Eight years later, glare of ‘Moneyball’ shows flaws
BY CASEY TEFERTILLER
It seems so long ago, when a book managed to capture the conversation around baseball and captivate readers who yearned for something new in a sport filled with tradition.
That was 2003, when “Moneyball” hit the bookstores and became the primary topic of discussion around the game...No book so rocked the game since Jim Bouton’s “Ball Four,” which in 1970 told about the real lives of players. “Moneyball” was very different. It directly confronted the baseball establishment, showing how the smart guys were about to take over the game from those old curmudgeons; how objective analysis was superior to the subjective opinions of scouts. “Moneyball” did not just challenge the traditional ways of thinking, it ridiculed them.
The book was not just about how the Athletics had succeeded: it was a dictum on how the organization would continue to excel by using new tactics in the draft. According to the book, the A’s had developed a new way to evaluate talent. With computers and statistical analysis, they wouldn’t have to rely on those stodgy old scouts with their individualistic and inconsistent evaluations. Amateur talent and the draft had always been a haphazard, subjective process. Now it could become objective and consistent.
From the beginning, this was more about Lewis’s vision of the A’s than reality. Beane was never so arrogant that he believed scouts were outmoded and worthless. He had been an advance scout himself, with a terrific eye for talent. He knew there were things scouts could know that computers could not. He had maintained a scouting corps that included both veteran and young scouts under the guidance of former scouting director Grady Fuson, who had built a reputation of his own as a draft guru after such selections as Eric Chavez, Mark Mulder, Barry Zito and Tim Hudson. Yet Lewis presents Fuson as the foil—and fool—of the book.
Beane and Fuson did have a falling out of sorts at the 2001 draft. Moments before the draft, Beane screamed a profanity and threw a chair against a wall as he looked at Fuson’s draft board. Fuson wanted a high school pitcher, either Jeremy Bonderman or Cole Hamels, and prep pitchers did not fit the Moneyball plan. Fuson liked them enough to deviate from the plan, and he selected Bonderman. He left the A’s after the season and was an assistant GM with the Rangers when Lewis received access to the Athletics’ inner sanctum in 2002.
...Lewis saw only the first year of the new era in A’s scouting, and he told the story with a brash “we’re smarter than you” perspective. Baseball has a tradition of humility, almost to the point of superstition, and that carries into the front offices. And there was absolutely nothing humble about “Moneyball.” So before the A’s scout-by-the-numbers plan even had time to evolve, it was presented in a national best-seller as the future of baseball. Lewis placed Beane in the bizarre position of being labeled a genius for a plan that had not even been tested. Eight seasons later, as the movie hits theaters, how has the whole Magnificent Athletics Plan For the Future worked out?
Little short of a disaster.
That 2002 draft was to be the beginning of a rebuild. The A’s had seven of the first 39 picks because of free-agent departures, and a big draft could mean a big future. With Fuson gone to Texas, this was the year Beane instituted a new way of thinking. Lewis reported how Beane and DePodesta took over the 2002 draft meeting, and DePodesta put up a list of targeted players, many of whom were not highly valued by traditional scouting standards: Jeremy Brown, Stephen Stanley, John Baker, Mark Kiger, Shaun Larkin, John McCurdy, Brant Colamarino and Brian Stavisky.
Don’t bother to check the all-star rosters. Only Baker has had significant big league time, as a backup catcher. The ’02 draft did produce Nick Swisher, Mark Teahen and Joe Blanton among the A’s first seven picks, but Swisher and Blanton were both consensus first-round talents. Teahen has survived in the majors mostly as a backup.
Oakland did another by-the-numbers draft in ’03, selecting pitcher Brad Sullivan and third baseman Brian Snyder in the first round. Sullivan was a top-ranked pitcher who was coming back from injuries, and that gamble did not work out. Snyder went the way of the other Moneyballers. Second-rounder Andre Ethier became a star after being traded to the Dodgers, but the athletic outfielder does not fit the Moneyball prototype.
The A’s would reach the playoffs again, in 2006, making it to the American League Championship Series before losing to the Tigers. Beane then began a rebuilding effort that has moved in fits and starts but never really come together. The once-prized minor league system has fallen into mediocrity, still recovering from the bad drafts of the Moneyball era and numerous trades that failed to produce.
The A’s quietly stepped away from the mantras of “Moneyball.” By 2006, they used their top pick on high school pitcher Trevor Cahill, a refutation of the principles that dictated that premium picks should not be squandered on prep pitchers. Fuson returned to the organization before the 2010 season as a special adviser.
The draft strategy that Lewis touted simply did not work. The A’s elevated on-base ability to the level of the most coveted tool, and the organization found itself with one-dimensional players who could not find positions or excel in the majors, leaving the A’s short on talent and struggling at the big league level. For a small-market team, drafting and development is critical, and the draft had failed the Athletics.