Michael (Michael M.) Lewis.

Moneyball : the art of winning an unfair game online

. (page 3 of 24)
Online LibraryMichael (Michael M.) LewisMoneyball : the art of winning an unfair game → online text (page 3 of 24)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


"has a chance to become the greatest second baseman who ever
lived." It hadn't turned out that way.

All of them had lived different versions of the same story. They



22 MONEYBflLL

were uncoiled springs, firecrackers that had tailed to explode. The
only bona tide big league regular in the room was Matt Keough,
who'd won sixteen games for the A's in 1980. In his rookie year,
1978, he'd pitched in the All-Star Game. Matty, as he is known,
easily was the most detached of the group. He had the air of a man
taking a break from some perpetual Hawaiian vacation of the soul
to stop by and chat with his old buddies. The rest of them weren't
like that.

There was no avoiding iust how important the 2002 amateur
draft was for the future of the Oakland A's. The Oakland A's sur-
vived by finding cheap labor. The treatment of amateur players is
the most glaring of the manv violations of free market principles
in Major League Baseball. A team that drafts and signs a player
holds the rights to his first seven vears in the minor leagues and
his first six in the maiors. It also enjoys the right to pay the player
far less than he is worth. For instance, the Oakland A's were able
to pay their All-Star pitcher Barry Zito $200,000 in 2000, $240,000
in 2001, and $S00,00() in 2002 (when he would win the Cy Young
Award as the best pitcher in the American League) because they
had drafted him in 1999. For his first three years of big league ball,
Zito was stuck; tor his next three years he could apply for salary
arbitration, which would bump him up to maybe a few million a
year but would still keep him millions below the $10-$15 million
a year he could get for himself on the open market. Not until
2007, after he had been in the big leagues for six years, would
Barry Zito, like any other citizen of the republic, be allowed to
auction his services to the highest bidder. At which point, of
course, the Oakland A's would no longer be able to afford Barry
Zito. That's why it was important to find Barry Zito here, in the
draft room, and obtain him for the period of his career when he
could be paid the baseball equivalent of slave's wages.

This year was the best chance they might ever have to find sev-
eral Barry Zito's. In 2001, the A's had lost all three of their top free
agents to richer teams. First baseman Jason Giambi had left for the



HOW TO FIND fl BflLLPLflYER 23

Yankees for $120 million over seven years. Outfielder Johnny
Damon had gone to the Red Sox for $32 million over four years.
Closer Jason Isringhausen had signed with the Cardinals for $28
million over four years. The $33 million the three players v^ould
make each year was just $5 million less than the entire Oakland
team. The rules of the game granted the A's the first-round draft
picks of the three teams that had poached their top talent, plus
three more "compensation" picks at the end of the first round.
Together with their own first-round pick the A's had, in effect,
seven first-round draft picks. In the history of the draft going back
to 1965 no team had ever held seven first-round picks. The ques-
tion for Billy Beane was what to do with them. What he wasn't
going to do with them was what Grady had done last year, or what
old baseball men had done with them for the past thirty-seven
years. "You know what?" Billy said to Paul, before the draft-room
meetings. "However we do it we're never going to be more wrong
than the way we did it before."

Already the scouts had whittled, or thought they had whittled,
the vast universe of North American amateur baseball down to
680 players. They'd pasted all the names onto little magnetic
strips. They now had one week to reduce that pile of magnetic
nameplates to some kind of order. They would do this, more or
less, by a process of elimination. Eric would read a kid's name off
a sheet. The scout who knew the kid then offered up a brief, dis-
passionate description of him. Anyone else who had seen the kid
play might then chime in. Then the floor was open for general dis-
cussion, until everyone was satisfied that enough had been said.

They begin that first morning by weeding out the pile. Some
large number of amateur ballplayers were, for one reason or
another, unworthy of serious consideration.

"Lark," says Eric, for instance. Eric is Eric Kubota, the new
young scouting director Billy hired to replace Grady. Eric used a
giant wad of Copenhagen to disguise the fact that he was a brainy
graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, whose first job



24 MONEYBflLL

with the Oakland A's had heen as a pubHc relations intern. That
Eric had never played even high school ball was, in Billy Beane's
mind, a point in his favor. At least he hasn't learned the wrong les-
sons. Billy had played pro ball, and regarded it as an experience he
needed to overcome if he wanted to do his job well. "A reformed
alcoholic," is how he described himself.

Lark is a high school pitcher with a blazing fastball. He's a
favorite of one of the older scouts, who introduces him in a lan-
guage only faintly resembling English. "Good body, big arm. Good
fastball, playable slider, so-so change," he says. "A little funk on
the backside but nothing you can't clean up. 1 j>aw him good one
day and not so good another."

"Any risk he'll go to college-"' asks Eric.

"He's not a student type," says the older scout. "I'm not sure
he's even signed with a college."

"So is this guy a rockheadT' asks Pitter. Fitter (Chris Pittaro) is
a graduate of the Umversitv of North C^arolina who roomed with
Billy when they both plaved for the Minnesota Twins and who
Billy had hmg ago identified as a person willing to rethink every-
thing he learned, or thought he had learned, playing baseball.

"Ah," says the older scout, thinking about how to address the
question. It's possible for a baseball plaver to be too stupid for the
job. It's also possible for him to be too smart. "He may be too
smart," is a phrase that will recur several times over the next
week.

"He's a confident kid. But—"

"But," says Eric.

"There might be some, uh, family issues here," says the old
scout. "1 heard the dad had spent some time in prison. Porno or
something."

No one on either side of the room seems to know what to make
of that. You can see thirty men thinking: Is porno a cnmel

"Can he bring it?" someone finally asks. The air clears.

"I can see this guy in somebody's pen throwing aspirin tablets



HOW TO FIND fl BflLLPLflYER 25

someday/' says the older scout. "The guy has a cannon." This old
scout is pushing fifty-five but still has a lean quickness about him,
as if he hadn't completely abandoned the hope that he might one
day play the game. The old scout likes high school kids and
refuses to apologize for that fact.

"I'm worried about the makeup/' says someone.

"What does his profile say?" asks someone else.

A young man sits quietly off to one side at the room's lone desk-
top computer. He punches a few keys. He's looking for Lark's
results on the psychological test given by Major League Baseball
to all prospects.

"Not good/' he says, at length. "Competitive drive: one out of
ten. Leadership: one out of ten. Conscientiousness: one out of
ten." He keeps on reading down the list, but no matter what the
category the kid's score is always the same.

"Shit/' Bogie finally says, "does he even have a two in any-
thing?" Bogie is the oldest scout. In 1972, scouting for the Hous-
ton Astros, Bogie administered what he believes to have been the
first ever baseball psychological test, to a pitcher named Dick
Ruthven. (He passed.)

"Bad makeup," says someone else and no one disagrees.

The scouts used several catch phrases to describe what they
need to avoid. "Rockhead" clearly isn't a good thing to be, but the
quality can be overcome. "Soft" is also fairly damning — it con-
notes both "out of shape" and "wimp" — but it, too, is inconclu-
sive. "Bad makeup" is a death sentence. "Bad makeup" means
"this kid's got problems we can't afford to solve." The phrase sig-
naled anything from jail time to drinking problems to severe per-
sonality disorders. Whenever a player is convicted of "bad
makeup" another young man reaches into a cardboard box for a
tiny magnetized photograph of a former A's employee named Phil
Milo. Milo had worked as one of Billy Beane's assistants for a brief
spell and in that time offended pretty much everyone in the organ-
ization. When 1 ask Paul how it was possible for one man to per-



26 MONEYBflLL

sonify so many different personality disorders, Paul says, "Put it
this way. On the day I was hired, Milo came over to meet me. The
first thing out of his mouth was, 'I got to be honest with you. I'm
really not pleased we hired you.'" Milo was just that kmd of guy.
Durmg the first few days of the dratt meetings the tmy photos
of Phil Milo fly like confetti. And the conversations that ended
with Milo's picture plastered beside a prospect's name told you
something: not just what baseball men distrusted in a player's
character, but how little they really knew the people they were
about to rain money on.

A high school pitcher:

"Where's he aom^ to coUe^e^" tisks Billv. idly.

"He's not." says the scout who knows him best. "He's a
Christian kid and he was ^^ivcn a free ride to UC Irvine.
Coach set I a couple oi his plavers. Took him to

a party and , >\'(is wa^^ drinkm^:. Kid was offended and he

left and said. 'I'm not s^om^i to school.'"

"Oh. then he'll fit rif^ht into pro hall, won't he>" says
Billv.

"Put a Milo on him." says Eric.

A collegiate right-handed pitcher:

"He's a cocky ^uy." savs Matt Keous^h. who is ar^^um^ on
the pitcher''^ behalf. "He'd shove it up your ass. And taunt
you. So you hate the ^uy. He's had a couple of elections. "

"But no drugsy" asks Eric.

"No drugs." says Matty, then thinks about it. "There are
rumors of some hash. "

An old scout laughs. "Corned beef hashl"

"It's unsubstantiated." Matty protests.

"Where there's smoke, there's fire," says another old
scout.



HOW TO FIND fl BflLLPLflYER 27

Eric looks up: "Is he the guy who was seUing wacky
tobacky in high school! "

"Hell," says Matty, now genuinely indignant. "That was
three years ago! "

Everyone groans. "Put a Milo on him, " says Eric, and spits
tobacco iuice.

A power-hitting outfielder:

"I'm not sure he wants to sign. He said he'd like to go to
law school. "
"Law schooll "

"He's getting pressure from his girlfriend, I think. "
"He's looking for love, it sounds like. "
"Put a Milo on him. "

Another collegiate left-handed pitcher:

"The guy's got no grades, " says a scout.

"You mean bad grades!" asks another.

"No, I mean no grades, " says the first.

"How can a guy have no grades at Chico State!" asks the
other.

"He really has no desire at all to be in college," says the
first scout, almost admiringly. "This guy was designed to
play ball. "

"I'm not really jazzed about a guy who has no desire
whatsoever to go to college, " says Billy. "That's not a badge
of honor. "

"Put a Milo on him. "

Billy doesn't interfere much in the search for bad makeup, and
Paul says nothing at all. The meetings, from their point of view,
are all about minimizing risk. They can't afford to have guys not
work out. There's no point in taking risks on players tempera-



28 MONEYBflLL

mentally, or legally, unsuited to pro ball. At one point Billy looks
up and asks, "Who's that fucking guy we took last year we had to
release because he robbed a bank?" The others are too absorbed in
weeding out the bad makeup to reply, or to even consider how
remarkable the question is.

Most ot the tirst few davs were devoted to culling the original
pile of 680 players. Other than an excessive affection for one's girl-
friend, or a criminal record, or other signs of bad makeup, there
were just two reasons why the Oakland A's did not waste further
time on a player. One was age: with rare exceptions the new scout-
ing directors toss all high school players immediately onto the
dumping ground, leaving the vounger scouts who spent their days
following them wondering whv they bothered. The other is what
IS delicately known in the draft room as "expectations."

"What are his expectations'" Eric Kubcna asks, of a promising
college pitcher.

The scout who knows him best says, "His dad said, and I quote,
'S4.2 million is a good place to start.'"

"Put him over there," Eric will say. When his name is tossed
onto the dump heap nobody in the front office cares.

IJy the end of tlic third day the scouts have organized the play-
ers into two groups: the prospects not worth considering further,
and everyone else. The second group, maybe four hundred players,
they parse further by position. They'll rank 120 right-handed
pitchers; they'll list 37 catchers, 1 through 37, and 94 outfielders,
1 through 94. But before they do, they turn their attention from
eliminating players to selecting them. Billy's already made it clear
that this year he has only a secondary interest in pitchers. The
past few years he has stocked up on arms. It's the bats he needs.
On the white board closest to Billy, the "Big Board," there was
space for sixty players. Only one slot had been filled, the first:

SWISHER



HOW TO FIND fl BflLLPLflYER 29

Nick Swisher, a center fielder from Ohio State. For the past six
months, Billy's been sure about Swisher, and he knows he won't
get the slightest disagreement from his scouts. Swisher is a rare
point of agreement between Paul's computer and the internal
compass of an old baseball guy. He has the raw athletic ability the
scouts adore; but he also has the stats Billy and Paul have decided
matter more than anything: he's proven he can hit, and hit with
power; he drew more than his share of walks.

Oddly enough, Billy has never actually seen Swisher play. He
had wanted to fly across the country to watch a few of Swisher's
games, but his scouting department told him that if he did, word
would quickly spread to the rest of Major League Baseball that
Billy Beane was onto Nick Swisher, Swisher's stock would rise,
and the odds that he'd still be around when the A's made this first
pick — the sixteenth of the draft — would plummet. "Operation
Shutdown," the scouts called their project to keep Billy as far
away from Swisher as they could.

Operation Shutdown has had some perverse effects. One of
them is to lead Billy to speak of Swisher in the needy tone of a
man who has been restrained for too long from seeing his beloved.
Swisher is his picture bride.

"Swisher is noticeable, isn't he?" says Billy, hoping to hear
more about what Swisher looks like. How Swisher really is.

"Oh, he's noticeable," says an old scout. "From the moment he
gets off the bus he doesn't shut up."

"His background is interesting," says Billy. "His dad was a
major league player. That's huge. A great chip in his favor. Those
guys succeed." (Swisher's dad is Steve Swisher, who caught for the
Cubs, Cardinals, and Padres.)

"He does have a presence," agrees an old scout.

"Did Operation Shutdown work?" asks Billy.

"Too well," says an old scout. "Guy from the White Sox called
me yesterday and said he knows you must be in love with Swisher
because you haven't been to see him."



30 MONEYBflLL

Billy laughs. "Out of this room, Swisher is hush-hush," he says.

The conversation turns from Nick Swisher, and the moment it
does it becomes contentious. Not violently so — these are people
with an interest in getting along. The tone of the conversation is
that of a meeting in a hig company that has just decided to drop a
product line, or shift resources from marketing to R^vD. Still, it's
a dispute with two sides riven by some fundamental difference.
The two sides are, on the one hand, the old scouts and, on the
other, Billy Beane. The old scouts are like a Greek chorus; it is
their job to underscore the eternal themes ot baseball. The eternal
themes are precisely what Hillv Beane wants to exploit for profit —
by ignoring them.

One by one Billy takes the names of the plavers the old scouts
have fallen in love with, and picks apart their flaws. The first time
he does this an old scout protests.

"The guy's an athlete, Billy," the old scout says. "There's a lot
of upside there."

"He can't hit," savs Billv.

"He's not that bad a hitter," says the old scout.

"Yeah, what happens when he doesn't know a fastball is com-
ing!"' says Billy.

"He's a tools guy," says the old seout, defensively. The old
scouts aren't built to argue; they are built to a^ircc. They are part
of a tightly woven class of former baseball players. The scout
looks left and right for support. It doesn't arrive.

"But can he hitV asks Billy.

"He can hit," says the old scout, unconvincingly.

Paul reads the player's college batting statistics. They contain a
conspicuous lack of extra base hits and walks.

"My only question is," says Billy, "if he's that good a hitter why
doesn't he hit better?"

"The swing needs some work. You have to reinvent him. But he
can hit."

"Pro baseball's not real good at reinventing guys," says Billy.



HOW TO FIND fl BRLLPLflYER 31

Whatever happened when an older man who failed to become a
big league star looks at a younger man with a view to imagining
whether he might become a big league star, Billy wanted nothing
more to do with it. He'd been on the receiving end of the dreams
of older men and he knew what they were worth. Over and over
the old scouts will say, "The guy has a great body/' or, "This guy
may be the best body in the draft." And every time they do, Billy
will say, "We're not selling jeans here," and deposit yet another
highly touted player, beloved by the scouts, onto his shit list. One
after another of the players the scouts rated highly vanish from the
white board, until it's empty. If the Oakland A's aren't going to use
their seven first-round draft picks to take the players their scouts
loved, who on earth are they going to take? That question begins
to be answered when Billy Beane, after tossing another name on
the slag heap, inserts a new one:

TEAHEN

The older scouts lean back in their chairs, spittoons in hand.
Paul leans forward into a laptop and quietly pulls up statistics
from college Web sites. Eric Kubota, scouting director, holds a
ranked list of all the amateur baseball players in the country. He
turns many pages, and passes hundreds and hundreds of names,
before he finds Teahen. "Tell us about Teahen," says Billy.

Mark Teahen, says Eric, is a third baseman from St. Mary's
College just down the road in Moraga, California. "Teahen,"
says Eric. "Six three. Two ten. Left right. Good approach to hit-
ting. Not a lot of power right now. Our kind of guy. He takes
pitches."

"Why haven't we talked about this guy before?" asks the old
scout.

"It's because Teahen doesn't project," says Eric. "He's a corner
guy who doesn't hit a lot of home runs."

"Power is something that can be acquired," says Billy quickly.
"Good hitters develop power. Power hitters don't become good
hitters."



32 MONEYBflLL

"Do you see him at third base or shortstop?" asks another old
scout, hke a prosecuting attorney leading a witness.

"Let's forget about positions and just ask: who is the best hit-
ter?" says Billy.

Paul looks up from his computer. "Teahen: .493 on base,- .624
slug. Thirty walks and only seventeen strikeouts in one hundred
ninety-four at bats." It's hard to tell what the scouts make ot these
numbers. Scouts from other teams would almost surely say: who
gives a shit about a guy's numbers? It's college ball. You need to
look at the guy. Imagine what he might become.

Everyone stares silently at Teahen's name tor about thirty sec-
onds. Eric says, "I hate to say it but if you want to talk about
another lason Giambi, this guy could be it." Giambi was a natural
hitter who developed power onlv after the Oakland A's drafted
him. In the second round. Over the objections of scouts who said
he couldn't run, throw, field, or hit with power. lason Giambi:
MVP of the American League in 2000.

More silence. Decades of scouting experience are being ren-
dered meaningless. "I hate to piss on the camptire, " one of the
scouts finally says, "but I haven't heard Teahen's name once all
year. I haven't heard other teams talking about him. I haven't
heard his name around here all year. It wasn't hke this guy was a
fifty-five we all liked." The scouts put numbers on players. The
numbers are one of the little tricks that lend scouting an air of pre-
cision. A plavcr who receives a ",S,S" is a player thcv tbink will one
day be a regular big league player.

"Who do you like better?" asks Billy.

The old scout leans back in his chair and folds his arms. "What
about Perry?" he says. "When you see him do something right on
a swing, it's impressive. There's some work that needs to be done.
He needs to be reworked a bit."

"You don't change guys," says Billy. "They are who they are."

"That's just my opinion," says the old scout, and folds his arms.



HOW TO FIND fl BflLLPLflYER 33

Once Teahen has found his slot high up on the Big Board, Billy
Beane takes out a Magic Marker and writes another name:

BROWN

The four scouts across from him either wince or laugh. Brown?
Biownl Billy can't be serious.

"Let's talk about Jeremy Brown," Billy says.

In moving from Mark Teahen, whoever he is, to Jeremy Brown,
whoever he is, Billy Beane, in the scouting mind, had gone from
the remotely plausible to the ridiculous. Jeremy Brown made the
scouting lists, just. His name appears on the last page; he is a
lesser member of the rabble regarded by the scouts as, at best, low-
level minor league players. He's a senior catcher at the University
of Alabama. Only three of the old scouts saw him and none of
them rated him even close to a big leaguer. Each of them has about
a thousand players ranked above him.

"Jeremy Brown is a bad body catcher," says the most vocal of
the old scouts.

"A bad body who owns the Alabama record books," says Fitter.

"He's the only player in the history of the SEC with three hun-
dred hits and two hundred walks," says Paul, looking up from his
computer.

It's what he doesn't say that is interesting. No one in big league
baseball cares how often a college players walks,- Paul cares about
it more than just about anything else. He doesn't explain why
walks are important. He doesn't explain that he has gone back and
studied which amateur hitters made it to the big leagues, and
which did not, and why. He doesn't explain that the important
traits in a baseball player were not all equally important. That foot
speed, fielding ability, even raw power tended to be dramatically
overpriced. That the ability to control the strike zone was the
greatest indicator of future success. That the number of walks a
hitter drew was the best indicator of whether he understood how
to control the strike zone. Paul doesn't say that if a guy has a keen



34 MONEYBflLL

eye at the plate in college, he'll likely keep that keen eye in the
pros. He doesn't explain that plate discipline might be an innate
trait, rather than something a tree-swinging amateur can be taught
in the pros. He doesn't talk about all the other statistically based
insights — the overwhelming importance ot on-base percentage,
the significance ot pitches seen per plate appearance — that he uses
to value precisely a hitter's contribution to a baseball ottense. He
doesn't stress the importance ot generalizing trom a large body ot
evidence as opposed to a small one. He doesn't explain anything
because Billy doesn't want him to. Rillv was torever telling Paul
that when you try to explain probability theory to ba.seball guys,
you iust end up contusing them.

"This kid wears a large pair ot underwear," says another old
scout. It's the first time in two days that this old scout has spoken.
He enjoys, briefly, the unusual attention accorded the silent man
in a big meeting. The others in the nxim can onlv assume that if
the scout was moved to speak it must be because be had some-
thing earth-shatteringlv important to sav. He doesn't.

"Okay," says Billy.

"It's soft body," says the most vocal old scout. "A fleshy kind of
a body."

"Oh, you mean like Babe Ruth-"' says Billy. Everyone laughs,
the guys on Billy's side of the room more happily than the older
scouts across from him.

"1 don't know," says the scout. "A body like that can be low
energy."

"Sometimes low energy is just being cool," says Billy.

"Yeah," says the scout. "Well, in this case low energy is because
when he walks, his thighs stick together."



Online LibraryMichael (Michael M.) LewisMoneyball : the art of winning an unfair game → online text (page 3 of 24)