The Boys of Moneyball, Again

Almost exactly one year ago, I checked up on Oakland’s famed Moneyball draft class to see how they were doing in their first full-seasons as professionals. It is now a year later and Oakland just completed their second draft since choosing Nick Swisher, Jeremy Brown and company in 2002, so I thought it would be interesting to check back in with the draftees made famous by Michael Lewis’ bestseller.

First, a little background …

I can’t imagine there are many of you reading this who haven’t yet had a chance to read Moneyball. In short, it is the story of the Oakland A’s and their front office’s approach to running a baseball team. A large section of the book is devoted to the 2002 draft, in which the A’s had an astounding seven first-round picks thanks to compensation for free agents they had lost the previous offseason.

The book focuses on the unique ways in which the A’s do things, and the draft is held up as perhaps the perfect example. Oakland selected college or junior college players with their first 23 picks and used one of their first-rounders on a player who wasn’t thought of as more than late-round material. One of the most famous lines from the book came from Oakland GM Billy Beane, who said “we’re not selling jeans here” in response to scouts questioning the physical makeup of potential draftees. And indeed the A’s often passed on great athletes with plenty of “tools” to choose players based more on their on-field performances in college.

The all-college approach the A’s used in 2002 was out of the ordinary, even for the A’s. The previous year they used three of their first 23 picks on high school players, including using one of their first-rounders on a high school pitcher, Jeremy Bonderman, who was later traded to the Tigers. In 2000, Oakland chose four high school players with their first 23 selections. The year after the Moneyball draft, the A’s picked two high schoolers out of their first 23 picks. And, in this year’s recently-completed draft, Oakland chose high school players with two of their first 13 selections.

While we are far enough away from the 2002 draft to get a feel for how the players the A’s picked are doing, it is likely still far too early to pass judgment on the class as a whole. While what sort of prospects the 2002 draftees are and what sort of numbers they put up in the minors is important, the only thing that really matters in the end is how many of them make impacts in the major leagues, whether by playing or through being traded for other players, and how big those impacts are.

The Moneyball draft continues to be criticized today, just as it was two years ago. Baseball America has been critical of what Oakland did in 2002 from the very beginning, and other experts with leanings towards the scouting-side of things have also been unkind to the 2002 class and the way the A’s did things that year.

This is probably to be expected, however. The A’s drafted players by going with an approach that differed from the one shared by the scouting community and they ended up largely with players who fit their unique approach. So wouldn’t it only make sense then that, a couple years later, the same scouting community wouldn’t think much of the guys they drafted?

Just to use them as an example, a large part of what Baseball America does is geared towards covering high school baseball, and their draft rankings are packed with high school players. This year, for example, 90 of their top 200 draft prospects were high schoolers. In the actual draft, just 62 of the top 200 picks were used on high school players.

In other words, if you didn’t agree with the way the A’s did things in 2002, why would you agree with the way they did things in 2002, two years later? There are, of course, other issues involved, most importantly the actual performances of the players from the draft, but it’s worth remembering who is doing the criticizing.

Still, I’m not here to “defend” Oakland’s drafting methods or their 2002 draft, and I’m certainly not going to say the Moneyball class is looking like a great one. Instead of all that, I would simply like to present the information in what is hopefully an unbiased way, and let you draw your own conclusions about the players the A’s picked in 2002.

Nick Swisher | First Round (16th Overall) | OF | Ohio State

YEAR     LVL       G      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG      2B      HR      BB      SO
2002       A      13      44     .250     .433     .455       3       2      13      11
           A      49     183     .240     .340     .399      13       4      26      48
2003       A      51     189     .296     .418     .550      14      10      41      49
          AA      76     287     .230     .324     .380      24       5      37      76
2004     AAA      50     174     .253     .386     .477      12       9      38      40

Nick Swisher was the first of Oakland’s seven first-round picks at #16 overall. In three seasons at Ohio State, the switch-hitting outfielder hit .323/.452/.613 with 35 homers, 42 doubles and a 116/131 strikeout/walk ratio in 169 games. Baseball America ranked him as the 34th-best player in the 2002 draft.

According to Moneyball, Billy Beane was so infatuated with Swisher that he avoided scouting him in person so he wouldn’t “show his hand” to other teams. Michael Lewis writes that Beane “wanted to fly across the country to watch a few of Swisher’s games, but his scouting department told him that if he did, word would quickly spread to the rest of Major League Baseball that Billy Beane was onto Nick Swisher … ‘Operation Shutdown,’ the scouts called their project to keep Billy as far away from Swisher as they could.”

Swisher, whom Lewis says Beane spoke of “in the needy tone of a man who has been restrained for too long from seeing his beloved,” has had wildly inconsistent numbers in the minor leagues. He started his pro career by hitting .250/.433/.455 in 13 games at Single-A Vancouver, but then struggled mightily when he moved to Single-A Visalia to finish the year.

He began last season at Single-A Modesto and did extremely well, hitting .296/.418/.550 with 10 homers and 14 doubles in 51 games. Then he moved up to Double-A Midland and once again struggled, hitting just .230/.324/.380 in 76 games. This season, Swisher is playing at Triple-A Sacramento and is back to doing well. He is hitting just .253 through his first 50 games, but he has a .386 on-base percentage and a .477 slugging percentage, thanks to nine homers, 12 doubles and 38 walks.

Swisher’s .254 career batting average is a lot lower than you’d like to see, but he has done a nice job hitting for power and controlling the strike zone. Swisher has 30 homers and 66 doubles in 877 career at-bats, and 46% of his total hits have gone for extra-bases, which is excellent. His Isolated Power (slugging percentage minus batting average) is .193, which is just a shade under the .200 mark that I usually consider “hitting for power.” Swisher has 155 walks in 239 games, along with a strikeout/walk ratio of 224/155.

Here’s how he has developed as a hitter while going up the minor-league ladder:

LEVEL           AVG     ISOP     ISOD     XBH%     SO/BB
Single-A       .267     .207     .118     45.0      1.35
Double-A       .230     .150     .094     47.0      2.05
Triple-A       .253     .224     .133     47.7      1.05

If Swisher can stay in center field once he gets to the majors — and this is a big if according to those who have seen him play out there — he looks like a pretty good prospect to me. If not, I think he’s going to have to raise his batting average at least a little bit in order to be an impact player. He’s playing well at Triple-A exactly two years after being drafted, which is about all you can ask for.

Joe Blanton | First Round (24th Overall) | RHP | Kentucky

YEAR     LVL      G     GS      ERA        IP       H      SO     BB     HR
2002       A      4      2     3.14      14.1      11      15      2      0
           A      2      1     7.50       6.0       8       6      6      1
2003       A     21     21     2.57     133.0     110     144     19      6
          AA      7      5     1.26      35.2      21      30      7      1
2004     AAA     12     12     3.87      74.1      80      49     19      2

Joe Blanton was Oakland’s second first-round pick in 2002 and, so far at least, he looks like the best of the bunch. In three seasons at Kentucky, Blanton spit time between the rotation and the bullpen and had a career ERA of 5.11, including 4.58 in 100 innings during his junior year. Blanton struck out 133 batters as a junior (12.0/9 IP) and also cut his walks by 42% from his sophomore season. Baseball America ranked him as the 18th-best player in the 2002 draft.

After pitching very briefly after signing in 2002, Blanton made his big splash last season, throwing 168.2 innings with a 2.29 ERA between Single-A and Double-A. His strikeout/walk ratio of 174/26 was extraordinary and he served up just seven homers all season. This year, Blanton is pitching at Triple-A Sacramento, where he is 3-2 with a 3.87 ERA in 12 starts. He has a 49/19 strikeout/walk ratio in 74.1 innings and has given up just two homers.

Prior to this season, I ranked Blanton as my #15 prospect in all of baseball and what he has done so far this season has done nothing to change that. Still, his performance at Triple-A through his first 12 starts has not been nearly as impressive as what he did last season. Like Swisher, Blanton is on the verge of the major leagues two years after being drafted, although where he fits into Oakland’s plans are a little unclear at the moment (their starting rotation looks pretty full to me).

John McCurdy | First Round (26th Overall) | IF | Maryland

YEAR     LVL       G      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG      2B      HR      BB      SO
2002       A      56     233     .242     .282     .332       9       3      12      57
2003       A     130     515     .274     .331     .365      33       4      34      86
2004      AA      52     188     .255     .279     .415      13       5       7      53

The 26th overall pick in the 2002 draft is the only one that was actually Oakland’s (as opposed to being a compensation pick) and the A’s used it to select Maryland shortstop John McCurdy. McCurdy was amazing during his final season at Maryland, hitting .443/.496/.828 on his way to being named Second Team All-American. As a junior, McCurdy had hit a more pedestrian .300 with a .495 slugging percentage. Baseball America ranked him as the 45th-best player in the 2002 draft.

So far, McCurdy has been an all-out bust. He struggled after signing in 2002 and then had a not-horrendous season last year, hitting .274/.331/.365 in 130 games at Single-A Kane County. This year, he’s at Double-A Midland and, though he’s hitting for a little more power, he has not shown any semblance of plate discipline. McCurdy is hitting .255, but he has an obscenely grotesque .279 on-base percentage, thanks to just seven walks in 52 games. He has also struck out in 28.2% of his 188 at-bats.

I think it is pretty surprising that a player like McCurdy can continue to advance through Oakland’s system while playing like this. They preach plate discipline, particularly in the minor leagues, yet McCurdy is now an everyday player at Double-A with a career strikeout/walk ratio of 196/53 in 238 games.

It should probably be noted that when I checked up on him this time last year, McCurdy was hitting .236 with a .277 slugging percentage. That means from the point I wrote about him until the end of the season (68 games), he batted .308 with a .443 slugging percentage. If he has a similar second-half this year, he will end up hitting about .275 with a .435 slugging percentage, though his OBP will still be awful.

Ben Fritz | First Round (30th Overall) | RHP | Fresno State

YEAR     LVL      G     GS      ERA        IP       H      SO     BB     HR
2002       A      9      9     2.95      39.2      29      33     14      1
           A      3      3     3.71      17.0      15      16      6      1
2003       A     15     15     4.91      83.0      83      77     34      3
2004      AA     12     12     4.33      68.2      69      51     34      3

Ben Fritz was the Western Athletic Conference’s Player of the Year and a Second Team All-American during his final season at Fresno State. He spent time all over the diamond, playing first base, catcher and pitcher, hitting .283/.361/.487 as a position player and going 9-5 with a 3.25 ERA on the mound. Baseball America ranked him as the 53rd-best player in the 2002 draft and the A’s drafted him as a pitcher.

Fritz’s pro career started out very well, as he pitched 56.2 innings with a 3.17 ERA between two levels of Single-A after signing with Oakland. Then he moved on to Single-A Modesto last year and posted a 4.91 ERA in 77 innings while missing a lot of time with arm problems. This year, Fritz is healthy and pitching at Double-A Midland, where he is 5-2 with a 4.33 ERA in 68.2 innings. Fritz’s strikeout/walk ratio has fallen each year, which, along with the arm problems, is not encouraging.

YEAR     SO/BB
2002      2.45
2003      2.26
2004      1.50

Fritz’s strikeout rate has also fallen so far this year. In his first two seasons, spent entirely below Double-A, Fritz struck out 8.53 batters per nine innings. So far this year, he’s striking out just 6.68 per nine innings.

Jeremy Brown | First Round (35th Overall) | C | Alabama

YEAR     LVL       G      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG      2B      HR      BB      SO
2002       A      10      28     .286     .487     .321       1       0      10       5
           A      55     187     .310     .444     .545      14      10      44      49
2003      AA      66     233     .275     .388     .391      10       5      41      38
2004      AA      47     177     .226     .322     .345      12       3      24      35

Jeremy Brown is one of Moneyball‘s main characters. After four years at Alabama, Brown left as the school’s all-time leader in games played (251), runs scored (244), runs batted in (231), and walks (207). He hit .363/.465/.574 as a junior and .320/.493/.566 as a senior. Baseball America did not have Brown ranked among their top 250 draft prospects.

When the A’s draft room discussed Brown, there weren’t a whole lot of positive things said by their scouts. One Oakland scout said, “This kid wears a large pair of underwear.” Another scout chimed in that “it’s a soft body … a fleshy kind of body.” To which Billy Beane uttered the now-famous line, “We’re not selling jeans here.”

As a college senior who had not been getting much attention from scouts, Jeremy Brown expected to be drafted in the late rounds. The A’s called him prior to the draft and informed him that they were interested in taking him in the first round. According to Moneyball, Brown thought it was one of his friends playing a prank on him and he told A’s scout Billy Owens that he would need to call him back. “He thought it was a crank call … he said he wanted to make sure it was me, and that I was serious,” Owens said.

The A’s were serious and they selected Brown with the 35th pick in the draft, signing him to a pre-draft deal worth just $350,000, far lower than the bonuses the other players selected in that range received.

Brown’s first two years as a pro were very good. He hit a combined .307/.452/.516 between two levels of Single-A after signing in 2002, smacking 10 homers and drawing 54 walks in 65 games. Then Brown moved up to Double-A Midland last season and hit a very respectable .275/.388/.391 while showing a ton of plate discipline and no power in 66 games, before missing the second-half of the season with a thumb injury.

Through his first two seasons and 131 games as a pro, Brown hit .290/.419/.451 with 15 homers, 25 doubles and 95 walks. In other words, he was exactly what the A’s were hoping he would be. This year, however, things are not going as well for Brown. He is back at Double-A and hitting just .226/.322/.345. He is continuing to walk a ton (24 walks in 47 games), but he has also struck out 35 times and has just three homers in 177 at-bats. Perhaps the thumb injury is hurting Brown’s hitting or perhaps the scouts were right about him. Either way, he’ll need to turn it up a notch offensively if he wants to play a big role in Oakland someday.

Steve Obenchain | First Round (37th Overall) | RHP | Evansville

YEAR     LVL      G     GS      ERA        IP       H      SO     BB     HR
2002       A     11     10     2.85      41.0      35      29     10      1
           A      4      4     3.00      24.0      23      10      3      2
2003       A      9      9     5.15      43.2      56      19     20      3
           A     11      8     2.57      49.0      48      30     13      3
2004       A     19      1     4.32      41.2      45      37     19      1

In his final two seasons at the University of Evansville, Steve Obenchain went 9-4 with a 1.92 ERA in 147 innings, pitching almost exclusively out of the bullpen. He had 150 strikeouts and just 34 walks, and gave up only 6.57 hits per nine innings. Baseball America ranked him as the 170th-best player in the 2002 draft.

After drafting him the A’s made Obenchain a starter, but that idea has since been abandoned. Obenchain went a combined 10-12 with a 3.44 ERA in 157 innings (31 starts) during his first two pro seasons, but he is now pitching in Single-A Modesto’s bullpen. So far this year, he has a 4.32 ERA in 41.2 innings over 19 appearances (one start). After striking out 5.0 batters per nine innings in his first two years, as a starter, Obenchain has upped his K rate to 8.0/9 IP this year.

Unlike all of Oakland’s other first-rounders in 2002, Obenchain still finds himself stuck in Single-A two years after being drafted.

Mark Teahen | First Round (39th Overall) | 3B | St. Mary’s

YEAR     LVL       G      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG      2B      HR      BB      SO
2002       A      13      57     .404     .444     .526       5       0       5       9
           A      59     234     .239     .307     .299       9       1      21      53
2003       A     121     453     .283     .377     .380      27       3      66     113
2004      AA      53     197     .335     .419     .543      15       6      29      44
         AAA       6      20     .150     .261     .200       1       0       2       8

The A’s chose Mark Teahen with their final first-round pick in 2002, after the third baseman hit .412/.493/.624 at St. Mary’s College. Baseball America ranked him as the 134th-best player in the 2002 draft.

According to Moneyball, in the Oakland draft room prior to the draft, A’s Director of Scouting Erik Kubota said, “I hate to say it but if you want to talk about another Jason Giambi, this guy could be it.” That’s the sort of quote that is destined to be mocked, of course, but let’s do a little comparing anyway.

Teahen played his first two pro seasons at two different levels of Single-A, totaling 193 games and 744 at-bats. Jason Giambi played his first two pro seasons at two different levels of Single-A, totaling 102 games and 354 at-bats. Let’s take a look at how they did in those Single-A games …

            G      AVG      OBP      SLG     ISOP     ISOD     XBH%     SO/BB
Giambi    102     .294     .436     .486     .192     .142     34.6      0.65
Teahen    193     .278     .361     .366     .088     .083     24.6      1.90

Through their first two seasons, which both included playing solely at Single-A and playing extensively at Modesto, Giambi and Teahen aren’t similar at all. Giambi was far superior in just about every aspect of hitting, from their overall numbers down to the basic components of offense.

Now take a look at what Teahen did at Double-A this year before being called up to Triple-A, compared to what Giambi did at Double-A in 1994 …

            G      AVG      OBP      SLG     ISOP     ISOD     XBH%     SO/BB
Giambi     56     .223     .319     .363     .140     .096     34.9      1.15
Teahen     53     .335     .419     .543     .208     .084     37.9      1.52

Once again, there is no comparison to be made, except now it is Teahen with the big advantage. Of course, Giambi struggling in 56 Double-A games and Teahen doing well for the first 53 games of this season don’t mean a whole lot in the grand scheme of things, but it’s still interesting.

Giambi went on to hit .318/.388/.500 at Triple-A for the rest of his 1994 season, and then went on to bat .342/.441/.537 in 55 games at Triple-A in 1995, before the A’s called up him.

What does this mean for Mark Teahen? Not much, really, although his performance at Double-A this year is very encouraging. After a couple months at Double-A he was sent to Triple-A recently (just like Giambi in 1994), and what he does in Sacramento will be the key to whether he can make that quote from Kubota sound prescient or just an example of overly wishful thinking.

Brant Colamarino | Seventh Round (218th Overall) | 1B | Pittsburgh

YEAR     LVL       G      AB      AVG      OBP      SLG      2B      HR      BB      SO
2002       A      67     228     .259     .348     .382       6       6      27      54
2003       A     133     498     .259     .350     .426      26      19      59     101
2004       A      50     183     .355     .450     .601       8      11      28      23
          AA       8      35     .314     .368     .571       3       2       3       4

The focus of this “check up” is obviously Oakland’s seven first-rounders, but there was one other player from Moneyball who I definitely wanted to revisit. Brant Colamarino was the subject of one of the book’s most memorable quotes.

When the A’s took Colamarino with the 218th pick, Oakland Assistant GM Paul DePodesta said, “No one else in baseball will agree, but Colamarino might be the best hitter in the country.”

Michael Lewis then wrote, “When Brant Colamarino removes his shirt for the first time in an A’s minor league locker room he inspires his coaches to inform [Beane] that ‘Colamarino has titties.’”

After Colamarino’s first two pro seasons, in which he hit a combined .259/.349/.412 in 200 games, I’m not sure who was getting more ribbing for what appeared in the book — DePodesta for his “Colamarino might be the best hitter in the country” comment or Colamarino for his … um … physique.

Well, Colamarino started this year at Single-A Modesto and hit .355/.450/.601 in 50 games before the A’s promoted him to Double-A. He has hit .314/.368/.571 in eight games since the promotion.

——————–

Here’s what I don’t get. Everyone is talking about what a bust the Moneyball draft class is and how silly Beane and company were for taking the approach they did, and all that sort of stuff. In reality though, of the seven first-round picks the A’s had, they chose four players who were ranked among Baseball America‘s top 55 draft-eligible players.

Baseball America ranked Swisher 34th and the A’s took him at #16. Blanton was ranked 18th and taken at #24. McCurdy was ranked 45th and drafted #26. Fritz was ranked 53rd and taken at #30. Is there anything really unique or controversial about those four picks? Not at all. They used their first four picks on highly-ranked college players.

What that means is that the only really unique things the A’s did were a) draft all college players and b) use three of their seven first-round picks on players who were not highly ranked by Baseball America. As I discussed earlier this week, several teams used their first 20+ picks on college players this year, so what the A’s did in 2002 in that regard is nothing out of the ordinary, or at least it isn’t anymore.

What that leaves us with is that the A’s, faced with seven first-round picks and the prospect of trying to sign those seven first-rounders with their always-limited budget, went with some universally top-ranked guys with their first four picks and then took some chances on three lesser-ranked players with their later picks. Two of those lesser-ranked guys (Brown, Obenchain) aren’t looking particularly good, but they may have found a potential impact player in Teahen, drafted 39th overall and ranked as the 134th-best player in the draft by Baseball America.

Of the four players they took who were ranked highly by Baseball America, I would say that two of them (Swisher, Blanton) are doing well thus far and are, two years later, considered by most to be legitimate prospects with impact potential. McCurdy, ranked 45th by Baseball America, looks like a bust, and Fritz, ranked 53rd by Baseball America, looks very mediocre.

Again, when you look at it this way, is there really anything unique or controversial about this? Like many things contained in Michael Lewis’ book, I think much of the stuff related to the A’s 2002 draft, both then and now, has been blown out of proportion.

Oakland had a ton of first-round picks and they had a limited budget, so they took four top-ranked guys and then three “sleepers” or “reaches.” Two of the top-ranked guys — the first two taken — are doing nicely, while two aren’t doing much. One of the reaches — taken with their fifth first-rounder — is doing nicely, while the two other aren’t doing much.

Much ado about nothing, if you ask me. You won’t be able to look at the drafting records of many teams without finding much of the same “hit-and-miss” success rate, even for the first 30-50 selections in the draft. Right now it looks like the A’s have two busts, two possible major-league contributors and one or two potential impact players with their seven first-round picks. Is that a great return? No. Is that a great return considering all of the attention their 2002 draft class got? Definitely not. Is it unbelievably horrible? I just don’t see it.

The first round of the 2002 draft, despite being just two years in the past, is already littered with players who are essentially busts, for one reason or another. Hell, the #3 pick in the entire draft, a high school pitcher named Chris Gruler, has, thanks to injuries, pitched a total of 5.2 professional innings with a 27.00 ERA. The #8 pick in the draft, a high school shortstop named Scott Moore, hit .239/.325/.369 at Single-A last season and is hitting just .210/.332/.365 at Single-A so far this season. The #10 pick in the draft, a college hitter named Drew Meyer, hit .273/.320/.363 in his first 178 pro games and is hitting just .234/.303/.305 at Double-A so far this season.

Those early “busts” were all taken before the A’s even made their first pick in the draft, taking Nick Swisher at #16, and there are plenty of other similar examples to be found later in the draft. And all three of those guys — two from high school and one from college; one pitcher and two hitters — were ranked among Baseball America‘s top 30 players heading into the draft, with both Gruler (7) and Moore (12) ranked in the top 15.

All of which is an extremely long way of saying that this entire MLB draft thing is a complete crapshoot. The A’s simply found a new approach to the crapshoot that they liked and that they thought would yield results more along the lines of what they wanted. Turns out all it yielded was the same group of hits and misses that the other teams’ approaches to the crapshoot yield.

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