Few people would think that intellectuals have played a strong role in the history of baseball, because baseball is so clearly a game of action. It wasn’t until the late nineties that a “man of action” applied intellectuals’ ideas to the sport. In 1997, Billy Beane had become GM of the Oakland A’s, and he’d read a lot of Bill James. He agreed with James’s argument that college players were a far better investment than high school players, and his assistant, Paul DePodesta, had made a statistical study of the matter and concluded more or less the same thing.
In part, the reason that Major League Baseball finally embraced sabermetrics was that Billy Beane, the GM of the Oakland A’s, had seen first-hand why traditional baseball management methods didn’t work out. Billy knew better than most why drafting players straight out of high school was often a mistake, and, therefore, why a more measured, statistical approach might be preferable.
On the morning of the amateur draft, Billy Beane contemplates some of the unlikely players that he and Paul have identified. One, a lightweight center field named Steve Stanley, is so unimpressive-looking that no scouts have bothered to list him as a prospect, despite the fact that he’s extremely talented. Privately, Billy has negotiated with Stanley, assuring him that he’ll sign him for 200,000 dollars. In public, Billy has tried to give other GMs the impression that he’s recruiting people like Stanley because the A’s are strapped for cash, but in secret, Billy wants players like Stanley because they’re better.
We’re back in 2002, on draft day, and Billy is implementing a draft policy based largely on the ideas of Paul DePodesta and Bill James. In economic terms, Billy has discovered a hole in the market: he’s discovered that certain players, such as the lightweight, uncharismatic Steve Stanley, are undervalued by the baseball establishment. By recruiting lots of players like Stanley, Billy can not only win more games but also save a fortune.
One of Billy’s other scouts has told Billy about a promising but overweight fielder named Jeremy Brown. Brown has been so unpopular with scouts that when the A’s called him with a first-round offer, Brown assumed his roommate was prank calling him. The A’s scouts have told Brown that he can sign with the Oakland A’s, on the condition that he lose weight. Billy is also interested in signing a player named Nick Swisher, whom both he and the scouts admire.
Like Steve Stanley, Jeremy Brown doesn’t look the part of a pro athlete: he’s overweight and generally uncharismatic. However, Billy doesn’t only draft people like Jeremy and Steve; he also drafts conventionally talented players like Swisher, suggesting that there’s some overlap between Paul’s sabermetric approach and the old-fashioned approach of the talent scouts.
Billy Beane gets a call from another GM, J. P. Ricciardi, of the Blue Jays, telling him that a top prospect, the high school pitcher Denard Span, has refused to sign with anyone for less than 2.6 million dollars. Now, nobody is going to sign Denard. Billy realizes what this means: the Colorado Rockies are going to take a different pitcher, which in turn means that the Mets are going to take Nick Swisher before the A’s get a chance to claim him. Billy is furious—draft day is either the best or the worst day of his year, and in 2002, it appears to be the worst. As Billy shouts expletives, Paul mutters, “I think Swisher will get to us, but I’m not going to say that right now.”
In order to be an effective GM, Billy Beane needs to reach decisions by first calculating what the other GMs will do. Although Billy is trying to institute a scientific, rational approach to A’s management, he’s still a temperamental, emotionally volatile man, unlike the calmer, more self-controlled Paul DePodesta.
Moments later, Billy calls Steve Phillips of the Mets and asks him about Swisher. Phillips tells Billy that he’s not prioritizing Swisher; instead, he’s probably going to take a high school pitcher “in whom the A’s haven’t the slightest interest.” Encouraged, Billy realizes that he might get Swisher after all. He starts doing the math with Paul: there’s a chance that the Detroit Tigers, who are ahead of the A’s in the draft, will choose a sentimental favorite, Prince Fielder, the son of a former Tigers player. This would mean that the Mets would get a shot at one of their top draft picks, and that the A’s might therefore get a shot at Swisher. As Billy and the rest of his team talk, the draft officially begins.
While Billy and Paul work together to institute a new, scientific approach, the other teams in Major League Baseball use the same strategies they’ve used for decades—e.g., drafting high schoolers. Billy continues calculating what the other GMs will do so that he can have a better idea of which players will still be available to him when it’s his turn to make selections.
Billy Beane examines the list he’s put together: eight pitchers and twelve position players. His list expresses “a new view of amateur players,” and includes many athletes in whom other scouts have no interest. However, some athletes on the list are conventionally talented. Two of these, Robert Brownlie and Jeremy Guthrie, both pitchers, are represented by a notoriously savvy agent named Scott Boras. In all likelihood, Billy won’t be able to afford athletes represented by Boras—he needs to save money.
Billy’s list symbolizes the solution that he and Paul have devised to the problem of Oakland’s limited resources. With a relatively small budget, Billy and Paul have found a way to draft spectacular, unknown talent, for virtually nothing. Oakland has no choice but to adopt such a strategy, since most sought-after players, such as Brownlie and Guthrie, are expensive.
The draft begins with the Pittsburgh Pirates making the first pick of the season: four million on an Indiana pitcher. The next five teams all choose high school players, whom the A’s didn’t want, anyway. It’s strange that the teams with the privilege of choosing first in the draft gamble on high schoolers that, historically, have a high chance of failing to live up to their potential. Billy and Paul aren’t reckless gamblers anymore: they’re shrewd card-counters.
It’s another sign of the traditionalism of baseball that major league franchises continue using the same strategies that have brought them mixed success in the past. Thus, teams continue drafting high school athletes, despite the high probability that, like Billy, they’ll fail to live up to their potential.
The other teams make their picks: Milwaukee takes Prince Fielder, meaning that the Mets take Scott Kazmir, a player they’ve been eyeing for a long time, meaning that the Oakland A’s get to pick Nick Swisher. For the next rounds of the draft pick, Billy consults frequently with Paul and Erik. To their amazement, nobody takes Joe Blanton, another talented pitcher; as a result, the A’s claim Blanton and Benjamin Fritz, a pitcher who, according to Paul’s computer, is one of the best in the country.
Paul is vindicated: just as he predicted, the A’s get a shot at Swisher. He’s further vindicated when the A’s get a shot at two other promising athletes, Blanton and Fritz. In 2002, Paul’s methods for identifying top prospects is so radical that none of the other teams have bothered to target either Blanton or Fritz—they’re still using old, unreliable methods.
For Billy’s next choice, he selects Jeremy Brown—a choice which will make him a laughingstock. For the rest of the morning, the A’s acquire most of the players from their wish list. Paul is especially proud of picking a first baseman named Brant Colamarino, who “might be the best hitter in the country,” even though none of the scouts know it. Colamarino, like many of the A’s picks, is large and uncharismatic, but he excels in the statistics that Paul has identified.
Many of the Oakland A’s picks, including Brown and Colamarino, don’t look like conventional athletes. However, Paul’s research suggests that looks aren’t an accurate reflection of athletic talent. Thus might suggest another major problem with traditional scouting methods; in their limited time, scouts are more likely to judge a book by its cover rather than delve into the details.
In all, the A’s succeed in acquiring thirteen of the players on their wish list—most teams would be glad to snag even three or four. Though few realize it at the time, the A’s new strategy will change the way baseball is played. Billy Beane is, in any ways, ideally positioned to change baseball: he’s seen, first-hand, the inadequacy of traditional scouting methods, and he seems set on finding players who are unlike him.
The fact that the A’s acquire so many of their top picks during the draft suggests that Paul’s sabermetric strategy is still new. Billy takes a chance on Paul because he knows from personal experience that drafting high school athletes, as the other teams have been doing, is often a recipe for disaster.
After the draft is over, one of Billy’s scouts tells him that Mike Kriger, shortstop for the University of Florida, who’d previously been told he was too small to play pro ball, has asked the scout to thank Billy. In all, draft day 2002 will be one of the happiest days of Billy’s career. Most of his scouts leave him soon afterwards, convinced—rightly so—that Billy is no longer listening to their opinions. The scouts have no idea that Billy is about to fire a “missile at the conventional wisdom of major league baseball.”
Billy’s decision-making on draft day reflects his lack of interest in his talent scouts’ advice, and as a result, his scouts leave him soon afterwards. For the rest of 2002, Billy continues to prefer a sabermetric approach to the old-fashioned, biased approach: he acquires and favors athletes with good stats, rather than traditional talent and glamor.