Baseball Toaster Bronx Banter
2003-05-19 09:55
by Alex Belth
Note: The Bronx Banter blog has moved to


I received the following e-mail from Bronx Banter correspondent Christopher DeRosa over the weekend. Dig his considered and astute take on "MoneyBall:"

It is probably going to be by far the baseball book of the year. Puts the A's sabermetric experiment in the context of the information age economy. There's lots here that's intriguing and fun: "Put a Milo on him." Ron Washington proves as quotable as Oscar Gamble in "Balls". And Lewis gets Bill James better than anyone. Some thoughts on the book:
You get the sense that Alderson and Beane imposed sabermetrics on the A's not just though force of personality, but through physical intimidation.

The A's have some studies they're obviously not sharing. But some of the results appear to be that they value reaching base far more highly than slugging, and that they don't believe, as the outside sabermetricians do, that hitters' strikeouts are no big deal.

We learn that Beane toyed with going over entirely to virtual scouting. I've thought you could do that successfully, but you still need someone to go talk to the kid before you know to put a Milo on him.

A large part of the book concerns the A's taking seven sabermetric specials in the first round of the 2002 draft. Is it really that great to use first round draft picks on guys nobody else wants? The Oakland scouts rate Beane's guys as like 30th round picks or no prospects. Lewis implies that the rest of the teams would draft in agreement with the scouts. If that's the case, why not take some chances in the first round and pick up your secret weapons later? Then you wouldn't have to strike clandestine deals with guys to persuade them not cash in on their surprising status as first round picks. You could just pay them whatever you pay the 7th round picks. What I think is that the revolution is further along than Lewis suggests, and that if Beane tried to let these guys slide, one of the other sabr-GMs would snap them up. ¡®Cause otherwise it is stupid to draft these guys in the first round.

Alderson circulated a pamphlet internally in which a researcher claimed "defense is at best 5% of baseball." Today, researchers would say it is more, like 18%. But even if it was 5%, that wouldn't be that useful a piece of information. It would be about 5% under prevailing conditions, within the parameters of everybody trying to field a real defense. A team that just says, "Deploy Ken Phelpses!" can ensure that fielding is a lot more than 5%, because there is no limit on how many runs you can give up, and therefore no limit on how badly you can field. Each walk-drawing hitter might be individually more valuable than the conventional fielder he replaces, but as a group, you can lose your ability to cover the field. That pamphlet may have helped screw up the A's of the mid-90s.

"Moneyball" fails to take up the question of starting Hudson over Zito in the 2002 ALDS. Howe took the blame, but is it realistic that Beane tells him when to steal and who to play out of position, but let's him decide the playoff rotation? I actually sympathize with the decision to go with Hudson. My point in raising the issue is that it really doesn't work for the activist GM to say, I wash my hands of the whole postseason thing, it's a crapshoot. Too bad, but baseball has championships. If they're crapshoots, then you'd better learn to play craps as well as you can.

Overall, "Moneyball" whetted my appetite but I could have scarfed another 300 pages easily. He told a lean story well, but there is no end of my fascination with this subject and I'd have liked a whole lot more.

DeRosa makes a great point about the starting rotation in the playoffs. I also agree that Lewis' portrait of Bill James is the best I've read to date. And of course, I wish the book was longer too. I don't know that it would be good for the book, but it would be good for us geeks.

There are several great bits with Washington. My favorite is how Oakland's infield coach reacts to the defensively-challenged players he is given to work with:

There were times that Wash thought the players Billy sent him shouldn't even bother to bring their gloves; they should jut take their bats with them into the field, and hit the ball back into the pitcher.

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