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Moneyball : the art of winning an unfair game online

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ers that I don't even like, nitwits who glom onto something super-
ficial in the book and misunderstand its underlying message. . . .
Whereas I used to write one 'Dear Jackass' letter a year, I now
write maybe thirty." The growing misunderstanding between
himself and his readership was, he felt, not adding to the sum total
of pleasure or interest in the universe. "I am no longer certain that
the effects of my doing this kind of research are in the best inter-
ests of the average baseball fan," he explained. "I would like to
pretend that the invasion of statistical gremlins crawling at ran-
dom all over the telecast of damn near every baseball game is irrel-
evant to me, that I really had nothing to do with it. ... I know
better. I didn't create this mess, but I helped."

Intelligence about baseball had become equated in the public
mind with the ability to recite arcane baseball stats. What James's
wider audience had failed to understand was that the statistics
were beside the point. The point was understanding; the point was
to make life on earth just a bit more intelligible,- and that point,
somehow, had been lost. "I wonder," James wrote, "if we haven't
become so numbed by all these numbers that we are no longer
capable of truly assimilating any knowledge which might result
from them."



96 MONEYBflLL

His final essay in his final Baseball Abstract James entitled
"Brcakin' the Wand." "To most people it no doubt seemed that I
was writing about statistics," he said, "but I wasn't, not ever; m
the years I've been doing this book 1 have written no more than a
couple of articles about baseball statistics. The secret of the suc-
cess of this book is that 1 was dead in the center of the discussion.
I was writing about exactlv the same issues that everybodv else
was talking about, only in a ditferent way."

With that, lie quit. Claimed he was through being a saberme-
trician. "It is a wonderful thing to know that vou are right and the
world IS wrong," he concluded. "Would God that 1 might have
that feeling again hetore I die." He never had a clue — not then, not
later — that the world was not entirelv wrong. No one ever called
lames to say that an actual big league baseball team had read him
closely, understood everything he had said along with the spirit in
which he had said it, and had set out to find even more new base-
ball knowledge with which to clobber the nitwits who never
grasped what Bill lames was all about.



Chapter 5



IE PLR



What I have tried to do with my work is to
make baseball more fun.

—The Bill James Newsletter, 1985



WHEN YOU THINK of intellectuals influencing the course
of human affairs you think of physics, or political the-
ory, or economics. You think of John Maynard Keynes's
condescending line about men of action — how they believe them-
selves guided by their own ideas even when they are unwittingly
in the thrall of some dead economist. You don't think of baseball,
because you don't think of baseball as having an intellectual
underpinning. But it does; it had just never been seriously observed
and closely questioned, in a writing style sufficiently compelling
to catch the attention of the people who actually played baseball.
Once it had been, it was only a matter of time — a long time —
before some man of action seized on newly revealed truths to gain
a competitive advantage.

By the time he became the general manager of the Oakland A's,
in 1997, Billy Beane had read all twelve of Bill James's Abstracts.
James had something to say specifically to Billy: you were on the
receiving end of a false idea of what makes a successful baseball

97



98 MONEYBflLL

player. James also had something general to say to Billy, or any
other general manager of a baseball team who had the guts, or the
need, to listen: if you challenge the conventional wisdom, you
will find ways to do things much better than they are currently
done. A full decade after James stopped writing his Abstracts,
there were still two fresh opportunities for a team willing to take
them to heart. One was simply to take the knowledge developed
by James and other analysts outside the game, and implement it
inside the game. The other was to develop and extend that knowl-
edge. The Oakland A's had done both, though it wtnild be wrong
to say that, in using James's ideas, they aped James. As the Elias
Sports Bureau had proven when they tried to rip ott the Abstrcict,
it was impossible to ape James. The whole point of James was:
don't be an ape! Think for yourselt along rational lines. Hypothe-
size, test against the evidence, never accept that a question has
been answered as well as it ever will be. Dmi't believe a thing is
true iust because some famous baseball player says that it is true.
"Anyone who thinks he is aping me, isn't," said James.

As late as June 4, 2002, the dav ot that vear's amateur player
draft, there were still big questions about baseball crying out for
answers; a baseball diamond was still a field of ignorance. No one
had established the most efficient way to use relief pitchers. No
one had established to the satisfaction of baseball intellectuals
exactly which part of defense was pitching and which fielding, and
so no one could say exactlv how important fielding was. No one
had solved the problem of fielding statistics. And no one had fig-
ured out how to make the amateur draft any more than the mad-
ness it had always been. James hadn't worried too much about the
amateur draft — probably because the players' statistics, before the
Internet came along, weren't available to him to analyze. But in a
newsletter he wrote for eighteen months in the mid-1980s, to a
tiny audience of subscribers, he had argued persuasively that the
South was overscouted and the Great Lakes region was under-
scouted. He also looked into the history of the draft and discov-



THE JEREMY BROWN BLUE PLATE SPECIAL 99

ered that "college players are a better investment than high school
players by a huge, huge, laughably huge margin." The conven-
tional wisdom of baseball insiders — that high school players were
more likely to become superstars — was also demonstrably false.
What James couldn't understand was why baseball teams refused
to acknowledge that fact. "Anti-intellectual resentment is com-
mon in all of American life and it has many diverse expressions,"
he wrote, advancing one theory. "Refusing to draft college players
might have been one of them."

Still, James had never tried to show how the statistics of a high
school or a college player might be used to make judgments about
his professional future. The question of whether college perform-
ance translated into a professional career simply hadn't been
answered, at least not publicly. Privately, Paul DePodesta, the
head of R&D for the Oakland A's, had made his own study of it.

As a result of that study, the Oakland A's front office, over the
silent shrieks of their own older scouts, were about to implement
a radical new idea about young men and baseball. Lives were
about to change, of people who had no clue that they were on the
receiving end of an idea. As the scouts poured into the draft room,
and stuffed their lower lips with chaw, a catcher with a body
deemed by all of baseball to be unsuited to the game sat waiting
in Tuscaloosa, Alabama. Jeremy Brown had no idea why what was
about to happen to him was about to happen to him.

The morning of the amateur draft, Billy Beane arrived at the
Coliseum earlier than usual and took the place he had occupied
for the previous seven days. At dawn the room seemed more glar-
ingly impersonal than usual; its cinder-block walls were the bright
white of an asylum cell. The only hint of a reality outside were the
four cheaply framed posters of former A's stars: Rickey Henderson,
Mark McGwire, Dennis Eckersley, Walt Weiss.

It was still early, a full hour before the draft, and the younger
scouts trickled in to report their savings. It's actually against
Major League Baseball rules for teams to negotiate with players



100 MONEYBflLL

before the draft, but every team does it anyway, though not, per-
haps, with the A's enthusiasm. One of the first scouts to arrive is
Rich Sparks ("Sparky"), who covers the Great Lakes region for the
A's. Sparky has just finished a conversation with Steve Stanley, a
center fielder from Notre Dame, and he's pleased. Steve Stanley
was yet another example of the strange results you obtained when
you ceased to prejudge a player bv his appearance, and his less
meaningful statistics, and simply looked at what he had accom-
plished according to his meaningful stats. The Major League
Scouting Bureau lists Stanley at five foot seven and 1.^.^ pounds,
but that's wildly generous. Despite his size — or perhaps because of
it — Stanley has a gift for getting on base. To judge crudelv, with
the naked eye, he alreadv plays a better center field than Terrence
Long, the A's big league center fielder. And vet the scouts long ago
decided Stanley wasn't big enough to play.

Stanley has told Sparky that he expected to go after the fifteenth
round of the draft. In other words, he expects to be taken by a team
simply to fill out its minor league roster, not because the team
thinks he has a chance of making it to the big leagues. Sparky has
lUst informed Stanlev that the As are willing to make him a
second-round draft pick — and a genuine big league prospect — on
the condition that he agree to sign for $200,000, or about half a
million dollars less than everv other second-round pick will sign
for. Other teams will assume that Billy Beane is interested in all
these oddballs because he can't afford normal players, and Billy
encourages the view. And it's true he can't afford anyone else. On
the long cafeteria table in front of Billy sat an invisible cash regis-
ter, and inside it the S9.4 million his owner had given him to sign
perhaps as many as thirty-five players. The A's seven first-round
picks alone, paid what their equivalents had received the year
before, would cost him more than $11 million. Billy uses his
poverty to camouflage another fact, that he wants these oddballs
more than the studs he cannot afford. He views Stanley as a legit-



THE JEREMY BROWN BLUE PLATE SPECIAL 101

imate second-round pick. Since no one else does, he might as well
save money on him.

"Sparky, we all right?" asks Billy.

"Yeah, sure," says Sparky. "I thought he was going to jump
through the phone when I told him."

Billy laughs. "Pumped, are we?"

"I think he'd play for free," says Sparky.

After Sparky comes Billy Owens ("Billy O"), the young scout
who covers the Deep South and is thus responsible for all com-
munication with the University of Alabama catcher, Jeremy
Brown. "Billy O looks like a Jamaican drug lord, doesn't he?"
shouts Billy Beane, as Billy O ambles into the draft room. Billy O
doesn't bother to smile. Too much trouble. He somehow conveys
the idea of a sm^ile without moving a muscle.

"We're all right, huh?" says Billy.

"Yeah, we all right," says Billy O.

"Does he understand?"

"Oh he understands."

Billy O is what you'd get if you hammered Shaquille O'Neal on
the head with a pile driver until he stood six foot two. He's big and
wide and moves only when he is absolutely certain that move-
ment is required for survival. He's shrewd, too, and can see what
you mean even if you don't. Over the past few days Billy O has
come to see that he has a novel task: giving Jeremy Brown a new
opinion of himself. He took it in small steps; he didn't want to
shock the kid. "That boy told me he'd be happy to go in the first
nineteen rounds," says Billy O. "I told him, 'think top ten.' I'm
telling you, that guy was so happy when 1 told him that. Next day
I called him back and say, 'shrink that to five.' I'm not sure he
believed me. Yesterday, I called him and said, 'You got a chance to
make six figures and the first number is not going to be a one.' The
boy had to sit down."

But it was what happened late the night before that really



102 MONEYBRLL

Struck Billy O. He'd called Jeremy Brown to tell him that the Oak-
land A's were thinking of drafting him with the fifth of their seven
first-round picks, the thirty-fifth overall pick. To that, Brown hadn't
said anything much at all. Just "Thank vou verv much hut I need
to call you hack." Seconds later he'd called hack. It turned out he
thought the guy who had just called him wasn't Billv Owens, (Oak-
land A's scout, hut a college teammate ot his masquerading as
Billy O. "He thought it was a crank call," says Billy O. "He said
he wanted to make sure it was me, and that I was serious."

Jeremy Brown, owner of the University of Alahama offensive
record hooks us a catcher, has been so pertectlv conditioned by tiie
conventional scouting wisdom that he refused tt) believe that anv
maior league baseball team could think highlv ot him. As he eased
himself into the radically new evaluation oi his talents, he heard
Billy O lay down the conditions. There were two. One was that he
would sign for the $.VSO,000 the A's were offering, which was
nearly a million dollars less than the thntv-tiith pick ot the draft
might expect to receive. The other was he needed to lose weight.
"I said this IS the Oakland As speaking to you, and the Oakland
A's do things differently," said Billy O, fresh from the strangest
pre-draft chat he'd ever had with an amateur player. "1 told him
how this was the money and it was as mucii as he was ever gonna
get and it was non-negotiable. 1 said the Oakland As are making a
commitment to vou. You gcnta make a commitment to us, with
your bodv."

It had to be the most energizing weight loss commercial in his-
tory, even if it was delivered by an unlikely pitchman. At the end
of it, Brown had sounded willing to agree to anything. At the same
time, he still didn't really believe any of it. And that worries Billy
Beane.

"You wanna go home tonight i"' he now asks Billy O. What he's
really asking is: Do you think you need to be there in the flesh, to
keep Jeremy Brown sane' To remind him that the Oakland A's
have just radically increased his market value, and that he should



THE JEREMY BROWN BLUE PLATE SPECIAL 103

remain grateful long enough to sign their contract. Once Jeremy
Brown becomes a first-round pick, the agents, heretofore oblivious
of his existence, would be all over him, trying to persuade him to
break the illicit verbal agreement he'd made with the A's.

"No," says Billy O, and takes his seat in the ring of scouts. "I
told him those agents are going to be calling him and telling him
all kinds of shit. The boy's all right."

"Hey," says Sparky, brightly, to Billy O, "your guy could eat my
guy for dinner."

"And would," says Billy O, then shuts his mouth, to achieve
perfect immobility.

Billy Beane's phone rings.

"Hey Kenny," he says. Kenny Williams, GM of the Chicago
White Sox. Williams has been calling a lot lately. He wants to
trade for the A's starting pitcher, Cory Lidle. But this morning it
isn't Lidle he wants to talk about. He's calling because the White
Sox hold the eighteenth pick in the draft, two behind the A's first
selection, and he wants to find out who the A's plan to draft. He
doesn't come right out and say it; instead, he probes Billy about
players, thinking he might trick Billy into tipping his hand.
"We're in front of you so don't try to play secret agent man," Billy
finally says. "Don't worry, Blanton might get to you." Joe Blanton
is a pitcher at the University of Kentucky. Billy likes him too.

Billy hangs up. "He's going to take Blanton," he says. A useful
tidbit. It fills in the white space between the A's first pick and
their second, the twenty-fourth of the entire draft.

No one is thinking about the twenty-fourth pick of the draft,
however. The twenty-fourth pick of the draft feels years away, and
irrelevant. With the twenty-fourth pick of the draft, and all the
other picks they have after that, the A's will pursue players in
whom no one else has seen the greatness. Jeremy Brown is the
extreme example of the phenomenon, but there are many others.

Nick Swisher is a different story,- Swisher many teams want.
No one utters Swisher's name, but everyone knows that Billy's



104 MONEYBflLL

obsessed with the kid. Here in the asylum cell Swisher already
feels owmed. The scouts were already sharing their favorite
Swisher stories. The Indians' GM, Mark Shapiro, goes to see
Swisher play, and instead of sticking to his assigned role of intim-
idated young plaver under inspection by big league big shot,
Swisher marches right up to Shapiro and says, "So what the hell's
up with Finley's old lady?" (Chuck Finlev is an Indians pitcher
who had filed assault charges against his wife.) Great story! The
kid has an attitude.

Billv has to work to hide how much he likes the sound of that
descriptive noun. Attitude is "a subiective thing." Billy's stated
goal is to remain "objective." All these ternblv subiective state-
ments about Swisher keep popping out ot his mouth anyway.
Swisher has an attitude. Swisher is fearless. Swisher "isn't going
to let anything get between him and the big leagues." Swisher has
"presence." The more vou listen to Billy talk about Swisher, the
more you realize that he isn't talking about Swisher. He's talking
about Lennv Ovkstra. Swisher is the same character as the one
that had revealed Billy's shortcomings to himselt — made it clear
to him that he was never going to be the success everyone said he
was born to be. That he'd need to figure out all by himself how to
be something else. No wonder that on the subject of Nick Swisher
Billy sounds somewhat less than "objective." He's talking about a
ghost.

At first, there's no hint of trouble. The scouts have called
around and have a fair idea of who will dratt whom with the first
fifteen picks. All is clear for the A's to draft Nick Swisher with the
sixteenth pick of the draft. It's Billy's best friend in baseball, I. P.
Ricciardi, the GM of the Blue Jays, who, twenty minutes before
the draft, calls to tell Billy that all is no longer so clear. The sound
of T.P.'s voice initially causes Billy to brighten but whatever he
says causes Billy to say, "Fuck! I got to go." He punches his cell
phone off and hurls it onto the table.

"Span fucked us," he says. "His agent just asked for $2.6 mil-



THE JEREMY BROWN BLUE PLATE SPECIAL 105

lion and fucking Colorado can't get a contract done." Denard Span
is a high school center fielder, who was meant to be drafted by the
Colorado Rockies with the ninth pick of the draft. Now, it seems,
he won't be.

When seventeen-year-old Denard Span announces that he won't
stand for a penny less than $2.6 million, his stock plummets. No
one wants to touch him out of fear they won't be able to persuade
him to sign for a sensible sum of money. Span's name clatters
down toward the bottom rungs of the first round, and triggers a
mind-numbingly complex chain reaction at the top. The Mets,
who hold the pick immediately before the A's, the fifteenth over-
all, had been set to take one from a list of four pitchers: Jeff Fran-
cis, who was also on Billy's wish list, and three high schoolers,
Clinton Everts, Chris Gruler, and Zack Greinke. Everts, Gruler,
and Greinke were probably spoken for by the Expos, Reds, and
Royals. That left Francis, free and clear to fall to the Mets with the
fifteenth pick. Colorado's bungling of negotiations with their first
choice had just screwed that up. Colorado was now taking Fran-
cis. That's what J.R has just told Billy. He knows this because the
Mets' next choice after their four pitchers was Russ Adams, whom
the Blue Jays intended to take with the fourteenth pick. The Mets'
next choice after Adams was Nick Swisher. Swisher — like
Lenny! — was going to be a Met.

Billy calls Steve Phillips, the Mets' GM, out of some vague
notion he might talk him out of taking Swisher. There is no more
reason for him to think he can do this than there was for Kenny
Williams to think he could trick Billy into tipping his hand. It is
the nature of being the general manager of a baseball team that
you have to remain on familiar terms with people you are contin-
ually trying to screw. In his six years on the job Billy has had such
a gift for making grotesquely good deals — for finding what other
people want, even if they shouldn't want it, and giving it to them
in exchange for something a lot better^that he thinks he can do
it here. But he can't; there's nothing to trade. It's against the rules



106 MONEYBflLL

to trade draft slots. The thirty or so people in the draft room hear
one side of Billy's awkward conversation:

"What ahout Everts, you hear anything on that- " he asks, teas-
ingly.

Pause. Phillips tells him that the Montreal Expos arc taking
Everts.

"What ahout Greinke or Gruler?"

Pause. Phillips tells him that they are heing taken hv the Roy-
als and Reds.

"Yeah. I'm just as pissed as vou are."

He hangs up, and, dropping the pretense that his pain is not
unique in the universe, shouts, "Fuck!"

Anyone who walked in lust then and tried to figure out what
was happening would have heen totallv mystified. Thirty men sit
in appalled silence watching one man tumc. Finallv Billy says,
"They're taking Swisher." lu^t in case anvone in the draft room is
feeling at ease with that tact, he rises .\nd swats his chair across
the room. We'd heen here more than an hour, thinking ahout noth-
ing hut Swisher, and until that moment no one had mentioned
Nick Swisher's name.

"We should he all right," says someone, recklessly.

"No. We're not all right," says Billy. He's in no mood to feel hct-
ter. "Greinke, Gruler, and Everts aren't going to he there. Fucking
Colorado's taking Francis. I. P. is gomg to take Adams, and once
Adams is gone, we're fucked."

Nick Swisher is, at hest, the Mets' sixth choice: the Mets don't
even hegin to appreciate what they are getting. The Mets are tak-
ing Swisher reluctantly. If Billy had the first pick in the entire
draft he'd take Swisher with it. He appreciates Swisher more than
any man on the planet and Swisher . . . should . . . have . . . been
. . . his! And yet Swisher will he a Met, almost by default.

"Fuck!" he shouts again. He reaches for his snuff. He hasn't
slept in two days. It's a tradition with him: he never sleeps the



THE JEREMY BROWN BLUE PLATE SPECIAL 107

night before the draft. He's too excited. Draft day, he says, is the
one day of the baseball year that gives him the purest pleasure.

Except when it goes wrong. He claws out a finger of snuff and
jams it into his lip. His face reddens slightly. The draft room, at
this moment, has an all-or-nothing feel to it. If the Oakland A's
land Nick Swisher, nothing could mar the loveliness of the day. If
they don't, nothing that happens afterward can make life worth
living.

Any very large angry man can unsettle a room, even a room full
of other large men, but Billy has a special talent for it. Five min-
utes after he's spoken to Phillips he is still so upset that no one in
the room utters a peep, out of fear of setting off the bomb. The
mood is exactly what it would be if every person in the room was
handed his own personal vial of nitroglycerin. You could see why
guys used to come down from the bullpen when Billy Beane hit,
just to see what he would do if he struck out. To describe what-
ever he's feeling as anger doesn't do justice to it. It's an isolating
rage: he believes, perhaps even wants to believe, that he is alone
with his problem and no one can help him. That no one should
help him.

The space around Billy's rage is perfectly still. Paul DePodesta
stares quietly into his computer screen. Paul's seen Billy in this
state often enough to know that it's not something you want to
get in the middle of. Paul knows that Billy, to be Billy, needs to get
worked up. "I think Swisher will get to us," Paul says quietly,
"but I'm not going to say that right now."

Finally the miserable silence is punctuated by the ringing of
scouting director Eric Kubota's cellphone — only instead of ringing
it plays, absurdly, Pachelbel's Canon. Eric snatches it quickly off
the table. "Oh, is that what it is?" he says into the phone, in a
clipped tone, and hangs up. The draft room has become a symbol-
ist play.

Billy's phone rings. It's Kenny Williams again. Williams is of no



108 MONEYBflLL

current interest to Billy. Nothing the White Sox do will alter
Billy's chances of getting Swisher.

"What's up Kenny," Billy says rather than asks.

What's up is that Kennv has just heard that Billy isn't getting



Online LibraryMichael (Michael M.) LewisMoneyball : the art of winning an unfair game → online text (page 9 of 24)