Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

Branch Philosophy
New books dissected over email.
June 5 2003 12:19 PM

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

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Jim,

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In a limited sense, you're exactly right about Erubiel Durazo and the amateur draft. Oakland's advantage in those areas ain't what it was a year ago, and that advantage is likely to shrink at a rate that will almost certainly be accelerated by Moneyball.

So, yes; that's a problem for the A's, just as it's going to be a problem for the Blue Jays, who are right on the Athletics' heels and also can't compete financially with the Red Sox, Mariners, and Yankees.

But here's where it gets interesting. … Yesterday, you said you've "been impressed by how few reviewers have misread the book," but I still maintain that something fundamental about the book—and about the A's—has been almost completely missed.

What I'm getting at is this: The A's think they've discovered a better mousetrap when it comes to the draft. Focus on the performance—correctly interpreted, of course—of an amateur player rather than "tools," and you'll wind up with players who actually can play baseball rather than players who might, if the stars and the planets all are aligned correctly, learn to play baseball.

We don't yet know if the A's are right about this. Last year's draft was the first in which they went all the way, and not one of the players they drafted last year has reached the major leagues. Some of those players are doing well in the minors, and some aren't doing so well. Even Billy Beane doesn't know if the A's are right about this. When you ask him, he'll tell you that he doesn't know, but the old way wasn't working so it was time to try something different.

Which leads to the real key to Billy Beane's success, and also to his continued success (assuming that he continues to succeed): Billy's ahead of the curve. Let's assume, for a moment, that the A's draft philosophy works, and further that it's copied by a number of other teams. That's going to create a problem for those teams, because they'll all be competing for the same players, right?

And how do you solve that problem? By coming up with a new philosophy. And which organization is best-equipped to come up with a new philosophy?

I don't know. Maybe it's the A's, but the Red Sox are well-equipped, and so are the Blue Jays, and maybe the Indians and a few other teams. My point is that if the A's fall back to the pack, it won't be due to other baseball executives reading Moneyball, and it won't be due to other teams copying the A's philosophies. If the A's fall back to the pack, it will be due to a deficiency in management.

The greatest baseball executive in the sport's history was Branch Rickey.

Rickey invented the farm system in the 1930s, which gave him a huge advantage over everybody else. Eventually, of course, the other teams got their own farm systems.

Rickey brought black players to the majors in the 1940s, which gave him a huge advantage over everybody else. Eventually, of course, the other teams got their own black players.

Rickey brought sabermetrics to the majors in the 1950s, which gave him ... well, not a huge advantage, but it probably did give him an advantage over everybody else. Especially because none of the other teams started using sabermetrics until about 40 years later.

Anyway, my point is that there's always something else. In a sense, the most interesting period of Billy Beane's career as a baseball executive might just be starting. For years, people like me have been preaching that on-base percentage is more important than batting average and that high-school pitchers are risky draft picks. Billy and the bright men who work for him took those ideas and ran with them, and for that they deserve an immense amount of credit. But now comes the hard work. Because if Billy Beane is going to be the next Branch Rickey, he's going to have to come up with his own stuff.

It's been a treat for me, too. Yes, I do get to talk and write about this stuff every day, but I don't often get to talk and write about this stuff with one of my favorite writers.

'til next time,
rob

Rob Neyer is a senior baseball writer with ESPN.com and his latest book is The Neyer/James Guide to Pitchers.