|Thursday, May 15
Updated: May 19, 4:55 PM ET
A's revelations yet to become full revolution
By Eric Neel
Inside the Oakland A's draft room in the summer of 2002, there was a revolution going on. Old baseball logic -- scouts' emphasis on tools, look and makeup -- was flying out the window. Relatively new baseball thinking -- on-base percentage uber alles, performance analysis over visual evaluations, and college players before high schoolers -- came blowing through on the winds of change.
As Michael Lewis puts it in his new book, Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game, "decades of scouting experience (were) being rendered meaningless" and there was a "new way that decisions were going to be made."
By the end of the draft, the A's, who had seven first-round picks, had 10 of their top 20 prospects in the bag -- an unheard of success rate. "Most teams, if they kept a wish list of 20 players," Lewis writes, "would feel blessed to have snagged three of them."
How did they do it? By acknowledging their small-market budget constraints and thinking outside the traditional baseball box.
"They had drafted players dismissed by their own scouts as too short or too skinny or too fat or too slow," Lewis writes. "They had drafted pitchers who didn't throw hard enough for their scouts and hitters who hadn't enough power."
In other words, they drafted guys other teams didn't want or hadn't heard of. They drafted ballplayers who looked good, not out on the field or in the eyes of scouts who'd been watching the game for years, but inside a computer.
The A's shifted the emphasis from what a guy "looks like, or what he might become" to "what he has done" in college, and in doing so they landed a truckload of players for cheap.
Will the young crop, including Nick Swisher, Joe Blanton, John McCurdy, Ben Fritz, Jeremy Brown, Mark Teahen, John Baker, Mark Kiger, Brian Stavisky and Brant Colamarino, pan out?
A's general manager Billy Beane and assistant GM Paul DePodesta have little doubt.
There's reason to take them seriously. Over the last three seasons, Oakland's emphasis on statistical analysis and OBP has helped them field a relatively inexpensive team that's won 91, 102 and 103 games, respectively.
If it's true they've built a better amateur draft mousetrap, their success (which completely undercuts commissioner Bud Selig's cries of competitive imbalance) might be a fact of major-league life for a long time to come.
Which begs the question: Are other financially strapped clubs watching the A's, and are they adopting or already using similar approaches to building their teams and managing their money?
Not in Minnesota, said GM Terry Ryan.
"What Oakland does I respect, but our approach hasn't changed much," Ryan said. "We've gone about it the same way for the last 10 or 15 years. We've got the same staff, the same scouting department, same farm director, and same front office."
A far cry from Beane's revolutionary zeal and the considerable overhaul that's recently taken place in Oakland's scouting department.
Ryan credits his team's recent success to good timing and good player development (instruction and the maturation of talent) more than anything.
"Some of our players produced the last couple of years," he said. "Back in 2000, when we lost 98 games or so, we just had too many young guys up at the same time. But now those are the same guys that won 94 last year. It's just a matter of experience and repetition up here at the major-league level."
Ryan said statistical analysis is a part of the puzzle in Minnesota, but he "(doesn't) know what Bill James' approach is" and there is no one on the Twins staff whose job it is to focus on stats.
He sees attention to on-base percentage as a good thing, but said, "It's not any more (of a factor for us) now than 10 years ago." And he's not sold on the idea, as the A's seem to be, that OBP is the silver bullet for putting together an affordable winning club: "We have players whose on-base percentage is very attractive, and we have players whose on-base percentage isn't so good. You have to take the good with the bad. You might give up a little on-base percentage for a guy who can really field, for instance."
The Brewers' Doug Melvin suggests one of the major splits between the ways small-market teams do business is in whether they privilege defense at the expense of offense, or vice versa. If you're the Yankees, maybe you get both. If you're the A's or the Brewers, you most likely have to compromise.
As for OBP and other run-productive indicators, Melvin said, "while on-base percentage works" in evaluating some players, "it doesn't work for all players." In the end, it's just a statistical column for him -- one of many things they look at.
Still, he is overseeing some changes in the way Milwaukee does business. He employs a full-time stats analyst these days (although that person doesn't get involved in the amateur draft at this point), and "ballpark effects are real big for me," he said. "I'm big on groundball-flyball ratios and walk-to-strikeout ratios, too."
According to Lewis, Beane considered scrapping the Oakland scouting program and going with a room full of laptops and hard drives.
Melvin's nowhere near that. For him, the key is to combine the data with the old-school approaches of his scouts and staff: "Skills, makeup and character are still very big, and now we try to combine that with an emphasis on plate discipline, walks and the pitch counts -- those are the kinds of things I'm trying to educate our minor-league people and our scouts to."
It can be dicey trying to teach old baseball dogs new tricks, he knows, so he tries to come to his people as someone who's still learning and trying to figure things out.
"I've become educated to (these things) myself," Melvin said. "I've been 29 years in baseball, and there are always things we can learn to help us make better decisions. That's what I try to tell my people."
You can hear the tide of traditional thinking turning in what he says, and you can hear the influence of Oakland's success in it, too:
"Whoever has had success, and Minnesota and Oakland have done it on a lesser payroll, that's the model." And like the A's, "we have to find different ways to find and recruit players, and we'll take a player some other clubs won't."
At the end of the day, though -- numbers and philosophies aside -- Melvin said the real key to what the A's have accomplished recently isn't at the plate, it isn't in the draft room, and it isn't in Billy Beane's head. It's in the lightning in a bottle sitting on the Network Associates Coliseum pitcher's mound.
"If you take Mulder, Zito and Hudson," Melvin said, "those three are for me the main reasons for the success of the Oakland A's."
Pirates GM Dave Littlefield agrees: "Am I influenced by Oakland? Yeah, I'd like to find three starting pitchers like those three guys they have."
In the meantime, Littlefield's in the midst of a fairly major overhaul in Pittsburgh.
"We needed more talent at the major-league level, and we didn't have many prospects at Double-A or Triple-A either," he said. And he's using the A's example to help motivate his people for the job ahead.
The smaller-market thing is no crutch for the Pirates, Littlefield said: "There's no reason why we can't do it. Look, it's being done by Minnesota and Oakland. It's proven it can be done."
Like Melvin, Littlefield figures there's some value to thinking in terms of statistical analysis. "There's no doubt that there's some significant positives in getting guys in better hitters' counts, and we like to teach OBP and patience," he said. But Littlefield's not looking to adopt wholesale what Oakland's been up to, and he's not sure he could wait for a change in philosophy to start producing wins.
"You always want to keep an eye on what people having success are doing," he explains. "But you have to try to figure out what is applicable to your situation and your players. I think players make a system. I don't believe that a system makes the players. There are sometimes ideas out there that sound good in theory, but you have to keep in mind whether you're looking at a three- or four-year wait before it impacts the organization the way you'd like it to. You have to show improvement in the short term. We gotta get better at the big leagues, too."
So Littlefield's paying more attention to numbers than the team has in the past, but he's not ready to surrender traditional modes of evaluation. "Stats are a part of every decision we make, right along with scouting, medical, and the background work we do on makeup and character," he said.
Kansas City's Allard Baird sings pretty much the same tune: Numbers, yes (he's got a stats analysis guy on staff) but only alongside the old-school techniques. "You can't take away from what (the scouts) see and how important their evaluation is," he said. "What you try to do now is get them to understand the value of statistics and how they can utilize them to improve their evaluation skills."
Sometimes, Baird said, he's relying primarily on numbers. "Our goal coming into this season (at every level of the organization) was to create runs and on-base percentage, deep counts, that was the number one way we were going to do that."
Other times, he's counting on his player development staff to tell him how they can help a player smooth out a hitch in his swing, or to explain why they think, though the numbers aren't there yet, that a kid has what Baird calls "good recognition skills" at the plate.
"We look at a guy like Raul Ibanez, for example, and though he wasn't putting up great numbers, the scouts said, 'You know what, he's trying to lift the ball too much; if we can get him back to where his swing was before, we could have something.'
"There's the objective and the subjective, and they complrment each other for us," Baird said.
With the exception of Ryan, all these guys -- Melvin, Littlefield and Baird -- seem convinced that things have to change, and are changing, in the way they evaluate and develop talent. As Baird said, "Not to utilize something (like statistical analysis) that has proven to have value when you evaluate a player or a pitcher just makes no sense to me."
But not one of them is thinking as radically and aggressively in analytical terms as Beane and his crew seem to be. Are they timid? Are they, like the White Sox's Kenny Williams, maybe a little put off by Beane's brash style? Are they skeptical, thinking that the bloom may come of the A's rose any time now? Are they working a diplomatic middle-ground within their organizations? Are they just watching and waiting? Will another year or two of Oakland success have them getting more aggressive about learning and modeling exactly what Beane's team is up to? Hard to say. Maybe some combination of all these things is in play.
Maybe they just don't trust any one principle. "There's no question that there are a lot less mistakes in drafting college players than high school players, for example, but if Billy only ever took college players, you know, he wouldn't have Eric Chavez playing third base for him right now. I think there's exceptions to every rule," Rockies GM Dan O'Dowd said.
Melvin agrees: "I'm not one to be hardline on we're only going with college players, for instance," he said.
And O'Dowd said there's at least one other thing at work in other teams' relatively cautious approach to the new tricks Oakland's trying of late, too (particularly for his organization): "As it relates to your major-league club anyway, separate from your drafting concepts, your particular set of circumstances are so unique to your own venue or financial situation that what applies in one particular area might not necessarily apply to you.
"I run a team that is probably playing in the most unique venue in all of professional sports. What may work for Billy in Oakland may not actually apply here at Coors Field. Though I think good OBP is a universal principle within the game now, it may not necessarily apply specifically to my situation in the same way it applies to Billy's situation."
Eric Neel is a regular columnist for Page 2.