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Keeping an eye on Chaim, Raffy & a few good books

Archive for February, 2011

Simple & Sweet Truths in Moneyball

Posted by athomeatfenway on February 25, 2011

I am not sure how I could have read 105 baseball books in the last 7 years and never read Moneyball, Michael Lewis’s remarkable 2002 book about Billy Beane and the re-invention  of player evaluation and team operation.

Now comes the news that Brad Pitt, Jonah Hill and Phillip Seymour Hoffman will be seen in the film version of Moneyball, scheduled for release in September.  That’s an eye popping cast.

I’ll stick with the book in this post.  We’ll review the movie later.

The book was riveting.  The book was old news.  I’ll spare you the synopsis and share my favorite lessons and nuggets.  My comments are in bold.


 Sports Illustrated had a journalistic co-venture with the Mets for the 1980 draft.  Simply put, S.I. would write extensively about whomever the Mets would make their #1 Draft Pick.  Sports Illustrated told GM Frank Cashen that they’d like it if the Metropolitans picked Darryl Strawberry, a gifted and impoverished city kid who had no idea he was about to become rich and famous.  Though Darryl was high on their list, he was not the Mets first choice until after S.I. made the request.  The Mets were concerned about the inflationary effect the publicity could have on Straw’s asking price.  In the end, the Mets took the  benefit of the P.R. over money concerns. 

So, without S.I., Darryl could have gone to the Indians at #2, and quietly developed in the relative calm of Cleveland, perhaps staying out of the NYC fast lane that derailed a HOF career.   And the Mets might have ended up with the best college player in America, Terry Francona, or Kelly Gruber, Jim Acker, or a number of other possibilities.


Sandy Alderson is the shepherd of O.B.P..  He commissioned baseball writer & former aerospace engineer Eric Walker to explore the relative value of all baseball statistics.  To paraphrase Walker:  Of all the many number in Baseball, the number 3 is by far the most critical because 3 outs define an inning.  Until the 3rd out is made, anything is possible; after it, nothing is possible.  Anything that increases the offense’s chance of making an out is bad.  Anything that decreases it is good.  So by definition, O.B.P. is the probability that the batter will not make an out.  It becomes crystal clear that the most important batting stat is O.B.P.. 

That paraphrase is sweet and lyrical.  We don’t understand the magic that makes 60’6” perfect, that makes 90’ between bases un-improvable, or why the number 3 is divine.  That’s baseball.  The perfect game.


Bill James was the night watchman at a Van Kamp’s Pork & Bean factory in Lawrence, Kansas  before he was a success.  The perfect job for an introvert devoted to the analysis of box scores.  Before James decided to self-publish, the odd pages of his research, a page on stolen base study here,  a page of pitching data there,  would come to rest with many others in old Van Kamp’s boxes in James’ basement before he found his audience.

In the yet to be made film version of Bill James life, I see the Van Kamp’s box as the Rosebud shot.  The camera focuses on the box in the basement as snow falls gently on Lawrence as seen through the cellar window.  There is a knock at the door.  James lets in the Publisher’s representative who hands him a fat check.


When I met James at a Boston S.A.B.R. Regional two years ago, he autographed my copy of his HOF book.  Should have had him sign a can of Van Kamp’s.


A 1954 Life Magazine contains an article by Branch Rickey, ghosted by professional statistician Alan Roth, that argues for O.B.P. and SLUGGING as more important success indicators than B.A..

Rickey was a flat out GENIUS.


Bill James was not an overnight success.  He sold 40 photocopied BJ annuals his first year, and 77 the second.  Even in those lean years, he had an eccentric and bright following that included author Dan Okrent, novelist Norman Mailer, screenwriter William Goldman and the guy who play Squiggy on Laverne & Shirley (actor David Lander).

This is why I read.  I want to learn the impossible, the incredible, the unlikely.  According to Wiki, David L. Lander is an actor, comedian, composer, musician and baseball scout.  His baseball related acting experience includes the role of a broadcaster in “A League of Their Own”.  A Pirates fan, Lander owns a small stake in the Portland Beavers.  He is currently a scout for the Seattle Mariners, having scouted previously for the AngelsAnd he was onto the Jamesian revolution before almost everyone else, cutting James’ 1 inch ad out of The Sporting News and mailing the check to Kansas.


Speaking of eccentric, we already knew Dan Duquette was off-center.  So it is not a huge shocker when Lewis reveals that Duquette relied on a quirky Brooklyn guy when making player decisions, a man named Mike Gimble.  Gimble was a Queens College drop-out, a self taught computer programmer and a rotisserie baseball addict.  Gimble’s loft was once raided by the cops because of the 6 pet alligators, 5 turtles and 1 iguana that kept him company while he was not working his day job at the new York Water Authority.

Duquette will never get his due for sending Heathcliffe Slocomb to Seattle for Veritek & Lowe.  Or for acquiring Manny.  Without the Duke, the Idiots do not end 86 years of tears.  God bless you, Dan.  And God Bless Mike Gimble, too.


All fans really care about is winning. Win with nobodies and the fans will show up and the nobodies will become stars.  Lose with stars and the fans will stay home and the stars will become nobodies.  Assembling nobodies into a ruthlessly efficient machine for winning baseball games and watching them become stars is one of the pleasures of running a poor baseball team.

That’s a thing of beauty, no ?


Superior management can still run circles around taller piles of cash.

If this isn’t the essence, the mantra, the mojo of Moneyball, than I somehow missed the point.


How fungible are baseball players ?  A lot more fungible than the people who run baseball teams believe.  Finding pitchers who can become successful closers isn’t all that difficult.  Billy Beane made “selling the closer” into an art.  Building up a closer’s reputation, getting them positioned to record 30 saves, then selling or trading them, or better yet, getting multiple draft picks for them when they left via free agent.

Fungible:  being of such nature or kind as to be freely exchangeable or replaceable, in whole or in part, for another of like nature or kind.  Am I the only one who had to look that up ?


Reflecting upon how most other major leaguers are not hell bent on a patient approach, Hatteberg kidded himself quietly that Stupidity must be an asset.  If you have no plan at the plate, pitchers can’t set you up.  You have no performance pattern.  Some of the best hitters in the major leagues are the dumbest.

Hatteberg believed he would never made it if he had been a guy who just went up and took his cuts.

That observation applies to many of my favorite players.  As Johnny Damon said in his book, IDIOT, he just goes up there and hits what looks good.


Paul DePodesta had a novel method of analyzing a player’s plate ability.  At the end of a season, he  calculated how many total runs the A’s would have scored had every at bat by an A’s player been performed by one particular hitter.  In other words, what would the outcome be if the A’s lineup was made up of 9 Scott Hattebergs.

Based on Hatte’s 2002 stats, the A’s would have scored 950 runs had he batted every at bat.  The same number as 9 Miguel Tedjada’s or 9 Eric Chavez’s.  And it is 60 runs more than the New York Yankees actually scored in 2002.

OK, ok, I get it.  Walks, homers, and O.B.P.


Billy Beane:  “John Mabry ?  I like the guy.”  Said Billy about the free swinging outfielder who always got in his cuts in at the plate.  “But someday Tattoo is going to show up and take him off the Island.”

The A’s let Mabry sign with Seattle at the end of the season.

Free swinging is an ancient art.  Think Manny Sanguillen.  Kind of sad to see Mabry booted.


“Players can’t be taught discipline.  Actually, it is possible, but you’d have to start when they’re in diapers.

Universal truth.


The Moneyball philosophy was successful.   The A’s winning over 100 games in consecutive years on a $40 million annual salary budget.  With that in mind, John Henry intended to make over the Red Sox shortly after purchasing that team in 2002.  He hired Bill James, and famed SABRmetrician Voros McCracken.   He targeted Billy Beane to be the next Boston G.M.. and succeeded in gaining an agreement in substance with Billy on a 5 year contract for $12.5 million.

During a short period in which Billy had agreed to join Henry, he thought out some obvious changes.  Beane planned to trade away Shea Hillenbrand.  He would sign Edgar Alfonzo to play 2nd base and Bill Mueller to play 3rd.  He would ship out Jason Veritek, acquire White Sox back-up catcher Mark Johnson, and forever banish Manny Ramirez to non-fielding duties as the permanent D.H..

The deal was done.  The Red Sox had agreed to give Kevin Youkilis to the A’s in compensation for allowing Beane to be hired away.

But Billy had a change of heart.  He did not sign the contract.  Youk stayed in Boston and most of the other changes never happened.

It had all come down to money for Billy.  If he was to leave Oakland it was going to be for the $12.5 million.  In his heart of hearts, he couldn’t do it just for the money.  So he stayed.

Just imagine what competitive havoc Billy Beane would have created were he backed up by a free spending owner like John Henry.


Billy Beane had changed the lives of Baseball players who would have otherwise gone unnoticed.  And now those players were busy returning the favor.


Go with it.




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It’s Kemba, & 4 guys who can play

Posted by athomeatfenway on February 20, 2011


The ball is in good hands, now and next year.


Traveling on a train from New York to New Haven, I remarked to my boss that the current UConn Men are easy to like.  They have talented freshman that are not so talented that they will jump to the NBA after Junior year, but they are developing steadily into a gang of plucky defenders that can score.

To wit, my boss inquired, “How many times has UConn won this year when Kemba Walker did NOT score 25 points ?”

“I don’t know.”,  I said.  But I’m going to find out.

UConn is a one trick pony.   

That has been the coda from the chorus all year long.  UConn, say the critics, is Kemba Walker and four other guys.

The last 16 games indicate that the chorus is off key.

 UConn has gone 10 – 6 in 16 games since beginning the Big East schedule against Pitt on the road.  (Two of those games were against non-conference foes Texas and Tennessee.)

Kemba scored less than 25 points in 13 of those 16 games, and UConn won 8 of the 13.

My boss’s selection of the number 25 for Kemba points is a fitting number.  25 points in a D-1 game is iconic.  A player who has scored 25 points has had his way with the opponent. 

With Kemba’s reputation for scoring 30 points in a game, it may surprise that he did not score 25 points 75% of the time.  True.

In fact, Kemba did not score 20 points 50% of the time.  He scored 16 or less 25 % of the time.

Although he did score 30 in some UConn wins, like Georgetown & DePaul, he didn’t do it alone.

Freshman Shabazz Napier, lightening fast guard from Randolph, Mass., is the first player off the bench every game.  He will dribble one off his foot or throw a pass away, but he also brings instant offense and pushes the ball.  He scored 18 against Notre Dame, 15 against Texas, 11 vs. Marquette and 23 vs. Louisville.

Jeremy Lamb, another Freshman, is a 6’ 5” stick figure with a sweet jumper that does not fall when he gets rattled.  He poured in 24, 21 and 22 points in the middle of 8 consecutive games in which he averaged 16 and scored no less than 10.

Also Class of 2014, Roscoe Smith, the 6’ 8” 205 pound forward out of Baltimore has flashed offense in spurts with 11 vs. Notre Dame, 13 vs. Texas, 12 vs. Tenn., 11 against Marquette, and 16 against the Johnnies.  He has disappeared against other teams, scoring 0, 2 or 3 points four different times.

These three Freshmen are essential to UConn’s success.  Without them, the Huskies don’t get to the Big Dance.  Without them, they don’t even have a winning record.

The 3 Freshmen are no more alone in creating success than is Kemba.  Alex Oriaki has scored in double digits 9 times.  Coombs-McDaniel scored 48 total points in two straight games vs. Providence & Georgetown.

UConn is a team with 6 guys who score in double digits.

It’s a team from which freshmen and role players emerge to share the scoring responsibility.

It’s a young team that makes mistakes, becomes intimidated, and sometimes shrinks.

Overall, they do not give up.  These young guys are blue collar.  Calhoun’s kind of players.

They will learn to close the deal.

They may reach the Sweet Sixteen.

They should win a game in the BE Tournament, their first since 2005.

And they should continue to be easy to like  — right through graduation in 2014.

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