The 2012 Athletics Are A Great Story That Has Nothing To Do With Moneyball

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Going to Michael Lewis for a quote about the 2012 Oakland Athletics because he wrote Moneyball as the author does in this NY Times article is like going to Stephen King for a quote on time travel and the Kennedy assassination because he wrote a novel about time travel and the Kennedy assassination. Lewis’s book was technically non-fiction and King’s is decidedly fiction, but the “facts” in Lewis’s book were designed to take everything Billy Beane was doing to take advantage of market inefficiencies and magnify them into an infallibility and new template that only a fool wouldn’t follow.

Lewis had an end in mind and crafted his story about the 2002 Athletics and baseball sabermetrics to meet that end. It’s not journalism, it’s creative non-fiction. Beane went along with it, became famous, and very rich. None of that validates the genesis of the puffery.

The intervening years from Moneyball’s publication to today were not kind to Beane or to the story…until 2012. The movie’s success notwithstanding, it was rife with inaccuracies, omissions, and outright fabrications such as:

  • Art Howe’s casual dismissal of Beane’s demands as if it was Howe who was in charge and not Beane
  • The portrayal of Jeremy Brown not as a chunky catcher, but an individual so close to morbidly obese that he needed to visit Richard Simmons, pronto
  • The failure to mention the three pitchers Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito
  • That Scott Hatteberg’s playing time was a point of contention and Beane traded Carlos Pena to force Howe’s hand to play Hatteberg—Hatteberg was still learning first base and wasn’t playing defense, but he was in the lineup almost every day as the DH from day one

There are other examples and it wasn’t a mistake. The book was absurd, the movie was exponentially absurd, and there are still people who refuse to look at the facts before replacing the genius hat on Beane’s head as “proof” of the veracity of Lewis’s tale.

This 2012 version of the Athletics is Beane’s rebuild/retool number five (by my count) since 2003. The Moneyball club was blown apart and quickly returned to contention by 2006 when they lost in the ALCS. That team too was ripped to shreds and the A’s traded for youngsters, signed veterans, traded veterans, signed veterans, traded for youngsters and finished far out of the money in the American League from 2007-2011.

Then they cleared out the house again and are now in the playoffs. It has no connection with Moneyball nor the concept of Beane finding undervalued talent. It has to do with the young players succeeding, as the article linked above says, and winning “in a hurry”.

Let’s look at the facts and assertions from the book/movie followed by the truth:

The A’s, under Beane, were “card-counters” in the draft

The only players on this Athletics’ team that were acquired via the draft and have helped the club are Jemile Weeks, Cliff Pennington, Sean Doolittle (drafted as a first baseman and converted to the mound), Dan Straily, and A.J. Griffin. The A’s drafts since Moneyball have been mediocre at best and terrible at worst, so bad that Grady Fuson—along with Howe, one of the old-school “villains” in Moneyball—was brought back to the organization as special assistant to the GM.

The hidden truth about the draft is that the boss of the organization probably pays attention to the first 8-10 rounds at most. After that, it’s the scouts and cross-checkers who make the decisions and any player taken past the 10th round who becomes a success is a matter of being lucky with late development, a position switch, a quirky pitch, or some other unquantifiable factor. Beane’s “new age” picks like Brown, Steve Stanley, and Ben Fritz, didn’t make it. The conventional selections Nick Swisher and Joe Blanton did make it, were paid normal bonuses of over $1 million, in line with what other players drafted in their slot area received. Brown received $350,000 as the 35th pick in the first round and his signing was contingent on accepting it.

Beane “fleeced” other clubs in trades

In retrospect, he took advantage of the Red Sox desperation to have a “proven” closer, Andrew Bailey, to replace the departed Jonathan Papelbon. Bailey got hurt and, last night, showed why it wasn’t his injury that ruined the Red Sox season. He’s not particularly good. Josh Reddick has 32 homers—power and inexpensive youthful exuberance the Red Sox could have used in 2012.

The other deals he made last winter? They were of mutual benefit. The A’s were looking to restart their rebuild and slash salary waiting out the decision on whether they’re going to get permission to build a new park in San Jose. They sent their erstwhile ace Trevor Cahill to the Diamondbacks for a large package of young talent with Collin Cowgill, Ryan Cook, and Jarrod Parker. They also traded Gio Gonzalez to the Nationals for even more young talent including Tommy Milone and Derek Norris. The Diamondbacks got 200 innings and good work (that hasn’t shown up in his 13-12 record) from Cahill and are also-rans; the Nationals got brilliance from Gonzalez and won their division. The A’s slashed payroll and their young players, as the article says, developed rapidly.

Sometimes it works as it did with this series of trades, sometimes it doesn’t as with the failed return on the Hudson trade to the Braves in 2004.

They found undervalued talent

Yes. We know that Moneyball wasn’t strictly about on-base percentage. It was about “undervalued talent” and opportunity due to holes in the market. That argument has come and gone. Was Yoenis Cespedes “undervalued”? He was paid like a free agent and joined the A’s because they offered the most money and the longest contract. He was a supremely gifted risk whose raw skills have helped the A’s greatly and bode well for a bright future. The other signings/trades—Jonny Gomes, Bartolo Colon, Seth Smith, Brandon Inge, Brandon Moss—were prayerful maneuvers based on what was available for money the A’s could afford. They contributed to this club on and off the field.

Grant Balfour was signed before 2011 because the A’s again thought they were ready to contend and all they needed was to bolster the bullpen. They’d also signed Brian Fuentes to close. Fuentes was an expensive disaster whom they released earlier this year; Balfour was inconsistent, lost his closer’s job, wanted to be traded, regained the job, and is pitching well.

The manager is an irrelevant figurehead

Howe was slandered in Moneyball the book as an incompetent buffoon along for the ride and slaughtered in the movie as an arrogant, insubordinate jerk. What’s ironic is that the manager hired at mid-season 2011, Bob Melvin, is essentially the same personality as Howe!!! An experienced manager who’d had success in his past, Melvin replaced the overmatched Bob Geren, who just so happened to be one of Beane’s closest friends and was fired, according to Beane, not because of poor results, managing and communication skills, but because speculation about his job security had become a distraction.

Melvin and Howe share the common trait of a laid back, easygoing personality that won’t scare young players into making mistakes. Melvin’s calm demeanor and solid skills of handling players and game situations was exactly what the A’s needed and precisely what Moneyball said was meaningless.

The 2012 Athletics are a great story; Moneyball was an interesting story, but they only intersect when Beane’s “genius” from the book and movie melds with this season’s confluence of events and produces another convenient storyline that, in fact, has nothing at all to do with reality.

The A’s are going to the playoffs and might win the division over the Rangers and Angels, two teams that spent a combined $170 million more in player salaries than the A’s did. It’s a terrific life-lesson that it’s not always about money, but it has zero to do with Moneyball and Michael Lewis is an unwanted interloper as the Beane chronicler since he knows nothing about baseball and is a callous opportunist who took advantage of a situation for his own benefit.

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Oscars Invitations—Lost In the Mail

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With Billy Beane attending the Oscars to support Brad Pitt and Moneyball and their nominations—link—I thought it would be appropriate to suggest some other characters from the book and film who should be asked to attend. Without them, there would be no story.

Art Howe

The epitome of insubordinate and self-interested evil who refused to adapt to the changing times by adhering to numbers and outright ignored his boss’s entreaties to play Scott Hatteberg.

Except Howe did play Hatteberg—just not at first base.

If you look at the facts (a novel concept they are, FACTS!!!), Hatteberg was in the lineup almost every day as the DH because he was new to first base and Carlos Pena was a Gold Glove caliber fielder.

Check this link if you’re actually invested in the Hatteberg/Howe truth.

The climactic scene in which Hatterberg homered to help the A’s win their 20th straight game was a scheduled day off; the circumstances are detailed in the book!

Mark Mulder/Barry Zito/Tim Hudson

Private detectives might have to be dispatched to find them since they were mysteriously absent from the film version of Moneyball and only mentioned in passing in the book.

Having three All-Star/Cy Young Award caliber starting pitchers is kinda important to analyzing the construction of a winning team.

Jeremy Brown

An armrest would have to be ripped from the seats in the theater to fit the morbidly obese film version of Brown into them.

The real Brown was bulky and not fat.

In a clever bit of double entendre, Brown could make a great show of walking to his seat.

Walking.

Walks.

Get it?

Sandy Alderson

Alderson’s Twitter account is rife with deadpan comedic musings.

Even if the audience needs the jokes explained to them, he’ll still be funnier than Billy Crystal.

Paul DePodesta

With his reputation tattered by the implication of the computer loving stat geek and saddled with the moniker “Google Boy”; having gone to the Dodgers and, in a career-kamikaze fashion (don’t blame Frank McCourt), trashed the team by adhering to the principles of stat based team building resulting in inevitable destruction, he replenished his image as a respected assistant with the Padres and Mets and smartly removed his name from the film before it did any more damage.

Jonah Hill

He should be lambasted for inflicting the unwatchable cartoon Allen Gregory on an unsuspecting public.

And I want the fat Jonah Hill, not this new skinny one.

Keith Law and Michael Lewis

In the pretentious, hackneyed and self-indulgent world of Hollywood, even the Oscar attendees might walk out at the rampant egomania of the toxic combination of Lewis and Law.

Stick them in a steel cage and let them fight it out. It won’t be a feud on a pro wrestling level with Superfly Snuka vs Bob Backlund or Ric Flair vs Dusty Rhodes, but I know I’d watch.

I’d probably hold my nose and root for Lewis.

Probably.

Me

The stat guys, celebrating their victorious revolution and—in spite of Moneyball being shut out at the Oscars (it’s not going to win anything)—enjoy their moments in the spotlight and bask in the adulation and validation.

Then I arrive and make my presence…felt.

Beane’s attendance at the Oscars is a start.

But my version will make it pure perfection.

Genius in fact.

GENIUS!!!!!!!

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This Is Not A Review Of Moneyball

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I went to see Moneyball yesterday. This is not a recommendation nor is it a condemnation of the film, merely facts as I see them regarding Billy Beane, what happened in Michael Lewis’s twisted narrative and the movie adaptation.

Take it or leave it, but know that I’m telling the truth.

The Art Howe portrayal.

I don’t care whether it’s Tony LaRussa, Mike Scioscia or Joe Torre, if any manager was as insubordinate, selfish and blatantly disrespectful as the “Art Howe” character in the film was, he’d be fired immediately.

That character is not the Art Howe who’s liked and respected as a dedicated baseball man throughout the industry.

Jeremy Brown was chubby, not bordering on obese.

Jeremy Brown is listed at 5’10”, 226 pounds on his Baseball-Reference page.

That may or may not have been accurate—sometimes they are, sometimes they’re not.

But the actor they had playing Brown in the movie was bordering on obese. In fact, he made Prince Fielder or CC Sabathia look like The Rock.

Artistic license? Okay.

A patently ridiculous bit of casting for affect? Not okay.

The real Jeremy Brown wouldn’t “sell jeans” unless it was for a big-n-tall store; the character Jeremy Brown almost needed to have his clothes custom made because that’s how fat he was.

Scott Hatteberg and Carlos Pena.

One of the main conflicts in the film is a struggle between Beane and Howe as to whether Hatteberg should be playing first base instead of Carlos Pena.

The implication is that Hatteberg is glued to the bench because Howe insists on having Pena—perceived as a better hitter and most definitely a better fielder than Hatteberg—in the lineup.

The penultimate scene in which Howe finally relents and sends Hatteberg to pinch hit in an 11-11 tie (as the A’s are going for their 21st straight win) is a Roy Hobbs-style moment for the unwanted misfit and Hatteberg homers to win the game.

Here’s the problem: Hatteberg and Pena were both in the lineup almost every single day before Pena was traded—2002 A’s batting orders. Hatteberg was the DH and Pena was playing first base, which made perfect sense because Hatteberg was still a neophyte first baseman and Pena could, y’know, field; and the day in question, September 4th, was a scheduled day off for Hatteberg who’d been playing almost every day anyway. (That story? It’s in Moneyball the book.)

Hatteberg eventually developed into a pretty good fielding first baseman; Pena into a Gold Glover. But the absence of fact in the interest of drama—as they’re taking a book that was supposed to be a “true” story—is glaring.

The tired-and-true formula.

Yes. I did mean “tired-and-true”.

The movie was a half-hour too long for one reason and one reason only: because they jammed the family aspect into the story with the interaction between Beane and his daughter; said interaction is about as painful as listening to Joe Buck.

What was the purpose other than to clumsily tug at the heartstrings and take a character that was relatively unlikable (an impressive feat considering the likability of Brad Pitt) and make him appear human? To say, “look, he’s just like you; he went through a divorce, life dumped on him as he struggled in what was supposed to be his calling and found another calling instead”?

It…was…too…long.

The reality.

During the scene in the 2002 draft room, Lewis wrote in the book that “this almost isn’t fair” as Beane was nabbing each and every one of the players that Paul DePodesta’s computer spit out; that fit into his “new” template of drafting “ballplayers” and not Abercrombie and Fitch models.

But it was fair.

We didn’t learn exactly how fair until years later, but we’ve learned.

It was fair because life has self-correcting mechanism that no amount of flexibility with the truth is going to eclipse.

Lewis had a planned sequel to Moneyball; it was set to detail the rise of the players who were drafted in 2002.

The sequel went away when the draft was proven to be a failure.

But there was a sequel to the book; just as there will be a sequel to the movie. You won’t see it in bookstores nor on-screen. You’ll see it in the standings; you’ll see it in the baseball record books; and you’ll see it if you really look for it.

It’s called reality.

If people are looking for a point-by-point, in depth refutation of the nonsense in Moneyball without facts pretzelized to suit the agendas of those who cling to it being seen as accurate, trust me, it’s coming.

And hell’s coming with it.

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Billy Beane Returns To The Moneyball Basics…

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Just in time for the movie too.

Except he’s doing it without the winning and “genius”.

I guess it’s not as easy when the rest of the baseball has caught up with a junk bond trader masquerading as a venture capitalist; a lounge lizard clad in polyester rather than a high-rolling card-counter in the casino; when there’s no Steve Phillips to hoodwink; no scouts to bully; no fawning writers to treat every word as if it’s gospel; no unsophisticated bumpkin without statistical advisers telling him when Beane’s trying to run a scam.

Billy Beane made one trade for the Athletics before the deadline despite having a number of movable parts on a team that is going nowhere literally and figuratively.

That’s aside from, perhaps, a September field trip to the movies to see either Moneyball or The Smurfs—both are about as realistic as the other—and break the monotony of a 75-87 season.

The one trade Beane made and another he tried to make hearkened back to yesteryear when he was still putting forth the pretense of being “ahead” of everyone else.

He acquired Brandon Allen and Jordan Norberto from the Diamondbacks for submarine righty Brad Ziegler.

Yay.

Allen has put up great numbers in the minors with power and on-base skills, but hasn’t gotten a legitimate chance to play in the majors. He’s an average at best defender and can run a little bit.

Norberto is a lefty who’s posted big strikeout numbers and has control problems.

This is following his attempt to peddle Rich Harden on the Red Sox for minor league first baseman Lars Anderson and a player to be named later. Naturally, Harden failed his physical and stayed with the A’s. Anderson is another slow-footed, formerly hyped prospect of a first baseman whose path is blocked for…well…forever with Adrian Gonzalez now entrenched at the position.

In short, Beane’s looking for his great white whale Jeremy Brown. Considering the attributes of Brown when his story was told in Moneyball, that’s a perfect metaphor as an underappreciated, overweight, one-dimensional player Beane can stick someplace and hope the ball doesn’t find him while he walks, walks, walks into everyone’s hearts and minds.

Allen might produce; he might not. Anderson could be something, somewhere. Norberto’s lefty, so he’ll always have a job.

None of this is relevant to the major point of Beane’s “genius”. He’s gone back to basics, but the basics are no longer the same. He’s counting cards, but he’s lost count and isn’t dealing with the same hand anymore.

The entire concept of that notion of “genius” was based on exposing inefficiencies in the market. That’s not creating anything; that’s not engaging in some profound “new” way of thinking; it’s a form of bottom-feeding to fill in a gap and it was a short-term boost that had to be adjusted as others caught onto the ruse.

Others smartened up and passed Beane; regardless of the continued attempts—based on an agenda—to play up his supposed brilliance, his results have been wanting and the excuses have been prevalent.

The “we have no money” lament was the genesis of Beane’s discovery of on-base percentage as an undervalued asset; you can’t use the same excuse for your success as you do for your failures—it doesn’t work that way.

You don’t hear the Rays—whose front office is truly brilliant—complaining about their lack of money until it sounds like whining. They accept and move on. And that’s what Beane should do. Possibly completely out of Oakland and onto pastures where he can be judged for what he is and not what was implied by Michael Lewis’s narrative skill and propensity to exaggerate to convenience his crafted ending.

Then maybe his staunchest defenders will see the truth.

After the movie financials are in of course.

It might happen.

But I doubt it.

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Theories

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Research is important.

And today, it’s easy.

With that in mind, I have to wonder why writers insist on twisting facts to bolster their arguments when the “facts” which underpin their assertions are so rapidly ascertainable.

The latest is in today’s NY Times: In Search for an Ace? It’s Best to Invest Early.

In this piece, Tyler Kepner attempts to “explain” how to successfully build a pitching staff through the draft. Of course there are the customary shots at the Pirates for repeatedly bypassing on pitchers they should’ve drafted and then watched the failures of the ones they did.

In the piece, there are the facts without context; quotes from executives; and blame doled out on those who were supposedly responsible for the missteps.

Everyone has a theory.

In Moneyball, there was the results-oriented and college player postulation that a team with limited resources should find signable, near-mature talent to use in the big leagues as quickly as possible.

With the Giants championship spurred by homegrown talent, naturally the focus is on developing young players—especially pitchers; the concept has evolved to drafting highly and selecting the best available arms.

Jennie Finch and her husband Casey Daigle now have a son called “Ace”; the implication is that because of those tremendous genetics to be tall and to pitch, there’s going to be a top draft pick on the horizon 17-20 years from now.

Then there’s the “new” way in which the same Pirates—mentioned earlier—are spending heavily on international prospects and investing in the draft by going over advised MLB slot prices.

Which is it?

Is it the last thing that worked?

Or is it a strategy that must be adhered to if the individual teams want to be considered intelligent and have books written about them?

Former Pirates GM Dave Littlefield is defended by his now-boss, Jim Hendry with the Cubs; it’s said that because of the interference of the Pirates ownership in what Littlefield wanted to do, he couldn’t win. Littlefield made some good trades like the one in which he acquired Jason Bay; and some terrible ones where he got nothing for Aramis Ramirez. The team was consistently awful under his stewardship and he quickly proved that there are certain executives who are not suited to being the architect of the organization—they’re better as assistants.

A lack of money doesn’t account for that; nor does it excuse the draft mistakes and the suggestion that the Pirates bypassed CC Sabathia for financial reasons and misunderstood his potential. But the entire foundation of the Sabathia gaffe is faulty because Kepner leaves out the other players who were drafted ahead of the big lefty.

The Pirates drafted Clint Johnston—a lefty who never made it as a pitcher despite big strikeout numbers; he didn’t make it as a hitter either after making the switch to first base and the outfield.

As for the other players who were missed by teams not named the Pirates, there were 19 players picked in front of Sabathia—link. Some of whom—Mark Mulder, Pat Burrell, J.D. Drew, Brad Lidge—made it; others who didn’t. Does that mean the Pirates should be singled out as “stupid”? Only if the other clubs are stupid as well.

How quickly did the Moneyball nonsense come apart as the 2002-2003 drafts which were supposedly orchestrated by the “genius” Billy Beane yielded some useful players like Nick Swisher, but placed an untenable amount of pressure on Jeremy Brown to live up to the role he played in the book; I’m convinced that had he not been such a central character, Brown could very well have been a useful bat in someone’s lineup; everyone knew his name for all the wrong reasons and he was done at 27.

This was exacerbated by Beane’s abandonment of the principles Michael Lewis’s story (not account, story) laid out as in subsequent years, Beane took the step of drafting the dreaded…high….school….pitcher!

It worked too with Trevor Cahill.

The Giants drafted highly—as Brewers GM Doug Melvin says in the article—because they were bad for a few years; but the Giants were smart (or gutsy; or desperate) enough to look past Tim Lincecum‘s size, unusual training regimen and stage father to draft him and leave him alone. How many other organizations would’ve accepted the terms set forth by his dad?

The genetics theory? It’s not irrelevant to think that a young player who comes from good athletic stock can mimic the skills of his parents, but you can pick and choose with that as well. Where’s Nolan Ryan‘s son Reid now?

The Pirates are spending money and expanding their international outreach, but it’s only going to bear fruit if they find players with the money they’re spending. Whether or not they’re acquiring talent is the key, not how much they pay for it. Considering the atrocious way in which the Pirates are being run by the current front office at the major league level, why would they know what they’re doing in scouting young players—money aside—and not have a clue how to make intelligent trades or understand that it was a terrible idea to non-tender Matt Capps?

We can go up and down the draft boards and find players that were overlooked for one reason or another, but what’s the point?

Mining for talent isn’t a science; it’s not a matter of spending money; nor is it a broad-based set of rules that must be adhered to for fear of being called a fool. It’s about knowing what you’re doing; being lucky; having the courage to do as the Giants did with Lincecum and leave him alone; teaching; and giving young players an opportunity.

The Giants succeeded because they had all those factors going for them. Not because of the high draft choices alone.

I’ll be a guest on two podcasts tomorrow. In the afternoon, I’ll be on with Sal at SportsFanBuzz; in the evening with Mike on NYBaseballDigest.

Don’t be scaaaaared.

Paul Lebowitz’s 2011 Baseball Guide is available.

I published a full excerpt of my book here.

It’s available now. Click here to get it in paperback or E-Book on I-Universe or on Amazon or BN. It’s also available via E-book on Borders.com.

Now it’s also out on Amazon Kindle and Barnes and Noble Nook.


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