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Saturday, March 20, 2004

How "Moneyball" Got it Wrong -- Revisiting Grady Fuson's 2001 Draft 

In Michael Lewis's ubiquitous book "Moneyball", there is an infamous anecdote about Billy Beane throwing a chair through a wall, supposedly because Farm Director Grady Fuson (now the Rangers' Assistant G.M. and John Hart's heir apparent) chose Jeremy Bonderman with a first round pick. Lewis characterized the draft as an "expensive disaster" that supposedly cost Fuson his job, and led to Beane taking over the drafting process in 2002 and implementing his own methodology. This, Lewis seemed to imply, was the future of scouting, and with their plethora of first rounders in 2002 (the A's received six extra picks for losing free agents Jason Giambi, Jason Isringhausen, and Johnny Damon), Oakland would help correct the mistakes Lewis assured us were made by Fuson in 2001.

A year after the book came out, though, one can gauge each of these two drafts a little better...and it is beginning to look as if the 2002 draft, even with all the bonus high choices, isn't measuring up to Fuson's much-maligned 2001 draft.

Oakland had two first round choices in the 2001 draft, along with a compensatory "sandwich" pick between the first and second rounds. They were used to select Bobby Crosby, Jeremy Bonderman, and John Rheinecker.

Crosby is stepping in at shortstop this year for the departed Miguel Tejada after posting a .308/.398/.544 line at AAA Sacramento last year; Baseball America named him the #1 prospect in the Oakland organization, and the #32 prospect in all of baseball (coincidentally, the same spot Colby Lewis held coming into 2003). Crosby is a solid, if unspectacular, defensive shortstop with plate discipline and power, a guy who can step in right now and should be a terrific player, if not a superstar, for the next dozen years. Even Lewis would probably have to admit that they hit with him.

Bonderman was dealt to the Tigers in 2002 in a three-way deal also involving New York. The trade appears to have simply been a way for Beane to get rid of some guys he no longer wanted, as he packaged Bonderman, relief prospect Franklyn German, and the recently acquired Carlos Pena (who had been picked up from Texas, given the starting first base job, alienated the brass, and sent to AAA in the span of just a couple of months) for Yankees prospects Jason Arnold and John-Ford Griffin (who were later sent to Toronto in a four-way deal that brought Erubiel Durazo to Oakland) and the ever-tempting, but never quite delivering, Ted Lilly (who was sent to, yes, Toronto, for Bobby Kielty this offseason). Beane was apparently unhappy that Fuson had picked Bonderman -- a high school junior -- and wanted to get him out of town while his value was still high.

Bonderman quickly impressed in Detroit, and was the Tigers' #1 prospect (#20 overall) according to Baseball America at the start of 2003. Despite being barely 20 years old, he was, in a bizarre move by Detroit, inserted in the Tiger rotation from the beginning of the year, and struggled. Nevertheless, he has impressed those who have seen him, and the statheads extraordinaire at Baseball Prospectus still project him to be a quality starting pitcher during the projectable period of their PECOTA system -- which still only gets him to age 25, the age when pitchers are generally just starting to enter their prime. Despite his struggles, he is still viewed as being one of the most promising young pitchers in the game, a pitcher with true ace potential who is viewed as the anchor of the rotation for the next good Detroit team. Beane's tantrum notwithstanding, Bonderman, at this point, looks like a pretty good selection...especially since, of the players selected after Bonderman in the first three rounds, only a handful -- Jesse Foppert, Dan Haren, Jeff Mathis, J.J. Hardy, Dallas McPherson, and Neal Cotts -- are anywhere close to Bonderman in terms of value.

Rheinecker, a college pitcher with a reputation for having good "pitchability" (a trait Fuson searches for), was the sandwich pick. He was one of the A's top prospects coming into 2003, but took a step backwards, putting up mediocre numbers in AA Midland and leading observers to question whether he has the "stuff" to get batters out on the major league level. Nevertheless, he'll be in the rotation for AAA Sacramento this year, and still is on the board as a prospect.

What about the rest of the draft, after the first round? Well, in the second round, Fuson grabbed one of the players I mentioned above as being in the same league as Bonderman -- Neal Cotts, a lefthander out of Illinois State University. Cotts was a throw-in for the White Sox in the deal that brought Keith Foulke to Oakland, and has become one of Chicago's top prospects, a guy who dominated at AA Birmingham last season, but got knocked around in four starts (lasting a total of just 13 1/3 innings) with the big club. Still, his AA stats (108 1/3 IP, 133 strikeouts, 67 hits, and only 2 homers allowed, albeit with 56 walks) are as electrifying as you'll see, and he came in as the ChiSox's #3 prospect for 2004.

The 2001 draft also garnered the A's Dan Johnson, a lefty first baseman who BA ranks as their #3 prospect; Mike Wood, a righthanded sinkerballer who posted a 3.06 ERA in Sacramento last year; and Chris Mabeus, who, after a couple of unimpressive seasons, took a huge step forward in 2003 with impressive bullpen work, and was selected by the Rangers in the Rule 5 draft.

A pretty nice haul for an "expensive disaster", no?

Meanwhile, the 2002 "Moneyball" draft that was supposed to revolutionize baseball has been a disappointment. Stathead and BP author David Cameron wrote a scathing critique of the Big Seven first round selections early last year, and much of what he says still holds true. While Joe Blanton has been terrific, putting up incredible numbers in low-A Kane County for most of 2003 before a late season promotion to Midland (where he did even better), the rest have been much less inspiring.

Nick Swisher, the first player Oakland took in the 2002 draft, hit well in A-ball but struggled badly when he was promoted to AA, posting a .230/.330/.380 line in 287 ABs at Midland. He's still well thought of (he and Blanton, at #2 and #6, were the only two Moneyball draftees to crack BA's top 10 for the organization), but doesn't project as a star, and can't handle centerfield defensively...as a major leaguer, if he pans out, he would seem to project very similarly to Oakland's offseason acquisitions Bobby Kielty and Mark Kotsay (albeit without Kotsay's defense in center).

Jeremy Brown, the catcher whose physique prompted Beane's famous "we're not selling jeans comments", also struggled at AA Midland. He hit .275 with a ton of walks, posting a .388 OBP, but his power disappeared, as Brown posted just a .391 slugging percentage. Brown's season ended prematurely with a thumb injury, but even before the injury, he had a ton of skeptics, and even the statheads at BP admit in their new book that "Brown's performance hasn't lived up to the hype". The big question is on Brown's defense, as the consensus seems to be that those inside the Oakland organization like it, and those outside the organization don't. If he can handle catching on a major league level, he'll probably have some sort of a career, and will likely be a decent starter, since he'll draw enough walks to keep his OBP high enough to be valuable. If he can't, though, he's pretty much useless as a player.

The other four draft picks are barely on the prospect radar at this point. John McCurdy has no real position, and has posted two straight seasons with a sub-.700 OPS in short-season A and low-A. Mark Teahen posted a .283/.377/.380 line in high-A Modesto, after putting up a .239/.307/.299 line in Modesto in 2002, with a total of 4 homers in almost 700 ABs in the California League over the past two years. Teahen's defense is purportedly very good, but if he doesn't start showing some power soon, his future is quite limited. Ben Fritz, a righthander out of Fresno State, posted an ERA of almost 5 at Modesto, and although he averaged a strikeout per inning, his walk rate is way too high, and he is starting to look like more of a relief prospect (which Beane has no use for anyway). Steve Obenchain, the final Moneyball pick, was hurt for much of last year, and split time between low-A and high-A. He posted a 2.57 ERA for Kane County, but a 5.15 ERA at Modesto, and his peripherals were unimpressive in both places.

As for the rest of the draft, Steve Stanley, a 2nd round pick as a senior outfielder out of Notre Dame, spent the whole season in Midland but posted just a 700 OPS, and his ceiling appears to be as a 4th outfielder. Bill Murphy, their 3rd rounder from Cal State Northridge, was shipped to Florida as part of the deal to obtain Mark Redman, and is a fringe prospect at this point, showing potential at Kane County after a rough 2002 season in the Northwest League, but then regressing when the A's jumped him to AA. John Baker, another catcher, is similar to Murphy, putting up good numbers at Kane County before putting up just a 596 OPS in 43 games in AA. Shane Komine appeared on a few lists as a guy to watch after posting nice ERAs in Kane County and Midland in 2003, but his peripherals were uninspiring, and he still looks like a longshot to have a career.

So what's the upshot of all this? Despite 7 first round picks, only one Moneyball choice, Joe Blanton, appears to be a home run...and you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who would take him above 2001 draftees Bobby Crosby and Jeremy Bonderman. There are other intriguing players in the Moneyball draft, but other than possibly Swisher, none of them would be taken ahead of 2001 draftees Neal Cotts and Dan Johnson...

Michael Lewis has said that he is going to write another book, following the progress of the Moneyball draft picks. Someone might suggest to him, though, that it might be more worthwhile to follow the "expensive disasters" of the 2001 draft...it is starting to look like they are going to end up being the better players after all.


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