Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

Going Where the Value Is
New books dissected over email.
June 5 2003 9:23 AM

Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game

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Rob,

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The question of how responsible the A's are for the success of the Three Aces goes to the heart of everything Moneyball is about, even if Mulder, Zito, and Hudson don't exactly look like refugees from the Land of Misfit Toys. As Lewis says repeatedly in the book, Oakland's approach is not built around a one-size-fits-all strategy. It's built around uncovering and taking advantage of inefficiencies in baseball's evaluation and development of players. And one huge inefficiency is that promising young pitchers routinely blow out their arms. Most major-league teams have accepted the fact that, unless they're really lucky, their pitchers will spend significant amounts of time on the disabled list. Oakland hasn't. Beane and Rick Peterson, the A's pitching coach (whose absence from Moneyball is the one disappointing thing about the book), seem to think that via a rigorous "prehab" routine and careful monitoring of pitch counts, you can not only keep young pitchers healthy but actually make them stronger and more durable.

Now, we don't know if this is true, since the sample size is much too small. But if it is true, it's a radical innovation—and, as you suggest, just as much an example of Beane's revolutionary approach to the game as his acquisition of Scott Hatteberg was. I also think that Oakland's emphasis on ground-ball pitchers who walk very few hitters and give up few extra-base hits has a lot to do with why its staff is so successful. (Zito isn't a ground-ball pitcher, but Zito seems to be an outlier in a lot of ways.)

The funny thing, in fact, about the current Oakland team is that, for all the hype about Beane's emphasis on on-base percentage and home runs, the A's offense is pretty unimpressive. The team is fourth in walks in the league, but 10th in homers and eighth in runs scored. And if you look at the lineup, it's hard to see them doing much better any time soon. Most of us who are fascinated by the A's carry around a memory of the 1999 Oakland team, whose hitters—like Matt Stairs and John Jaha—were perfect examples of the kind of players conventional wisdom tends to dismiss and sabermetrics says are tremendously valuable. (The 1999 team led the league in walks and was second in home runs.) They were like characters from an early Baseball Abstract sprung to life. You can't really say that about the lineup the A's are putting out there this year. Pitching is where Beane's stewardship is adding the most value right now.

I don't think this will always be the case, though. After all, the most memorable set piece in Moneyball takes place at the 2002 draft, where Beane was able to snap up any number of excellent high on-base-percentage, high slugging-percentage prospects. If the guys Beane has drafted in recent years ever do make it out of the minors into the A's lineup, it's easy to imagine Oakland re-creating its offensive glory days. (Unless, of course, he keeps trading away guys like Hinske.) The point, I think, is that Oakland's lack of money means that Beane can't be wedded to one strategy—and he can't have everything he wants. He has to go where the value is, and right now he's finding value in pitching. Which may explain why the resolutely mediocre Chris Singleton has been in center field for the A's for most of the year.

The challenge the A's face is the one that we talked about on Tuesday, which is: Now that other teams are starting to pay attention to sabermetrics, how can Oakland stay ahead of the pack? As I said, I think the A's top-to-bottom commitment to their approach will help. But I'm less sanguine about the A's future than you are, Rob. Even though, as you say, only Toronto and Boston are really trying to do what Oakland does, the truth is that it takes only a few teams competing for the same players for inefficiencies in the market to disappear. If six or seven teams in the league think Erubiel Durazo is the Second Coming, then Erubiel Durazo will no longer be undervalued, and it will be a lot harder for Beane to snap up guys like him. Along those lines, this week's amateur draft was very interesting, because Toronto and Boston both drafted college pitchers and high-OPS hitters almost exclusively, just as Oakland typically does. That doesn't mean that they drafted the exact guys Oakland wanted. But I do think the 2002 draft—in which Beane got just about everyone he wanted and was able to sign them for very little—will not be repeated any time soon.

Well, enough. This has been great. I realize you get to talk and write about this stuff every day, but for me it's been a genuine treat. I hope we can do it again sometime.

Best,
Jim

James Surowiecki writes the financial column at The New Yorker.