Michael (Michael M.) Lewis.

Moneyball : the art of winning an unfair game online

. (page 5 of 24)
Online LibraryMichael (Michael M.) LewisMoneyball : the art of winning an unfair game → online text (page 5 of 24)
Font size
QR-code for this ebook


astonished — first of all, that he even got to the ball. Second, that
he ran up and down a pitcher's mound at full speed without break-
ing stride. Third, that he even thought to make that throw. Speed.
Balance. Presence ot mind. 1 think that the runner when he found
the ball waiting for him was more surprised than anvbodv."

Billy could run and Billy could throw and Billv could catch and
Billy even had presence of mind in the field. Billv was quick-
witted and charming and perceptive about other people, if not
about himself. He had a bravado, increasingly false, that no one in
a fifty-mile radius was ever going to see through. He looked more
like a superstar than anv actual superstar. He was a natural leader
of young men. Billv's weakness was simple: he couldn't hit.

Or, rather, he hit sometimes but not others; and when he didn't
hit, he unraveled. "Billy was of the opinion that he should never
make an out," said Pittaro. "Relief pitchers used to come down
from the bullpen to watch Billy hit, )ust to sec what he did when
he struck out." He busted so many bats against so many walls that
his teammates lost count. One time he destroyed the dugout toi-
let; another time, in a Triple-A game in Tacoma, he went after a
fan in the stands, and proved, to everyone's satisfaction, that fans,
no matter what challenges they hollered from the safety of their
seats, were better off not getting into fistfights with ballplayers.
From the moment Billy entered a batter's box he set about devour-
ing himself from the inside until, fully self-consumed, he went
looking around him for something else to feed his rage. "He didn't



THE ENLIGHTENMENT 49

have a baseball mentality/' said Jeff Bittiger. "He was more like a
basketball or a football player. Emotions were always such a big
part of whatever he did. A bad at bat or two and he was done for
the third and fourth at bats of the game."

Yet even inside the batter's box, where he came unglued in a
matter of a few seconds, Billy enjoyed sensational success. In
1983, in response to his special inconsistency against right-handed
pitching, Billy played around with switch-hitting. Who tried hit-
ting from the wrong side of the plate for the first time in his life
in Double-A ball? Nobody. And yet by the middle of the Double-
A season, against pitchers with big league stuff, Billy was hitting
.300 left-handed. Then he slumped, and lost his nerve. He went
back to hitting exclusively right-handed.

In late 1984, Billy and Lenny both came up for a few weeks at
the end of the season. Billy got his first big league hit off Jerry
Koosman — who immediately picked him off first base. It was
funny; it was also sad. Just as the game seemed willing to bend to
his talent, it snapped back, and took whatever it had just given
him away. In late 1985, Lenny was brought up for good to the big
league team — for which Darryl Strawberry already had hit more
than seventy home runs. Lenny played center. Strawberry played
right, Billy played the guy who never made it out to left field. The
next year Lenny hit critical home runs in the NLCS and the World
Series, and wrote a book about them, in which he mentioned that
it should have been Billy Beane, not he, who became the big
league star. (Lenny didn't read books; he wrote them.)

Rather than make Billy a big leaguer, the Mets traded him to
the Minnesota Twins. The Twins in 1986 had a new manager, Ray
Miller, who announced that Billy Beane would be his starting left
fielder. Billy immediately went out and hurt himself in spring
training, but when he came back he was, for the first time in his
big league career, sent out to left field as a regular rather than a
substitute. That day the Twins were in Yankee Stadium facing



50 MONEYBflLL

Ron Guidry. Billy went five tor five off Guidry, with a home run.
Then he went hitless the next two nights and found hmiselt writ-
ten out of the Twins' starting lineup — for good, as it turned out.
Billy understood, or said he did. The team was losing and Ray
Miller was new, and feeling pressure to play veterans.

For the next three and a half seasons Billy was up and down
between Triple-A and the big leagues, with the Twins, the Detroit
Tigers, and, finally, the Oakland A's. Inside the batter's box he
struggled to adapt, but everv ehange he made was aimed more at
preventing embarrassment than at achieving success. To reduce
his strikeouts, he shortened his swing, and traded the possibility
of hitting a home run for a greater likelihood of simply putting the
ball in play. He crouched and hunched in an attempt to hit like a
smaller man. He might have struck out less than he otherwise
would have done, but at the cost ot cripphng his natural powers.
Eight years into his professional baseball career he was, in some
ways, a weaker hitter than when he was seventeen years old.

At least, when it counted. When it didn't count — when he
didn't think about it — anything could happen. One afternoon
during Billv's one-month stint with the Detroit Tigers, he was
asked by the general manager, Bill Laioie, to come out to Tiger
Stadium on an off-day. Laioie called in a few scrubs to help with
the rehabilitation ni a pitcher named Walt Terrell. Terrell, who
had been iniured, was about to reenter the Tigers' starting rota-
tion. Before that happened the pitching coach wanted Terrell to
throw a simulated game. Billy was expected to stand in the box,
as a foil.

Once they'd taken the field there was just one thought on
everyone's mind: Was Terrell his old selt< Billy sat and watched
Terrell dispatch a couple of hitters. He was indeed his old self.
When Billy's turn came to hit, nobody was paying him any atten-
tion. All eyes were on Terrell. Nobody much cared whether Billy
Beane struck out or hooted at the moon. He couldn't fail. He



THE ENLIGHTENMENT 51

became, for a moment, a boy playing a game. While the coaches
and the GM scrutinized their precious pitcher, Billy took the first
pitch he liked and launched a major league fastball into the upper
deck of Tiger Stadium.

There was a new thought on everyone's mind: Who the fuck did
thatl

Billy was no longer ignorable. The GM, Lajoie, came over to
him. Billy, you looked like a different guy. The stance, the atti-
tude — everything was different. Why don't you do that all the
timel By now everyone knew that Billy was the guy destined for
the Hall of Fame who never panned out. ''He was still at an age
where he might have developed further as a player," said Lajoie.
The GM thought there was hope; the GM really didn't understand.
Nobody understood. Inside a batter's box, during a baseball game,
Billy was no longer able to be himself. Billy was built to move:
inside a batter's box he had to be perfectly still. Inside a batter's
box he experienced a kind of claustrophobia. The batter's box was
a cage designed to crush his spirit.

In his last three and a half years of pro ball Billy watched a lot
more baseball than he played, and demonstrated an odd knack for
being near the center of other people's action. "The Forrest Gump
of baseball," he later called himself. He was on the bench when
the Twins won the 1987 World Series and also when the A's won
the 1989 World Series. He was forever finding himself next to peo-
ple who were about to become stars. He'd played outfield with
Lenny Dykstra and Darryl Strawberry. He'd subbed for Mark
McGwire and Jose Canseco. He'd lockered beside Rickey Hender-
son. In his slivers of five years in the big leagues he played for four
famous managers: Sparky Andersen, Tom Kelly, Davey Johnson,
and Tony La Russa. But by the end of 1989 his career stat line (301
at bats, .219 batting average, .246 on-base percentage, .296 slug-
ging percentage, and 11 walks against 80 strikeouts) told an elo-
quent tale of suffering. You didn't need to know Billy Beane at



52 MONEYBflLL

all — you only needed to read his stats — to sense that he left every
on-deck circle in trouble. That he had developed neither discipline
nor composure. That he had never learned to lay off a bad pitch.
That he was easily fooled. That, fooled so often, he came to expect
that he would be fooled. That he hit with fear. That his fear mas-
queraded as aggression. That the aggression enabled hmi to exit
the batter's box as quicklv as possible. One season in the big
leagues he came to the plate seventy-nine times and failed to draw
a single walk. Not many players do that.

Billy's failure was less interesting than the many attempts to
explain it. His teammate and friend, Chris Pittaro, said, "Billy was
as competitive and intense as anyone 1 ever played with. He never
let his talent dictate. He fought himself too hard." Billy's high
school coach, Sam Blalock, said that "he would have made it if
he'd had the intangibles — if he would have had a better self-image.
I think he would have been a big star in the big leagues. No. I
know. He was amazing. If he'd wanted to, he could even have
made it as a pitcher." The scouts who had been so high on Billy
when he was seventeen years old still spoke of him in odd tones
when he was twenty-five, as if he'd become exactly what they all
said he would be and it was only by some piece of sorcery that he
didn't have the numbers to prove it. Paul Weaver: "The guy had it
all. But some guys just never figure it out. Whatever it is that
allows you to perform day in, dav out, and to make adjustments,
he didn't have it. The game is that way." Roger longcwaard: "He
had the talent to be a superstar. A Mike Schmidt-type player. His
problem was makeup. I thought Billy had makeup on his side. But
he tried too hard. He tried to force it. He couldn't stay loose."

Inside baseball, among the older men, that was the general con-
sensus: Billy Beane's failure was not physical but mental. His
mind had shoved his talent to one side. He hadn't allowed nature
to take its course. It was hardly surprising that it occurred to the
older men that what Billy really needed was a shrink.



THE ENLIGHTENMENT 53

That, briefly, is what he got. The whole idea of a baseball shrink
had been reinvented by the Oakland A's in the early 1980s.*

The first of the new breed was a charismatic former prep school
teacher with some academic training in psychology named Har-
vey Dorfman. The A's minor league coordinator Karl Kuehl, with
whom Dorfman wrote the seminal book, The Mental Game of
Baseball, had actually put Dorfman in uniform and let him sit in
the dugout during games, so he could deal with the players'
assorted brain screams in real time. Kuehl had no time for a
player's loss of composure during a game. "If you were throwing
equipment or whatever, you were going to spend time with Har-
vey, whether you wanted to or not," said Kuehl. One of the most
efficient destroyers of baseball equipment his teammates had ever
seen, Billy was destined to spend time with Harvey. Harvey's main
impression of Billy was that Billy had played hide-and-seek with
his demons, and that professional baseball had helped him to win.
"Baseball organizations don't understand that with a certain kind
of highly talented player who has trouble with failure, they need
to suck it up and let the kid develop," Dorfman said. "You don't
push him along too fast. Take it slow, so his failure is not public
exposure and humiliation. Teach him perspective — that baseball
matters but it doesn't matter too much. Teach him that what mat-
ters isn't whether I just struck out. What matters is that 1 behave
impeccably when I compete. The guy believes in his talent. What

* There'd been some flirtation with shrinking players back in the late 1940s.
The old St. Louis Browns hired a psychologist named David Tracy who specialized
in hypnotic therapy. Tracy wrote a book about his experience called Psychologist
At Bat, which, if nothing else, gives you some idea why baseball didn't rush to
embrace the psychiatric profession. Here's Tracy describing his technique: "I had
[a Browns' pitcher) lie down on the couch and I stood behind him. I held up my
finger about six inches above his eyes and told him to look at it steadily as I talked:
'Your legs are growing heavy, v-e-r-y heavy. Your arms are growing heavy, v-e-r-y
heavy. You are going deep, d-e-e-p asleep."



54 MONEYBflLL

he doesn't believe in is himselt. He sees himself exclusively in his
statistics. It his stats are bad, he has zero selt-worth. He's never
developed a coping mechanism because he's never had anything to
cope with."

Billy's view of himself was radically different. Baseball hadn't
yielded itself to his character. He tht)ught it was just bullshit to
say that his character — or more exactly, his emotional predisposi-
tion — might be changed. "You know what-"' he said, it it doesn't
happen, it never was going to happen. It \nu never did it, it wasn't
there to begin with." All these attempts to manipulate his psyche
he regarded as so much crap. "Sports psychologists are a crutch,"
he said. "An excuse tor whv vou are not doing it rather than a
solution. If somebody needs them, there is a weakness in them
that will prevent them from succeeding. It's not a character tlaw;
it's lust a character flaw when it comes to baseball. " He was who
he was. Baseball was what it was. And they were a bad match. "It
wasn't anyone's fault," he said. "I lUst didn't have it m me."

During spring training ot 1990 he tinallv capitulated to this
realization. He no longer was a bov. He was a man. He had mar-
ried his high school girlfriend and she was seven months pregnant
with their first child. He had responsibilities and no real tuture to
cover them. He had gone from promising to disappointing without
ever quite figuring out how or why: but he wasn't blind. All he had
to do was look around to see that something had changed. "The
luster and the shme came off because there was a whole new crop
of guys coming in," he said. "I was twentv-seven vears old and by
and large you are what you are when you're twenty-seven." He
had blossomed into the physical specimen the scouts had dreamed
he would become. And yet, somehow, the game had shrunk him.

The game had also rendered him unfit for anything but itself.
The people on the big club assumed that Billy would break camp
in 1990 with them, and spend another season shuttling between
the bench and Triple-A. Billy did something else instead. He walked



THE ENLIGHTENMENT 55

out of the Oakland A's dugout and into their front office, and said
he wanted a job as an advance scout. An advance scout traveled
ahead of the big league team and analyzed the strengths and weak-
nesses of future opponents. Billy was entering what was meant to
be his prime as a baseball player, and he'd decided he'd rather
watch than play. "I always say that I loved playing the game but
I'm not sure that I really did/' he said. "I never felt comfortable."

When their fifth outfielder turned up looking for a desk job, the
A's front office didn't know what to make of it. It was as unlikely
as some successful politician quitting a campaign and saying he
wanted to be a staffer, or a movie actor walking off the set and tak-
ing a job as key grip. None of the staff had played big league base-
ball and all of them wished they had. Most would have given their
glove hands, or at least a few fingers, for a year in a big league uni-
form. The A's general manager Sandy Alderson was maybe the
most perplexed of all. "Nobody does that," he said. "Nobody says,
'I quit as a player. I want to be an advance scout.'" He hired Billy
anyway. "I didn't think there was much risk in making him an
advance scout," Alderson said, "because I didn't think an advance
scout did anything." Chris Pittaro had gone into scouting after an
injury ended his playing career. When Billy called to tell him what
he'd done, Pittaro was incredulous. "When you're in the game you
always think something is going to break for you. No one gives up
on that. I didn't. I was forced to retire. Billy chose to retire. And
that was something I couldn't imagine." In the end Billy Beane
proved what he had been trying to say at least since he was sev-
enteen years old: he didn't want to play ball.

With that, he concluded his fruitless argument with his talent.
He decided that his talent was beside the point: how could you
call it talent if it didn't lead to success? Baseball was a skill, or
maybe it was a trick: whatever it was he hadn't played it very well.
In his own mind he ceased to be a guy who should have made it
and became a guy upon whom had been heaped a lot of irrational



56 MONEYBflLL



hopes and dreams. He had reason to feel some distaste for base-
ball's mystical nature. He would soon be handed a weapon to
destroy it.



0.\NDY ALDERSON has a clcar memorv trom earlier that sprmg of
1990, of Billy Beane taking batting practice. He didn't know much
about Billy and wondered what kind of player he was. "He was
very undisciplined at the plate," Alderson said. "Not a lot of
power. I remember after I watched him very specifically asking:
why is this guy even on the team-" ' Not that it mattered. Tonv La
Russa was the A's manager and, in the great tradition ot big-shot
baseball managers, he paid onlv taint attention to what the CM
had to say.

That was one of the many things about baseball Alderson was
determined to change. When Billv came to work inside the A's
front office in 199,^, he walked into the earlv stages oi a titful sci-
ence experiment. When Alderson had been hired as the A's general
manager a decade earlier, he'd been a complete outsuler to base-
ball. This was rare. Most GMs start out as scouts and rise up
through the baseball establishment. Alderson was an expensively
educated San Francisco lawyer (Dartmouth College, Harvard Law
School) with no experience of the game, outside of a bit of time on
school playing fields. He was also a former Marine Corps officer,
and his self-presentation was much closer to "former Marine
Corps officer" than "fancy-pants lawyer." "Sandy didn't know
shit about baseball," says Harvey Uorfman, the baseball psychol-
ogist Alderson more or less invented. "He was a neophyte. But he
was a progressive thinker. And he wanted to understand how the
game worked. He also had the capacity to instill fear in others."

When Alderson entered the game he wanted to get his mind
around it, and he did. He concluded that everything from on-field
strategies to player evaluation was better conducted by scientific
investigation — hypotheses tested by analysis of historical statisti-



THE ENLIGHTENMENT 57

cal baseball data — than by reference to the collective wisdom of
old baseball men. By analyzing baseball statistics you could see
through a lot of baseball nonsense. For instance, when baseball
managers talked about scoring runs, they tended to focus on team
batting average, but if you ran the analysis you could see that the
number of runs a team scored bore little relation to that team's
batting average. It correlated much more exactly with a team's on-
base and slugging percentages. A lot of the offensive tactics that
made baseball managers famous — the bunt, the steal, the hit and
run — could be proven to have been, in most situations, either
pointless or self-defeating. "I figured out that managers do all this
shit because it is safe," said Alderson. "They don't get criticized
for it." He wasn't particularly facile with numbers, but he could
understand them well enough to use their conclusions. "1 couldn't
do a regressions analysis," he said, "but I knew what one was. And
the results of them made sense to me."

Alderson hadn't set out to reexamine the premises of profes-
sional baseball but he wound up doing it anyway. For a long
stretch, his investigations were largely academic. "You have to
remember," he said, "that there wasn't any evidence that any of
this shit worked. And I had credibility problems. I didn't have a
baseball background." The high payroll Oakland teams managed
by Tony La Russa had done well enough in the late 1980s and early
1990s that Alderson felt he should "defer to success." For more
than a decade he could afford to do this. Since the late 1970s the
A's had been owned by Walter A. Haas, Jr., who was, by instinct,
more of a philanthropist than a businessman. Haas viewed profes-
sional baseball ownership as a kind of public trust and spent
money on it accordingly. In 1991, the Oakland A's actually had the
highest payroll in all of baseball. Haas was willing to lose millions
to field a competitive team that would do Oakland proud, and he
did. The A's had gone to the World Series three straight seasons
from 1988 to 1990.

Deferring to success became an untenable strategy in 1995,



58 MONEYBflLL

when Walter Haas died. His estate sold the team to a pair of Bay
Area real estate developers, Steve Schott and Ken Hotmann, who
were, by instinct, more businessmen than philanthropists. Schott
and Hotmann wanted Alderson to contmue running the team but
on a much tighter budget. "We had new owners who weren't going
to spend any money," said Alderson. "They made it clear that this
had to be a business. And so we suddenly were put m the position
of: we can only afford a one-tool player. Which tool is it going to
be?" What — and this is what the question amounted to — was the
efficient way to spend monev on baseball plavers-' The first, short
answer, according to a pamphlet commissioned bv Alderson, was
to spend it on hitters. The pamphlet was written bv a former aero-
space engineer turned baseball writer, Eric Walker. Fielding, Walker
wrote, was "at most five percent ni the game." The rest was pitch-
ing and offense, and while "good pitchers are usually valued prop-
erly, good batters often are not." In Walker's words:

Analyzing baseball vields manv numbers of interest and value.
Yet far and away — far, far and away^the most critical number
in all of baseball is .^: the three outs that define an inning. Until
the third out, anvthing is possible; after it, nothmg is. Anything
that increases the offense's chances of making an out is bad; any-
thing that decreases it is good. And what is on-base percentage-'
Simply yet exactlv put, it is the probabilitv that the batter will
not make an out. When we state it that way, it becomes, (ir
should become, crystal clear that the most important isolated
(one-dimensional 1 offensive statistic is the on-base percentage. It
measures the probability that the batter will not be another step
toward the end of the inning.

Alderson's reference point for running an organization was the
time he'd spent as an officer in the Marine Corps. He approached
the A's farm teams the way the Marine Corps approached its
boot camps. The individual star was less important than the



THE ENLIGHTENMENT 59

organization as a whole, and the organization as a whole func-
tioned well only if it was uniformly disciplined. Once he decided
that hitting was the most important tool and everything else was
secondary, Alderson set about implementing throughout the
organization, with Marine Corps rigor, a uniform approach to hit-
ting. The approach had three rules:

1. Every batter needs to behave like a leadoff man, and adopt as his
main goal getting on base.

2. Every batter should also possess the power to hit home runs, in
part because home run power forced opposing pitchers to pitch
more cautiously, and led to walks, and high on-base percent-
ages.

3. To anyone with the natural gifts to become a professional base-
ball player, hitting was less a physical than a mental skill. Or,
at any rate, the aspects of hitting that could be taught were
mental.

By 1995, Alderson had created a new baseball corporate culture
around a single baseball statistic: on-base percentage. Scoring runs
was, in the new view, less an art or a talent than a process. If you
made the process a routine — if you got every player doing his part
on the production line — you could pay a lot less for runs than the
going rate. Alderson was building a system with Marine Corps
intolerance for exceptions to the rules. "Sandy produced this long
paper about the pros and cons of selective hitting," recalled Karl
Kuehl, who was in charge of implementing Alderson's rules. "He
wanted to really push the kids coming up through the minor
leagues. No one had ever heard of on-base percentage, but when
your being called to the major leagues depends on your on-base
percentage, it gets your attention." The system's central tenet
was, in Alderson's words, "the system was the star. The reason the
system works is that everyone buys into it. If they don't, there is



Online LibraryMichael (Michael M.) LewisMoneyball : the art of winning an unfair game → online text (page 5 of 24)