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The False Pretense Of Moneyball

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First of all, let me clarify that I loved the book Moneyball. It was, and still is, one of my favorite books to read, as it is well-written, is about a passion of mine (baseball and the Oakland A's), and is about a great premise -- that a small market team, unable to compete in dollars with the "big boys," could compete instead by being ahead of the curve and identifying skills that were currently attainable for under market value.

That's all excellent. It just doesn't actually describe Billy Beane's Oakland A's.

The great A's teams of the early 2000s were built on the backs of six players, three pitchers and three position players. The three pitchers, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito, were all drafted by the A's, and the three position players, Eric Chavez, Miguel Tejada, and Jason Giambi, were also all drafted/signed by the A's.

Certainly, the A's drafted well in the late 1990s; they also had good draft position as the result of not being very good. Regardless, Moneyball is not about being especially good at drafting. Which is good, because lately the A's have shown themselves to be anything but "especially good" at drafting and developing hitters. Overall, even when you factor in pitching and hitting together, you would have to conclude that the A's have been, at best, fine, and that other teams, some with similar payrolls and some with worse draft positions, have been better.

It is misleading to focus on Scott Hatteberg as an example of the A's "identifying and appreciating undervalued assets" just because they saw potential in him as a high-OBP 1Bman when he was being largely overlooked as a failed catcher without a lot of power.

The A's made a great call on Hatteberg, but the ability to find a treasure in someone else's trash is hardly a market the A's have cornered. Are the Texas Rangers not more of a shrewd "moneyball team" for having discovered the extremely high risk, extremely high upside jewel in Josh Hamilton...and the late-blooming slugger Nelson Cruz...and the low on batting average but strong on wOBA Mike Napoli...and having correctly assessed that they could convert two relievers, CJ Wilson and Alexi Ogando, into effective starting pitchers? That's impressive. Hitting a bullseye with Scott Hatteberg is not, in and of itself, the story of a little engine that could better than other engines.

The A's of the early 2000s were the product of a team that drafted and developed players well, and then supplemented its core with a key shrewd acquisition or two. Just like the A's of the late 2000s, the present, and sadly the foreseeable future, are a product of a team that has drafted and developed players poorly, and then supplemented its "lack of core" with more filler -- often in the form of over-the-hill veterans and slightly-above-average OFers.

Moneyball, the movie, is coming out in September, and given the state of the current team I hope its a comedy! But what it really is, quite seriously, is a good idea about a team that isn't really the Oakland A's and a General Manager that isn't really Billy Beane.

Every team hits on undervalued assets from time to time, and more often misses. Good players are cheapest when they're young, and to have good young players on a modest payroll you need to draft and develop well. It's the draft, stupid. I know, that's a lousy premise for a book or a movie.