The Failure of Moneyball
June 3, 2008

Several years ago, Michael Lewis created a sensation with his book, "Moneyball".  In it, he chronicled the behind-the-scenes of GM Billy Beane and the Oakland A's front office, highlighting their philosophy that emphasized taking only college players and focusing on hitters who get on base.  At the time, those two traits were not as highly valued in potential draft picks as taking younger players with superior physical tools and thus the A's would be able to save money both in signing players and by using a much smaller scouting department.  Their theory was that college stats were as good as upper level minor league stats as indicators of future performance.  By drafting players they thought would have major league value but that no one else prized, the money they saved would enable them to compete with bigger revenue organizations like the Yankees and Dodgers.  The story largely followed the events leading up to the 2002 amateur draft, a draft in which the A's had managed to get seven picks in the first round through free agent compensation. 

That draft, it turns out, was one of the most talent-laden drafts in recent memory.  The number of star-level and major league talents that have emerged from that class already is pretty amazing: BJ Upton, Adam Loewen, Zack Greinke, Prince Fielder, Jeff Francis, Jeremy Hermida, Joe Saunders, Khalil Greene, Scott Kazmir, Cole Hamels, James Loney, Jeremy Guthrie, Jeff Francoeur, Matt Cain, Joey Votto, Micah Owings, David Bush, Jon Lester, Jonathan Broxton, Jesse Crain, Brian McCann, Fred Lewis, Elijah Dukes, Ben Francisco, Curtis Granderson, Rich Hill, Kevin Correia, John Maine, Scott Olsen, Pat Neshek, Matt Capps, Howie Kendrick, Matt Lindstrom, Joel Zumaya, Jason Bergmann, Jeff Clement, Anthony Reyes, Dana Eveland, Russell Martin and Chuck James.  It's a veritable who's who of the best young players in the game.

With so much talent to be had, one would think that the A's using their "superior" philosophy of getting high on base hitters would should certainly lead them to talent riches, yes?   Or that focusing on college players, whose stats they surmised could be relied upon in the evaluation process, would yield more than the average number of major league regulars.  Of the 41 players taken in that first round, 24 have already appeared in the majors and 19 of those have had significant playing time.  So who did the A's get in the first round?

Nick Swisher, Joe Blanton, John McCurdy, Ben Fritz, Jeremy Brown, Steve Obenchain, Mark Teahen

It's not a coincidence that I listed the aforementioned successful young major leaguers in the order in which they were picked, or at least by their respecitve ranking in the draft order.  Swisher was taken between Kazmir and Hamels.  That's not a bad pick as Swisher has turned into a pretty good hitter and a useful player in the outfield and first base.  Blanton was taken between Francoeur and Cain.  Given the talent, I'd rather have Cain than Blanton but I would still call Blanton a sucessful pick.  However, it was between Cain and Joey Votto (who was taken in the second round) that the A's picked McCurdy, Fritz, Brown, Obenchain and Teahen. 

The A's got three legitimate major league players (Teahen has become a useful spare part ) out of seven in a first round that is probably the closest we'll ever see to a "can't miss" first round.  None of the A's picks are what any rational person would label as a superstar.  Given the impact some of the other players have already had in the majors, why isn't anyone looking at the results of the Moneyball draft and calling it what it is: a failure.  Even if you want to forgive them for focusing only on college players, they still failed to identify Bush, Crain, Lewis, Granderson, Hill, Correia, Maine, Neshek, Kendrick, Lindstrom, Reyes, Eveland, Martin and James as major league talent, all of whom were college players.  During any normal year, getting two solid major leaguers in the first round would be a coup.  But in a year so robust not only with major league regulars but with budding superstars, getting just two legitimate regulars out of seven chances is pretty poor results.  That's like walking into a showroom of high-end sports cars and driving away with a Miata.

Some would suggest signability was a major factor in their decisions, that the A's needed to save money on their picks.  If that was indeed the case, why did they trade for David Justice and his $7 million salary in December of 2001, especially after posting a .763 OPS with the Yankees?  It worked out for them as Justice had a nice final year for the A's but they could have signed Rondell White was for $4.5 million or Ron Gant for just above major league minimum, both guys in Justice's class of production.  No telling how many other less expensive options were avialable in trade. 

The following year, the A's had three picks in the first round and took Brad Sullivan, Brian Snyder and Omar Quintanilla.  This draft was also replete with major league talent that included Delmon Young, Rickie Weeks, Nick Markakis, John Danks, Lastings Milledge, Aaron Hill, Conor Jackson, Chad Cordero and Chad Billingsley, all taken before the A's got their first pick.  However, Carlos Quentin (another college player) was taken after the A's had taken their first two picks, and Chris Ray, Ryan Garko, Shaun Marcum, Jonathan Papelbon, Ryan Braun, Kevin Kouzmanoff, Brian Bannister and Reggie Willits - all college players - were taken after Quintanilla.  Twenty-five of the players (out of 37 this time) taken in the first round of the 2003 draft have since made the majors, yet only one of the A's three picks has, and he appears to be no more than a utility player.  The Moneyball draft philosophy again failed to measure up to major league average in identifying major league talent.  In their defense, the A's did get Andre Ethier in the second round, but again, getting only one decent regular - and I'm not sure I'd even call him that given his inability to hit lefties - out of four early round picks from a draft that had so much talent is a pretty poor track record.

If Moneyball were a successful philosophy for evaluating amateur or minor league players, it should at least yield better than major league average results.  The truth is, however, that even under the most optimal circumstances it's rate of return is at best average.  The A's had a total of 12 picks in the first two rounds of 2002 and 2003 and got 5 major league players, only two of which are legitimate regular players.  A rate of 16% in the first two rounds is not the kind of success rate I'd want to hang my hat on or write a book about, unless it's a "How NOT to do this" kinda book.  Under normal circumstance it falls far short of the success rate of other low revenue teams like the Diamondbacks, Rays and Nationals who instead trust "old fashioned" scouts to evaluate and pick the best talent. 

Few will debate that on base percentage is an important function of a successful major league offense.  And drafting college players generally means the draftee will spend less time in the minors if he has major league talent.  Moneyball defenders will say that the book was about finding undervalued assets in drafting players, but what the Moneyball drafts have pretty clearly shown is that some talents are less valued for a reason, and that forsaking "tools" in favor of particular stats in an amateur draft is a sure path to a lackluster farm system.  Hiring good people to choose the draft picks is far more important than choosing "good stats" by which to measure them.

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