After Ricardo Rincon and Ray Durham move to the A’s, the team becomes great. Indeed, the 2002 A’s have a better second half of the season than any other team in the baseball history of the last fifty years, with the exception of the 2001 Oakland A’s. They set a record for consecutive wins—nineteen—and then beat their own record.
The Oakland A’s succeed not only because of Paul’s sabermetric approach to hiring talent, but also because of Bill Beane’s savvy trades, which we learned about in the previous chapter.
On the night of their twentieth victory, the A’s seem undefeatable. Then, unexpectedly, their pitcher, Tim Hudson, starts to give up runs. Art Howe calls in Chad Bradford, who’s distinguished himself as one of the best relief pitchers in the major leagues, to replace Hudson. Pitchers, Michael Lewis notes, are the most idiosyncratic baseball players. Like writers, they can have unexpected renaissances late in their careers, or burn out after showing promise. And, again like writers, they set a consistent tone and style for the game overall.
In this chapter, we’ll learn about Chad Bradford, whose life is a testament to the power of optimism and persistence in professional sports. Just as some pitchers set the tone for an entire baseball game, Chad Bradford could be said to set the tone for Michael Lewis’s book: his unlikely success, despite many disadvantages, symbolizes the success of the Oakland A’s in general.
Chad Bradford grew up in Mississippi playing catch with his father. As a child, it was his ambition to play for a big-league team; sure enough, when he was twenty-three, he began playing for the Chicago White Sox.
The first thing we learn about Chad is that he was always ambitious: even as a young boy, he wanted to play major league baseball.
The most amazing thing about Chad’s major league career was that, for most of his teenaged life, he wasn't very good. He played on his high school baseball team, but didn’t really distinguish himself, and few people thought he had any real talent. One exception was his coach, Bill “Moose” Perry, who encouraged him to pitch unconventionally. Chad wasn’t a versatile pitcher, but he learned how to mislead hitters and shut them out. Even after Perry helped him, however, few people, other than Chad himself, thought he’d make it to the major leagues.
The vast majority of professional ballplayers were the stars of their high school baseball teams. Chad, on the other hand, wasn’t much of a ballplayer in high school (though, crucially, he learned how to pitch intelligently). Unlike in the case of many professional ballplayers (e.g., Billy Beane), few people told Chad that he was destined for the major leagues—the only person who believed so was Chad himself.
Chad pitched in college, and, much to his amazement, he attracted the attention of a White Sox scout. He was drafted in the thirty-fourth round, and wasn’t offered a contract. However, he got to play professional ball for a minor league White Sox affiliate. Chad sensed that the White Sox didn’t take him seriously, but during his first year, he perfected his sidearm and became, for the first time in his life, a remarkable pitcher. He was promoted from Double-A to Triple-A, and he distinguished himself on the toughest fields in the division. A few seasons later, he was promoted to the big league, but before he could play, he learned that he’d be going back to Triple-A, supposedly because his pitches “weren’t moving like they used to.” Chad suspected that he was demoted because he didn’t look the part of a big-league athlete, and he may have been right.
Chad’s rise from college ball to the White Sox was nothing short of miraculous: he barely made it on to the team, and once he did, he distinguished himself through a combination of hard work and persistence. However, Michael Lewis suggests that Chad’s rise was hindered not because of his talent but because of his appearance: he didn’t seem like the kind of person who’d play pro ball. Lewis suggests that, at times, baseball coaches hold back their most talented players for the superficial reason that they don’t look right. The genius of Billy Beane was that, as GM for the A’s, he never made such a mistake.
Unbeknownst to Chad, Paul DePodesta took great interest in his abilities. Anther one of Paul’s secret fans was a paralegal named Voros McCracken, who, like Paul, was a fan of Bill James. McCracken realized that Chad was actually one of the most talented ballplayers in the sport. His great insight was that, contrary to popular belief, “pitchers had no control of whether a ball fell for a hit, once it was put into play.” Too often, pitchers were credited for tricking hitters to swinging at unhittable balls, or for throwing the ball too fast to be returned. Voros spent years confirming his theory: the number of hits per balls a pitcher throws into play is, by and large, a matter of random chance. McCracken sent his findings to Bill James, who wrote, “I feel stupid for not having realized it thirty years ago.” Amazingly, GMs largely ignored McCracken’s discovery. One exception was Paul, who realized that the discovery suggested that Chad was undervalued.
As late as the 1990s, baseball fans were still making earth-shattering discoveries about the game. For more than a century, baseball experts had assumed that talented pitchers could strike out hitters by throwing the ball over the plate faster than anyone could return it. McCracken used data analysis to prove that, in fact, pitchers didn’t strike out hitters primarily because they pitched fast, but rather because they used their intelligence and intuition to decide whether to throw the ball in or out of the strike zone. The implications of McCracken’s discovery were staggering: previously, coaches had valued pitchers who could throw 90-mph fastballs, but now, it was becoming clear that the difference between 80 and 90 mph was far less important than the difference between a pitcher who could throw intelligently and one who could only throw fast.
When Paul applied McCracken’s findings to Chad Bradford’s career, he realized why scouts didn’t like Chad. His number of hits per balls in play wasn’t impressive, but his other stats were. For instance, he had a phenomenal talent for throwing pitches that hitters could only return as ground balls, which rarely led to doubles, triples, or home runs. Chad was, furthermore, the rare ground ball pitcher who could strike out lots of hitters. Finally, Chad was a “funny-looking,” amateurish-seeming athlete, and therefore not someone the scouts loved to watch.
Other GMs ignore Chad because they only pay attention to a small handful of statistics. The reality is that Chad is one of the most talented pitchers in the league, but one needs special statistics to understand why. Before Paul and Billy’s tenure at the Oakland A’s, most GMs ignored complicated statistics and relied on their superficial impressions of athletes—bad news for Chad, since, superficially, he doesn’t look like an athlete at all.
In 2000, Billy Beane, acting on Paul’s advice, called the GM of the White Sox and asked him about trading one of the White Sox’s lesser pitchers. Billy waited for the GM to bring up Chad Bradford’s name; in response, Billy just said, “He’ll do.”
One of Billy’s greatest talents is for hiding how badly he wants certain players. Billy clearly wants Chad’s talent, but, hilariously, he pretends that he’s more or less indifferent to who he gets.