BY KEVIN KERNAN
This season marks the 20th anniversary of Moneyball.
Not the movie; that came out in 2011. But author Michael Lewis embedded with Billy Beane and the A’s front office for much of the 2002 season – and that was the basis of the book that was published one year later.
That’s how it started.
Here’s how it’s going.
I watched perhaps the worst ninth inning in MLB history the other day when the A’s led 1-0 over the Mariners in an empty Oakland Coliseum. A’s starter Frankie Montas was brilliant and did not allow a hit until a two-out eighth inning single. He went eight innings allowing two singles.
Montas sat on the A’s bench to watch the ninth, clinging to that 1-0 lead. Two relievers managed to walk four Mariners in the inning and throw two “wild’’ pitches, both by A.J. Puk, that scored each of the Mariners runs as Seattle came away with the 2-1 win.
Two runs in the ninth on no hits, four walks, and two wild pitches to a catcher cast in bronze with one knee anchored to the ground.
The catcher could not move to block or catch the wild pitches. The second wild pitch came on a ball four that scored the second gift run for the Mariners and marked the fourth walk of the inning.
As one [scout] told me, “The funny thing is, as all of us in baseball joke, ‘Moneyball really worked well, because all those rings they got were beautiful … Oh that’s right, they’ve never gotten one.’’’
At that point the camera closed in on Montas as he dejectedly got up from his seat on the A’s bench and left the area. You just know he had to be thinking: What kind of Clown Show am I watching here?
Moneyball to Funnyball.
Montas was watching what innocently began as Moneyball 20 years ago with baseball projections about undervalued players mixed in with a lot of B.S. – and that has now evolved into making the A’s and so many teams completely unwatchable.
By the way, in Moneyball, scouts were skewered even though scouts and Billy Beane built that A’s team; and pitching coach Rick Peterson was magnificent running the pitching staff.
Moneyball pretty much ignored 2002 AL MVP shortstop Miguel Tejada, who was signed by A’s scouts as a teenager on July 17, 1993 out of the Dominican Republic. Tejada put up a .308 average, with 34 home runs and 131 RBIs in 2002, all super-valued traditional numbers in the game for more than a century.
Then there was Barry Zito, AL Cy Young winner that year with a 23-5 record and 2.75 ERA, who was drafted in the first round, ninth overall in the 1999 draft; Tim Hudson, a sixth-round grab out of the 1997 draft who went 15-9 that season with a 2.98 ERA; and Mark Mulder, the second overall pick of the 1998 draft, who went 19-7 in 2002 with a 3.89 ERA.
I’d say longtime friend Rick Peterson, who believes in both data and mechanics, did a great job with that group, crafting college pitchers into MLB stars. Billy Beane knew how much Peterson meant to that talented staff and told people exactly that through the years.
Let’s not forget another first-round draft pick for the A’s who was a mainstay on that team, third baseman Eric Chavez, who was the 10th pick of the first round in the 1996 draft out of Mt. Carmel High School in San Diego, Billy Beane’s high school.
Left to right, Billy Beane, Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill, and Michael Lewis, answer questions about the movie ``Moneyball`` at the O.co Coliseum in Oakland, Calif. on Monday, Sept. 19, 2011. (Laura A. Oda/Staff) (Photo by MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images)
Billy was a No. 1 pick too, 23rd overall by the Mets in 1980; but he never had MLB success, batting .219 over his six-year major league career. Beane has proven to be a much better talent evaluator than player.
Evaluation of talent is the essence of the game. That was some terrific scouting across the board through the years by the A’s, especially building that 2002 team; but alas, good scouting didn’t fit the Moneyball undervalued narrative like turning a catcher, Scott Hatteberg, who could not throw anymore, into a first baseman – so Tejada, Zito, Hudson, Mulder, and Chavez were not given much attention in Moneyball.
Perhaps Michael Lewis could have written something like this back in 2002 of what the Moneyball philosophy eventually would bring about:
In 20 years you will not be able to recognize the game. Catchers will be on one knee and will not even attempt to block pitches as runs score on gift wild pitches. There will be so many relievers in a game your head will spin. Batters will try to lift the ball to such a degree and at all costs that batting average will sink to new lows and strikeouts will rise to record highs. Every team will employ an army of Ivy League graduates, modeled after the Jonah Hill character, and gradually get rid of baseball people in the baseball organizations. Scouts will be replaced by video, too.
Stolen bases, sacrifice bunts, sacrifice flies, superior defense, outfielders with strong arms will all but disappear. Shifts will be everywhere but stubborn batters, urged on by the new ways of the front office, will not take advantage of the over-shifted setup of the defense. Teams will regularly go 0-for-9 or 1-for-8 with RISP or worse; and no one will bat an eye, instead we will hear endlessly about exit velocity.
The Big Three, Barry Zito #75 of the Oakland Athletics (R), former Oakland Athletics Mark Mulder #20 (C) and Tim Hudson #17 of the San Francisco Giants (L) is presented with a bottle of chardonnay wine by the the Oakland Athletics prior to the game at O.co Coliseum on September 27, 2015 in Oakland, California. Zito, Hudson, and Mulder were teammates with the Athletics from 2000-2004. (Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images)
Baseballs will be made so slick, pitchers will not be able to grasp them as they did in the past. Fake runners will be put on second base in extra innings, baseball’s version of a cupcake for every kid even though it’s not your birthday. MLB will embrace gambling on every aspect of the game and yet keep Pete Rose banished. Umpires will soon be replaced by automated balls and strikes. Replay will strangle the game instead of being used only in the most obvious and important of scenarios.
In other words, Pandora’s Box will be wide open and so many baseball organizations will look like one another, clueless as to how to put together a winning team.
Just look at the standings.
The game is nothing like it was in the past and no team will have won back-to-back World Series since the Yankees of 1998, 1999, and 2000.
“Somebody said to me the other day,’’ one longtime evaluator said of the analytical gurus of today that litter the game in every organization, “when you have people that think they are the smartest people in the room, they don’t listen to anything anybody ever says and they look down on you.’’
That is the reality of Moneyball 20 years later, and yes the A’s still haven’t made it back to the World Series since their 1989 triumph, much less won a World Series. They’ve made it to the postseason nine times over those 20 years but have won only one lonely playoff series – and that fittingly came against the Twins in a Division Series, because the Twins lose every time they get to October.
Billy Beane always said the postseason is a crapshoot, but it’s not.
It will be awhile before the A’s make it back even though the playoffs have been watered down tremendously.
The A’s winning percentage in 2022 is at .319. They will be looking to move out of Oakland because they are stuck in a mausoleum of a ballpark.
Billy Beane is still running the team, he is the Executive VP of Baseball Operations and the rebuild will have a top draft pick in 2023. That’s another problem with baseball; the tanking remains out of control.
The A’s will draft 19th in the upcoming 2022 draft.
Oakland Athletics manager Bob Melvin talks with A's executive vice president of baseball operations and minority owner Billy Beane during their workout at the Coliseum in Oakland, Calif., on Tuesday, Oct. 1, 2019. The A's face the Rays in the American League wild card game on Wednesday. (Photo by Jane Tyska/MediaNews Group/The Mercury News via Getty Images)
Michael Lewis is a tremendous writer and Moneyball was entertaining, I will give it that. Every Nerd in the game, though, now swears by Moneyball and of course you will hear, “Using the analytical approach the (fill in a team) won the (fill in the year) World Series.’’
Yeah, right, tell that to the gullible billionaire owners, not me.
The funny thing is analytics have been a part of the game for a long time and Branch Rickey, who created the farm system, was a big believer in analytics way back when; but it also takes the likes of Tejada, Zito, Hudson, Mulder, and Chavez to win.
Let’s not overlook that basic baseball fact.
The scouting and the player development must come through for a team to have success.
If the undervalued player Nerd way was the winning way, don’t you think the A’s would at least be somewhere near .500 this year and maybe over the last 20 years have won more than one playoff series?
But perhaps that’s all luck too, you know, like hitters who have a knack for driving in runs, something the Nerds say is a result of luck as well.
There is luck in the game but not that much luck.
“Every baseball person is frustrated,’’ one top talent evaluator told BallNine of the general state of the game and the frustrations that are everywhere in baseball 20 years after Moneyball.
It’s the know-it-all era – or should I say error.
How much has the culture changed in the big leagues, “Half the time you’ll go a week or two without seeing anybody you can talk baseball with anymore,’’ noted one scout. But spin rate, pitch framing, and exit velo are always a topic. How about the heart of the game?
At the amateur level the scouting game has really changed and that does not bode well for the future of baseball, either; unless you are an old time scouting director who gets boots on the ground. A lot of real talent is going undrafted because the talent projections are off.
There is no doubt the pendulum has swung way too far in the direction of analytics.
Over-reliance on the numbers game was never to such a degree as it is now. Branch Rickey always said you have to remember the human element and that is the Nerds’ downfall, they forget or ignore the human element and what makes a team a team.
Even Beane, to whom I have shown much respect in the past, now believes (I have been told) that the Nerds have gone much too far in this Moneyball game now.
Wonder what Billy thought of that ninth inning the other day. At least he’ll make a trade and get something for Montas, maybe even as good a pitcher as Montas. The Dodgers, who garner much praise for their analytics, traded Montas to the A’s in 2016 for Rich Hill and Josh Reddick. A year later, in chasing the elusive ring, the Dodgers traded young shortstop Oneil Cruz to the Pirates for Tony Watson.
This is really where we are with Moneyball, 20 years later.
Scouts look at final results. Scoreboard, baby.
As one told me, “The funny thing is, as all of us in baseball joke, ‘Moneyball really worked well, because all those rings they got were beautiful … Oh that’s right, they’ve never gotten one.’ ’’
Not one ring.
Overall, baseball is not a pretty picture and the greatest irony is that no one goes to see the A’s play anymore. The movie made a big deal about the cheering crowds in Oakland; but now it’s a sea of empty seats. The movie also made Art Howe out to be a villain, a cheap shot all the way.
I’ve known Art Howe for a long time, too, and there may not be a more likable, humble guy in the game. Another friend, Hall of Fame writer Tracy Ringolsby has long defended Howe against the slings and arrows that came Art’s way from Moneyball. Howe was made out to be a dour cardboard cutout of a manager.
Fake Hollywood can do that to real people when they say “based on a true story.”
“The sad part to me,’’ Ringolsby told me, “is that I have known Art since he played football at Wyoming. He got hurt and wound up being a baseball player. This is a guy who played baseball at Wyoming and then he went home to Pennsylvania and he worked for Westinghouse. He was a Nerd. And then through having a tryout camp in Pittsburgh he was signed by the Pirates. Art is such a great person who cares about other people. Art is everybody’s friend.”
“The movie was a great fantasy,’’ Ringolsby said.
The fantasy continues 20 years later.
Numbers are one thing and they have a place in baseball, but never forget the human element … and the true value of hitting big on No. 1 draft picks.