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Sunday, April 24, 2005

Lewis on Steroids

No, Michael Lewis is not on steroids but he does write a very good piece on the subject in the New York Times Magazine published yesterday titled "Absolutely, Power Corrupts". I was alerted to the article by Baseball Musings.

I found two interesting aspects of the article. First, Lewis recounts the historically weak predictive power in the amateur draft by citing the research of Eddie Epstein.

Epstein took the first two rounds of the drafts from 1987 to 1998 and divided the picks into two groups: the supposedly ''can't miss'' players, taken with the first 20 picks and paid millions of dollars to sign professional contracts; and the ''shouldn't miss'' players, taken in the bottom of the first round and the top of the second round and paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to sign. Of the can't-miss prospects, less than half had meaningful major-league careers -- defined, modestly, by Epstein as having played regularly for three consecutive seasons -- and a quarter never appeared in a major-league game. Of the shouldn't-miss prospects, fully half never had an at-bat in the big leagues -just one in six had made it in the majors. One in six.

This accords pretty much with the research I cited awhile back. This kind of performance in the draft is then what led Billy Beane and the A's to change their draft strategy and instead of evaluating players based only on tools, they chose to use statistics as recounted by Lewis in Moneyball.

What's more interesting, however, is that Lewis then goes on to explain the concept that there are lots of players who are every bit as good as "major leaguers" and that there is no bright line separating the two.

The relatively new ability of big-league front offices to translate minor-league statistics into major-league equivalents has exposed another layer of confusion: a lot of players who make it to the major leagues are essentially interchangeable with those who don't. As Paul DePodesta, general manager of the Los Angeles Dodgers, puts it: "A very small percentage of the players in the big leagues actually are much better than everyone else, and deserve to be paid the millions. A slightly larger percentage of players are actually worse than players who are stuck in the minors, but those guys usually aren't the ones getting the big money. It's the vast middle where the bulk of the inefficiency lies -- the player who is a 'known' player due to his major-league service time making millions of dollars who can be replaced at little to no cost in terms of production with a player making close to the league minimum." Just beneath a thin tier of truly great big-league ballplayers is a roiling inferno of essentially arbitrary promotions and demotions, in which the outcomes are determined by politics, fashion, misunderstanding and luck. Put another way: the market for most baseball players is hugely speculative, more like the market for, say, new Internet stocks than the market for stocks in companies with healthy earnings. The investors don't know how to value the assets.

This is the kind of powerful insight that can lead to saving money for small market teams.

The second interesting aspect of the article was Lewis' profile of Royals third baseman Mark Teahan. Specifically, Lewis focuses on how Teahan is not a pull hitter and that attempts to make him so by both the A's and the Royals (George Brett spent two days with him last July) have failed. Lewis attributes Teahan's ability and preference to go to the opposite field as a result of his childhood wiffle ball games where left field was the short porch and hitting homeruns to right field resulted in outs since the ball ended up in a gutter. Even so, Teahan was the starting third baseman for the Royals this season before going on the DL.

I found this paragraph especially interesting.

Why was Kansas City -- which had had no interest in drafting Mark Teahen just two years earlier -- so keen on him now? The short answer is that their general manager needed a young third baseman, and Teahen was the most likely candidate. The long answer is that Kansas City, haltingly, was buying into the new school of baseball analysis. Baird had, not long ago, hired a statistical analyst. (''I'd tell you who he is,'' he says, ''but he doesn't want me to reveal his identity.'') He still values the opinions of his traditional scouts, of course. But when asked if he would have even thought to pursue Mark Teahen, if he had not had someone analyzing Mark Teahen's minor-league statistics, he says: ''That's tough to answer. I will tell you this -- that the numbers heighten the awareness of a player. And our scouts all said that they didn't think he'd hit for enough power.''

I don't know that I had heard before that Baird used a stats guy - good for him and good for the Royals. The point of Lewis' article, however, is that teams are trying to make everyone into power hitters when they shouldn't and that the pressure to become a power hitter on minor leaguers leads them down the road to steroids. Thankfully it appears that the Royals have allowed Teahan to follow his own path despite Brett's tutoring and Baird thinks Teahan will eventually hit for power and so isn't worried at this point. However, if he doesn't develop power then he had better hit a little more like Wade Boggs (a comparison Tony Pena made in spring training) than Mark McClemore. It is simply a fact of baseball that homeruns are the most efficient way to score runs and so when a player lacks that ability, they need a combination of other abilities (defense, plate discipline) to compensate.

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