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Feb 012011

Mike Axisa at River Ave Blues wrote a great post yesterday about one of Cashman’s comments at his talk with Josh Norris:

Josh Norris sat down for a chat with Brian Cashman on Friday (part onepart two), getting the GM to spill the beans about a number of topics, including Jesus Montero, the draft, and a bunch of other stuff. Unfortunately he didn’t say anything controversial, so those of you who enjoy that sort of stuff are out of luck. Rather than give you just a link and telling you to check it out, I wanted to talk briefly about some of the stuff Cashman discussed. I block-quoted some of it and added my two cents below, but still, you should go check out the interview in its entirety. Josh did a great job as usual. On to the quotes…

We have been very aggressive in the draft and re-dedicated ourselves to tools, not necessarily to performance coming out of the amateur ranks.

I’m going to focus on the tools over performance part, because the Yankees have drafted quite a few guys with questionable college performances and turned them into quality prospects because they focused on the talent. David Phelps jumps to mind, he had a 4.65 ERA and a decidedly unsexy 7.26 K/9 in his final year at Notre Dame, but his minor league career features a 2.50 ERA (382.1 IP) and last year he struck out eight men per nine. David Adams hit just .286/.384/.411 in his draft year at Virginia, but as a pro he owns a .281/.370/.439 batting line with wood bats against much better competition. Andrew Brackman belongs in this conversation as well.

This caught my eye as I began my annual ritual of rereading Moneyball before spring training. The performance vs. tools thing has been a hot button issue since Moneyball came out. Moneyball was a book about a lot of bigger ideas than tools vs. performance, but that dynamic is one of the more controversial points made by the book. For those that haven’t read it (I highly recommend you go buy it today), Billy Beane was angry that his scouting department wasn’t producing results. They generally picked players based upon traditional measures of tools – their swing, their batting practice power, their arm, their speed, etc, or the speed of their fastball. So, with Michael Lewis taking notes, Beane decided to spend the 2002 draft selecting players almost entirely by their college statistics. Although he selected some very useful players like Joe Blanton, Nick Swisher, Brad Ziegler, and Jonathan Papelbon (did not sign), the strategy is generally considered a failure. Scouts were correctly able to identify that Jeremy Brown was too fat to catch in the major leagues.

No one, including the Oakland A’s, drafts today using the Moneyball strategy. Teams tried it for awhile, but it didn’t work. However, when Cashman says that they are going back to tools, he isn’t suggesting that they are going back to pre-Moneyball methods of player evaluation. That is because the true lesson of Moneyball was that both the scouts and Billy Beane were wrong. Billy Beane was wrong that college baseball statistics can predict the performance of a professional baseball player. It turns out that scouts are actually pretty good at predicting how tools will translate to performance. However, the scouts were wrong about what kind of baseball players help a team to win games. They didn’t care if a player took walks, made pitchers work or controlled the strike zone. They overvalued defense (though we’re moving back a little bit that way), baserunning, the ability to hit for singles, and certain other characteristics.

This is really important for a number of reasons. I’m sure that the Houston Astros have a bunch of very experienced, capable scouts out there. They can tell the Bryce Harpers apart from the Jeremy Browns, and would probably have prevented the A’s from drafting Ben Fritz. However, I’m not convinced that the Astros management gets the very basic concepts of what makes a baseball player good. Fret all you want about the merits of stats like VORP and WAR, but the basic concepts behind them are undeniable: players should be compared against their positional peers in some systematic way, getting on base is the most important thing for hitters, players don’t have much control over balls in play, etc. The A’s scouts didn’t get this, and I’m willing to bet that a few teams in the MLB still don’t either.

Why have the Yankees succeeded in the late and middle rounds the draft lately? I’m sure that they have some great scouts, but Damon Oppenheimer isn’t personally going in and checking out every 12th round pick. But they’re still churning out potential major leaguers at a fantastic rate, along with quite a few high-end prospects. They correctly realized that David Adams sophomore year at UVA (.372/.454/.522) was more representative than his very disappointing junior year (.286/.384/.411), which turned off a lot of major league teams who regarded him as a 2nd round pick. Ditto for David Phelps, who had a disappointing junior year following a really great sophomore year. The difference is less about tools vs. performance than it is about correctly interpreting performance. Having scouts analyze tools is a huge part of this, but it all plays into the big picture.

The real lesson of Moneyball was that a lot of very smart people in baseball misunderstood the basic physics of the game. I get the sense that the Yankees have both a very good understanding of the basic physics of the game and a feel for the art of finding players who can succeed under those physics. Its a blend of Billy Beane and the scouts he derided.

3 Responses to “The Real Moneyball Lesson”

  1. EJ,One question:
    It seems to me that every year come draft day the Red Sox are graded better than the Yankees in their picks but the Yankee System always looks better. Why is that? Is it:
    A) Better Int’l signing? (Yanks top three are Montero, Banuelos and Sanchez)
    B) A Phenomenal 2010 in the Minors and Sox trading prospects?
    C) Sox focus on performance and stats as many draft analyst?
    D) Yanks better development?  (Quote)

    [Reply To This Comment]

  2. Read Moneyball last year and enjoyed the snapshot of a time in baseball when the looking & understanding beyond the traditional stat line was uncommon. Without Beane and his crew’s own follies, player evaluation today would be in a different, likely regressed state.

    Oppenheimer or whoever runs the Yanks scouting dept going forward has to keep itself relevant and vocal to the GM. Without the current budget in place the farm wouldn’t have all of the following: betances, brackman, montero, and gary sanchez.  (Quote)

    [Reply To This Comment]

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