Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

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June 4 2003 12:51 PM

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

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Jim,

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You cited the Hinske-for-Koch trade as being somewhat inexplicable, and you're absolutely right. Hinske, while not considered a great prospect by most teams, was highly valued by the A's, who knew he'd be a good major-league hitter. And explaining the trade by saying the A's already had Eric Chavez at third base is bogus, because 1) Hinske could have moved to first base or DH; and 2) Chavez probably won't be an Athletic forever. In fact, just think what the A's could have got if they'd traded Chavez rather than Hinske.

The other thing worth mentioning is that Blue Jays General Manager J.P. Ricciardi is one of Billy Beane's best friends. So, while I don't doubt that Beane wanted Billy Koch on his team last year, I also don't doubt that Beane wanted to help out Ricciardi, who at the time was just beginning his first year as the Jays' GM. To this point, though, they've made out OK on the deal. The A's traded Hinske for Koch, who gave them one good season; then they traded Koch for Keith Foulke, who's pitched brilliantly this season (meanwhile, Koch has been terrible for his new team).

The Pena deal isn't as easy to explain. But I asked Billy about it not long ago, and I can report that he's completely happy with it. Yes, the A's traded Pena and pitcher Franklyn German and pitcher Jeremy Bonderman to the Tigers, and Pena and Bonderman both could become real good major-league players. But as a result of that trade, the A's currently have Ted Lilly in their rotation and Erubiel Durazo in their lineup, and Lilly and Durazo are real good major-league players now.

All this is to say that I think Beane's thinking about the future runs mostly along the lines of, "If I'm smart enough to do the right thing today, I'll be smart enough to do the right thing tomorrow." And he's usually right.

Which isn't to say that his emotions don't occasionally get the better of him. As Michael Lewis relates in Moneyball, Beane got sick of watching the A's founder last May and shook up the roster. Now, was that his emotions getting the better of him? Or was that a brilliant psychological ploy designed to send a message to his best players (all of whom survived the purge)? Well, all we know for sure is that the A's were, at the time, a few games under .500 and 10 games out of first place, and that they immediately started winning and wound up the season in first place.

Brilliant or lucky, we'll never know. I think Lewis and even Beane would, if pressed, admit that even they don't know. Some things just aren't fathomable.

What is fathomable, on the other hand, is the No. 1 reason for the Athletics' success in 2002 and 2003. And no, it's not Scott Hatteberg and Chad Bradford. As so many critics have pointed out, the real key to the A's success has been their Big Three—Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder—a fact that will almost completely escape the detection of even the most discerning reader of Moneyball.

I haven't asked Michael why he didn't write more about the Big Three, but my guess is that they just didn't fit into the story all that well. All were considered at least moderately solid prospects coming out of college, the A's drafted them, and then all three advanced to the major leagues in quick fashion. Just looking at them, there's not much of a story there, and of course Moneyball is all about the story.

But I think maybe there is a story there. It's incredibly rare for one team to bring up three outstanding pitchers in such a short period of time. You have to draft them, you have to develop them, you have to keep them healthy, and then they have to make the difficult adjustment of pitching to the world's best hitters every five days.

No single one of those things is easy, and the combination is extraordinarily tough, which is why some franchises go for a decade or longer without developing even one pitcher as good as Tim Hudson. Many people have attributed the success of the Big Three to luck, but I happen to think that the A's might be unique in their ability to draft and develop young pitchers. That story, though, still hasn't been written.

Cheers,
Rob

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