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May 17, 2003

by Larry Mahnken


Moneyball arrived at my door at about 12:30 this afternoon. At about 10:30 this evening, I finished reading it--and that includes breaks for lunch and dinner, and a walk to the store to purchase said meals (a roast beef sub and Stouffer's Lasagna, in case you were interested). It was that good a read. If you haven't purchased the book yet, I highly recommend that you do so.

I wasn't going to review the book. That's been done by other bloggers, and much better than I could. Besides, this is a Yankees blog, not really the place to bring this book up. And yet I feel compelled to talk about it.

One thing that amazed me reading this book is how similar Billy Beane's personality is to mine. Except for the whole brilliant understanding of baseball thing, that is. He struggles with failure, allowing his emotions to get the better of him, he longs for recognition and approval. He believes he's the smartest person in the room, that he knows something others don't (I have this same attitude, although I'm not sure why). He has a difficult time watching his team play, especially when they're not winning. I indentify with him.

As a Primate, it's pretty cool to see Baseball Primer mentioned in the book (page 235), it makes you feel like an insider somehow. And insider to the outsiders. Also, if you're still wondering why Beane traded Giambi for John Freaking Mabry, the book tells us why (page 200)--and also that Beane didn't want Mabry to play at all after he accquired him. "Mabry's a great guy," he says, "but sooner or later Tattoo's going to show up and take him off the island."

But this book isn't really about Billy Beane, it's about the Athletics. More than that, it's about the movement the A's are the forerunners of, the background of it, the meaning of it, and the future of it. Rob Neyer said that it's the kind of book that won't have an impact for another ten years, and judging from the reaction of "insiders", he's right. The book challenges their authority as experts on the game, and they are entirely unwilling to accept that they might be wrong, but the younger, more impressionable audience--the ones who will be running the game in the future--can see the obvious truth in it. It's not right because Billy Beane says it's right, it's right because the results prove it's right.

Primer linked to an article by Tracy Ringolsby today, and while the conversation quickly shifted, as it always does on Primer, and there wasn't really room to comment on the article.

But I wanna. And this is my blog, so I'm gonna. Nyah.
Two things are apparent in the recently released book Moneyball, The Art of Winning an Unfair Game.

Oakland general manager Billy Beane's ego has exploded, and author Michael Lewis has a limited knowledge of baseball and a total infatuation with Beane.
Michael Lewis has a limited knowledge of baseball because the things he say don't agree with the things that Ringolsby believes. Except Lewis is right. Moneyball isn't really much of an analysis as it is a compilation. I found little in the book to be remotely enlightening, which speaks to this fact. The ideas that Lewis puts forward aren't his own, nor does he claim that they are. Anyone who's read Rob Neyer, Prospectus, Primer, and knows and understands them.

Nor should Beane be attacked for having an "exploded" ego. He gave Lewis full access to the front office, but it doesn't seem that he tried to get Lewis to cast him in any sort of positive light. It's obvious that he didn't like his scouts talking to Lewis about what a great talent he was, and yet Lewis did. This wasn't Billy Beane's book.
There is a chapter devoted to Beane's brilliance in acquiring left-handed reliever Ricardo Rincon when the truth is Cleveland GM Mark Shapiro was willing to give Rincon to anyone who would take his contract.
No, there's a chapter devoted to Beane working the phones trying to make trades. It states quite clearly that Shapiro was making a salary dump, what it does show is how Beane was able to both lower the cost to accquire him by floating Venafrom out there for the Giants and Mets. Read the book again, Tracy, if you read it at all.
Beane would like to fire his amateur scouting staff, according to the book, and rely totally on computer printouts from assistant GM Paul DePodesta on college stats in deciding whom to draft each June. Lewis praises the approach, which means not drafting high school players and not signing Latins because they have no college track record.
First off, the book just says that Beane "flirted" with the idea of firing his scouts and running the draft off of DePodesta's computer, not that he seriously considered it. Aside from that, Latin American ballplayers except for Puerto Ricans aren't drafted. Oh yeah...
There's no arguing that the college player is a safer gamble than the high school player, but if Beane and Co., have so much stronger a grasp of the game than the rest of baseball, why doesn't he use his supposedly vastly superior intelligence to determine the differences between the successes and failures among the highly-touted high school players.

How does a team find a Derek Jeter or Alex Rodriguez instead of wasting a high pick and a lot of money on a Billy Beane, whose mental toughness as a player never matched his physical skills?
Ahh, now you're onto them, Tracy. Because Beane hasn't been able to figure out what nobody else has been able to figure out, how figure out how a ballplayer will react under pressure, he's an idiot. Right Tracy? The reason they don't want to draft high school players is that it's better to just not bet on high school picks early, when so many of them bust and there's no definitive way of determining which will or wont. Some people try to say that there's no increased risk in drafting a high school player because the numbers bear out that just as high a rate of high school players make it in the majors as college players, they ignore the fact that which ones will make it is much harder to figure out before they're drafted. The A's can't afford the risk, so they don't take it.
And isn't it strange that the two best players on Beane's team aren't products of college programs - Eric Chavez, signed out of high school, and Miguel Tejada, signed at the age of 17 out of the Dominican Republic?
Well, only if you ignore Zito, Hudson & Mulder, that is. Besides, the A's system doesn't say that high school players can't pan out--after all, college players were once high school players--but that it's tougher to figure out which ones will. Sure, you can make a killing on the stock market buying high-risk stocks, but you're also likely to lose everything. The A's can't afford to take that risk.
Beane takes credit for drafting Barry Zito, but that had nothing to do with player evaluation. Ben Sheets was the A's target, but they didn't have the money in their budget to sign him and settled on Zito instead.
They didn't "settle" on Zito. Beane told them to take Zito. They didn't want to take Zito at all. THAT'S the point.
And if Beane was so sold on catcher Jeremy Brown last June, and so convinced no other team had any interest, why did he use a high draft pick on him and pay him $350,000, when he could have been signed for $5,000 as a college senior taken late in the draft?
Because I'm pretty sure that J.P. Riccardi would have another pick before the late rounds.
And Lewis left one major question unanswered:

How many world championships has Beane overseen as a general manager?

Heck, the A's haven't even been to the World Series in the Billy Beane era.
You didn't read the last half of the book, did you Tracy? For one, only the Yankees and Angels have been to the World Series from the AL in the Billy Beane era, which doesn't leave a lot of room for other teams, and the other, of course, is that the postseason is a crapshoot. The A's have won nearly 300 games in the past 3 seasons. With a combined payroll less than the Yankees' payroll last season. But of course, because he hasn't won the World Series, he must be an idiot.

I'm sure Billy Beane is thrilled that there are people like you out there. He hopes that some of them are running Major League Baseball teams.