Last Thursday, I couldn’t fall asleep. This has happened to me from time to time throughout my life, usually around when I have an important decision to make, and the stress from analyzing the potential outcomes from making that decision become overwhelming. I’ve found that in these instances resistance is futile, and it’s best to just accept the fact that I’m going to be a zombie equivalent the next day, so I might as well watch a movie and try to get my mind off of whatever is vexing me.
That night, I sneaked out of bed, fired up Netflix and watched Inherit The Wind, the 1960 film adaptation of a play by the same name that’s based on the 1925 Scopes Monkey trial, but is really an allegory about the dangers of McCarthyism. It’s charming in the way that only classic movies can be. It’s got the snappy dialogue, the overstated reactions and a clear moral to the story.
One line from the film stood out among all the others. It was delivered by Gene Kelly, showing that he was far more than just a song and dance man, portraying a role loosely based on journalist H.L. Mencken. His character, E.K. Hornbeck, is confronted by the antagonist of the plot for being biased against those in power.
It is the duty of a newspaper to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.
A minimal amount of research reveals that the quote was actually first attributed to humourist Finley Peter Dunne more than 60 years before the movie, but that doesn’t diminish the importance of what’s being suggested. Personally speaking, I believe it to be relevant to much of the baseball writing online.
However, as sabermetric thinking becomes more prevalent, I’ve struggled with identifying in terms of baseball thinking exactly who are the comfortable and who are the afflicted. I wonder if in some ways, following the ethos of Hornbeck might result in modern baseball writers constantly defending the actions of Fredi Gonzalez. God forbid.
I’d like to think that things become a bit clearer whenever Jon Paul Morosi of FOX Sports posts a column. For as much prevalence as analytical thinking in baseball has earned, there are many beyond the sheltered community found in our collective Twitter feeds who still believe in the ridiculous stats vs. scouts dichotomy, or at the very least, are willing to entertain such beliefs for the sake of page views and click throughs.
In his latest posting, Morosi compares the Toronto Blue Jays approach to the 2010 Major League draft with the Oakland A’s 2002 round of selections, made famous by Moneyball. Calling into question whether or not he actually read the book that dedicates multiple pages to the Athletics’ preparation for the draft, he labels what the Blue Jays did in 2010 as the anti-Moneyball approach, while describing it in terms that are almost completely identical to what Oakland did eight years prior: exploit a market inefficiency to gather what they believed was greater value than their competitors.
Alex Anthopoulos succeeded J.P. Ricciardi (a Beane disciple) as the Toronto general manager in October 2009. The following year, because of departing free agents, Toronto had seven of the first 80 selections. Presented with a similar opportunity to the one Beane had in Oakland eight years prior, Anthopoulos took the diametrically opposite approach: He hired more scouts.
Anthopoulos, 35, while youthful and analytical, believes strongly in the expertise of veteran baseball observers. He thinks competitive advantages can be found in human capital. Today, the Blue Jays employ more area scouts — 24 — than any other franchise in baseball.
The difference between the A’s and Jays is that while Oakland exploited the emphasis placed on seeking high ceiling high school players, Toronto exploited an opportunity in information gathering. There is no stats versus scouts battle between the two teams. In fact, what’s not mentioned in the piece is that along with assembling a massive team of scouts, one of Anthopoulos’ first moves in charge was to contract Tom Tango, presumably to put together proprietary metrics for organizational use.
To his credit, Morosi doesn’t personally reduce his argument against analytics to the clichés that most would. Instead, he quotes Blue Jays prospect Noah Syndergaard, as a means of getting his dirty work done for him:
Nothing against Billy Beane, I guess, but I don’t think you can generate players with a computer.
Which brings us to the crux of Morosi’s article, that the so called Moneyball draft was a failure.
For as long as baseball is played, scouted and debated, they will be known as the Moneyball draft class: Nick Swisher, Joe Blanton, John McCurdy, Ben Fritz, Jeremy Brown, Steve Obenchain and Mark Teahen.
The revolutionary draft occurred 10 years ago this month. History has judged it a failure.
Not so fast. There was an unprecedented amount of attention and therefore unrealistic expectations attached to Oakland’s draft haul. A more reasonable summary of the picks is found in ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick’s review from September of last year.
The mixed bag of results is more a testament to the draft than Oakland’s approach. In that same 2002 draft, the Chicago Cubs had four of the top 38 selections and used them all on college pitchers — Rutgers University’s Bobby Brownlie, Ball State’s Luke Hagerty, Purdue’s Chadd Blasko and Orange Coast College’s Matt Clanton. Those four pitchers combined to throw zero innings in the majors. Meanwhile, the Cincinnati Reds drafted a Canadian-born catcher named Joey Votto with the 44th overall pick that year.
Crasnick quotes former A’s assistant GM and current Mets assistant GM Paul DePodesta who reflects on the 2002 draft with few regrets:
The baseball draft is very different than anything else. You’re talking about 50 percent of first-rounders becoming big leaguers and maybe 25 percent of second-rounders and down to 10 percent of third-rounders. The odds are very, very long. In a normal stable of picks, if you get one good big leaguer out of the draft, you’re basically playing par.
Could we have done better, knowing what we know now? Absolutely. But if we look back at that draft and see that all those guys got to the big leagues and a handful of them became good major league players, I think it’s something for us to be proud of.
Morosi would have his readers believe that the Blue Jays looked to the shortcoming of the 2002 draft for Oakland, and set about to do the opposite with their selections in 2010.
It was only a matter of time before an organization took note of what happened in Oakland — fired scouts, lost games — and decided the opposite approach might be wiser. The Toronto Blue Jays were that team, and 2010 was that year.
However, I’d argue that what Toronto did in 2010 has more in common with mimicking Oakland’s approach than doing the opposite. Both use thinking outside of the box to attain what they believed to be increased value. At the very least, what inspired Toronto to invest heavily in both scouts and analytics is more complicated than one team’s draft record eight years beforehand.
The Blue Jays, stuck in the highly competitive American League East, knew that they couldn’t compete in terms of acquiring high priced veteran talent like the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees. Simultaneously, they were able to witness first hand the Tampa Bay Rays attaining success without utilizing free agent opportunities. While Toronto might not benefit from the high draft picks that the Rays had attained in their build up, they examined ways in which they could compete much like the small market A’s did in the early aughties.
The team happened upon an approach that emphasized acquiring low priced and controllable talent. The best route to acquiring such assets was by investing heavily in the draft, not just in terms of signing bonuses, but also in the way of information gathering. And the best way to gather information was through the increased presence of scouts.
While I might agree with Morosi that without the 2002 draft, Toronto’s 2010 draft likely wouldn’t happen. However, it’s for different reasons all together.
The A’s approach, which resulted in such a mix bag, was an attempt to do something differently. It represents a moment in baseball history when a team took a step back, looked at what was happening in terms of the bigger picture and decided that it needed to look for a hidden advantage in order to compete on a more level playing field. While books and Hollywood movies would like us to believe that taking such risks will result in a total reversal of fortunes, the truth is that nothing is so concrete.
As Morosi suggests:
It will take years to evaluate the Anti-Moneyballers of 2010, just like it has taken a decade to reveal the full wisdom of Oakland’s 2002 draft.
But make no mistake, the Blue Jays will be quite pleased if they’re able to develop two players out of their 2010 selections that have careers like Nick Swisher and Joe Blanton. Who knows? Maybe Toronto was also able to keep the Jonathan Papelbon that the 2002 A’s drafted but failed to sign. The hope will always be for more, but thinking outside the box tends to make for results that aren’t as easy to define as good or bad, just as approaches at the front office level aren’t as easy to label as stats or scouts.
I don’t know if realizing this makes one comfortable or afflicted, but perhaps the overall lesson here, the 1960′s style moral of the story, is that as we learn more, things don’t get clearer. They get a bit murkier, a bit less easy to define. So while labeling things comfortable or afflicted may be just as futile as categorizing things as good or bad, stats or scouts, it’s our approach in embracing the complications that truly matter. That’s something that I strive to do, and it’s something that I believe the Toronto Blue Jays did with their 2010 draft selections.