Baseball’s Hegelian Dialectic

“The first to present his case seems right, till another comes forward and questions him.” – Proverbs 18:17

The German philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel (1770-1831) is credited with developing an analysis of historical and philosophical progress commonly called the Hegelian Dialectic. In its short form Hegel proposed that progress occurs through three fundamental steps:

  • Thesis—an intellectual proposition
  • Antithesis—a negation of the thesis
  • Synthesis—the resolution of the conflict between the thesis and antithesis through an understanding of their common truths leading to a new proposition
  • While I can’t speak to the dialectic’s application in the fields of history and philosophy, it does seem to me that we’re approaching the synthesis step in the ongoing debate between scouts and stats. The thesis was proposed by Michael Lewis in Moneyball in the spring of 2003, and now the antithesis has emerged in a cohesive form in the book Scout’s Honor: The Bravest Way to Build a Winning Team by Bill Shanks. For those who haven’t read the book yet I’ll give you an overview and then discuss both the differences and the possible synthesis between these two views. You’ll also find a previous review by JC Bradbury that is very insightful.

    Scout’s Honor in a Nutshell

    Shanks produced and hosted a weekly television show called “The Braves Show” from 2001 to 2004. The show concentrated on the Braves’ minor-league system, so Shanks became intimately acquainted with the methodology the Braves have employed in player development. As Shanks says in the preface, once he read Moneyball, he was so struck by the differences between what he read of the A’s philosophy and what he knew of the Braves’ philosophy that he realized the story of “scouting versus bean-counting” had to be told.

    And to tell that story the book is broken into roughly four major sections. (These are my divisions, not the author’s).

    In the first section, which includes chapters one and two, Shanks recounts the success of the Braves in 2004 after cutting their payroll by 20% and the role rookie Adam LaRoche played in it. The book emphasizes that they are an “old school organization” that, along with pitching, pitching, pitching, emphasizes what the scouts simply call “makeup”, a somewhat elusive concept that encapsulates the character of a ballplayer.

    I lump chapters three through 15 into a second section, where Shanks gives an account of the Braves’ connections with the other organizations and the continuity within the Braves organization that led to the development of what he calls “The Braves Way.” That “blueprint,” as Shanks calls it, included:

    1. Draft as many high school pitchers as possible.
    2. Have more tryout camps to find more players.
    3. Be patient with the pitchers.
    4. Hire more scouts, instructors and coaches.
    5. Get pitchers in every trade.
    6. Stay away from free agents.
    7. If a season or two has to be sacrificed, so be it. Don’t forget the long-term goals.
    8. Don’t change the plan.

    In regards to the first item on the list and in direct opposition to what Shanks perceives as the Moneyball philosophy he says:

    The emphasis was placed on high school pitchers. [Braves manager Bobby] Cox and [scouting director Paul] Snyder wanted to get young arms that had not been damaged by overwork in college and allow them to get the appropriate innings so they would develop fully.

    This, as Shanks sees it, is the antithesis to Moneyball that has allowed the Braves to win 13 consecutive division titles and vie for another this season.

    In chapters 15 through 21 Shanks moves ahead to the recent past and includes a series of interesting character studies of Marcus Giles (a 53rd-round pick in 1996), Adam LaRoche (29th round in 2000), Jeff Francoeur (1st round in 2002), Charles Thomas (19th round in 2000) and Horacio Ramirez (fifth round in 1997). Sprinkled in is a discussion of the number of draft picks the Braves have made in Georgia and the southeast in recent years and how the availability of good young arms allowed the Braves to make some valuable deals with other clubs. The fact that the Braves do a great job of leveraging the home-field advantage when it comes to finding and signing local talent comes through loud and clear.

    In the final two chapters Shanks lays out his case against Moneyball by enumerating “The Braves Way” philosophy in more detail in a series of 15 points, the most relevant to the current debate being:

  • Makeup:As Shanks says, to the Braves organization “makeup is just as important as on-base percentage.”
  • Don’t Discount Stats But: For the Braves this means that statistics are simply one of the tools, and they don’t fully trust them. In the words of Dayton Moore, director of player personnel, “You can manipulate statistics in any number of ways. But you evaluate tools and makeup. It’s about tools, bodies, and makeup.”
  • Trust Your Scouts: Snyder and company are portrayed as people who listen to their scouts and take their advice.
  • College vs. High School: The Braves prefer high school players so they can train them “before they’ve developed bad habits.” In 2005 they drafted just 19 college players out of 52, and only five of those were from Division I schools.
  • Patience: This goes hand in hand with drafting high school players.
  • The Strength of the Draft Dictates Picks: Although the Braves prefer high schoolers and pitchers, they don’t choose them exclusively; instead they let the strength of the available pool of players guide their picks.
  • Protecting Picks: This refers to the practice of openly communicating with potential draft picks and ensuring that they’ll sign before picking them.
  • Pitching, Pitching, Pitching: The Braves attempt to draft as many pitchers as possible and to receive pitchers in most trades. This is the philosophy of “quality from quantity.” In 2005 the Braves drafted 35 pitchers with their 52 picks, in 2004 it was 27 of 49, and in 2003 31 of 53. So the Braves are often picking pitchers with over 60% of their picks; overall in 2005 35.2% of the picks were pitchers.
  • Replacement Value: The goal of having a backup ready in the minor leagues allows the Braves to not have to sign free agents or trade for veterans to fill holes. This idea was brought home in full force in last week’s sweep of the Cubs, in which Kyle Davies, Horacio Ramirez, Ryan Langerhans and Jeff Francoeur all played a significant role due to the injuries the Braves have suffered this season. It was also among the subjects that John Schuerholz discussed with Baseball Prospectus Radio last weekend.
  • Shanks then ends the book with a direct assault on Moneyball:

    There are two differences that set the A’s and the other ‘Moneyballers’ apart from the rest of baseball. First, their use of statistics is extreme, believing that on-base percentage is the primary indication of big-league success, and that stats override makeup in determining who will make it to the show. Also, speed and defense are trivial. It’s all about OBP.

    Secondly, due to their financial restrictions, the A’s claim that if they’re going to spend money on draft picks, they must not miss. They feel the best way to get a value pick is to emphasize college players and to almost ignore talent from the high school level.

    Finally, in support of drafting high schoolers, Shanks cites a study done by Baseball America‘s Jim Callis. The study showed that in the first 10 rounds of the draft from 1990 to 1997, 39% of college players made it to the majors, while only 28% of high schoolers did. Callis also found that 8.7% of college players and 8.4% of high schoolers became major-league regulars or better. However, 4.3% of high schoolers became better than average players or stars while only 2.3% of college players did.

    Synthesis?

    So what are we to make of what Shanks describes as these diametrically opposed viewpoints? Is there common ground on which to stand? I think there is and that the synthesis comes in two forms.

    Good Makeup and OBP are Not Mutually Exclusive

    First, although Shanks didn’t acknowledge it, the first two chapters of Moneyball actually provide support for the Braves’ emphasis on makeup. As Lewis recounts, neither the scouts that saw Billy Beane play in the early 1980s nor those who sat around the draft table in 2002 seemed to have a good understanding of the people they were drafting. This is evidenced by the exchange in the draft room in the chapter “How to Find a Ballplayer:”

    Scout: “Good body, big arm. Good fastball, playable slider, and so-so change. A little funk on the backside but nothing you can’t clean up. I saw him good one day and not so good the other.”

    Scouting Director: “Any risk he’ll go to college?”

    Scout: “He’s not the student type. I’m not sure he’s even signed with a college.”

    Front Office Guy: “So is this guy a rockhead?”

    Scout: “Ah…He may be too smart. He’s a confident kid but…”

    Front Office Guy: “But”

    Scout: “There might be some family issues here. I heard the dad spent some time in prison. Porno or something.”

    Long pause

    Someone else: “Can he bring it?”

    Scout: “I can see this guy in somebody’s pen throwing aspirin tablets someday. This guy has a cannon.”

    Someone else: “I’m worried about the makeup”

    After looking at the player’s psychological profile (a test administered by Major League Baseball to all prospects), the consensus was that this prospect had “bad makeup” and was no longer considered. But even so, this sort of bumbling conversation sits in stark contrast to how Shanks’s description of Braves scouts spending a substantial amount of time getting to understand the motivation and character of the players they might draft.

    Recently, I attended a SABR meeting where former Royals catcher John Wathan was the guest speaker. In some of his remarks he emphasized what naturally seems to be the job only a scout can do—gauging the desire and determination of players before they are signed, in other words their makeup. Clearly, I think both Moneyballers and traditionalists would agree that finding players who will be able to persevere is important.

    In fairness to Lewis and Beane, however, Shanks is clearly setting up a straw man when he says the A’s or any of the other Moneyballers actually view OBP as the overriding indicator of major-league success. I say this because Shanks states in the preface that he read the book, yet his attacks often resemble mere caricatures. Either he didn’t understand many of the arguments, or he chose to misrepresent them. He seems like an intelligent guy, so I can only conclude that he went with the latter approach, perhaps as a marketing ploy (hey, a stathead like me bought the book after all).

    Rather, the more subtle argument related to OBP in Moneyball is that controlling the strike zone (which can be measured to an extent using OBP) is actually a real baseball skill akin to one of the five tools and that this skill is (or was since the market has adjusted) undervalued in the marketplace because it is a passive one. The corollary is that OBP becomes meaningful at the college level, since Moneyballers all agree that high school statistics aren’t projectable, so plate discipline is much better detected in college.

    But even looking past the caricatures, the ideas of relational scouting and exploiting market inefficiencies can and should coexist. Why not look for players with good makeup and plate discipline whether in college or when they reach the minors? After all, Chipper Jones was a “good makeup” player that had that competitive instinct (based partly on his punching out an opponent, at which I admit to have cringed) who also had a .401 career OBP coming into 2005.

    I would also disagree that Moneyballers view defense and speed as “trivial.” Once again, the more nuanced view is that major-league insiders tend to overvalue the relative contributions of speed and defense in terms of preventing or scoring runs and therefore winning baseball games. Extreme examples such as Chuck Tanner installing Omar Moreno in the leadoff spot for the Braves in the mid 1980s come immediately to mind. As Lewis discusses at some length—and which Shanks doesn’t mention—the A’s were very interested in defense and used a system based on run expectancy tables to quantify Johnny Damon’s contribution in center field. The analysis led them to understand that having him in center field saved the A’s 15 runs per season over using Terrance Long, which compensated for Damon’s relatively low (.321) on-base percentage.

    Quality from Quantity at the Right Level

    Second, Shanks implies that the Moneyball philosophy is born solely out of financial restriction. In the words of Pat Gillick, quoted in the last chapter:

    But I think the Moneyball philosophy is more on survival than it is on winning. I think it’s a new model for a low revenue club, for a small market revenue club so they can survive. I don’t think really it’s a formula to win, it’s a formula to survive.

    For the most part I don’t think Moneyballers would disagree. After all, the main storyline of the book is being successful with less. The real issue is whether the Moneyball philosophy is also applicable across the board. I think this can be looked at in two ways.

    First, while Lewis clearly plays up the David vs. Goliath aspect of the A’s success, I just can’t see how emphasizing the strategic aspects of Moneyball , such as getting on base and not squandering outs, is a recipe only for survival. It’s a recipe for winning, given the inherent structure of baseball as a game.

    Secondly, Shanks and Gillick are probably referring to drafting college players over high schoolers, and it seems to me there is a bit of truth to their view. As Beane is quoted in Moneyball, “the draft has never been anything but a [expletive deleted] crapshoot.” Small-market teams like the A’s have less room for error because they have fewer resources, so the crapshoot has a bigger relative impact on them. Fewer resources not only mean less money available to sign free agents but also less to invest at the minor-league level for coaches and instructors.

    Given their constraints, it makes sense to try and maximize the resources they do have by minimizing risk in the crapshoot. Perhaps small-market teams simply can’t afford to be as patient as a larger market team like the Braves because they can’t pour the money into the scouting and player development that’s required with the long-term approach. They are further constrained since they cannot sign free agents to fill needs and must develop the talent they control the cost of as quickly as possible to get a return on their investment. Although Shanks argues that the Braves try and stay away from free agents, they were able to sign the likes of Sid Bream, Terry Pendleton, Greg Maddux, Andres Galarraga, Walt Weiss, Brian Jordan, Vinny Castilla, Paul Byrd, John Thomson and Gary Sheffield in the Schuerholz era when the needs arose. Small-market teams simply don’t have that luxury.

    Small-market teams are also particularly vulnerable to a lack of quality starting pitching because of the cost of acquiring it on the open market and the inability to pick up the salaries of quality starters traded for prospects. In this area the Braves have been doubly blessed in that they’ve been able to afford to acquire veteran pitchers like Mike Hampton and Russ Ortiz through free agency and trades. They’ve also relied on the services of pitching coach Leo Mazzone, who receives only a passing mention in the book. In any case, small-market teams drafting high school pitchers (twice as unlikely to make it to the majors than college pitchers) and high school position players (four times less likely to make it than their college counterparts) may end up with very little talent at the major-league level.

    And one of the primary reasons for the lower percentage of high schoolers making the majors is injuries. Bill James, among others, has argued that injuries probably happen regardless of whether a pitcher goes to the minors or to college. As a result, the pool of pitchers in college has already been thinned by injuries in a form of natural selection that makes them inherently less risky. And even if James is wrong and injury rates are reduced if a pitcher enters professional baseball out of high school, that doesn’t mean that it makes financial sense for small-market teams to draft primarily high school pitchers. It could be that the percentage of those who will be injured regardless is much greater than the odds of reducing injury through proper training at the professional level. In addition, the pitchers that have made it through college have also been “selected” for other non-physical skills (maturity being the most important) that will help them get to the majors.

    Regardless, the high injury rate of pitchers at any age is still a good argument to buy into the Braves’ idea of developing as many pitchers as possible (quality from quantity). This may be the synthesis in these two views. Small-market teams need a more predictive model for producing major leaguers and should look more towards college players, but they should also attempt to follow the Braves by accumulating arms.

    A Few Side Issues

    A few pet peeves and side issues also caught my attention in the book. One was that when pitchers were discussed Shanks seemed to focus on their win/loss record rather than their strikeout-to-walk ratio, home run rate, or even hits per inning pitched. He is even more reluctant to use slugging percentage or on-base percentage when discussing hitters, instead focusing on the ruling triumvirate of batting average, home runs, and RBI. It reminded me of watching baseball games in the 1970s when those three numbers were pasted across the lower third of the screen in big yellow letters as Dave Kingman strode to the plate.

    I was also interested in the study cited by Shanks and Callis, as well as the few comments made by Lewis on the nature of the draft that I already mentioned. It occurred to me that the Callis study would tend to look better for teams that drafted a higher number of high schoolers, since he looked only at 1990-1997. Any players drafted that long ago should have reached the majors by now if they had the ability. To see how the percentages changed with more recent drafts, I did some quick summaries on The Baseball Cube (and forgive me if there are small errors as my intern has the summer off so I had to do this manually).

    Here’s what I found for the first two rounds of the draft for the years 1996-2002, encompassing 512 picks (283 pitchers and 229 position players) where the number in parentheses is the percentage of players who have seen major league time as of 2004. (I included as pitchers those who were listed at pitching and another position and did not count as pitchers those few who were listed with no position.)

    Overall First Two Rounds 1996-2002
    Year   HS         COLLEGE
    1996  56%(52%)   44%(58%)
    1997  58%(47%)   42%(66%)
    1998  49%(42%)   51%(68%)
    1999  51%(16%)   49%(51%)
    2000  57%(15%)   43%(57%)
    2001  47%(17%)   53%(43%)
    2002  54%(8%)    46%(33%)
     
    TOTAL 53%(28%)   47%(53%)

    The percentage of high schoolers who have made the majors falls drastically after 1998, while the influx of college players to the majors declines more slowly. And overall, college players drafted in the first two rounds are almost twice as likely to reach the majors. For the 283 pitchers the data is similar:

    Pitchers First Two Rounds 1996-2002
    Year   HS         COLLEGE
    1996  63%(50%)   37%(71%)
    1997  59%(31%)   41%(89%)
    1998  54%(50%)   46%(71%)
    1999  37%(21%)   63%(47%)
    2000  59%(9%)    41%(63%)
    2001  45%(17%)   55%(45%)
    2002  47%(13%)   53%(33%)
     
    TOTAL 52%(28%)   48%(58%)

    It’s interesting that of the pitchers taken, which comprise 55% of the players drafted in the first two rounds, we see the same basic pattern where the payoff is around six years for high school pitchers. On the other hand, a third of college pitchers have pitched in the majors within two years. And finally for position players:

    Position Players First 2 Rounds 1996-2002
    Year   HS         COLLEGE
    1996  63%(50%)   37%(71%)
    1997  58%(65%)   42%(41%)
    1998  44%(31%)   56%(65%)
    1999  73%(13%)   27%(67%)
    2000  55%(24%)   45%(50%)
    2001  49%(18%)   51%(39%)
    2002  59%(5%)    41%(33%)
     
    TOTAL 55%(28%)   45%(48%)

    Interestingly, the numbers for high schoolers are similar, although overall 10 percent fewer college position players than college pitchers have made it to the majors. These three tables can then be combined in this busy graph:

    image

    What the graph illustrates is that the gap between high schoolers making the majors and collegians doing so becomes pretty pronounced in the 1998-1999 time frame and carries forward. Before that time the gap is not so defined.

    Looking at these results one could conclude that a much lower percentage of high schoolers drafted higher than the second round ever make it to the majors. Perhaps another point of synthesis might be to draft top high school picks in the first few rounds but then favor college players in the later rounds. This is even more the case if Callis’ contention that high schoolers drafted in the first 10 rounds are more likely to become stars than college players.

    For kicks I’ve also thrown in a graph that shows the percentages of high school and college players drafted in all rounds from 1965 through 2005.

    image

    From this you can see that college players were more heavily favored in the mid-1980s than they are even today, although their percentage has been on the rise since 1998. In addition, it is clear that pitchers are drafted more frequently in the lower rounds since they make up 55% of the players in the first two rounds but roughly 35-40% of the total draftees.

    Summary
    I thoroughly enjoyed the book and would unreservedly recommend it to anyone who is a Braves fan or has an interest in the scouts-versus-stats debate. And despite its somewhat shallow treatment of Moneyball, the book is well written and entertaining and does offer a behind-the-scenes look at the Braves organization, along with a set of entertaining character studies. I doubt that this will be the last salvo in the scouts-versus-stats debate, but I do hope that it’s the start of the formation of the last step in baseball’s Hegelian dialectic.

    References & Resources
    The Great Debate – by Alan Schwarz, January 7, 2005
    Scout’s Honor: A Review – by JC Bradbury, June 16, 2005
    Stats vs Scouts: Do We Need to Choose Just One? – by Joe Hamrahi, June 29, 2005
    Baseball Prospectus Radio – interview with John Schuerholz, July 9, 2005
    The complete data for the first two rounds of the draft (1996-2002) can be found on my blog

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