Billy?"

"The weight room," says Paul, without looking up.

The weight roomy

"Billy's a little strange during the games," says David.

It WASN'T LnNc. after a player was traded to Oakland before he
realized that his new team ran ditterently from any ot his previous
ones, although it generally took him some time to figure out why.
At some point he grasped that his new general manager wasn't
like his old one. Most GMs shook vour hand when thev signed
you and phoned you when thev got rid ot you. Between your
arrival and departure vou might catch the odd glimpse of the boss,
say, up in his luxury suite, but typically he was a remote figure.
This CM wasn't like that. This CM, so far as anyone could tell,
never set foot inside his luxury suite.

That IS what the new plaver noticed right away: that Billy
Beane hung around tlie clubhouse more than the otber GMs.
David lustice, who had spent fourteen vears with the Braves, the
Indians, and the Yankees, claimed he'd seen more of Billy in the
first half of the 2002 season than he had all the other GMs put
together. The new member of the team would see Billy in the
locker room asking some shell-shocked pitcher why he'd thrown
a certain pitch in a certain count. Or he'd see Billy chasing down
the clubhouse hallway after the Panamanian pinch hitter, badger-
ing him about some disparaging comment he'd made about the
base on balls. Or he'd dash up the tunnel from the dugout in the
middle of the game to watch tape of his previous at bat, and find
Billy in shorts and a T-shirt, dripping sweat from a workout, at the
other end; and, if the game wasn't going well, he might find Billy
throwing stuff around the clubhouse. Breaking things.



GIRMBI'S HOLE 153

It was hard to know which of Billy's qualities was most impor-
tant to his team's success: his energy, his resourcefulness, his
intelligence, or his ability to scare the living shit out of even very
large professional baseball players. Most GMs hadn't played the
game and tended to be physically intimidated in the presence of
big league players. Billy had not only played, he might as well
wear a sign around his neck that said: I've been here, so don't go
trying any of that big league bullshit on me. He didn't want your
autograph. He wasn't looking to be your buddy. Seldom did the
player see Billy socially, away from the clubhouse. Billy kept his
distance, even when he was right in your face. Nevertheless, he
was a presence.

After a while the new player would start to wonder if there was
any place previously reserved for men in uniform that Billy didn't
invade. There was, just one. The dugout. Major League Baseball
rules forbade the general manager from sitting in the dugout. But
even there the GM was never very far away, because the manager.
Art Howe, walked around with a miniature Billy Beane perched on
his shoulder, hollering in his ear. In the Oakland A's dugout
occurred the most extraordinary acts of mind control; if Art had a
spoon in his head Billy could have bent it with his brain waves.
One time Adam Piatt, the spare outfielder, had gone up to the
plate in a tight game with a runner on first base with one out, and
bunted the guy over. Just like you were supposed to do. Just like
everyone in baseball did. Art hadn't exactly disapproved — at heart
Art was an old baseball guy. Instead, incredibly, he had wandered
down to where Piatt sat in the dugout and said, "You did that on
your own, right?"

The TV viewers saw only the wise old manager conferring with
his young player. They probably assumed they were witnessing
the manager making some fine point about the art of the sacrifice
bunt. The manager was more concerned with the politics of the
sacrifice bunt: Art Howe wanted to make sure that it wasn't him
who got yelled at by the GM after the game. Sure enough, in the



154 MONEYBflLL

papers the next day Piatt confessed that he had hunted on his
own — that Art hadn't given him the signal. Art, tor his part,
offered the reporters an impromptu lecture that might have heen
written hv the CM himself on whv the sacrifice bunt was a had
play. (Baseball players and coaches often used the newspapers to
send memos to their general managers.)

Before long the new member of the Oakland A's realized: Billy
Beane ran the whole show. He was like a Hollvwood producer who
insisted on meddling not only with the script but also the lights
and camera and sets and wardrobes. He wasn't lust making the
trades and supervising scouts and getting his name in the papers
and whatever else a GM did. He was deciding whether to bunt or
steal; who played and who sat; who hit in which spot in the
lineup; how the bullpen was used; even the manager's subtle psy-
chological tactics. It you watched the games ch)sely you noticed
that Art Howe alwavs stood on the dugout steps above the play-
ers, his chin raised and a philosophical expression upon his face.
Art had a great chin. When he stood up and thrust it out, he looked
like George Washington crossing the Delaware. No manager in
baseball better conveved, with the thrust of his chin, the idea that
he was completely in control of any situation. They flashed up on
the television screen that stoic image of Art ten times a game and
at some point the announcers felt moved to mention Art's calm-
ing effect on young players. Art became known throughout base-
ball as the steady hand on the tiller. Why? Because he looked the
part!

The whole thing was a piece of theatre. Billy had told Art how
and where to stand during a game so that the players would be
forced to look up to him, and take strength from his countenance,
because when Art sat on the bench, as he preferred to do, he
looked like a prisoner of war.

It was a different scene here in Oakland, and some players
enjoyed it more than others. The thirty-nine-year-old utility
infielder. Randy Velarde, complained often to reporters that the



GlfiMBI'S HOLE 155

team was run from the front office and that the front office
wouldn't let anyone bunt or steal. The twenty-three-year-old star
pitcher, Barry Zito, said that it didn't matter who played for the
Oakland A's or how much money the team had to spend: as long
as Billy Beane ran the team, it had a shot at championships. A
player who preferred to remain anonymous, asked how it would
affect the team if Art Howe was fired, said that he couldn't see
what difference it would make since "Billy runs the team from the
weight room anyway." And it was true: before every home game
Billy would put on his jock and head for the weight room. During
the first couple of innings he'd run a few miles and lift a few
weights and generally remind whichever pitchers and bench play-
ers who had sneaked out of the dugout to get in their workouts
that they played for the only team in the history of baseball on
which the general manager was also the best athlete. After that,
what he did depended on the situation.

What he didn't do was watch the games. When he watched his
team live, he became so upset he'd become a danger to baseball
science. He'd become, as he put it, "subjective." His anger might
lead him to do something unconsidered. The notion that he would
huddle in his luxury suite with friends and family and visiting dig-
nitaries — well, that just wasn't going to happen. Some visiting
dignitary would hint he might like to see a game from Billy's box
and Billy would say, "Fine, just don't think I'll be seeing it with
you." His guest thought Billy was joking, until he discovered he
had the suite to himself.

Billy couldn't bear to watch; on the other hand, he couldn't bear
not to watch. He carried around in his pocket a little white box,
resembling a pager, that received a satellite feed of live baseball
scores. The white box was his chief source of real time informa-
tion about the team he ran. He'd get into his SUV and drive in cir-
cles around the Coliseum, peeking every few minutes at the tiny
white box. Or he'd set himself up in a place inside the clubhouse,
white box in hand. He was like some tragic figure in Greek



156 MONEYBflLL

mythology whose offenses against the gods had caused them to
design for him this exquisite torture: you must desperately need
to see what you cannot bear to see.

Only every now and then Billy Beane did see. He'd permit him-
self a furtive glimpse of the action on live television, behind the
closed door of Art Howe's office. And when he did, he usually
wound up needing to complain to someone, whereupon he'd go
find Paul and David in the video room.

Tonight happened to be one of those nights, In the middle of the
fourth inning, with the A's still trailing 5-1, Billy appears in the
doorway of the video room. He's wearing shorts and a T-shirt
soaked with sweat. His cheeks arc flushed. In his hand is his little
white box. He hasn't watched the game exactly, but he has


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Online LibraryMichael (Michael M.) LewisMoneyball : the art of winning an unfair game → online text (page 13 of 24)