Michael (Michael M.) Lewis.

Moneyball : the art of winning an unfair game online

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sidearm, with control, at 90 mph plus. Chad himself adored the
thought that he might one day throw as hard as most guys — that
he would be normal. Instead, Chad came to throw underhand at
between 81 and 84 mph.

Dropping his release point had various effects, but the most
obvious was to reduce the distance between his hand, when the
ball left it, and the catcher's mitt. His 84-mile-per-hour fastball
took about as much time to reach the plate as a more conven-
tionally delivered 94-mile-per-hour one. Underhanded, his sinker
rose before it fell, like a tennis serve with vicious topspin. Ditto
his slider, which made straight for a right-handed hitter's eye
before swooping down and away. Even hitters who had faced him
before fought the instinct to flinch, and found it nearly impossible
to get under his pitches and lift them into the mountain air.
They'd start their swing at a rising ball and finish it at a falling
one. The best they could usually do with any of his pitches was to
beat them into the ground. As miserable as the Canadian Rockies
were for most pitchers, they might as well have been created for



232 MONEYBflLL

Chad Bradford to pitch in. No matter how thin the air, no matter
how strong the outgoing hreeze, it remained impossible to hit a
ground hall over the wall.

Guided by some combination of the survival instinct and the
failure to imagine any earthly role for liimself other than Big
League Pitcher, Chad Bradford dominated Triple-A hitters, even as
every other pitcher on the Calgary team struggled. In a ballpark
built for sluggers, he pitched fifty-one innings with an earned run
average of 1.94, and gave up only three home runs. Hitters rou-
tinely complained how uncomfortable they felt against him, how
hard Chad was to read, how deceptive he was. This was funny. Off
the pitcher's mound, Chad had no ability to deceive anyone about
anything. He was who he was. Country. Every now and then he
might try to get away with something at home — like not cleaning
out the garage when he'd told his wife that he would. He simply
couldn't do it. "I'll all but gotten away with something and then
I'll come clean," he said. "I just hate the guilt." On the pitcher's
mound, he had no guilt. The moment he scuffed the rubber with
his foot he became a pitiless con artist, a sinister magician. He
sawed pretty ladies in two, and made rabbits vanish.

He assumed, in a vague sort of way, that if he kept getting hit-
ters out, the White Sox front office would have no choice but to
call him up. He was right. Tossing a ball around with an older
minor leaguer one day, he was called into the Calgary manager's
office. His new assignment: catch the first plane to Dallas. He'd
join the White Sox bullpen in their upcoming series with the
Texas Rangers. He went right back on the field and resumed toss-
ing the ball around. The older player he'd been tossing with, a
pitcher named Larry Casian who would retire at the end of the
year, asked what the manager had wanted; and Chad told him.
Casian asked why on earth Chad was out playing catch on a
Triple-A field when he was meant to be flying to the big leagues.
Chad said he didn't know, and kept throwing. "1 think I was in
shock," he said. Eight years after his m mister and coach had



RNflTOMY OF AN UNDERVALUED PITCHER 233

showed him a trick to spare him the embarrassment of being cut
from his high school team, he was getting a chance to practice it
in the major leagues.

They called him into the second game of the three-game series
at The Ballpark in Arlington. He didn't feel he belonged; he felt
out of his depth. "You think: how'm 1 gonna do this? You think it's
like a totally different game than the one you played your whole
life." He retired the first seven batters he faced, in order. The last
two months of the season he pitched thirty and two-thirds innings
in relief for the White Sox, and finished with an earned run aver-
age of 3.23. At one point he'd made a dozen consecutive scoreless
appearances. In a season justly famous for the number of home
runs hit, none were hit off Chad Bradford.

In the off-season he went back, as he always did, and always
would, to Byram, Mississippi. For the first time, though he didn't
know why, he did not work out on the pitching mound his father
had built, and rebuilt, for him. Dropping down and throwing
sidearm had ended their games of catch. Making the big leagues
severed this final dependency. He didn't think anything of it; leav-
ing the old mound behind was just the next thing to do. When he
turned up for camp in the spring of 1999, he thought, "Great. I'm
in the big leagues."

He wasn't. The White Sox didn't trust Chad Bradford's success.
The White Sox front office didn't trust his statistics. Unwilling to
trust his statistics, they fell back on more subjective evaluation.
Chad didn't look like a big leaguer. Chad didn't act like a big lea-
guer. Chad's success seemed sort of flukey. He was a trickster that
big league hitters were certain to figure out. The White Sox brass
didn't say any of this to Chad's face, of course. During 1999 spring
training the White Sox CM, a former big league pitcher named
Ron Schueler, told Chad that his pitches weren't moving like they
used to move. He was sending Chad down to Triple-A. Chad didn't
have the nerve to say what he thought but he thought it all the
same: My ball doesn't movel But all I have is movement! When



V



234 MONEYBflLL

he gt)t to Tnplc-A, a coach assured hmi thai his ball moved as it
always had, and that the GM just needed something to tell him
other than the truth, that the White Sox tront otfice viewed hmi
as a "Triple-A guy."

The Good Lord might have had a plan for Chad Bradford but
apparently even He was retiuired to respect the mystery of life
behind the big league clubhouse door. For the next two years Chad
pitched mainly in the minor leagues, bouncing up only briefly, and
usually successfully, to the big league team. For two years he sim-
ply dominated Triple-A hitters and watched pitchers with much
less impressive statistics leapfrog him. "I watched guys get called
up from Double-A. I realized I was a just-in-case guy. Just in case
somebody got hurt. Just in case somebody got traded. That no
matter how well I did, I wasn't going to get called up." F^e talked
to his wife about quitting the White Sox and going to pitch in
Japan, where he might make a good living. Fie found that the only
way he could get himself out of bed in the morning and to the ball-
park was to remind himself that he wasn't pitching only for the
White Sox. "By the middle of the 1999 season 1 was pitching for
every cnher big league team that might be watching," he said. "I'm
just sitting there hoping someone's watching."

Someone was.

i HE POOL OF F'EOFLE Chad Bradford didn't know who had nev-
ertheless found him worthy of their attention had tripled. When
he was an amateur, one big league scout had taken an interest in
him. As a professional, he had two more distant admirers. One
was Paul DePodesta, who couldn't quite believe that the White
Sox were keeping this deadly pitching force in Triple-A, and had
mentioned to Billy Beane how nice it would be it he somehow
could talk the Chicago White Sox into making Chad Bradford an
Oakland A. The other was a bored paralegal in Chicago named



fiNflTOMY OF AN UNDERVALUED PITCHER 235

Voros McCracken. Looking for a way to ignore whatever he was
meant to be doing for the Chicago law firm that he loathed work-
ing for, Voros McCracken had taken up fantasy baseball. He didn't
know it, but he was about to explain why the Chicago White Sox
had so much trouble grasping the true value of Chad Bradford —
and why the Oakland A's did not.

Voros was thinking of drafting Chad Bradford for his fantasy
baseball team. But before he did, he wanted to achieve a better
understanding of major league pitching. Specifically, he wanted to
know how you could tell if a pitcher was any good.

Voros had played baseball as a kid, and there had been a time
when he had been obsessively interested in it. The moment his
interest became an intellectual obsession was in 1986 when, at
the age of fourteen, he picked up the most recent Bill James
Abstract. He was astonished by what he found inside. "Basically,
everything you know about baseball when you are fourteen years
old, you know from baseball announcers," said Voros. "Here was
this guy who was telling me that at least eighty percent of what
baseball announcers told me was complete bullshit, and then
explained very convincingly why it was." Voros's interest in base-
ball waned in his late teens and early twenties; but when he redis-
covered it, in the form of fantasy leagues on the Internet, it was in
the spirit of Bill James.

The Internet of course had consequences for the search for new
baseball knowledge. One of the things the Internet was good for
was gathering together people in different places who shared a
common interest. Internet discussion groups, and Web sites like
baseballprimer and baseballprospectus, sprung up, created by
young men who, as boys, had been seduced by the writings of Bill
James. In one of the discussion groups, where he went to discuss
what to do with his fantasy baseball team, Voros saw someone say
that no matter how much research was done, no one would be
able to distinguish pitching from defense. That is, no one would



V



236 MONEYBflLL

ever come up with good fielding statistics or, therefore, good
pitching statistics. It you don't know how to credit the fielder for
what happens after a hall gets put into play, you also, hy defini-
tion, don't know how to dehit the pitcher. And, therefore, you
would never be able to say with real certainty how good any given
pitcher was. Or, for that matter, any given fielder.

When Voros read that, "I thought, 'That's a stupid attitude.
Can't you do somcthiiii^r It didn't make any sense to me that the
way to approach the problem was to give up." He tried to think
about it logically. He divided the stats a pitcher had that the
defense behind him could affect (hits and earned runs) from the
stats a pitcher did all by himself (walks, strikeouts, and home
runs). He then ranked all the pitchers in the big leagues by this
second category. When he ran the stats for the 1999 season, he
wound up with a list topped by these five: Randy Johnson, Kevin
Brown, Pedro Martinez, Greg Maddux, and Mike Mussina. "I
looked at that list," said Voros, "and said, 'Damn, that looks like
the five best pitchers in baseball.'" He then asked the question: if
his reductive approach of looking at just walks, strikeouts, and
homers identified the five best pitchers in baseball, how impor-
tant could all the other stuff be?

As it happened, 1999 was supposedly an "off" year for Greg
Maddux. His earned run average had risen from 2.22 in 1998 to
3.57 in 1999, mainly because he gave up fifty-seven more hits in
thirty-two fewer innings. Several times during the season Maddux
himself mentioned that he was astonished by how many cheap
hits he was giving up; but of course no one paid any attention to
that. What Voros noticed was that Maddux's hits allowed per balls
put in play was far above what it usually was — in fact, it was
among the highest in the big leagues. As it happened, the same
year, Maddux's teammate, pitcher Kevin Millwood, had one of the
lowest hits allowed per balls in play. Even stranger, their statistics
the following year were reversed. Millwood had one of the highest



ANflTOMY OF AN UNDERVALUED PITCHER 237

ratios of hits per balls in play, Maddux one of the lowest. It didn't
make any sense.

Voros asked himself another question: from year to year is there
any correlation in a pitcher's statistics? There was. The number of
walks and home runs he gave up, and the number of strikeouts he
recorded were, if not predictable, at least understandable. A guy
who struck out a lot of hitters one year tended to strike out a lot
of hitters the next year. Ditto a guy who gave up a lot of home
runs. But when it came to the number of hits per balls in play a
pitcher gave up, there was no correlation whatsoever.

It was then that a radical thought struck Voros McCracken:

What if the pitcher has no control of whether a ball falls for
a hit, once it gets put into play I

Obviously some pitchers give up fewer hits than others, but that
might be because some pitchers had more strikeouts than others,
and, therefore, allowed fewer balls to be put into play. But it was
generally assumed that pitchers could affect the way in which a
ball was put into play. It was generally assumed that a great
pitcher, like Randy Johnson or Greg Maddux, coaxed hitters into
hitting the ball in a way that was less likely to become a hit. The
trouble with that general assumption is that it didn't square with
the record books. There were years when Maddux and Johnson
were among the worst in baseball in this regard.

If Voros McCracken was right, then what had heretofore been
attributed to the skill of the pitcher was in fact caused by defense,
or ballpark, or luck. But the examples of Greg Maddux and Kevin
Millwood suggested that defense and ballparks might be of sec-
ondary importance. They pitched in front of the same group of
fielders, and, usually, in the same ballparks. That led Voros to a
second radical thought:



238 MONEYBflLL

What if what was heretofore regarded as the pitcher's
responsibility is simply luckl

For n ccnturv and a halt pitchers have heen evaluated, in part,
on their ahility to prevent hits once the hall is put in play. A
pitcher who suffered a lot of halls falling for hits gave up more
earned runs and lost more games than one who didn't. He was
thought less well of than a pitcher against whom halls m play
were caught hy fielders. A soon-to-he unemployed young man,
soon to he hack living with his parents in Phoenix, Arizona,
begged to differ. He was coming to the conclusion that pitchers
had no ability to prevent hits, once the hall was put into play.
They could prevent home runs, prevent walks, and prevent balls
from ever being put into play by striking out batters. And that, in
essence, is all they could do.

Voros McCracken had a radical theory. And he was staring at a
lot of hard evidence supporting it.

What happened next bolsters one's faith in the American edu-
cational system: Voros McCracken set out to prove himself wrong.
He wrote a computer program that paired major league pitchers
who had very similar walks, strikeouts, and home runs — but had
given up very different number of hits. He located ninety such
"pairs" from the 1999 season. If hits per ball in play were indeed
something a pitcher could control, Voros reasoned, then the pitch-
ers who had given up the fewer number of hits in 1999 would pro-
ceed to give up fewer hits in 2000. They didn't. There was, in fact,
no correlation trom one year to the next in any given pitcher's
ahility to prevent hits per halls in play.

Instead, baseball kept thrusting before Voros beguiling situa-
tions explained by his theory. A couple of months into the 2000
season, for instance, the newspapers were tull of stuff about how
heretofore mediocre White Sox pitcher James Baldwin, off to a
great start, had somehow become the next Pedro Martinez. Voros
looked more deeplv at the numbers and saw that Baldwin had



ANflTOMY OF AN UNDERVALUED PITCHER 239

extremely low number of hits for the number of balls he'd put in
play. His earned run average was sensational — because he'd been
lucky. Sure enough, the hits started falling and Baldwin regressed
to mediocrity and people stopped putting his name in the same
sentence with Pedro Martinez.

For pretty much the whole of 2000 Voros McCracken, as he put
it, "went looking for a reason Maddux got hit in 1999, and to this
day I'm still looking for it." At length, he penned an article reveal-
ing his findings for baseballprospectus.com. Its conclusion:
"There is little if any difference among major league pitchers in
their ability to prevent hits on balls hit into the field of play."
ESPN columnist Rob Neyer saw Voros's piece and, stunned by
both the quality of the thought and the force of the argument,
wrote an article about Voros's article. Several thousand amateur
baseball analysts wrote in to say that Voros's argument, on the
face of it, sounded nuts. Several suggested that "Voros McCracken"
might be a pseudonym for Aaron Sele, a well-hit pitcher then play-
ing for the Seattle Mariners.

Bill James also read Rob Neyer's article. James wrote in, and
said Voros McCracken's theory, if true, was obviously important,
but that he couldn't believe it was true. He — and about three thou-
sand other people — then went off to disprove it himself. He
couldn't do it, and the three thousand other guys couldn't either.
About the most they could suggest was that there was a slight
tendency for knuckleballers to control hits per balls in play. Nine
months later, on page 885 of his mammoth Bill James Historical
Baseball Abstract, James laid out Voros McCracken's argument,
noted that Voros McCracken "is NekcarCcM Sorov spelled back-
wards," then went on to make four points:

1. Like most things, McCracken's argument can be taken too
literally. A pitcher does have some input into the hits/
innings ratio behind him, other than that which is reflected
in the home run and strikeout column.



240 MONEYBRLL

2. With that qualification, I am quite certain that McCracken
is correct.

3. This knowledge is significant, very useful.

4. 1 feel stupid for not having realized it 30 years ago.

One ot the minor consequences of Voros McCracken's analysis
ot pitching was to lead him to Chad Bradford, Triple-A pitcher for
the Chicago White Sox. Voros had developed a statistic he could
trust — what he called DIPS, for defense independent pitching sta-
tistic. It might also have heen called LIPS, for luck independent
pitching statistic, because the luck it stripped out of a pitcher's
bottom line had, at times, a more warping effect than defense on
the perception of a pitcher's true merits. At any rate, Chad Brad-
ford's Triple-A defense independent stats were even better than
his astonishingly impressive defense dependent ones. (Chad
pitched a total of IOTA innings in Triple-A, with an earned run
average of 1 .64.1 And so Voros McCracken snapped up Bradford for
his fantasy team, even though a player did a fantasy team no good
unless he accumulated big league innings. "Basically," said Voros,
"I was waiting tor somet)ne to see what I'd seen in Bradford and
put him to use."

He waited nearly a year. Inadvertently, Voros McCracken had
helped to explain why the White Sox thought of Chad Bradford as
a "Triple-A guy." There was a reason that, in judging young pitch-
ers, the White Sox front office, like nearly every big league front
office, preierred their own subjective opinion to minor league
pitching statistics. Pitching statistics were flawed. Maybe not
quite so deeply as hitting statistics but enough to encourage
uncertainty. Baseball executives' preference tor their own opin-
ions over hard data was, at least in part, due to a lifetime of expe-
rience of fishy data. They'd seen one too many guys with a low
earned run average in Triple-A who flamed out in the big leagues.
And wben a guy looked as funny, and threw as slow, as Chad Brad-
ford — well, you just knew he was doomed.



flNRTOMY OF AN UNDERVALUED PITCHER 241

If one didn't already know better, one might think that Voros
McCracken's article on baseballprospectus.com would be cause
for celebration everywhere inside big league baseball. One knew
better. Voros knew better. "The problem with major league base-
ball/' he said, "is that it's a self-populating institution. Knowledge
is institutionalized. The people involved with baseball who aren't
players are ex-players. In their defense, their structure is not set up
along corporate lines. They aren't equipped to evaluate their own
systems. They don't have the mechanism to let in the good and
get rid of the bad. They either keep everything or get rid of every-
thing, and they rarely do the latter." He sympathized with base-
ball owners who didn't know what to think, or even if they should
think. "If you're an owner and you never played, do you believe
Voros McCracken or Larry Bowa?" The unemployed former para-
legal living with his parents, or the former All-Star shortstop and
current manager who no doubt owned at least one home of his
own?

Voros McCracken's astonishing discovery about major league
pitchers had no apparent effect on the management, or evaluation,
of actual pitchers. No one on the inside called Voros to discuss his
findings; so far as he knew, no one on the inside had even read it.
But Paul DePodesta had read it. Paul's considered reaction: "If you
want to talk about a guy who might be the next Bill James, Voros
McCracken could be it." Paul's unconsidered reaction: "The first
thing I thought of was Chad Bradford."

V OROS Mccracken had provided the theory to explain what the
Oakland A's front office already had come to believe: you could
create reliable pitching statistics. It was true that the further you
got from the big leagues, the less reliably stats predicted big league
performance. But if you focused on the right statistics you could
certainly project a guy based on his Triple-A, and even his Double-
A, numbers. The right numbers were walks, home runs, and



242 MONEYBflLL

Strikeouts plus a few others. If you trusted those, you didn't have
to give two minutes' thought to how a guy looked, or how hard he
threw. You could ludgc a pitcher's performance objectively, by
what he had acconiphshed.

Chad Bradford was, to the Oakland A's front office, a no-brainer.
"It wasn't that he was doing it differently," said Paul DePodesta.
"It was that the efficiency with which he was recording outs was
astounding." Chad Bradford had set off several different sets of
bells mside Paul's computer. He hardly ever walked a batter; he
gave up virtually no home runs; and he struck out nearly a batter
an inning. Paul, like Bill James, thought it was possible to take
Voros's theory too literally. He thought there was one big thing, in
addition to walks, strikeouts, and home runs, that a pitcher could
control: extra base hits. Chad Bradford gave up his share of hits per
balls in play but, more than any pitcher m baseball, they were
ground ball hits. His minor league ground ball to fly ball ratio was
5:1. The big league average was more like 1.2:1. Ground balls were
not only hard to hit over the wall; they were hard to hit for dou-
bles and triples.

That raised an obvious question: why weren't there more suc-
cessful ground ball pitchers like Chad Bradford in the big leagues?
There was an equally obvious answer: there were no ground ball
pitchers like Chad Bradford. Ground ball pitchers who threw over-
hand tended to be sinker ball pitchers and they tended to have
control problems and also tended not to strike out a lot of guys.
Chad Bradford was, statistically and humanly, an outlier.

The best thing of all was that the scouts didn't like him. The
Greek Chorus disapproved of what they called "tricksters." Paul
thought it was ridiculous when the White Sox sent Chad back
down to Triple-A, hut he could guess why they had done it. Once
upon a time he had sat behind home plate while Chad Bradford
pitched; he'd listened to the scouts make fun of Chad, even as
Chad made tools of hitters. The guy looked funny when he threw,
no question about it, and his fastball came in at between 81 and



ANflTOMY OF AN UNDERVALUED PITCHER 243

85 mph. Chad Bradford didn't know it, but as he dropped his arm
slot, and took heat off his fastball, he was becoming an Oakland
A. "Because of the way he looked, we thought he might be avail-
able to us," said Paul. "Usually the guys who are setting off bells
in my office are the guys everybody knows about. But nobody
knew about this guy, because of the way he threw. If he had those
identical stats in Triple-A but he threw ninety-four, there is no
way they'd have traded him."

Already Billy Beane was finding that guys he wanted magically
became less available the moment he expressed an interest in
them. At the end of the 2000 season he finally called the new
White Sox GM, Kenny Williams, who had replaced the old White
Sox GM, Ron Schueler, and said, very casually, that he was look-
ing for "a guy who could be a twelfth or thirteenth pitcher on the
staff." Someone in the White Sox farm system. Someone maybe in
Triple-A. He was willing to give up this minor league catcher in


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Online LibraryMichael (Michael M.) LewisMoneyball : the art of winning an unfair game → online text (page 20 of 24)