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Moneyball : the art of winning an unfair game online

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Oakland A's. All hut written off when they let Jason Giambi leave
for greener pastures, the A's had won 103 games, one more than
they had the year before. Maybe more astonishingly, at least for
economic determinists, the teams in baseball's best division, the
American League West, finished in inverse order to their payrolls.



Losses Games Behind Payroll*

59 — $41,942,665

63 4 $62,757,041

69 10 $86,084,710

90 31 $106,915,180



The more money the teams spent on players, at least in the
American League West, the less able those players were to win
baseball games. The same wasn't exactly true m every other divi-
sion, hut there had been plenty of other astonishing endings: big-
budget disasters (the Mets, the Dodgers, the Orioles) and low-
budget successes (the Twins).

' The payroll fij^urcs arc Major League Baseball's on August 31, 2002. The
wacky tunhouse mirror quality ot the 2002 season, in which several poor teams
made the play-offs and no very rich teams made tlic World Series, had no discern-
ahlc effect on Maior League Baseball's view of the role of money in baseball suc-
cess. Commissioner Bud Selig continued to insist that the Oakland A's — who also
had turned a slight profit — were doomed. "We're asking them [the Oakland A's] to
compete in a stadium they can't compete in," he said, in February 2003. "They're
not viable without a new stadium."





Wins


Oakland


103


Anaheim


99


Seattle


93


Texas


72



THE SPEED OF THE IDEA 271

In spite of the Oakland A's fantastic success, there was a subtle
pressure to change the way they did business. Most of it came
from the media. About the fifteenth time he heard some TV pun-
dit say that the Oakland A's couldn't win because they didn't
"manufacture runs," Billy began to worry his coaches and players
might actually believe it. He printed out the 2002 offensive statis-
tics for the Oakland A's and the Minnesota Twins and sat down
with the coaches. The Twins team batting average was 1 1 points
higher than the A's, and their slugging percentage was 5 points
higher. And yet they had scored thirty-two fewer runs. Why?
Their team on-base percentage was a shade lower, and they'd been
caught stealing sixty-two times, to Oakland's twenty, and had
twice as many sacrifice bunts. That is, they'd squandered outs.
"They were trying to manipulate the game instead of letting the
game come to them," said Billy. "The math works. But no matter
how many times you prove it, you always have to prove it again."

The moment the play-offs began, you could feel the world of
baseball insiders rising up to swat down the possibility that the
Oakland A's front office actually might be onto something. The
man who spoke for all insiders was Joe Morgan, the Hall of Fame
second baseman, who was in the broadcast booth for the entire
five-game series between the A's and the Twins. At some point
during each game Morgan explained to the audience the flaw in
the A's thinking — not that he had any deep understanding of what
that thinking entailed. But he was absolutely certain that their
strategy made no sense. When the A's lost the first game, 7-5, it
gave Morgan his opening to explain, in the first inning of the sec-
ond game, why the Oakland A's were in trouble. "You have to
manufacture runs in the postseason," he said, meaning bunt and
steal and in general treat outs as something other than a scarce
resource. Incredibly, he then went on to explain that "manufac-
turing runs" was how the New York Yankees had beaten the Ana-
heim Angels the night before.

I had seen that game. Down 5-4 in the eighth inning, Yankees



272 MONEYBflLL

second baseman Altonsi) Soriano had >;ottcn hinisclt on base and
stolen second. Derek Jeter then walked, and lason Giambi singled
in Soriano. Bernie Williams then hit a three-run homer. A reason-
able person, examining that sequence of events, says, "Whew,
thank God Soriano didn't get caught stealing; it was, in retrospect,
a stupid risk that could have killed the whole rally." Joe Morgan
looked at it and announced that Soriano stealing second, the only
bit of "manufacturing" in the production line, was the cause.
Amazingly, Morgan concluded that day's lesson about baseball
strategy by saying, "You sit and wait for a three-run homer, you're
still going to be sitting there."

But the wonderful thing about this little lecture was what hap-
pened right under Joe Morgan's nose, as he was giving it. Ray
Durham led off the game for Oakland with a walk. He didn't
attempt to steal, as Morgan would have him do. Scott Hatteberg
followed Durham and he didn't bunt, as Morgan would have him
do. He smashed a double. A few moments later, Eric Chavez hit a
three-run homer. And Joe Morgan's lecture on the need to avoid
playing for the three-run homer just rolled right along, as if the
play on the field had not dramatically contradicted every word
that had just come out of his mouth. That day the A's walked and
swatted their way to nine runs, and a win — in which Chad Brad-
ford, returned to form, pitched two scoreless innings. Two days
later in Minnesota, before the third game, Joe Morgan made the
same speech all over again.

As it turned out, the A's did everyone in baseball a favor and
lost to the Twins, in the fifth game. * The two games they won the



* In the five-game series, Scott Hatteberg went 7-14 with three walks, nci
strikeouts, .1 home run, ami ,1 pair of doubles He scored five runs and knocked in
three. Chad Bradford faced ten batters and got nine of them out, seven on ground
balls. The tenth batter hit a bloop single. Bradford snapped out of his slump after
the twentieth win. His confidence returned about the same time Scott Hatteberg
started telling him what the hitters said on the rare occasions they got to first base



THE SPEED OF THE IDEA 273

scores were 9-1 and 8-3. The three games they lost the scores
were 7-5, 1 1-2, and 5-4. These were not the low-scoring games of
Ray Durham's play-off imagination. And yet virtually all of the
noisy second-guessing after their defeat followed the line of rea-
soning laid down by Ray Durham and Joe Morgan. One of the
leading Bay Area baseball columnists, Glenn Dickey of the San
Francisco Chronicle, explained to his readers that "The A's don't
know how to 'manufacture' runs, which kills them in close games
in the postseason. Manager Art Howe, who believed in 'little ball'
before he came to the A's, has become so accustomed to the
walk/homer approach that he can't adjust in the postseason." In
late October, Joe Morgan will summarize the Oakland A's prob-
lems in print: "The A's lose because they are two-dimensional.
They have good pitching and try to hit home runs. They don't use
speed and don't try to manufacture runs. They wait for the home
run. They are still waiting."

All of the commentary struck the Oakland A's front office as
just more of the same. "Base-stealing," said Paul DePodesta, after
the dust had settled. "That's the one thing everyone points to that
we do. Or don't. So when we lose, that's why." He then punched
some numbers into his calculator. The Oakland A's scored 4.9
runs per game during the season. They scored 5.5 runs per game in
the five-game series against the Twins. They hadn't "manufac-
tured" runs and yet they had scored more of them in the play-offs
than they had during the regular season. "The real problem," said
Paul, "was that during the season we allowed 4.0 runs per game,
and during the play-offs we allowed 5.4. The small sample size
makes that insignificant, but it also punctuates the absurdity of
the critiques of our offensive philosophy." The real problem was
that Tim Hudson, heretofore flawless in big games, and perfect



against him. After Anaheim's second baseman, Adam Kennedy, blooped a single
off Bradford, he turned to Hatty and said, "Jesus Christ, there's no way that's
eighty-four miles an hour."



274 MONEYBRLL

against the Minnesota Twins, had two horrendous outings. No
one could have predicted that.

The postseason partially explained why baseball was so
uniquely resistant to the fruits of scientific research: to any purely
rational idea about how to run a baseball team. It wasn't just that
the game was run by old baseball men who insisted on doing
things as they had always been done. It was that the season ended
in a giant crapshoot. The play-offs frustrate rational management
because, unlike the long regular season, they suffer from the sam-
ple size problem. Pete Palmer, the sabermetrician and author of
The Hidden Game of Baseball, once calculated that the average
difference in baseball due to skill is about one run a game, while
the average difference due to luck is about four runs a game. Over
a long season the luck evens out, and the skill shines through. But
in a series of three out of five, or even four out of seven, anything
can happen. In a five-game series, the worst team in baseball will
beat the best about 15 percent of the time,- the Devil Rays have a
prayer against the Yankees. Baseball science may still give a team
a slight edge, but that edge is overwhelmed by chance. The base-
ball season is structured to mock reason.

Because science doesn't work in the games that matter most,
the people who play them are given one more excuse to revert to
barbarism. The game is structured, psychologically (though not
financially), as a winner-take-all affair. There isn't much place for
the notion that a team that falls short of the World Series has had
a great season. At the end of what was now widely viewed as a
failed season, all Paul DePodesta could say was, "I hope they con-
tinue to believe that our way doesn't work. It buys us a few more
years."

JDilly beane had been surprisingly cahn throughout his team's
play-off debacle. Before the second game agamst the Twins, when
I'd asked him why he seemed so detached — why he wasn't walk-



THE SPEED OF THE IDEA 275

ing around the parking lot with his white box — he said, "My shit
doesn't work in the play-offs. My job is to get us to the play-offs.
What happens after that is fucking luck." It was Paul who took a
bat to the chair in the video room, late at night after the fifth
game, after everyone else had gone home for good. Billy's attitude
seemed to be, all that management can produce is a team good
enough to triumph in a long season. There are no secret recipes for
the postseason, except maybe having three great starting pitchers,
and he had that.

His objective spirit survived his team's defeat a week. The fact
that his team had lost to the clearly inferior Minnesota Twins fes-
tered. He never said it, but it was nonetheless evident that he
couldn't quite believe how little appreciation there was for what
he'd done. Even his owner, who was getting multiples more for his
money than any owner in baseball, complained. The public reac-
tion to the thing ate at Billy. In these situations, when his mind
was disturbed, he often went looking to make a trade. But there
was no player on whom his mind naturally fixed; the only person
in the organization whose riddance would make him happier was
his manager. Art Howe. It wasn't long before he had a novel idea:
trade Art.

It took him about a week to do it. He called New York Mets
GM Steve Phillips and told him that Art was a superb manager but
his latest one-year contract called for a big raise, and Oakland
couldn't really afford to pay it. Phillips had just fired his own man-
ager, Bobby Valentine, and was in a bit of a fix. Billy had thought
he might even get a player from the Mets for Art but in the end
settled on moving Art's salary. Art signed a five-year deal for $2
million a year to manage the New York Mets. In Art's place Billy
installed Ken Macha, the As bench coach.

That made him feel better for a bit. Then it didn't. He had the
feeling he'd come to the end of some line. Here they had run this
low-budget franchise as efficiently as a low-budget franchise could
be run and no one had even noticed. No one cared if you found rad-



276 MONEYBflLL

ically better ways to run a big league baseball team. All anyone
cared about was how you fared m the postseason crapshoot. For
his work he'd been paid about as well as a third-year relief pitcher,
and Paul had been paid less than the major league minimum. Billy
was worth, easily, more than any player; his services were more
dramatically undervalued than those of any player he'd ever
acquired. He could see only one way to exploit this grotesque mar-
ket inefficiency: trade himself.

His timing was about perfect. The market for Billy Beane's serv-
ices was changing rapidly. What appeared to be a new trend had
started a year ago, in Toronto. Rogers Communications, the Blue
Jays' new owner, had made it clear that the team, which had been
losing more money than any in baseball, had to be self-sustaining.
After the 2001 season the Blue Jays' new CEO Paul Godfrey, for-
merly the metro chairman of Toronto (i.e., mayor) and a man with
no baseball experience, set out to run the business along rational
lines. He started by firing his general manager. He then piled up
on his desk the media guides for the other twenty-nine teams in
baseball, and went looking for a replacement. He called just about
everyone in baseball, and interviewed most of them. Buck Showal-
ter, who had run the Diamondbacks and was now a TV announcer.
Dave Dombrowski, who ran the Detroit Tigers. Pat Gillick, who
had been the Blue Jays' CM during the glory years and was now
the CM of the Seattle Mariners. Doug Melvin, who just had been
fired by the Rangers. John Hart, the CM of the Cleveland Indians,
who would wind up replacing Melvin at the Rangers. "They all
said the same thing to me," says Godfrey. "It always came back to:
give me the bucks to compete with the Yankees and I'll do it. They
didn't understand what I was even talking about when I said I
wanted someone who had a strategy going forward. I didn't want
a guy who said, 'Give me a hundred fifty million bucks and I'll
give you a winner.'"

In .ill of baseball Godfrey found one exception to the general
money madness: Billy Beane's Oakland A's. He concluded that the



THE SPEED OF THE IDEA 277

A's were playing a different game than everyone else. He decided
that, whatever game they were playing, he wanted to play it too.
He assumed that Billy Beane, who had a long-term contract in
Oakland, was off-limits. So he'd offered the Blue Jays' top job to
Paul DePodesta — but Paul didn't want it. And so Godfrey went
back into the Oakland A's media guide and found the picture of
the guy under DePodesta. His name was J. P. Ricciardi, the A's
director of player development. J. P. flew to Toronto for the inter-
view — and had the job in about five minutes. "He had a reason for
everything," said Godfrey. "Of all the people I'd talked to, J. P. was
the only one with a business plan and the only one who told me,
'You are spending too much money.' He basically went through
the lineup and said, 'These people are all replaceable by people
you've never heard of.' And I said, 'You sure?' And he said, 'Look,
if you can stand the heat in the media, I can make you cheaper and
better. It'll take a couple of months to make you cheaper and a
couple of years to make you better. But you'll be a lot better.'"

The first thing J. P. Ricciardi did after he took the job was hire
Keith Law, a twenty-eight-year-old Harvard graduate who had
never played baseball, but who wrote lots of interesting articles
about it for baseballprospectus.com. That was partly Billy's idea.
Billy had told J. P. that, in order to find the fool at the poker table,
"you need your Paul." The second thing J. P. did was fire twenty-
five Blue Jays scouts. Then, over the next few months, he pro-
ceeded to get rid of just about every highly paid, established big
league player and replace them with minor leaguers no one had
ever heard of. By the end of the 2002 season J. P. had taken to
watching every Blue Jays game with Keith Law. By then he could
turn to his pet sabermetrician in the middle of a game and glee-
fully shout, "Rain Man, we got a $1.8 million team out there on
the field right now!"

That superior management armed with science could be had so
cheaply was easily the greatest inefficiency in all of baseball, and
the owner with the keenest sense of markets, and their follies, saw



278 MONEYBflLL

this. John Henry had iust purchased the Boston Red Sox, and he
was h)oking to overhaul his franchise m the image of the Oakland
A's. In late Octoher he hired Bill James as "Senior Consultant,
Baseball Operations." ("1 don't understand how it took so long for
somebody to hire this guy," Henry said.) Just to be sure, he also
hired Voros McCracken as a special adviser on pitching. Then he
went looking for someone to run the show.

Only one guy had ever actually proved he could impose reason
on a big league clubhouse, and that guy, two weeks after his team
had been bounced from the play-offs, was now dissatisfied with
his job. One thing led to another, and before long Billy Beane had
agreed to run the Boston Red Sox. He would be guaranteed $12.5
million over five years, the most anyone had ever been paid to run
a baseball team. Billy hadn't yet signed the contract, but that was
just a formality. He had already persuaded his owner to let him
out of his contract, and started to overhaul the Red Sox. In his
mind's eye he had traded Red Sox third baseman Shea Hillenbrand
to some team that didn't understand that a .293 batting average
was a blow to the offense when it came attached to a .330 on-base
percentage. He'd signed Edgardo Alfonzo to play second base, and
Bill Mueller to play third. Red Sox catcher Jason Varitek was gone
and White Sox backup Mark Johnson was in his place. Manny
Ramirez's glove was requisitioned by general management, and
the slugger would spend the rest of his Red Sox career as a desig-
nated hitter. All in his mind's eye.

In Oakland, Billy Beane's imminent departure quickly rippled
through the organization. Paul DePodesta had agreed to become
the new general manager of the Oakland A's. He'd promoted his
fellow Harvard graduate, David Forst, to be his assistant. Paul's
main concern was just how much Billy Beane's Boston Red Sox
should pay the Oakland A's for poaching their general manager.
Billy came to work one day to face a new situation. As he put it,
"I've now got two Harvard guys on my sofa trying to figure out
how they're going to screw me." It looked like the beginning of a



THE SPEED OF THE IDEA 279

new relationship. He and Paul argued back and forth until they
settled on the player Paul would get in exchange for Billy Beane:
Kevin Youkilis. The Greek god of walks. The player who, but for
the A's old scouting department, should have been an Oakland A.
The player with the highest on-base percentage in all of profes-
sional baseball, after Barry Bonds. Paul wanted another minor lea-
guer too, but Youkilis was the real prize.

All that remained was for Billy to sign the Red Sox contract.
And he couldn't do it. In the forty-eight hours after he accepted
John Henry's job offer, Billy became as manic and irrational and
incapable of sleep as he had been back in May, after the A's had
been swept by the Blue Jays. As decisive as he was about most
things, he was paralyzed when the decision involved himself. He
loved the idea of working for John Henry, with his understanding
of markets and their inefficiencies. But you didn't up and move
three thousand miles and start a new life just to work for a differ-
ent owner. Five days before, Billy had convinced himself he wasn't
taking the job just for the money. Since it was pretty clear he
wasn't doing it for the love of the Red Sox, it raised a question of
why he was doing it at all. He decided he was doing it just to show
that he could do it. To prove that his own peculiar talents had
concrete value. Dollar value. And that in any sane world he'd be
paid a fortune for them.

Now he had a problem: he'd just proved that. Baseball columns
everywhere were abuzz with the news that Billy Beane was about
to become the highest paid general manager in the history of the
game. Now that everyone knew his true value, Billy didn't need to
prove it anymore. Now the only reason to take the job was for the
money.

The next morning, he called John Henry and told him he
couldn't do it.* A few hours later, he blurted to a reporter some-

* The job went to Theo Epstein, the twenty-eight-year-old Yale graduate with
no experience playing professional baseball.



280 MONEYBflLL

thing he wished he hadn't said but was nevertheless the truth: "I
made one decision based on money in my Hfe — when I signed with
the Mets rather than go to Stanford — and I promised I'd never do
it again." After that, Billy confined himself to the usual blather
about personal reasons. None of what he said was terribly rational
or "objective" — but then, neither was he. Within a week, he was
back to scheming how to get the Oakland A's back to the play-offs,
and Paul DePodesta was back to being on his side. And he was left
with his single greatest fear: that no one would ever really know.
That he and Paul might find ever more clever ways to build great
ball clubs with no money, but that, unless they brought home a
World Series ring or two, no one would know. And even then —
even if they did win a ring — where did that leave him? He'd be just
one more general manager among many who were celebrated for a
day, then forgotten. People would never know that, for a brief
moment, he was right and the world was wrong.

About that I think he may have been mistaken. He'd been the
perfect vessel for an oddly shaped idea, and that idea was on the
move, like an Oakland A's base runner, station to station. The idea
had led Billy Beane to take action, and his actions had conse-
quences. He had changed the lives of ballplayers whose hidden
virtues otherwise might never have been seen. And those players
who had been on the receiving end of the idea were now busy
returning the favor.



EPILOGUE: THE BADGER



THE JEREMY BROWN who stcps into the batter's box in early
October is, and is not, the fat catcher from Hueytown,
Alabama, that the Oakland A's had made the least likely
first-round draft choice in recent memory. He was still about five
foot eight and 215 pounds. He still wasn't much use to anyone
hoping to sell jeans. But in other ways, the important ways, expe-
rience had reshaped him.

Three months earlier, just after the June draft, he'd arrived in
Vancouver, Canada, to play for the A's rookie ball team. Waiting
for him there was a seemingly endless number of jokes to be had
at his expense. The most widely read magazine in the locker
room. Baseball America, kept writing all these rude things about
his appearance. They quoted unnamed scouts from other teams
saying things like, "He never met a pizza he didn't like." They
pressed the A's own scouting director, Eric Kubota, to acknowl-
edge the perversity of selecting a young man who looked like
Jeremy Brown with a first-round draft choice. "He's not the most

281



282 EPILOGUE

physically fit," Kubota had said, sounding distinctly apologetic.
"It's not a pretty hody. . . . This guy's a great baseball player
trapped in a bad body." The magazine ran Jeremy's college year-
book picture over the caption: "Bad Body Rap." His mother back
in Hueytown read all of it, and every time someone made fun of
the shape of her son, she got upset all over again. His dad just
laughed.

The other guys on the rookie ball team thought it was a riot.
They couldn't wait for the next issue of Baseball America to see
what they'd write about Jeremy this time. Jeremy's new friend,
Nick Swisher, was always the first to find whatever they'd writ-
ten, but Swish approached the thing with defiance. Nick Swisher,
son of former major league player Steve Swisher, and consensus
first-round dratt pick, took shit from no one. Swish didn't wait for
other people to tell him what he was worth; he told them. He was
trying to instill the same attitude, without much luck, in Jeremy
Brown. One night over dinner with a few of the guys. Swish had
said to him, "All that stuff they write in Baseball America — that's
bullshit. You can play. That's all that matters. You can play. You
think Babe Ruth was a stud? Hell no, he was a fat piece of shit."
Teremy was slow to take offense and it took him a second or two
to register the double-edged nature of Swish's pep talk. "Babe Ruth
was a fat piece of shit," he said. "Just like Brown." And everyone


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Online LibraryMichael (Michael M.) LewisMoneyball : the art of winning an unfair game → online text (page 23 of 24)