Wednesday, April 19, 2006
As I began to write my review of Built To Win I referred to my notes I jotted down when I began to read. “Arrogant”, “Self-important”, “Self-aggrandizing”, “Ego-centric” were the words I had written. Then I remembered Joe Morgan’s words about Billy Beane:
“It’s typical if you write a book you want to be the hero.”
(Moneyball, page 293.) It is ironic that Joe Morgan hated Beane so much for a book that he (falsely) thought Beane by himself wrote to feed his own ego when John Schuerholz comes along and writes the Anti-Moneyball, a 288-page self-congratulatory celebration of one man’s genius for evaluating talent and building a winning franchise. I wonder if Morgan will bother to read Schuerholz's book before he praises it.
Essentially Built To Win is Schuerholz’s tour of his last decade-and-a-half as the Atlanta Braves General Manager, a tour of duty that (as Schuerholz never fails to remind us) saw the Braves win the World Series once, lose four others and win a bunch of division titles. Schuerholz touches on a few topics here-and-there, including his iron-clad (and not entirely convincing) insistence that the Braves did nothing (or could do nothing) to shield Rafael Furcal from liability for his DUI arrest prior to the playoffs, his mournful efforts to enlighten that loveable redneck bigot John Rocker, and his abject hatred of Moneyball and sabremetrics. I’ll note that I think any baseball book that cites to Rush Limbaugh and not Bill James in its Index is fundamentally flawed. (Why does Rush come up? Schuerholz and the pill-popping right-wing windbag are friends, a fact that makes me surprised that Schuerholz didn’t steal Limbaugh’s “talent on loan from God” moniker for the subtitle rather than the more pedestrian and humbler “Inside Stories and Leadership Strategies from Baseball’s Winningest GM”.)
As I said, this is an ode to Schuerholz's strategy of victory through pitching, defense, scouting and paying lots 'o cash to get the first three. Odiously, Schuerholz describes the Braves approach as “winning-ball”, and reminds you of the Braves success by citing (ad naseum) to the Braves multitude of division titles, playoff appearances, World Series appearances, their World Series championship … And you don’t don’t want to take Schuerholz’s word for it, take the words of the all of the players who pop in with quotes like: “Wow, I can’t believe the winner you’ve built here. I wish my teams General Manager was as brilliant and wonderful as your General Manager.” Okay, nobody ever said that last part, but they probably have in Schuerholz’s head.
True, the Braves have had a remarkable run since Schuerholz took over in 1990, though I think their success, especially in the beginning, had more to do with Ted Turner’s endless pockets than Schuerholz’s genius. In fact, I remember that the opening blurb in SI’s 1990 Baseball Preview issue noted that the Braves intended to dramatically increase their operating budget to reverse a long-period of mediocrity and cheapness. So having a sugar-daddy funnel money into the organization helped Schuerholz immediately build up a team that feasted on mediocre foes in the 1990s. The move to the three-division format was a godsend to the Braves. No longer would they tangle with the Cardinals and Cubs, historically savvy franchises willing to spend cash. The cheap Phillies, the hapless Expos, the comically inept Mets and the cheaper (and unloved) Florida Marlins played great Wile E. Coyotes to Schuerholz’s Roadrunners in the ‘90s. With the poor quality of the opposition aiding them to coast through the regular season unscathed, Schuerholz’s vaunted teams collapsed in the playoffs again and again when confronted with superior talent. Tellingly, the Florida Marlins have more World Series trophies than Schuerholz Braves.
Along the way, Schuerholz anointed himself as the defender of the faith for baseball's old guard, launching an angry, incoherent attack on Moneyball early on, patronizingly stating that “Moneyball made for a good read, even though I fell the basic premise is terribly flawed.” (Page 37.) Tellingly, Schuerholz “proves” Moneyball arguments are incorrect by misrepresenting them:
E.g.: Schuerholz states on page 27 as proof (yes, iron-clad, CSI-style proof) Moneyball doesn’t work the Red Sox victory in the 2004 World Series. Why is the Red Sox victory in the series, widely held as a triumph of sabremetrics, proof of its fallibility? (In fact, gosh, didn't the staff at Baseball Prospectus write an entire book on the subject?) Well, Schuerholz states that the Red Sox won by bolstering their defense and getting a “true” closer, which Schuerholz says “is not a big part of the Moneyball blueprint.” (Huh?) That blueprint, Schuerholz represents, is “substantially, On-Base Percentage for position players and groundball outs for pitchers – a pure statistical way to put a team together.” Ta-da, Schuerholz wins the argument by mis-stating it. I’ll note that Moneyball is really about finding and exploiting market inefficiencies. OBP was under-valued by the market, thus the A’s exploited that by emphasizing OBP. Defense has long been under-valued by the market and the Moneyball teams have moved to exploit that as well. (Last week's SI talked about the fact that there are so many Moneyball teams in the AL and that the NL's unwillingness to adopt Moneyball tactics are the big reason for the talent gulf between the AL and NL. Click here for Tom Verducci's "Out Of Their League".) As Peter Gammons noted in 2004, defense is the Next Frontier of sabremetrics. The A’s have moved in their direction, moving Bobby Crosby up to be their shortstop and acquiring Mark Kotsay as their centerfielder. Schuerholz should have the intellectual honesty to know that by tampering with the argument you are refuting, you are proving nothing.
This is an overall theme to Schuerholz’s work: rigging the facts to support his beliefs. There is no self-examination, no even-handed analysis to Schuerholz’s work. I say give Billy Beane credit for being flexible and willing to change with the times. Billy has let Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye and countless other “key” players walk away and kept right on winning. Schuerholz keeps plugging away with the same supporting cast (don't take Schuerholz's whining about economics dictating his decision to deal Kevin Millwood seriously) because he can afford them. Billy Beane can’t.
I joked a little while ago that someone (I think I suggested Morgan) needed to write the Anti-Moneyball and ta-da! Here it is. It is ironic that the reaction from baseball's old guard was so angry and amounted to making a mountain out of a molehill. Here is an intellectually dishonest book written by a self-important egomaniac. Sabremetricians have a right to make a mountain out of the molehill that this book is. It every thing the old guard insisted Moneyball was: an ode to a man's ego, and a singular triumph of wrong-headed thinking.
Terrible. Don't waste your money.
Nats 10, Phils 3 ... terrible game. Cory Lidle might have been the losing pitcher but the Phillies bullpen shattered any chance of a comeback with their terrible performance. Lidle went seven innings and gave up four runs on nine hits and no walks. Rhodes and Geary went two innings and gave up six runs on six hits and three walks. Absolutely terrible. The strain on the rotation is going to be exceptional if they begin each night thinking: "Uh-oh, I need to go eight innings tonight or I'm going to take a loss or no-decision on this one."
The Marlins are another anti-Moneyball team (whatever that means).
(And how many has Beane won again?)
Somebody said old ideas don't defeat new ideas on the merits; old ideas only die when their proponents do. So sabermetrics isn't ready to rule the world just yet.
It is called the "$25000.00 Idea". It will help you in all your endeavors.
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