The blog got abandoned for a bit there, but I’m back at it. I decided to forego my usual round-up post for 2012, as, aside from plain losing track of what I actually read last year, the last few days of the year were a complete and utter shitshow. Here’s to 2013. I broke in my new Kindle by finally reading Moneyball, which has been on on my to-read list for a long-ass time.
Moneyball is about a lot of things, but it uses as its nucleus the 2002 Oakland A’s, an underfunded, underloved baseball team. The financial structure of baseball is a part of the sport that I had little interest in as a younger fan. It’s the single biggest reason it took me so long to read Moneyball: I wanted to know a little bit about the system itself before I read a book dedicated to ripping it open and reading its entrails. The book’s a fascinating read, in large part because it doesn’t just dissect the 2002 Oakland A’s roster from top to bottom. (Actually, to its detriment, it ignores a lot of the smaller pieces of the roster pie.) It looks at the lives of the men who shaped it, the guys who spent their time sitting back and playing with numbers, trying to make sense of the sport.
The idea behind Moneyball is that there are holes in conventional Baseball Establishment wisdom, red herrings, accepted truths based on small sample sizes, heavily edited statistics, and good ol’ boys’ sentimentality that all serve to obfuscate deeper truths about How The Game Works. (Moneyball’s alternate title could be Gentlemanagers Prefer On-Base Percentage.)
Largely, the book posits and explores interesting ideas. It’s kind of a mixed bag, truthfully. The big problems are, hilariously, holes in conventional Baseball Anti-Establishment wisdom, red herrings, accepted truths based on small sample sizes, heavily edited statistics, and good ol’ boys’ sentimentality, all of which serve to obfuscate the demonstrated and documented flaws in stat wizard Bill James’ and Oakland GM’s Billy Beane’s approaches. Notably: how do you talk about the A’s 2002 success and mention Barry Zito once, with that one mention being a quote that had nothing to do with Zito’s own contributions? Answer: by pretending that baseball can be boiled down to pure offense. Lewis discusses that measuring defense in baseball is difficult, because it’s not as relatively simple as measuring offense, and in many cases, the data past a certain time period simply does not exist. Which is fine and good, but his way of dealing with this seems to be complaining that the system for determining what is an “error” is illogical and simply not saying anything about defense beyond that.
If I have a big complaint about Moneyball, it’s that its scope was too small. I wanted Lewis to hang around and write more, examine the minor league system, explain the complexities of roster moves, delve into “the human element” (read: unreliable umpires), talk about how international recruiting works, especially given the expanding presence of Asian players in the MLB.
More than anything, I wanted Lewis to follow up on the draft picks the A’s made in 2002 under Beane’s guidance, as I felt this would be a good way to assess the Moneyball Ideals In Practice. So I did some digging. Two of the draft picks that Lewis (and Beane) focused on were outfielder Nick Swisher and catcher Jeremy Brown. Swisher was considered a jewel by both the Baseball Establishment and the Baseball Anti-Establishment. He made the numbers nerds and the grizzled old men weak-kneed and slack-jawed. Brown, on the other hand, was overweight, not athletic, and not possessed of particularly stunning power numbers, but he batted with plate discipline, and so he too was taken by the A’s in the first round in 2002, while all of Beane’s Baseball Establishment scouts wailed and protested. This follow-up is admittedly pretty biased, as I didn’t really have to look Swisher up — I already knew of him, unlike Brown, whose name was unfamiliar to me. As I was reading Moneyball, I was already knew that Swisher had won the World Series with the Yankees in 2009, and that he’d just signed a pretty nice deal with the Indians.
But the point was to see how the draftees worked out for the A’s. Swisher made it to the A’s in 2004, in time to appear in just over a tenth of the team’s games. A few years later, after winning the AL West with the A’s once, he was dealt to the White Sox for three minor-league pitchers, all three of whom later became trade chips in turn, each without contributing to the team’s 2012 division win. Personally I think Swisher’s something of an overrated player, but it doesn’t change the fact that he’s been at least a notable presence on some pretty successful teams, and that he’s been astonishingly durable and consistent (despite streakiness) besides. So: success. Clear success, even. Drafting Nick Swisher has clearly worked out really well for Nick Swisher. But not for the A’s. (Of further note: one of the prospects Beane received for Swisher happened to be Gio Gonzalez, who didn’t do a whole hell of a lot for the A’s, but was part of the Washington Nationals’ core pitching staff in 2012. The Nats got knocked out of the playoffs pretty early on, but they still had the best record in all of baseball, something Gonzales contributed to. So, again, a success, but not for the A’s. The other two prospects are not particularly notable.)
Getting back to it. Unsurprisingly, Brown is less impressive. He didn’t appear in an A’s game until 2006. He appeared in a grand total of 5 MLB games, then spent the entirety of the 2007 season in AAA. It was an unspectacular season, and he followed it up by retiring from baseball, because Kurt Suzuki was a better catcher, defensively, and probably weighed half what Brown did. (Hilariously, Suzuki has since also gone to the Nats.) So: I hope he invested that signing bonus somewhere good.
Now, obviously, this is a really small sample size. And given that Moneyball was published in 2003, when both Brown and Swisher were still slugging it out in the minors, Lewis simply couldn’t have known how the careers of those two men would pan out. I still think it’s an interesting thing to follow up on, especially because Lewis couldn’t have known. In much of the book, Lewis is allowed to cherry-pick his own examples, and in fact towards the end he uses a charming anecdote of Jerry Brown’s early minor leagues success to justify Beane remaining with Oakland and to validate Beane’s approach. Brown and Swisher are examples Lewis picked, on faith, and only one worked out. Notably, the one who worked out was the one beloved by both traditional and new-wave scouts.
Mostly to me this comparison epitomizes the knee-jerk resistance against the book and the ideals it espouses. Moneyball is fascinating, sharply written, and highly informative. I think that the people who write it off or are hostile towards it assume that Moneyball purports to be a complete, catholic, and unified Theory Of Baseball, which it doesn’t, and isn’t. What Moneyball is talking about is a synthesis of ideas, a philosophy that’s still developing and still in flux. A philosophy that’s rebuilding, if you will. That’s how it should be read. And it should be read.