At the age of forty, Billy Beane was the general manager (GM) of the Oakland A’s: as a GM, his job was to oversee the A’s major league and minor league teams, trade and acquire players. He often said that choosing to sign with the Mets was the only decision he ever made purely for the money. However, as a GM, his job was entirely about money. In the summer of 2002, Billy was talking to his team of talent scouts in preparation for the yearly amateur draft—his favorite time of year. For once, Billy “was about to start an argument about how” the talent scouts did their jobs.
Instead of proceeding chronologically, Lewis jumps ahead from the 1980s to the early 2000s: Billy is no longer an athlete, but he works as a GM for the Oakland A’s. Here we see the stirrings of Billy wanting to use his own experience to devise a better scouting method than the conventional one.
In his previous years as GM of the A’s, Billy had allowed scouts to take the lead with the draft. In 2001, Billy’s head scout, Grady Fuson, had chosen a high school pitcher named Jeremy Bonderman. Jeremy was “precisely the kind of pitcher Billy thought he had trained his scouting department to avoid.” Billy detested recruiting high school pitchers, because they were too young—there was no telling what kind of athletes they’d become. When Fuson chose Bonderman in 2001, Billy became so furious that he threw a chair into the wall.
In his years as a GM leading up to 2002, Billy has become increasingly dissatisfied with his scouts’ performance. They hire too many unreliable high school athletes, a habit that Billy finds particularly maddening because he himself was an unreliable high school athlete who never lived up to his early promise. Grady’s decision to sign Jeremy Bonderman is the last straw for Billy.
In 2002, Grady Fuson had cause for alarm. Billy clearly didn’t approve of his method of choosing players, and he’d been talking with his assistant, Paul DePodesta, a Harvard graduate who was using a new, mathematical way of analyzing the draft process. Paul studied economics at Harvard, and he believed that he could use math to gain a huge advantage in baseball. Paul identified many sources of bias in draft picks: 1) the tendency to generalize from personal experience; 2) the tendency to pay attention to an athlete’s most recent performance; 3) the tendency to misinterpret what one sees. By ignoring these forms of bias, Paul believed, GMs could assemble an excellent team from players that other scouts passed over.
In contrast to Grady’s traditional style of scouting, Lewis discusses Paul DePodesta’s mathematical, computerized methods. Paul believes that scouts like Grady allow their personal biases to interfere with rational decision-making, and, as a result, they ultimately draft too many glamorous but ultimately sub-par athletes. Paul uses statistical analysis to identify less charismatic, but still highly talented athletes that other scouts have ignored.
Months before the 2001 draft picks, Paul had identified a prospective player named David Beck, whom no other scouts thought was worth drafting. Paul had asked Grady to scout Beck, but had gotten the sense that Grady never took Beck seriously. However, after the 2001 drafts, Grady, eager to “make peace with the front office,” tried to make up with Paul by signing Beck. Within a few months, Beck was dominating the Arizona rookie league. Beck was the first unlikely player Paul identified with the help of statistics. In 2002, Billy was determined to use Paul’s methods to choose more players.
Beck is the first of many unlikely draftees that Paul identifies as potentially superb athletes. Grady, who subscribes to the old-fashioned way of measuring ballplayers’ success, is at first reluctant to sign Beck—indeed, he only does so because he wants to be back in Paul’s (and, more importantly, Billy’s) good graces.
In 2002, prospective players assembled in the draft room for the amateur draft. Most of these players had failed to make it to a big league team, and were now vying for minor league divisions of Major League Baseball teams. The 2002 amateur draft was hugely important for the Oakland A’s, because it would give the A’s an opportunity to find “cheap labor.” In baseball, GMs have the right to control players’ salaries for six years in the minor leagues and seven in the major leagues. As a result, it’s common for extremely talented players to be paid “the baseball equivalent of slave’s wages” for much of their careers. A relatively poor team like the A’s needed to acquire budget players, hope that some would end up being very talented, and then keep those players on at a small salary for as long as possible. Furthermore, 2002 was an important year for the A’s because the team had seven first-round picks. Billy needed to seize his opportunity, using Paul’s methods.
Relatively underfunded teams like the Oakland A’s need to recruit talented players before they’re expensive (at which point only a handful of rich teams can afford them). 2002 was an important year in baseball history, due to the alignment of a series of unrelated events: Paul DePodesta working for the Oakland A’s; Bill Beane’s dissatisfaction with his traditionally-minded scouts; the A’s opportunity to draft seven players in the first round. Had these events not happened around the same time, the Oakland A’s probably wouldn’t have had such a tremendous season in 2002, and baseball wouldn’t have experienced a paradigm shift. It’s ironic that the sabermetric revolution—i.e., the approach that tries to eliminate random chance from baseball—occurred in 2002 partly because of random chance.
Billy, Paul, and the team of scouts begin weeding through the prospective players. Erik Kubota, the head talent scout whom Billy has hired after firing Grady, suggests that the A’s acquire a high school pitcher. Other scouts, including an older scout, Dick Bogard (nicknamed Bogie), argue about the choice. They point out that the high schooler has “bad makeup”—in other words, bad character and focus. The scouts discuss hundreds of other players and try to determine which ones are likely to go to college instead of signing with a team. For now, there are only two reasons why the scouts pass over a prospect: age and high salary expectations. To everyone’s surprise, Billy orders the scouts to throw out all high school players.
Even though Billy has fired Grady from the Oakland A’s, his replacement, Erik, continues to favor gifted high school athletes over college ballplayers. In the past, Billy has discouraged his employees from drafting high schoolers, but it’s not until 2002 that he forbids the practice altogether. Most of the old scouts on Billy’s team take an intuitive approach to drafting, speaking in vague ineffable terms, such as “makeup.” Instead of complying with their approach, Billy orders a systematic rethinking of the drafting procedure.
After throwing out the players who are too old, too young, or too expensive, the scouts begin ranking everyone. They talk about a player named Nick Swisher, in whom Billy is very interested. Unusually, Billy has refrained from traveling to see Swisher’s games, for fear that doing so will raise Swisher’s profile and result in him signing with another team. Swisher is one of the only players who Paul, Billy, and the scouts agree is worth signing.
The discussion kicks off with an athlete so gifted that he appeals to both Paul and the old-fashioned scouts. (However, it’s likely that Paul and the old-fashioned scouts like Nick Swisher for different reasons: Paul because he has a good on-base average; the scouts because he has a high batting average).
The conversation turns to other players, and Billy begins to argue with his scouts. The scouts name strong, powerful players who, on paper, seem like great prospects. However, Billy picks apart the players’ chances, noting that “power hitters,” in spite of their strength, are rarely consistent. Billy then turns to a player named Mark Teahen, a college baseman. The scouts protest that Teahen’s name hasn’t come up once all year; however, Paul, looking at his computer, pulls up Teahen’s statistics, and finds that Teahen rarely hits home runs, but hits very consistently. Billy approves of Teahen and puts his name on the shortlist.
The key word in this passage is “consistent.” Billy’s team of talent scouts has been trained to favor prospects who make big impressive plays, catching the scouts’ eyes during their cross-country travels. Paul, on the other hand, favors athletes who are consistently good, even if they’re not the most impressive, glamorous players. Instead of basing his assessments on watching a few of a player’s games, Paul makes his decisions by analyzing the player’s entire sports record on his computer.
The next player is Jeremy Brown. The traditionally-minded scouts find it absurd that Billy is so interested in Brown, since Brown barely made the cut to be considered for drafting. However, Paul argues that Brown has had a huge number of walks in his career. Paul has spent years studying the relative importance of difference baseball statistics, and found that speed and fielding ability are hugely overvalued in drafting players. The most important statistics are relatively obscure ones, such as on-base percentage, pitches per plate, and walk speed, which do a better job of measuring a player’s overall contribution to the game. Unconvinced, the scouts point out that Brown is overweight and slow. Nevertheless, Billy listens to Paul and puts Brown at the top of his list.
In many ways, Jeremy Brown is Exhibit A for Paul and Billy’s new sabermetric approach to drafting players. Brown isn’t a particularly popular player, either with fans or with talent scouts—indeed, he’s barely made the cut for the draft. However, Brown is talented at getting walks (i.e., going to first base because the pitcher throws too many balls). Getting walks isn’t often considered the mark of a great ballplayer, but Paul values it for the simple reason that, impressive or not, it contributes to winning the game.
The disagreement between Paul and scouts exemplifies a basic disagreement in finding major league ballplayers. Scouts believe that finding great ballplayers involves traveling the U.S. and watching them play; Paul believes that it involves studying statistics. Paul prefers drafting college players to high school players because college players have more statistics, which give him a better sense of their ability. The scouts derisively refer to Paul’s method of scouting as “performance scouting”—assessing what a player will do based on what he’s already done. The scouts prefer to assess players based on their instincts about what the players might do.
The traditional scouts’ approach to drafting exhibits one of the most basic forms of human bias: the tendency to favor what one sees with one’s own eyes over the overall record. Thus, the scouts favor prospective ballplayers whose games they’ve personally seen. Paul, in spite of the scouts’ derision, is trying to practice performance scouting: in other words, he bases his assessments on a player’s overall performance, rather than a tiny sample that may or may not be representative of the player’s talent.
Billy and Paul assemble a list of eight college ballplayers, none of whom are particularly popular with the scouts. One of the scouts in the room that day, Bogie, has been scouting for fifty years. He remembers going to see Billy Beane play in 1980, when Beane was a young, promising high school player. At the time, Bogard was so impressed with Billy that he phoned his boss at the Houston Astros and told him that he’d found a better prospective player than Darryl Strawberry. Back in 2002, some of the other scouts ask Bogard which of the eight players on the board resembles a young Billy Beane. Bogard whispers back, “There is no Billy Beane. Not up there.” As GM of the A’s, Billy has ignored all the players who resemble his own young self.
Bogie’s observation encapsulates what Billy is trying to accomplish with the 2002 draft. Unlike most GMs, Billy knows first-hand why traditional scouting methods don’t always produce the best ballplayers: in fact, Billy’s failed career as a ballplayer proves that these methods sometimes fall short. Instead of hiring impressive, glamorous athletes who wow the scouts in a small handful of games, Billy and Paul will hire consistent, disciplined, relatively unimpressive players, who won’t always wow fans in individual games, but who’ll do well over the course of the entire season.