Saturday, June 6, 2009

Wait, There's a Book About Billy Beane?

M'man Jon P. writes:

I'm in the midst of reading Moneyball for the first time (just finished the chapter about the 2002 draft day), and it definitely strikes me as a "follow the cult leader and fall under his spell" sort of a book. While Beane's approach may have some pieces of merit, going all the way with it seems like a route to nowhere. His wishlist for that draft looks like a horrible team overall seven years later.

I was wondering what sort of an opinion has arisen towards the book by now, and by extension, Beane himself. I remember the kafuffle back then about the book, how it was supposed to be about "the wave of the future", but clearly, it wasn't, not completely. Being a huge A's fan and a bigger baseball fan than I am, I figured you would have a better knowledge about it's retroactive reception than I. Do Lewis and Beane now get as rough a ride generally as you give them, especially in the wake of the last three seasons?

I remember when Moneyball was released, it was universally hailed in the same sabermetric circles that unfailingly praise A's GM Billy Beane, anyway. A writer at the Baseball Prospectus website referred to it as this generation's Ball Four - a comparison to Jim Bouton's groundbreaking opus that seems…a little much today.

There really are two schools of thought on the book today and, at the risk of grossly oversimplifying the argument, people either loved it or hated it.

Those who loved the book reflexively defend it. They point out that Moneyball wasn't a baseball book, but instead a business book that relied on a baseball narrative. And, since Michael Lewis' mash note to Beane validated their own analytical philosophies and approach to the game, then all the better.

Those who hated the book myopically crucify its new-school approach. The crusted-over critics harrumph at Beane's apparent disdain for the traditional scouting approach to player analysis. They've also taken great pride in watching the A's fail to make it to a World Series – much less win one – since Beane's been the GM (dating back to the late '90s).

Billy Beane has mostly been unscathed from "The Great Moneyball Debate". It doesn't hurt that he oversees a team with arguably the smallest fan base in the Major Leagues. Meanwhile, the miniscule local media that covers the team continues to swallow and regurgitate the plucky, small-market storyline that ceased being cute around 2002.

In Beane's defense, the A's have won 815 regular season games this decade which places them behind only the Yankees and Red Sox. But, five years after Moneyball, I think Beane's legacy is still kind of cloudy.

As an A's fan, I give Beane credit for helping to bring the franchise back to relevance after the A's spent most of the 1990s in anonymous obscurity. But, how much credit should the lightning-in-a-bottle drafting of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito receive? Or, as this article posits…
what did Moneyball miss?

Now, I happen to be one of those who buy into Beane's infamous "crap shoot" appellation to baseball's playoffs. But, it's gotta be some kind of karma that White Sox GM Ken Williams – who Lewis and Beane absolutely annihilate in the book – actually has a World Series win on his resume.

I don't think he's got a book out there.


Mike Mejor said...

I've never understood why a "genius" like Beane would lay out the formula to his secret sauce for the entire baseball industry to see.

Tom said...

I like the article linked but I think I disagree with the conclusion: As the league slowly corrects the reserve clause inefficiency by paying players what they are worth before they hit free agency, we will see a smoothing of salary distribution throughout players’ careers.

If anything, teams like the A's are just finding new ways to exploit the reserve clause. Like, clearly they traded guys they were done with for Matt Holliday with the intention of either trading him for prospects or getting someone's draft picks next year.

daedalus said...

possibly semantics but i would not consider the drafting of hudson, mulder and zito nearly as much a lightning-in-a-bottle situation as, say, the white sox drafting of frank thomas and robin ventura.

hudson may have less heralded but both mulder and zito were both hugely rated coming out of college and were easy picks (granted mulder and ryan mills were considered a toss up).

and, yes, hriniak is underrated and underappreciated.

the thing that is not covered -- and how the A's and twins have managed to win with limited funds -- was what ross ohlendorf finally came up with statistical proof for in his senior thesis (see tim kurkjian's article draft picks offer better ROI than free agents. when combined with one of the things that beane/moneyball philosophy exploits that gets glossed over: modern day college players are quicker returns (and the old adage that the ceiling is lower is no longer universal), it can be a huge deal.

as tom mentioned above, beane would not hesitate to lose holliday to FA (if he cannot spin him for prospects in july) because he knows he can turn him into two quick return prospects.