Early in 2002, the Oakland A’s were playing the New York Yankees. Before their game, the A’s gathered in their tiny clubhouse—surely the “least charming real estate in professional baseball.” On the day of the game, Michael Lewis arrived at the Oakland clubhouse and found David Forst, one of Paul DePodesta’s assistants, and Dan Feinstein, who prepared videotapes for the A’s.
Most of the chapter revolves around a game between the Yankees and the A’s at the beginning of the 2002 season. Also, notice that Michael Lewis, in addition to being the author of the book, is something of a character in this chapter: he explores the A’s facilities and meets some of the employees in the clubhouse.
From Forst and Feinstein, Lewis learned about Paul’s personality. Paul didn’t drink, because alcohol killed brain cells. He played football at Harvard, but, unlike his teammates, he graduated with honors in economics. Later, he turned down an offer from the Toronto Blue Jays to become the youngest GM in baseball history. Paul was cautious and rational—he tried not to let greed or passion influence his decisions. The decision Paul was trying to answer at this point in 2002 was: “Why does it matter that we let Jason Giambi leave?”
Paul, unlike Billy isn’t temperamental or emotional about baseball. He’s intelligent and even nerdy, but he comes from a sports background, which makes it all the more surprising that he can remain so dispassionate about his team’s games. It’s interesting to contrast Paul’s decision to turn down the Blue Jays with Billy’s decision to sign with the Mets: the implication would seem to be that Paul is the calmer, more levelheaded of the two men.
Let’s return to where we were at the end of the last chapter. Leading up to the 2002 season, the Oakland A’s traded away three popular players, including their first baseman, Jason Giambi. Giambi was so talented that the A’s couldn’t find a good replacement; however, Billy Beane told his employees to focus on “recreating the aggregate” of Giambi, in other words, finding multiple players who had bits and pieces of Giambi’s statistical record (his walks, his hits, his on-base percentage, etc.). Billy and Paul tried to replace the aggregate on-base percentage of the three players they’d traded, .364, with a comparable figure from three new players. To their surprise, this was fairly easy: Major League Baseball didn’t place a lot of stock in on-base percentage, at least not in 2002.
The beauty of Paul’s statistical methods is that they allow him to replace individual athletes, such as Jason Giambi, with multiple athletes who, when put together, recreate the original athlete’s aggregate performance. Thus, like a Wall Street trader assembling derivatives, Paul assembles bits and pieces of Giambi’s statistical record until, for all intents and purposes, he’s recreated Giambi. From a fan’s perspective, Paul’s approach may be surprising or even shocking, since part of the charm of baseball is that the most talented athletes aren’t replaceable—they’re not just numbers who can be replicated with a few computer clicks.
The game between the Yankees and the Oakland A’s begins. Jeremy Giambi—Jason Giambi’s younger brother, who has played on the team for two years but given a bigger role to help replace his departed brother—stands in the outfield. A Yankee hits the ball toward him, and Jeremy runs after it, embarrassingly slowly. Paul watches the game on a TV screen, emotionless.
Paul isn’t emotionally invested in individual baseball games: his only concern is how the A’s perform over the course of the entire season. Thus, he’s not concerned or embarrassed when Jeremy Giambi performs badly.
The inning proceeds, and Jason Giambi, now a Yankee, steps up to plate. Oakland fans wave signs saying “Sellout,” expressing their fury that Giambi left Oakland. Giambi, a seventeen million-dollar-a-year hitter, stands against Oakland’s 237,500 dollar-a-year pitcher, Eric Hiljus. As Paul watches Hiljus, he notes that Hiljus isn’t pitching well. He doesn’t throw to the inside part of the plate, for fear that Giambi will be able to return the ball; instead, he throws to the center or the outside of the plate. Giambi hits the ball, and drives one of his teammates to home base. The Yankees hit four more runs.
It’s somewhat amusing that the fans criticize Giambi for being a sellout when, as we’ve already seen many times, Major League Baseball is all about the money: the goal of a team is to maximize profits by assembling the most economically efficient team possible. Lewis makes Hiljus’s pitching seem sloppy and uncontrolled, reflecting the overall incompetence of the A’s team tonight.
It’s Oakland’s turn to bat. Paul has kept a list of the probability that each hitter will hit at a ball outside the strike zone—a very bad move. Interestingly, the new players on the Oakland A’s are more disciplined than the returning players—they don’t give in to the temptation to hit a bad ball. The Yankee pitcher pitches efficiently, instead of wearing himself out at the beginning of the game, as Eric Hiljus has done.
One of the marks of a good player, in Paul’s estimation, is that they don’t hit at bad pitches. In other words, good hitters have to be disciplined, not just strong and fast. However, the passage suggests that most A’s hitters take irrational risks and swing at bad balls.
Michael Lewis watches David Justice hit for the A’s. Justice is talented, with more postseason hits than any player in history. At thirty-six, though, he’s past his prime, which is why the A’s were able to acquire him in a trade at the end of 2001. However, Justice is excellent at walks: he’s patient, and he doesn’t swing at bad pitches. Justice has no idea that Paul wanted him for the A’s because of his walk ability—“at no points were the lab rats informed of the details of the experiment.” The A’s score at the bottom of the third, bringing the score to 5-1.
Justice is representative of the A’s new management strategy. To the public, Justice is past his prime, but to Paul, Justice is a prized player, since he’s good at getting walks. Walks aren’t usually considered a sign of a talented player, but Paul sees them as an important part of moving the game forward and scoring more runs. It’s crucial to notice that even Justice himself doesn’t realize why the A’s acquired him—perhaps Paul is concerned that, if Justice found out he’d been recruited for his walks, he’d change his game.
Michael Lewis goes to talk to Billy Beane, who’s in the weight room. As he walks over, he realizes that Billy spends much more time with his players than the GMs of high-profile teams. In short, Billy “runs the whole show” in a way that most GMs never do. He communicates constantly with his Big-League manager, Art Howe, giving him specific instructions about how to control the players and plan out the game. Some players dislike Billy’s propensity for micromanaging, but others think that he’s making the team considerably better by doing so.
Billy Beane opts for an unusually personal style of management: he controls the manager of his big-league team, and he spends a lot of time with the players, perhaps reflecting his personal experience with pro ball. One reason why sabermetrics hasn’t caught on in 2002 is that, in the past, GMs of the A’s who favored a sabermetric approach left matters to their subordinates. Billy has the knowledge but also the managing style necessary to make sabermetrics an important part of the A’s team.
In the fourth inning, Michael Lewis finds Billy Beane, who, as usual, has been tuning in to the game in brief, nervous snatches. To distract himself, Billy makes small-talk with Michael about the Bastille in France. Abruptly, he walks away, and drives home. Meanwhile, the A’s get up to bat. Miguel Tejada, a hitter for the A’s, gets a run and brings the score up to 5-3. Two innings later, David Justice gets a walk, and then runs to home, bringing the score to 5-4. Later, Jeremy Giambi gets another walk, and then brings the score to 5-5. The crowd goes wild: they can sense that David is matching Goliath.
You can tell a lot about Billy Beane’s personality from the way he listens to A’s games. Although Major League Baseball rules forbid him from being on the field during team play, Billy listens to the game over the radio, but only a few seconds at a time. It’s as if Billy can’t bear to listen to the game, but can’t bear not to listen, either, stressing his conflicted relationship with the sport. Meanwhile, the A’s recover from their earlier setbacks, proving that the Yankees’ massive economic advantage doesn't necessarily give them a massive advantage on the field.
The Yankees are up to bat, and Michael Lewis goes back to watch the game on TV with Paul. The A’s pitcher, Jim Mecir, limps up to the pitcher’s mound, and Paul explains that Mecir has a clubfoot. Strangely, Mecir’s foot gives his pitch a ruthless efficiency against left-handed hitters. With five pitches, he stops Jason Giambi from getting a hit. However, the umpire calls his last pitch (which was clearly on the inside corner of the plate) a ball. Even Paul becomes angry with this bad call. On his next pitch, Giambi gets a hit, and ends up scoring two runs. The A’s fail to score again, and the Yankees win.
Like many A’s big-league ballplayers, Jim Mecir doesn’t look like an athlete at all. However, once one gets over popular biases, it becomes clear that he’s a formidable pitcher. In the end, however, even Mecir is not match for a bad umpire. The umpire’s call is so poor that even the stoic, unflappable Paul becomes furious: a single unlucky call effectively loses the game for the A’s, suggesting that sabermetrics can’t entirely remove random chance from the equation, at least not for individual games.
After the game, Scott Hatteberg walks into the clubhouse and asks to see the videotape of the game. Hatteberg is the third “defective part” Paul assembled to replace Jason Giambi—he can’t throw, which made him very cheap, but he had discipline at the plate and could always get on base. Hatteberg was, in short, a testament to the short-sightedness of Major League Baseball: a useful, unglamorous, undervalued player. Paul’s only question was where to put Hatteberg—in order to qualify as a designated hitter, what position should he play in the field?
In the following chapter, Lewis will discuss the strange career of Scott Hatteberg. For now, however, he emphasizes Hatteberg’s unlikely talents—in particular, his ability to get on base, no matter how ungracefully.