Sunday, March 02, 2008

Oh yeah, well, you're a beet farmer...

So a co-worker of mine alerted me to the existence of six months ago, and I suspect 2 of the six months since have been spent reading it and re-reading it. It merges my interest in baseball and scorn for David Eckstein into one concise package.

For that matter, the next few months will continue to be spent reading it, which obligates me to vent to no one about how it has wronged me with its calm reminder that there are people in the world who love Moneyball, namely my fiancee, who does not like baseball, everyone else who does not like baseball, and people who read the book the way you're supposed to read LSAT reading comprehension sections -- delightfully ignoring each and every word while attempting to impose your own meaning on it. Some of us it shuttles to lowly Cornell Law School where we wonder how anyone who is regarded as brilliant signs Lou Merloni to anything but a suicide pact, others it allows to enjoy reading Michael Lewis' work and mistaking it for an accurate and true syllogism of of baseball genius.

Ken Tremendous is also a television writer who has written episodes of The Office and plays Cousin Mose. So I'm going to refer to him as Cousin Mose out of respect.

1) You'll note that cousin Mose decays into using wins and losses to defend Esteban Loaiza, which is a fair indicator that there wasn't much that could be said to defend the Loaiza signing, because wins and losses are hardly the ultimate measure -- as Cousin Mose, among others on the site, point out on a near-daily basis while attempting to refute baseball's biggest cretins.

2) The injuries in 2007 nearly all happened to Mr. Glass. It's one thing to decry an onslaught of injuries when it happens to players who don't have a history. But when your injured list starts out with Milton Bradley, Rich Harden, Bobby Crosby, and Eric Chavez, it's about 3% more surprising than Kerry Wood and Mark Prior being injured at the same time. Chavez had suffered significant injuries in two of the last three seasons. Harden has had just one season where he made it through an entire season on the mound, and his closest after that, he made 22 appearances and 17 starts. Bobby Crosby has been injured three of his four major league seasons, and has been limited to an average of about 90 games in those three seasons. And is not good. Not even close to good. A .255 EqA, a 7.1 VORP, which pales in comparison to BP's projections for Alex Gonzalez's mighty 11.3, Asdrubal Cabrera's 11.5, and even Marco Scutaro's 6.5. So, thus far, we have three players from whom you automatically discount at least 1/5 of a 162 game schedule and that fantasy players won't even touch because of their fragility. Then add Milton Bradley, who's never finished a season without injury. So, thus far, you have four players who all had to be figured for a 66-100% of missing significant time with injuries. They are all injured. It doesn't take me Paul DePodesta to regard this as statistically insignificant. In fact, it was more probable than not. (Forgive me for the crude calculations, it's relatively silly to say that if you've been injured in three of the past four years, you have a 75% likelihood of injury -- but it's considerably less silly than ignoring the player's injury history entirely.

3) I'm being generous to exclude Mark Kotsay and his bad back that showed up after he arrived in Oakland. Then you add Kotsay, who was coming into the season as Mike Sweeney and lo and behold, did not experience a miraculous recovery from back problems. Maybe go to Lourdes? Then add Dan Johnson. Wait. Well, if you want to be specious, you can say that the injuries to Dan Johnson held back the A's his 108 OPS+ must have been truly coveted, since it'd have taken a herculean performance from a slightly better than average, but still worse than Aaron Boone (113 OPS+) player to replace him. You know, like Daric Barton, an actually promising player (186 OPS+ in extremely limited time -- limited primarily by Beane's refusal to call him up, so that he could keep Todd "OPS Deadweight" Walker on the roster filling in at 1B along with moving Nick Swisher into the infield to make room for Kielty, who would be released in June.

4) How about mentioning that for some reason Billy Beane saw it fit to acquire Jason Kendall, a man whose immense talent for things other than baseball are rivaled only for by his immense lack of talent for baseball after his gruesome ankle injury (read: Jason Kendall's going to get hall of fame votes, his ankle may come to rival Andre Dawson's ravaged knees if he can fall ass-backwards into a World Series). And after seasons of 79 and 88 OPS+ (well below average), he still did nothing to bring in a rival catcher or ... huh ... he didn't want Jeremy Brown playing instead. In fact, Jeremy Brown, who retired for "personal-non-talent-related" reasons couldn't even carry Kendall's jockstrap, because Adam Melhuse got that job. Billy Beane, when given a big sack of money, can't even help himself from throwing it at players who make 3 years of Derek Bell for $9 million look like a clearance sale at Dollar General. He signs and re-signs only dead weight, so while he may draft well and he still makes some impressive swindles on the trade market, he also makes his share of awful trades, like giving away future All-Star Mark Redman and a fine pair of earrings in Arthur Rhodes for Jason Kendall. The sad thing is that those are the best things I can say about those players, and yet I would still much rather have them than Jason Kendall.

5) When you sign players like Mike Sweeney, you expect Mike Sweeney-like production, which means "Ow, I hurt my back. See you in September." They have gotten that from the players that fall into the Mike Sweeney category. The few aberrant injuries came to Huston Street (who will be leaving as an overpaid closer very shortly), Justin Duchscherer, and Kiki Calero. These are significant injuries to three very solid pitchers. Injuries that, if they had never happened, could theoretically have led to the A's many more games? And if we resurrect the broken-down bat of Eric Chavez, whose last season of .800+ OPS was 2004, so he could contribute at his 2006're right. The A's still miss the playoffs, and not by a particularly close margin, even in the worst division in the AL.

6) The chapter on the major league draft is really quite significant. You really need to go read it again before you tell me how amazing Moneyball is. What you really learn is that Billy Beane thinks he's smarter than everyone else, and in doing so, he mocks picks that have turned out considerably better than his own. Beane had a great first round that year, three of his four picks hit (Nick Swisher, Joe Blanton, Mark Teahen), one of them missed (Jeremy Brown). Swisher and Blanton were coveted by other teams, and Beane was surprised either of them fell to the slots they were in. Jeremy Brown was not regarded highly by anyone, for the most part it sounds like no one knew of him. And for their ignorance, those teams had less talented AA players those three years Jeremy Brown spent in Midland. But time has also taught us that Billy Beane was wrong. Prince Fielder, mocked as much as he was in that chapter by Beane himself, is a significantly better player than Nick Swisher. Fielder last season had a 156 OPS+, VORP of 69.1. Swisher? OPS+ of 127, VORP of 31.5. Not a bad player, by any means, and better defensively than Fielder. But eat your words, Beane. Basically, aside from 4 of the top 5 picks, who have been largely sidelined by injury (thanks a lot, Chris Gruler) or were picked way above their talent level (Bryan Bullington), there were a lot of hits in that first round. Zack Greinke, Jeremy Hermida, Jeff Francis, Scott Kazmir (who Beane derides), Cole Hamels, James Loney, Jeremy Guthrie, Jeff Francouer (if you ignore the fact that he can't draw walks and that he's not a good player -- most do), Mark Teahen.

7) Jeremy Brown's career OPS is barely above .800. It's like saying you go to one of the top 7 rated schools...when you say top 7, you mean that you go to #7, and next year, you may be going to #8 or 9. His OPS is .809 in the minor leagues. Thus, he's a supremely talented player who is more than capable of beating up on minor league pitching Crash Davis style and someday will meet a philosophical woman named Annie and a fireballer named Nuke who looks vastly inappropriate while attempting to throw pitches, clearly proving that Ron Shelton can't write scripts that teach Tim Robbins to pitch or Kevin Costner to act. Breathe. Fact: Jeremy Brown had two really good seasons in the minors, three that were less impressive. He had gotten leaped over by another college catcher who was more highly regarded coming out of college who put together a pedestrian .799 career OPS in the minors (for shame, Kurt Suzuki), but was apparently seen as more likely to contribute in the major leagues, since Jeremy Brown's been spending the last two years really familiar with the RiverCats after three years at Midland. He had spent six years in the minors after being drafted as a college senior. You can call it what you want, but he was too old to be a prospect (and was not regarded as one by Baseball America for the last four years, failing to crack the top 30 prospects in any of those seasons, unlike players as unknown as the A's Minor league player of the year Andre Ethier). Russ Morman had an OPS exceeding 800 in a much lengthier career in the minors, you can ask him why he retired (answer: hanging around AAA for ten years gets tiresome). So it was for personal reasons, but one can easily suspect that the personal reasons involved being unable to live up to the unwanted expectations that came with being in Moneyball and his inability to crack the major league roster and see any playing time. And Landon Powell had just passed him up on the likelihood of being in the majors list, the A's had traded to get Rob Bowen and kept him on the 40-man roster, so he was a 28-year-old 4A catcher who wasn't on the 40-man roster (and had been dumped from the 40-man roster without getting any interest on the waiver wire), hadn't gotten picked in the Rule 5 draft, and wasn't probably going to catch a lot of interest from anyone else on the market. Those are very personal reasons, but there's a lot of baseball involved in them too. If he has a dying relative or something of that sort, then that might have been the biggest catalyst for him to make a decision rather than postpone the inevitable, but there's not too many people lining up to say it wasn't inevitable.

Once again, Baseball Prospectus is telling. "When it comes to Jeremy Brown, the A's might not be selling jeans, but nobody's buying the idea that he's much of a ballplayer anymore, either."

Lastly, that begins to refute this defense of Moneyball, which is emphatically harder than refuting Moneyball itself, which can be summed up in about three words, but I will, with my lawyer-like sensibility, take considerably more.

8) Moneyball glorifies two players above all others on the roster -- Scott Hatteberg and Chad Bradford. They typify the underlying Beane theory -- don't overpay for players because you can find production in castaways. This is fine and good. The teams that the A's were taking to the playoffs when Moneyball came out involved a couple of other players that you may have heard of if you were a Cy Young voter. Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, and Tim Hudson. They are barely mentioned in Moneyball. Nearly all the time is devoted to discussions of how important on-base percentage is, Zito, Mulder and Hudson warrant about a paragraph of mention, while Chad Bradford gets a chapter. As much as OBP and OPS are important statistics that are overlooked even now in an era where Juan Pierre finds work in a baseball-related job, they don't have much to do with the A's success. Even in their halcyon days of reaching the playoffs, the team OBP is not at the pinnacle of the AL (3rd, 4th, 5th, 7th, and 10th, I'm told in a correction to my earlier hyperbole). Their ERA, on the other hand, is near the top of the AL every year they made the playoffs. So if you want to prove the importance of OBP, find a team that found success because they could hit and reach base safely through walks. Don't find a team that had a couple flashes from young players who went on to bleed money from other GMs and then have their steroid-backed bodies break down into nothingness. Beane's supplemental parts might have had value, but they weren't the driving force behind success.

9) Listen, I hate bunting too, but in the most thrilling (read: I'm being as specious as Michael Lewis, it's the only A's playoff game I remember) game in which the A's found playoff success, how did they do it? They bunted. Didn't Billy Beane read Moneyball? What a moron. (I'm referring to game 1 of the 2003 ALDS against the Red Sox, where the A's won on a bunt single from Ramon Hernandez). While I hate people who think Asdrubal Cabrera is the Indians' savior because he knows how to generate bunt outs, it's clear that abandoning the bunt entirely isn't really a part of Beane's plan either.

10) The glorified assistants -- Moneyball also details how crafty Paul DePodesta and J.P. Ricciardi were using computers to make great teams. Paul DePodesta then went on to suck with the Dodgers, J.P. Ricciardi took everything he learned from Beane, then spent all his money on a closer anyway and now has a dynamite closer named Jeremy Accardo that he discovered only through Tommy John surgery for B.J. Ryan. And while Moneyball lauded Ricciardi for turning around the Blue Jays with a modest payroll, when the book was published, it was a lie because they had one of the ten highest payrolls in the major leagues (Carlos Delgado was a factor) and they had not, and still have not, turned anything around. DePodesta was present for the destruction of the Cleveland Indians (the wacky John Hart years where the Indians landed such dynamite talents as John Smiley, Ricardo Rincon and Kevin Seitzer in exchange for actual major league players, although the healing has begun, I can no longer say the Indians miss Jeromy Burnitz or Danny Graves) and lasted about the length of a Will Ferrell film in Los Angeles.

11) OBP is not Beane's revelation, not even for the A's. Sandy Alderson started this process. If you don't believe me, read The Numbers Game. Beane is a genius because he drafted Tim Hudson in the 6th round in 1997 (editor's note: whoops, no he didn't. That was Sandy Alderson -- Beane's efforts were far more middling.), Mark Mulder in the 1998 draft (2nd overall pick), and Barry Zito in the first round in 1999 (ninth overall pick). Two of those three were in the top 10 picks in the draft, where it's at least harder to miss. Still, they were off the charts successes and Beane deserves credit for them and for at least starting to shy away from high school players (though he's abandoned this in recent years) in favor of quicker turnaround players from college.

You can hate Moneyball and still like numbers that are relevant. It's not even difficult, you just have to be willing to accept that about 90% (or even all) of the premises can be true without the conclusion (performing sexual favors for Billy Beane is a necessary and Opus Deian act of self-abasement) following from them.

12) Bobby Crosby is not a good baseball player. He had one good season. Period. I cannot mention this enough.

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