Beyond Moneyball: Player development

Crystal-ball what the next move of the Moneyball folks will be. OBP and defense are now starting to be correctly valued; what (other than the draft) will be the next big thing that is undervalued that smart teams will take advantage of?
—Ed, Philadelphia

I think the key word in the question is the plural “folks.” The spread of the Oakland approach to the game—trying to measure more accurately the value of players, and find inefficiencies to exploit—means that there are fewer inefficiencies to exploit. Obviously the draft is the biggest opportunity, if an opportunity it is; that is, if there is ever any better way to evaluate amateur players. Beyond that, I don’t know. The health of pitchers’ arms, perhaps?
— Michael Lewis, on Baseball Prospectus

Lewis’ book Moneyball talks about how the Oakland Athletics use sabermetrics to enhance their player selection productivity, what Lewis terms “the art of creating the unfair advantage.” Moneyball also exposes major league baseball’s soft underbelly: how MLB organizations actually do select and evaluate players.

This series, “Beyond Moneyball,” is written from the perspective of an MLB outsider who specializes in player development but was not born or brought up in the professional baseball establishment. “Beyond Moneyball” looks in depth at the controversy Moneyball started, “stat versus scout,” by re-examining the major league player selection and evaluation process, including sabermetrics. But is sabermetrics really a better way? And what happens after the player is evaluated and selected?

“Beyond Moneyball” introduces the concept of “scouting biometrics.” It explores the most sacred player attribute, “talent,” and how to “develop” it. Using research from the scientific disciplines biomechanics, physiology, motor learning and development expertise, the series will make the case for this: At the professional level, player development is almost nonexistent. Making it to a major league roster is determined almost solely by the MLB player draft.”

“The draft has never been anything but a f**king crapshoot,” Billy has taken to saying. “We take 50 guys and we celebrate if two of them make it. In what other business is 2 for 50 a success? If you did that in the stock market, you go broke.
—Billy Beane on the MLB draft, Moneyball, page 17)

The starting point for player development is the major league draft, held this week and every spring. The current process consists of 50 rounds (up to 50 players per organization). In other major sports, the NFL has a six-round draft (for a 55-player roster) and the NBA two rounds (15 players per team). The MLB draft provides each organization with equal opportunity to select the absolute best baseball players in the world. And I do mean world. At the beginning of the 2007 season, 29 percent of major leage players and 46 percent of those in the minors were born outside the United States, according to an AP article last year.

The draft works to the extent that no organization has a draft selection advantage in terms of available players. Unless a team chooses to trade its draft pick, the draft order is from worst to best, based on the previous year’s team performance. What upsets drafting parity is the very thing that the draft was created to prevent, the economic advantage of one team over another. Dollars dictate players’ “signability,” (known as the Scott Boras syndrome), so money is a significant factor in the draft. Teams with deep pockets continue to have an advantage over those that do not.

Free agency is an alternative to player development. Contending teams are created in part through acquisition of free agents rather than total dependence on the organization’s draft and player development efficiencies. But with more than 50 selections every year from the best baseball prospects in the world, why should any organization have to depend on free agency to build a contender?

The reality is that at any given time, major league organizations are lucky to have two or three players per minor league team who are considered prospects.

Graham believes the foundation of a successful, self-sustaining organization is the drafting and developing of young talent. His aim is to have three legitimate prospects on each of the Pirates’ minor-league clubs and to have each of them properly nurtured to play in the majors.

One would think with the choice of 50 players a year from the amateur ranks, foreign nationals who do not have to go through the draft process and players who were previously signed by other teams and have become available, there should be more viable prospects in an organization. The numbers just don’t seem to add up.

Organizations such as Minnesota and Oakland do continually outperform others with respect to getting the most return for player dollars expended. But even their numbers don’t equate to what one might expect from choosing more than 50 players every year from the world’s talent pool of players.

As with many things in life, looks can be deceiving.

Once a player is drafted, he usually is assigned to a minor league organization. Ideally, the competitive level is such that it allows the player to succeed while at the same time stretching his capabilities. Player success creates motivation and the right level of competition develops greater skill. These are concepts embodied in what is called “deliberate practice.” How rapidly a player advances through the minor leagues is a function of his success at each level of competition. Players who make it to the major leagues spend on average four to five years in the minors.

MLB organizations like to cite draft statistics to affirm the success of their draft decisions. The percentage of players taken in the first round who make it to the major league roster is significantly greater than from any other round. According to MLB statistics, there is a direct correlation between the round you are drafted in and your probability of making it to a major league roster. The biggest statistical difference is between first-round and second-round selections. After that, the percentage of players drafted in each subsequent round who make it to the majors decreases in a relatively consistent manner. (“Doctoring The Numbers, The Draft,” by Rany Jazayerli, Baseball Prospectus May 13, 2005).

Mental Health and the CBA
A particular bit of language in the latest CBA could have negative consequences for some players.

Statistics can be very informative, but they also can be misleading. In looking at players who make it to the majors by draft round, there is the potential for statistical bias. Here’s why:

The theory of deliberate practice states that expertise is a function of time and environment. The longer a player competes, the greater the potential for developing the necessary skill and expertise to compete at the major league level. The main reasons draft statistics are potentially flawed are these variables:

1. Performance: The player continues to do well and advances as expected.
2. The amount of money and time invested in the player.
3. The player’s physical attributes—size, athleticism, etc.; i.e., what many consider the “player potential”..
4. Whether the player has a “Godfather” within the organization (an individual who has a personal investment in the player and is in a position of authority).

The more money invested in a prospect, the greater the opportunity afforded to that prospect to fail and still be given the time to succeed. As one former major league player put it, first-round “draft choices don’t have to succeed until they reach the major league level.” The rationale behind this statement is straightforward. Major league clubs have a lot of money (and ego) invested in their early-round draft choices.

Developing the high-level swing and throw techniques necessary to succeed in the majors is a process of repetition and refinement. The highest form of practice is the game situation. The more opportunity you have to play and the higher the level of play, the greater the probability of developing the skills necessary to succeed.

There is at least one other advantage to being drafted in the first round: It follows you for the rest of your playing life. Players who are drafted in the first round and subsequently released by their team have a far greater chance of being picked up by another team, in no small part because of their previous draft selection number.

A significant number of late-round draft choices do make it to MLB rosters. One of the more notable examples is Mike Piazza. As the story goes, he was drafted in 1988 by the Dodgers in the 62nd and last round as a favor to his family—his father was a close friend of the Los Angeles manager, Tommy Lasorda.

Piazza is an example of what I believe is a significant obstacle for every organization attempting to select and develop players, the use of the word “talent.” The word should be banned from every organization’s scouting and player development vocabulary.

I had a conversation with someone who knew Piazza. The person told me that Piazza used his swing in the batting cage for hours, at times until his hands bled. That’s what is termed “deliberate practice.”

Kenny Rogers, Andy Pettitte, Jorge Posada, Shane Spencer, Paul Lo Duca, Wade Miller, Roy Oswalt, Mark Buehrle, Marcus Giles, Junior Spivey. That’s a fairly impressive list of major leaguers. And they all have something in common (besides being major leaguers, of course)—each remains with the team that selected him in Round 20 or later of baseball’s annual draft.

The financial structure of the draft, the monetary drop-off that exists between first and subsequent rounds, implies that there is a significant drop-off in “talent” as the draft progresses. It is the contention of “Beyond Moneyball” is that there is gold in the lower draft rounds, assuming you know how to prospect for it. There is also a lot of fool’s gold if you do not.

What Moneyball started.

“A RELIGIOUS WAR is taking place in baseball, and it has a fair share of gurus, zealots, scribes and heretics. The fight, not unlike the one between PC and Mac, is about belief in different operating systems. On one side are the traditionalists, who cling to an old system that relies heavily on the opinions of “baseball men,” such as scouts and team executives, to divine a winning combination of players with a grasp of time-honored fundamental baseball. What was good for John McGraw, manager of the 1903 New York Giants, is good for Jack McKeon, manager of the 2003 world champion Florida Marlins.

On the other side are the progeny of new information age, who view the traditionalists as a flat earth society and believe in substituting data for subjectivity whenever possible. These people have a name, thanks to last year’s best-selling book by Michael Lewis: Moneyball guys. Lewis’ book (SI, May 12, 2003) was about the new operating system. Specifically, it was about how the Oakland A’s, under general manager Billy Beane, have used the system to run a successful franchise (October excluded) on a shoestring budget.

Business people hailed Beane as an innovator who took the romance out of building a team and treated ball players as stocks, with his own prescriptions for managing risk. Many baseball people, however, bristled at Lewis’ depiction of Beane as an infallible mastermind and of the traditionalists as rubes. Some writers and commentators sympathetic to the traditionalist school took a similar harsh view of both Beane and the book. What follows is Lewis’ response: less an epilogue to Moneyball than a new offensive in baseball’s holy war.”
—Introduction to “Out Of Their Tree,” Michael Lewis, Sports Illustrated), March 1, 2004.

Beyond Moneyball…

If you strip out the “sex and violence” (the sizzle), Moneyball chronicles a “thinking out of the box” approach by Beane and his use of statistics and mathematical modeling (sabermetrics) to help evaluate players as opposed to the long-held scouting practices centered on physical attributes. Moneyball contrasts how scouts and coaches traditionally evaluate players (talent) to the use of statistical factors (on-base percentage, slugging percentage, etc.) and their impact on winning or losing baseball games.

Key words here are “evaluating” and “selecting.” Moneyball does not address what continually eludes all levels of baseball: “How does an organization definitively, quantitatively not only evaluate ‘talent,’ but develop it?” Moneyball also raises the issue of what organizational thinking is necessary to provide the greatest potential for player development. It does not deal with the question “after the player is drafted, what does an organization need to do to develop the ‘talent’ necessary to produce winning sabermetrics numbers?“

Today, the debate rages, albeit not nearly as publicly as it did upon the release of “Moneyball.” It is not so much scouts vs. stats anymore as it is finding the right balance between information gleaned by scouts and statistical analyses. That the Moneyball draft has produced three successful big-league players, a pair of busts and two on the fence only adds to its polarizing nature.

“Beyond Moneyball” continues where Moneyball left off and outlines this next step in gaining the unfair advantage.

Next time: “In search of MLB’s Holy Grail.”

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