Scout’s Honor: A Review

Moneyball isn’t just a book by Michael Lewis anymore. The book title has coined a term on a level that no book has done since Catch-22. Moneyball is now a philosophy. There’s no doubt that it has infected the bloodstream of baseball. Depending on whom you talk to, Moneyball is either a wonder drug or a plague, and there seems to be little neutral ground on this; you are either for it or against it.

Put Bill Shanks, author of Scout’s Honor: The Bravest Way To Build A Winning Ballteam, in the most extreme corner of the anti-Moneyball camp. Not only does he not agree with the Moneyball philosophy, but he doesn’t care for the book itself. And it’s a shame, because the bitter taste of Lewis’ book sours an excellent in-depth look at the recent history of the Braves. Personal stories become merely a prop for the flawed anti-Moneyball agenda of Shanks when jabs at sabermetrics seem to come out of nowhere. Although he doesn’t directly address Moneyball until the last chapter, it’s clear what the first 23 chapters are building up to.

If you are a Braves fan, you need to buy this book. Though I disagree with Shanks about a lot—and we have aired our personal differences with each other over the past year—after reading this book I feel a strange kinship with Shanks that I think stems from our age. The time between our discovery of baseball and when we become adults is brief, but it’s amazing how a few years seem to shape our perceptions. For much of my childhood the Braves stank. What kid in the South could feel sorry for the Cubs when you were a Braves fan in the 1980s?

Sure we had Dale Murphy and Bob Horner, but it was no fun to check the paper to see if the Braves were 20 or 21 games out today. This is why 1991 was such a special year for Braves fans. I remember the teaser headline on the front page of The Charlotte Observer in April of that year: “Braves in First Place: Opening Day Again.” And every Braves fan who read that gave a pity chuckle to that sad remark. We had little hope, we stank and would always stink it seemed.

Little did anyone know what the worst-to-first Braves were about to start. I understand why rest of the country has to hate the Braves’ continued success, yet in my mind the 13-year playoff run of the Braves still doesn’t seem to right the injustice of the horrible Braves of my adolescence. I think Shanks feels the same way, which is why he does an excellent job of chronicling the Braves’ rise from a losing organization into a model major league ball club.

The book’s story really starts in “the beginning” as I remember it. Any past glory in the Braves organization is barely mentioned, as it’s irrelevant to the modern story. The story begins when Ted Turner buys the club in 1976. Despite some brief flirtations with success in the early 1980s, the Braves were in a sorry state. But everything changes in 1986 when Stan Kasten takes over for Turner as president of the Braves.

Kasten’s success with the Atlanta Hawks gave Turner the confidence to allow Kasten the freedom he needed to fix the Braves. Rather than buying big name free agents like Bruce Sutter, Kasten wanted to grow the next generation of Braves on the farm. And to have a good minor league system he was going to have to have good minor league instruction and a large corps of scouts. With Kasten as president, Bobby Cox rejoining the Braves as general manager, and Paul Snyder as the chief scout, the Braves began to turn the organization into a winner with an eight-point plan:

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 has to be sacrificed, so be it. Don’t forget the long-term goals.
8. Don’t change the plan.

And once John Schuerholz came on board and Cox moved to the dugout, there was no stopping “The Braves Way” from succeeding.

Shanks tells the story through the individuals who implemented or fit into the plan. Scouts found Tom Glavine in the relatively talent-barren Northeast. Chipper Jones asked the team to wine and dine his family at the Olive Garden (Chipper’s restaurant choice) while Todd Van Poppel blew off Cox. I have to say my favorite character analysis is of Schuerholz. Though Shanks makes it clear Schuerholz was not necessarily the architect of the plan, he was the captain. Shanks follows Schuerholz from a jock at Towson State to the Orioles, Royals and finally the Braves.

He comes off as a likeable guy, always loyal, hardworking, and trusting of his underlings. Schuerholz joined the Braves because he liked the strategy the Braves were pursuing: a high school-focused, pitching-intensive and scout-centered farm system. And let’s not forget, Schuerholz is really into player “makeup” in evaluating talent. We also get to meet several old and young players who are or were in the organization. Shanks covers the histories of Murphy, Marcus Giles, Adam LaRoche, and Adam Wainwright just to name a few.

However, there is one glaring omission: Leo Mazzone. How on earth do you miss this man’s role in the streak? And Mazzone’s role is quite important, because while the Braves have shepherded many good players through the farm system, they like to get their top pitchers (particularly starters) from the outside. Face it, the Braves have been more successful with hired guns than the “young guns.” Greg Maddux, Denny Neagle, John Burkett, Russ Ortiz, Jaret Wright, John Thomson and Mike Hampton were not Braves farm system products. Most of these guys were much more successful with the Braves than without, and their pitching on the club has been the key to its success.

Mazzone has squeezed more out of these guys than any other pitching coach could have. Yeah, the Braves did grow a Hall of Famer in Glavine, John Smoltz has been great (though he was not drafted by the Braves), and Jason Schmidt has ended up having a good career; however, most of the Braves’ homegrown starters, at their best, became average major league pitchers. Without Mazzone, Cox, and Schuerholz’s ability to grab veteran arms, the Braves’ streak would not have happened. I kept waiting for Mazzone’s chapter, but it never came.

Shanks likes makeup, and he thinks it’s the real key to the Braves’ scouting success. There is no doubt that the word that makes most statheads cringe is thrown around quite a bit by Braves executives. The players the Braves want have something that can’t be quantified. We learn the scouts liked Glavine because of his hockey player mentality, and Chipper landed with the Braves because he broke his hand while defending his pitcher. Some even claim makeup is most important of all the qualities the Braves use to evaluate talent.

I have a hard time buying the fact that this differentiates the Braves way from the Moneyball way, or any other way. Defining makeup is difficult. Shanks quotes many people on the definition of this mysterious quality, but never really acknowledges what a vague concept this is. I think Braves scouting director Roy Clark does the best job:

Well, it’s the guy you want at home plate with the game on the line and he wants to be there. Or it’s the guy who’s on the mound in a tough situation and you know that he is thriving on the moment.

Is Billy Beane looking for anything different? How could anyone disagree that this represents an important quality in a player? Makeup is to baseball front offices as education is to politicians; everyone is for it. Of course, whatever it is Clark defines above is important to the Braves, but it’s certainly not something that separates the Braves from any other baseball organization. Furthermore, accusing Beane of opposing makeup as it’s defined here is ludicrous, especially considering the “put a Milo on him” scouting discussion in Chapter Two of Moneyball. And didn’t Beane ship out OBP poster-child Jeremy Giambi for partying too much?

One of the central examples of the importance of makeup in Moneyball is that the five-tool scouts’ dream that was the young Beane was simply spoiled by internal demons that scouts missed. And the scouts, in awe of his tools, forgot to notice that Billy’s play on the field reflected things that they were missing in their puppy dog eyes. But Lewis doesn’t dwell on makeup because it’s simply not something that differentiates baseball clubs from one another.

And though the Braves may stress makeup, they certainly don’t have much room to point fingers at the A’s as Shanks does. The Braves have overlooked many indiscretions of their own players: Chipper’s extramarital affair, Andruw Jones‘ participation in the Gold Club scandal, Rafael Furcal‘s two DUIs, and don’t forget John Rocker, who fits the mold of everything the Braves crave in a prospect—a smart Georgia high school product with competitive drive. Add to this the past acquisitions of known clubhouse cancers Gary Sheffield and Raul Mondesi.

This is not something the Braves should be ashamed of. Like the A’s, the Braves made tradeoffs no different than the one Paul DePodesta made when he brought in the troubled Milton Bradley. These players are human and suffer from weaknesses. But to ignore these players’ extraordinary talents in the name of makeup would cost any GM his job. Don’t get me wrong—there are certain qualities players must possess to be successful in Major League Baseball that are not reflected in the box score. But if Chipper Jones’ willingness to lay out a high school player is more important than his career .400 OBP, then I’ve got some teenagers to punch.

Makeup is just a buzzword, like “proactive.” It’s seductive because it seems to imply something important when it’s just “active” with a bike horn on the front. Many can’t-miss prospects flame out, just as undrafted nobodies become stars. Our minds tell us there has to be some reason for this, and it’s an easy out to say “that guy had/lacked makeup.” There’s just something so deeply unsatisfying with such an explanation. You can’t argue with it, because its definition is so malleable.

Let’s just cut out the fluff: some organizations are better at identifying talent than other organizations, and the Braves are one of those organizations. Some old-school scouts are simply better at it than others, just as some statheads differ in their abilities. Let’s just say this is so rather than pretend old scouts possess some quality that sabermetricians just can’t understand. Yet I have no doubt that deep down in their hearts the Braves front office members feel they’re evaluating something called makeup in these kids. Let’s try to figure out what that actually is rather than simply identify it as some intangible quality inside a black box. Scout’s Honor provides a peek into this box (tryout camps, an abundance of scouts and coaches, and a stable system), but overall the reader is just supposed to be satisfied with “makeup is makeup.”

What’s selling this book isn’t the story of the Braves. The anti-Moneyball marketing strategy makes this book sexy to the masses. The problem is that Shanks just didn’t get, or even read, Moneyball, and not because the message was a difficult one to grasp. Shanks’s relationships with scouts, which allowed him to provide such a good picture of what goes on within the Braves, unfortunately caused him to take what Lewis had to say personally. And in his blind rage to strike back he reveals that he is not all that familiar with the book that boils his blood. Take for example Shanks’s interpretation of Moneyball:

There are two differences that set the A’s and 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.

The first difference is just plain wrong. As I argued above, the A’s aren’t ignoring that black box of makeup at all. Maybe they don’t talk about it as much as the Braves do, but the A’s aren’t going to be anymore thrilled with a smooth-fielding, .600-OBP college shortstop who’s in prison than the Braves. But the greater sin is to say that playing Moneyball involves ignoring defense and speed.

I seem to recall an extensive discussion in Moneyball on the A’s amazing system designed to measure defense. The A’s were willing to sacrifice some defense in right field to get Jeremy Giambi’s bat in the lineup; however, they were equally distraught over the loss of Johnny Damon‘s stellar defense in center, despite his relatively modest OBP. To miss these examples, which I pulled straight from Chapter Six of Moneyball, is simply inexcusable from someone who is taking a book to task in such a condescending tone.

Additionally, Shanks misunderstands the “stress” the A’s placed on OBP. Using statistical techniques, Beane’s sidekick DePodesta (whom Shanks feels doesn’t deserve the Dodgers’ GM job) finds that OBP is much more important to producing runs than previously thought, not to mention an excellent predictor of future success among prospects. Had Shanks just taken a brief look at the stats, he would know that the A’s OBP isn’t really all that spectacular. As economists Skip Sauer and Jahn Hakes have demonstrated, the A’s were jumping on an under-pricing of OBP at the time Moneyball was written, but since the labor market for baseball talent has begun to properly value OBP the A’s have moved on to find undervalued talent in other areas. That’s what Moneyball is—exploiting market inefficiencies. And it’s no different than Schuerholz’s signing a veteran castoff like Julio Franco.

On the focus on college pitchers, I can’t understand why Shanks is so distressed. Didn’t Randy Johnson and Roger Clemens go to college? Why not chastise the Braves for their idiotic philosophy that caused them to miss out on the two most dominant pitchers of the current era? But the Braves don’t merit this criticism any more than the A’s do for focusing on college pitchers. Why did the A’s focus on college pitchers? Because they could develop statistical methods to identify pitching prospects at this level. One consistent criticism in Scout’s Honor is that statistics don’t tell you much about high school players, but that’s the whole point of focusing on college players! To quote from Chapter Two of Moneyball:

From Paul’s point of view, that was the great thing about college players: they had meaningful stats. They played a lot more games, against stiffer competition, than high school players. The sample size of their relevant statistics was larger, and therefore a more accurate reflection of some underlying reality.

This is the heart of Moneyball: finding new and unique ways to win cheaply. Identifying a low cost method to identify talent was a big part of this. Yes, the A’s are bound to miss out on some excellent high school pitchers, but they do find good talent for less. Limiting the focus on high school pitchers allowed Oakland to devote its scouting resources to other areas, like signing Jermaine Dye (whom the Braves traded for Michael Tucker), Eric Chavez and Jason Kendall.

The Braves set up a huge scouting network with extensive cross-checking, identifying honey holes of talent (particularly in Georgia and Latin America), and holding repeated tryout camps to monitor progress of prospects. Like the A’s saved resources by limiting scouting on one level, so did the Braves, so they could afford to sign and re-sign players who helped them win. Neither philosophy is wrong; they are just different. The major difference with the A’s is that they didn’t just do what everyone else was doing a little better—they developed something new and cheaper.

If you are going to try and prove that a book is flawed, it’s a prerequisite to read and understand the content at the center of your attack. Shanks seems to be responding to some caricature reported by Beane’s critics. To so grossly mischaracterize Moneyball is irresponsible. Maybe Moneyball does need a good swift kick in the pants, but Shanks misses so badly that he kicks himself in the face.

Another oversight is that Shanks fails to see the similarity of the Braves and the A’s. The Braves teams in the 13-season run of division titles possessed many of the qualities hyped in Moneyball, and they can be seen in the stats. The table below lists the average league ranks in OBP, SLG, OPS, ERA, plus average wins during Beane’s and Schuerholz’s respective tenures.

Team    OBP     SLG     OPS     ERA     Wins
ATL     6.6     4.9     7       2.1     96
OAK     5.2     7.6     6.4     3       92

If the Braves are finding something the A’s were not, Shanks would have a case. The Braves and A’s both won on the field with the stats “Moneyballers” claim to be important on offense. And if you look at the pitching side of the equation the A’s “Big Three” of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito look much like the Braves’ Glavine, Maddux and Smoltz. I’ll grant that the Braves’ run is much more impressive, and certainly Beane would too, but that’s not my point. My point is that both of these organizations achieved very difficult feats of averaging over 90 wins a season for several years by doing the same things on the field: excellent pitching and solid offense.

The Braves may have developed their on-field success in a way that was different from the A’s, but this does not prove that the Moneyball philosophy is flawed. In fact, quite the opposite is true. That a careful understanding and use of empirical methods based on sound statistical principles employed by a few intelligent men can achieve success similar to a very large organization of traditional scouts is proof of success, not failure. The success of the Braves is something Beane wanted to emulate, but it wasn’t feasible given the constraints imposed by his bosses. Beane had to find a way to win with less, and he did.

The A’s still use scouts; they just use fewer of them and may use them in different ways. This is something that is also clearly stated in Moneyball. The sabermetric method that the A’s employ is simply a new technology no different from the radar gun carried by the scouts Shanks loves so dearly. And just as the Luddites wished to destroy a new technology that threatened their livelihood, scouts have reason to feel threatened by the new knowledge brought forth by sabermetrics. Moneyball is not the fad that Shanks claims but a new technology. It’s superior to the old methods in some areas, but not all. It’s not going away. And while traditional scouting methods are an old part of the game, the process of technological innovation (sometimes known as creative destruction) is much older.

To end on a positive note, with Scout’s Honor Shanks proves he’s a good journalist with a passion for the Atlanta Braves. The writing is good and the angles he takes in portraying his human subjects make the book easy to read and enjoyable. Only in a few cases did I find myself wishing he had examined a person further. I now feel like I know much more about the architects of the Braves’ 13 division titles and what the philosophy of the organization is.

This is no small feat, and Shanks should be commended for his excellent work in this area. I am very happy that I purchased and read this book, as Shanks has more than earned his royalties. I only wish he’d stuck to what he does well than veer off into a rant against Moneyball (the philosophy and the book). He fails miserably in this area, and I’m afraid it’s the part that people are going to focus on most.

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