FIRE JOE MORGAN: Hate the Player, Hate the Game, Hate Everything

FIRE JOE MORGAN

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Saturday, March 01, 2008

 

Hate the Player, Hate the Game, Hate Everything

The most vexing and confusing aspect of modern baseball analysis -- and the primary reason we created this site -- is the sniveling distaste for the book Moneyball. As you are all aware, Moneyball is a mathematics textbook designed to prove how dumb baseball is, co-authored by A's General Manager Billy Beane and a computer who hates baseball. The main arguments in the book are: (1) baseball is stupid, (2) hot dogs taste bad, (3) the National Anthem is a piece of shit, and instead of singing it at the beginning of baseball games, the Iron Sheik should sing an Iranian folk song, (4) America sux, and (5) bald eagles should be replaced by some Russian bird you can only find in the most communist parts of the Ural Mountains. (The book takes place in 1974.)

So it comes as no surprise that the retirement of Jeremy Brown -- the slow/kinda-fat catcher whom Beane drafted 35th overall in the 2002 draft, despite the fact that no other team was ever going to draft him, probably -- is a super gleeful, hand-wringing, I-told-you-so snivelfest for people who either didn't read the book or didn't understand it. Or worse: people who read it, understand it, and think it's dumb. Or worser, people who choose to ignore that Brown retired for personal reasons, and not because he was an abject failure. Or worserest, people who just want to stir shit. Like Gary Peterson, of the venerable ignorance factory MSNBC.com.

For the record: Brown was not a failure. He had a .370 OBP in 6 minor league seasons. His career minor league OPS was above .800. He retired for personal reasons which neither he nor the team saw fit to release, but the A's made it clear that he was welcome back if he decided to change his mind. Also for the record: Beane drafted him in the first round not because he thought that Brown was the 35th-best player in the country, but because he, Beane, didn't have the money to sign any of the guys who were highly-rated and has already signed with Scott Boras or Jeff Moorad or something and were going to ask for $370 million signing bonuses before ever playing professional baseball. It was the only way he, Beane, could survive, out there in Oakland -- find guys no one else wanted but who were actually good, and draft them or trade for them and pay them small amounts of money.

Anyway. This article isn't the worst thing in the world. But Moneyball articles make me touchy. So:

If catching prospect Jeremy Brown didn’t exactly walk out of the Oakland Athletics spring training camp last week, it was only because he never showed up in the first place. Brown simply notified his employers he would not be reporting with the other pitchers and catchers. He had his reasons. At 28, he was done.

For personal, non-baseball-talent-related reasons.

You may have missed the announcement. In fact, we’d bet large money on it.

You lose.

Brown may have been a member of baseball’s faceless fringe, but he had a story that set him apart. See, he was the unwitting face of the business model with which A’s general manager Billy Beane confounded the grand old game from 1999-2006.

Maybe you read the book.

I did, yes. Did you?

In “Moneyball,” author Michael Lewis detailed Beane’s counter-intuitive approach to baseball.

It is somehow counter-intuitive to draft people based on their skill levels and abilities instead of their anecdotal physical attributes. I'm not disputing this -- it's true. I'm just restating it, because it's always hard for me to believe.

He did this in part by presenting Brown as a tool to tell the story. A marginal draft pick in his own mind, Brown found himself picked by the A’s in the first round in 2002 because he fit Beane’s statistical profile. A’s scouts were appalled because Brown had neither the physique nor the physical characteristics of the traditional can’t-miss prospect.

Because of the book, Brown gained notoriety he neither sought nor welcomed. Now he has called it quits at the precise point at which Beane’s Moneyball model appears to have run its course.

The Moneyball model has not "run its course." The Moneyball model is: find inefficiencies in the market and exploit them in order to compete with rivals who have more assets at their disposal. Apple competes with Microsoft through state-of-the-art industrial design and exemplary niche marketing. Whole Foods competes with Ralphs and Vons and Safeway by selling organic twig-based $9/box cereals that suckers like me buy because they contain flax seed. This is not a "theory" that "runs a course." This is a theory that people in all businesses have been using for centuries in order to keep up with better-funded competitors.

Now. If you want to make the more sophisticated argument that the specific inefficiencies that Beane was exploiting at the time the book was written by that baseball-hating computer -- namely, that the market had undervalued OBP skills, for example -- are now less inefficient, thanks to the aftermath of the book and the rise of like-minded GMs who shared Beane's personality traits of: being a rational, logical, non-dummy...well, then go ahead. Or just keep doing what you're doing. The latter? Okay.

Beane did it [won a lot] by drafting players who became huge stars, then letting them leave as free agents. He did it by renting veterans who played a season (or two) in Oakland, then left as free agents. He did it by trading players approaching the prime of their careers for prospects. He did it by placing value on players other teams deemed undesirable, but who could take pitches, draw walks and hit home runs.

The model began to break down last season.

The players broke down last season. They had 22 DL stints, for cripe's sake. I'll just quote from MLB.com here:

[C]enter fielder Mark Kotsay, right fielder Milton Bradley, first baseman Dan Johnson, designated hitter Mike Piazza, shortstop Bobby Crosby and third baseman Eric Chavez missed significant chunks of time.

Starting pitchers Rich Harden and Esteban Loaiza combined to make seven starts. Closer Huston Street missed more than two months. Former All-Star Justin Duchscherer was shut down for the year in mid-May, and fellow setup man Kiko Calero was limited to 46 appearances before being shut down late in the summer.

"Moneyball?!" More like "InjuryBall!" Or "MoneyInjury!" (Yes -- let's go with "MoneyInjury.")

The new wave of home-grown stars plateaued or backslid. Prized pitchers disappointed, either by failing to produce or by failing to stay healthy. Last-chance veterans turned out to be duds.

Also: Kotsay, Bradley, Johnson, Piazza, Crosby, Chavez, Street, Harden, Loaiza, Duchscherhsrcechrsecer, and Calero got hurt. This is Moneyball's fault.

Naturally, people are wondering if Brown’s retirement symbolizes the end of the era. And they’re asking:

Can Beane remake the A’s into a playoff contender?

If he can't, no one can.

That’s a tall order based merely on the law of averages. Put it this way: The Yankees aside, no major league team has a streak of postseason appearances exceeding 1. Meanwhile, eight teams have failed to make the playoffs for at least 10 years running.

This has nothing to do with the A's. Also, I love that the Red Sox making the playoffs in four out of 5 years (and winning the World Series twice) doesn't qualify them for this arbitrary cut-off. Which, again, has nothing to do with the A's, or anything.

Doesn’t Beane’s analytic mad genius give him an advantage? Doubtful.

What does Billy Beane have to do to earn the benefit of anyone's doubt?

The book explicitly detailed his methodology, as well as the delight he took in fleecing fellow GMs. Thus, he now must co-exist with GMs who either embrace his model to some extent, and/or who wouldn’t talk trade with him on a bet.

Even if this is true, he can still draft people. He can still let free agents and over-hyped closers leave and get draft choices. And after the book was published, he traded Mark Mulder to the Cards for Haren, Calero, and Daric Barton. So, I think he's going to be fine.

What if money was no object?

Quick review of the subjunctive. I'll wait here.

...

Okay. Let's move on.

Before the 2006 season they gave third baseman Eric Chavez the contract Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, et al, never got — $66 million over six years. Chavez’s numbers have trended downward ever since, as has his health.

Giambi was given $120 million by the Yankees. That is more than $66 million, by $54 million. Miggy got $72 from the Birds, and his numbers and health have trended downward too. Also, I think this bears mentioning: Tejada and Giambi are both juicers. That may not have factored into the decision to let them go -- and for all I know, Chavez is a juicer -- but I don't think you can look back and say that Beane should definitely have kept them and their stink on the team. (And in Giambi's case they couldn't have kept him anyway.)

That same offseason, the A’s outbid the Giants by [sic] for Esteban Loaiza ($21 million, three years), and got 12-9, 4.62 and an embarrassing DUI for their trouble. They waived him last August.

They paid him $5m in '06 and $6m in '07. That ain't bad for 12-9. Not great, but not bad.

Kotsay was extended at market rate by previous ownership in 2005, whereupon his problematic back became a debilitating concern. The A’s will pay $5.3 million of his salary this season even though he’s with Atlanta.

Signing a 28 year-old CF/OF (who's good defensively and hit .314/.370/.459 in 2004) to a 2-year extension is good business. If only Moneyball hadn't ruined his back.

Here's the big finish.

The only certainties are that this season figures to be a competitive wash, and that Jeremy Brown will have nothing to do with it.

Connect those dots as you see fit.

Tried. Turns out those are the only two dots in this dimension that do not create a line.

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posted by Ken Tremendous  # 2:28 PM
Comments:
My father, Captain of the Goddam Grammar Police.

Yup. These next 18 or so years are gonna be a real good time.
 
Go to sleep, Mac. It's past your bedtime, which is 5, 8, and 11 PM, and 2, 5, 8, and 11 AM, and then 2 PM.

Reader James points out several good things:

In the chapter profiling Brown, it lists him as being part of Billy Beane's "top 20" -- the 20 people Beane would pick if money and competition were not an object. Lewis identified a couple of the people on the list as being unaffordable. Jeremy Brown was on that list, and I think it was fair to say that, based on the A's method, they thought Brown was one of the best ten picks in the draft. I'm sorry I don't have the book on me now to link something, but I do think Beane thought Brown was better than the 35th best pick.

I've seen a bunch of the criticism of Moneyball/Beane because of Brown, and I've often wondered how the pick compares with others. That is... how did the pick do relative to other picks? Well, it's not really much of a sample, but the Braves picked Dan Meyer immediately before Brown... Dan Meyer's pitched all of 6 innings in the majors, and is now, oddly enough, with the A's. The Cubs, with the pick directly after the A's, picked Chadd Blasko. Blasko was released by the Cubs last year, and from what I can tell, never got above the AA level.

From that, my sense is that the A's did about as well as could be expected with that pick. Expecting Jeremy Brown to be a superstar, or even what Nick Swisher is now, is unrealistic. (Hey, even the top pick of that draft, Bryan Bullington, has barely sniffed the majors).

 
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