Fifteen years after Moneyball, are fat, short players any more likely to be drafted?

A's GM Billy Beane famously questioned whether a classic baseball body was overrated. Maybe it still is. Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

With the exception of the book's title itself, no phrase, quote or concept from "Moneyball" is as well-traveled and influential as Billy Beane's rejoinder to his body-obsessed scouts in the Oakland A's 2002 draft room: "We're not selling jeans here."

It's practically a perfect phrase, taut and funny, specific yet universal. We should all wake up every morning and use these words to frame our days: What do we think we're doing, and what are we really doing? "We're not selling jeans here" has been cited by scholars or writers in any number of non-baseball fields, from venture capitalism to politics to health insurance to religious outreach. Those five words helped save the federal government billions of dollars, if you believe the "Moneyball"-admiring administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.

But here's the twist: One field where "we're not selling jeans here" turned out to be a dud is the one that inspired it. Yes, the Moneyball revolution swept through baseball -- data is a huge part of draft preparation, just as the A's prophesied, and many features of the 2002 A's are now commonplace -- but the Jeremy Brown revolution never did.

Brown, of course, was the bad-bodied Alabama catcher the A's took in the first round of the 2002 draft, the Moneyball draft. He had told the A's he hoped to go somewhere in the first 19 rounds.

"The kid wears a large pair of underwear," says another old scout.

"I repeat: We're not selling jeans here," says Billy.

"That's good," says the scout, "because if you put him in corduroys, he'd start a fire."

It wasn't just Brown. In the second round of the same draft, the A's took Steve Stanley, a 5-foot-7, 155-pound outfielder who told the A's he expected to go around the 15th. They took Brian Stavisky, an outfielder MLB.com's scouting report at the time called "extra-large, big-boned," and Brant Colamarino, who was described as having a "John Kruk look." Shane Komine was a 5-foot-8 right-hander; only one pitcher this century has been listed that short and thrown even 20 innings in the majors.

The A's were operating on a constrained draft budget that year -- they had more first-round picks than they could sign at market rates -- but in Michael Lewis' "Moneyball" account of the pre-draft discussions, they also seemed to revel in how unorthodox their picks' bodies were.

"This is a cutting-edge approach we're taking this year," Eric Kubota, the A's scouting director, said in Lewis' book. "Five years from now everybody might be doing it this way."

It has been 15 years, but if you look at the first round of next week's draft, you're going to see mostly baseball players with beautiful baseball bodies. Keith Law's latest mock draft for ESPN has, in the top 10 picks, these dimensions:

  • 6-4, 220

  • 6-4, 195

  • 6-2, 180

  • 6-2, 220

  • 6-2, 190

  • 6-2, 210

  • 6-1, 195

  • 6-1, 190

  • 6-3, 205

  • 6-1, 180

Not every 6-2, 220-pound human is built the same, so we can't necessarily draw any conclusions from listed heights and weights. Furthermore, listed heights and weights aren't always accurate or reliable. Also, players who are drafted are still growing; part of scouting is looking at the body and extrapolating how it will change.

So, with all those caveats in mind, we looked at the 2002 draft, the one where the A's were all alone on the island of misfit toys, the season that preceded the wave of analytics that would eventually convert more or less every front office into a stathead-friendly one. We compared the listed heights and weights of players picked in the first five rounds of that draft with those picked in the first five rounds of last year's draft.

The average player picked in the first five rounds then: 74.2 inches tall, 198.3 pounds. The same five rounds last year: 74.2 inches tall, 198.2 pounds. If we break it down by hitters and pitchers, by college kids and high schoolers, there remains very little daylight. The 2016 pitchers were slightly taller -- about 0.2 inches -- and the high schoolers were leaner, both of which we might describe as positive physical attributes.

There were five pitchers listed under 6-foot who were drafted in the first five rounds of the 2002 draft. There were five in 2016. We count five hitters listed over 220 pounds in 2002; there were four in 2016.

To reiterate, these listed dimensions aren't rigorous science. But at this first glance, they suggest that there was no bad-body bias that the analytics era has overcome. One executive we asked said that, if anything, "Players are leaner than they were in 'Moneyball.' Leaner in a good way."

"The draft is radically, radically different than 15 years ago, but probably not in some hugely measurable way when it comes to height and weight," another executive said. "Maybe the interesting conclusion is that more teams than ever are leaning heavily on data to help them make smarter selections, yet players still look the same."

Indeed, data is more important to every team now than it was in 2002. Not only do teams dig deep into college stats, like the Moneyball A's did, but they have access to advanced TrackMan data from showcases and tournaments, or they have medical coordinators charting biomechanics and workloads. They have analytics departments that put that data into historical perspective. Some scouting executives are coming from the internet's analytical community. The result of all this data appears to be, broadly, a confirmation of what scouting wisdom had been: Good major leaguers usually do make good jeans salesmen.

"Teams understand college data much better now than they did when Jeremy Brown was drafted," said Nick Faleris, the co-founder of the scouting website 2080 Baseball. "What teams know now would point to Jeremy Brown going a bit lower than he was."

That's not to say there aren't still players for whom subjective and objective indicators force difficult decisions. Faleris points to two: Prep shortstop Nick Allen is considered the best defensive shortstop in the draft, "with all the boxes you'd want to check off on a hitter, but he's only 5-8 -- and that's being generous." And Vanderbilt outfielder Jeren Kendall is uber-athletic, with underwhelming statistics. "You look at Kendall, and you see a major league body, so people are overlooking some pretty significant warts."

Balancing those two factors remains, as it was in 2002, a challenge -- the draft is hard. But no team will ignore the players' performances, and no team would argue that either player's body is irrelevant.

So why did "we're not selling jeans here" take off in the world at large but not in the baseball draft?

In most fields -- and in life -- there really is a lot of ambiguity about what the goals are. Is Tesla a car company, or is it a battery company, or is it an open-ended research company? Does Starbucks sell coffee or does it sell Wi-Fi access? It's often easy to disagree about the objective. And even if you identify the right objective, focusing on it requires constant struggle.

But a baseball operations department has very little of that ambiguity. The point is to win baseball games. Everybody wants to win those baseball games, and everybody more or less knows that the best way to win baseball games is to draft the people who will become the best baseball players. The statheads and the old-school scouts around the table in that draft room might have disagreed about the tactics, but they didn't disagree about the objective.

"Moneyball" didn't seem to see it that way. Lewis didn't just present new data as, potentially, good, but the traditional scouts as fundamentally bad. He seemed convinced scouts cared about something more than getting good baseball players: fitting in.

"The old scouts are like a Greek chorus; it is their job to underscore the eternal themes of baseball," he wrote. "The old scouts aren't built to argue; they are built to agree. They are part of a tightly woven class."

This was the hypothesis. Fifteen years later, here's a better one: The scouts liked good bodies because good bodies correlate to good future baseball players. It's easier for tall pitchers to get more extension on their pitches, making their pitches appear even faster than they are and creating steeper angles to the plate. Athletic position players -- among other advantages to having a good body -- have more fallback defensively, so they don't necessarily have to turn into great hitters to be valuable major leaguers.

Eight years later, a reporter following Billy Beane in spring training noticed something.

As they prepare for their first full-squad workout Sunday in Phoenix, plenty of players in camp are fit enough to model.

"Oh yeah, our guys look good in jeans," Beane concedes.