The catcher Scott Hatteberg’s “right hand still felt like it belonged to someone else.” After a bad accident, he could still play baseball, but his manager and GM thought that his value had gone down a lot: there was no use in employing a catcher who couldn’t throw well. After playing in the Red Sox, Hatteberg was traded to the Colorado Rockies, who offered him a mere half a million dollars a year, a fifty percent cut from his Red Sox salary, and granted him free agency (i.e., the ability to sign with another team). Then, to his surprise, the Oakland A’s offered him a one-year contract, and, after he signed it, began using him as a first baseman. Hatteberg was so confused that he asked his wife to help him practice his new position.
In large part, Chapter Eight is narrated from the perspective of Scott Hatteberg, one of the most unlikely stars of the A’s, Hatteberg has suffered a serious accident, and, as a result, his salary is cut back, since his GMs assume that he’s worn out most of his use. The A’s, on the other hand, think that Hatteberg is still enormously useful as a hitter—thus, they play him as a first baseman so that he’ll be able to hit, too. Hatteberg is amazed, since he’s never played first base.
With the Oakland A’s, Hatteberg worked with the infield coach, Ron Washington. Washington spent six weeks practicing with Hatteberg in Arizona and he didn’t tell Hatteberg, who needed a lot of work, how much derision he’d receive. His goal was to boost Hatteberg’s confidence.
Washington’s goal is to boost Hatteberg’s confidence to the point where he’ll at least be a competent first baseman, and thus he’ll be able to hit for the Oakland A’s. (Note that, as with other A’s players, Hatteberg has no idea that the A’s want him primarily for his hitting.)
As the A’s proceeded with the season, they seemed to get worse. In May, they lost to the Toronto Blue Jays, one of the worst teams in the league. In response, Billy Beane sent the big league’s starting first baseman, starting second baseman, and starting pitcher back to the minor leagues. Beane also traded Jeremy Giambi for a lackluster player, John Mabry. Afterwards, Scott Hatteberg became the starting first baseman for the A’s. He struggled with his new position; slowly, however, he became more comfortable, thanks to Washington’s encouragement. Hatteberg enjoyed talking to opposing players on first base—this helped him relax and enjoy himself.
Although sabermetrics can engineer a seemingly formidable team, the team isn’t invincible. Thus, Billy is forced to trade many of his players halfway through the season. However, as the season goes on, Hatteberg becomes a more confident player. One again, Lewis suggests that focus and optimism are almost as important for athletic success as physical ability.
What Hatteberg didn’t realize was that he’d only been acquired by the Oakland A’s because of his consistent hitting—the fact that he got used to his position as a first baseman was just a bonus. With the Red Sox, he got on base about twenty-five percent more often than the average player. He was also good at wearing out pitchers and avoiding strikeouts. Paul realized that the ideal hitter didn’t strike out, but also didn’t adjust his hitting style simply to avoid striking out. Most importantly, Paul realized, Hatteberg seemed to have no “hole” as a hitter—i.e., no area to which the pitcher could throw without Hatteberg being able to return the ball.
Hatteberg is another representative example of the sabermetric approach to baseball: although he isn’t much of a power hitter, he’s an extremely disciplined batter who never swings at bad balls. Hatteberg’s greatest asset is that he has no “hole”—in other words, it’s virtually impossible for the pitcher to throw something over the plate that Hatteberg’s can’t return. In all, Hatteberg is a strategic, consistent hitter—precisely what Paul wants for the A’s.
Hatteberg had always had an odd career as a ballplayer. He’d been underweight throughout high school, even though he was talented. He could always hit the ball, but he wasn’t a power hitter. He turned down a major league contract straight out of high school, but eventually signed with the Red Sox in 1991. There, Hatteberg learned the importance of keeping records of his batting in order to predict how the pitcher would throw.
In many ways, Hatteberg is the opposite of Billy Beane. Unlike Billy, he doesn’t accept a contract to play straight of high school, which suggests that he’s more psychologically disciplined than Billy was. With his extra years of college play, Hatteberg learns how to play strategically, sizing up pitchers and tailoring his hits accordingly.
In 1996, Hatteberg was in the big leagues for good; however, on the hyper-macho Red Sox, his greatest assets as a hitter (his caution, his consistency) were seen as liabilities. Some of his teammates regarded him as selfish or cowardly for taking so many walks. The Red Sox ignored Hatteberg’s knack for scoping out the strike zone and tailoring his swing to fit it. When Hatteberg arrived in Oakland, it was the first time in his career that his coaches admired his calm, intelligent approach to the game.
Even though Hatteberg’s slow, strategic approach to hitting was a major asset to his team, his teammates mocked and ridiculed him for never taking risks with his hits. On the Oakland A’s, Hatteberg’s caution and maturity were prized assets, which the coaches tried to encourage in Hatteberg and in other players.
One day in 2002, in the middle of a game with the Seattle Mariners, Hatteberg sits in the video room with Dan Feinstein, studying live footage of the game. Hatteberg notices footage of Jamie Moyer, the Mariners’ popular pitcher, throwing to the A’s hitters. He notes that Moyer, in spite of his popularity, isn’t particularly strong or fast—if he weren’t already on a team, he couldn’t even get drafted. However, Moyer makes up for his slow balls by pitching to his opponents’ weaknesses.
Just as Hatteberg’s strength as a hitter stems in large part from his strategic thinking and careful observations, Moyer’s strength as a pitcher stems largely from his intelligence and strategy, rather than his speed.
John Mabry walks into the room, and Hatteberg greets him. Michael Lewis notes that, for a nice stretch after the A’s acquired him, Mabry was batting .400. Nevertheless, Billy Beane refused to put Mabry in the regular lineup. Billy didn’t like that Mabry was needlessly aggressive with his hitting—he used Mabry in some games, but didn’t want to make him a full team member.
John Mabry represents the old style of hitting: aggressive, reckless, and imprecise. Billy Beane, who epitomized this style, has no patience for athletes like John, and consequently declines to include him in the lineup.
Mabry and Hatteberg watch the footage of Moyer, and agree that Moyer can’t throw fast but knows how to defeat hitters with shrewd, unpredictable strategy. Hatteberg notes that, in some ways, the best hitters are the stupidest, because they have no pattern to their swings—they “can’t even remember their last at bat.”
Moyer is a successful pitcher in part because he’s intelligent and knows how to read his opponents. However, as Hatteberg points out, there’s no correlation between intelligence and success in baseball—sometimes (though not always), the most successful players are unintelligent, and therefore have no problem focusing on the game.
Hatteberg goes out to hit against Moyer; in the end, he gets the only run of the game. In Hatteberg’s fourth at bat against Moyer, Moyer throws two strikes, then gets two balls. Moyer walks off the mound and tells Hatteberg, “Just tell me what you want and I’ll throw it.” On his next pitch, Moyer throws a change-up, but Hatteberg succeeds in hitting it. The hit ends up being an out. And yet this out is one of the most impressive hits in the entire game: Hatteberg quietly adapts to the pitcher’s strategy.
This short passage represents the kind of performance that traditional baseball statistics ignore, but which Paul, and Michael Lewis himself, celebrate. Hatteberg adjusts to Moyer’s pitch in a tiny fraction of a second, and manages to return the ball. Even though he gets out, his hit represents his agility as a hitter, which serves him well throughout his career.
Hatteberg finishes the season ranked first in the American League for not swinging at first pitches. This statistic may seem trivial, but it’s very important, because it reflects his self-control. Paul estimates that, in theory, if Hatteberg were the only batter for the Oakland A’s in 2002, he’d have scored 950 home runs—by contrast, the 2002 Yankees only scored 897. Hatteberg is the most consist player in major-league baseball, and, in some ways, the best offense.
Hatteberg isn’t a power hitter, meaning that he’s rarely thought of as one of the greatest hitters in the league. And yet, by any good mathematical measure, he is a phenomenal. It’s just that, unlike a lot of so-called great hitters, he exercises caution at bat, and uses walks to his advantage instead of swinging at everything.