Wednesday, March 5, 2008

Jermy Brown, Chad Bradford and Moneyball

The recent retirement of Jeremy Brown, a minor league catcher for the Oakland As, attracted an unusual amount of attention, since the drafting of Browne, a fat college player who no one else thought was a big leaguer, is one of the central events of Moneyball, Michael Lewis’ book about the Oakland As, their manager Billy Beane, and their surprising ability to stay competitive, through the use of cutting edge statistics, despite having only a fraction of the resources of most baseball teams. Since Beane’s model rested heavily on optimal use of the draft, many have used Brown’s retirement to voice the opinion, largely held in baseball circles, that the “moneyball model” is stupid, and fans of statistical analysis are starting to call these critics stupid in return.

It is peculiar how much Moneyball is a rallying point in the debate about statistics and baseball. On the mainstream side of things, the book is met with a resentment that is altogether unnatural and weird; as a response to this hostility, the book’s adherents adore it with a fervor that is as cult-like as anything on this side of the Rocky Horror Picture Show. In attempting to deconstruct the mainstream hostility to Moneyball and statistical analysis, the stat minded frequently refer to a dichotomy between the complex realities revealed by statistics and the stories that sports writers like to write, which are pleasantly familiar to the audience, and easy to tell.

For all the conversation surrounding Moneyball, it is almost always assessed on the strength of its arguments, and seldom, if ever, regarded as a literary work, which is a shame. As much as anything else, Moneyball owes its strange power to being exceptionally well written and marvelously told. And, as a literary work, it rests largely on fugues derived from one of the classic sports stories: the story of the athlete who, due to some clear and glaring disadvantage, was generally deemed unfit to play but, in the end, proved everyone wrong.

It is the story of Beane’s minor-league roommate, Lenny Dykstra, short and psychotic, who rushed past the athletic and charming Beane into the major leagues; it is the story of fat Jeremy Brown, drafted in the first round; it is the story of Scott Hatteberg, whose knees were too shot to go on catching and looked to be out of baseball until the Athletics reinvented him as a first baseman; and it is the story of Chad Bradford, and his weird and wonderful sub-side-arm delivery.

Watching Bradford pitch has always evoked, for me, a very child-like quality of joy. Perhaps, there is something inherently whimsical about the submarine motion of his arm—mainly there is the quizzical thought, as he drops his hand to the ground “oh, no that’s not how your supposed to do that,” and then he whips the arm up, (whoops-zip), sending the ball looping towards the plate-- the simple delight in seeing something so far out of the ordinary; the living proof that cats can be skinned in many ways.*

Michael Lewis’ chapter on Bradford is one of the great pieces of baseball writing of our generation—perhaps the best thing that can be said about it is that it truly does justice to its subject and provides Bradford with a background and aura appropriate to his unique place in baseball. And, indeed, if other players mentioned in Moneyball have faded or disappointed, Bradford still ranks as a legitimate success for whatever philosophy brought him into prominence in the big leagues.

Whatever else it is, Moneyball is a good book that tells a good story—a highly subjective account of some people and some things that they did. It is not a manifesto, but a brief history of the Oakland Athletics and their manager, that describes how some of their thinking influenced some of their actions. If there is anything in particular to be learned from the book, it is that the As were generally rewarded for seeking a new perspective on player evaluation through the use of statistics: but what they sought, and what they found, was not a dogmatic or all encompassing program, but rather a different point of view—which, like other points of view, provided both illuminations and lapses, and has evolved and altered with the passing of time.

And at the end of the day, as is the case with the mainstream commentators approach to statistical analysis, it is always disheartening to have to watch the old guard reject the chance at a new perspective so haughtily, and cling so fervently to their well worn dogmas in response.


*Clearly, I am strongly prejudiced in favor of Bradford, since he pitched for the Mets during what is now considered a magical season. But a lot of the magic was enabled by the fact that they led the NL in bullpen ERA. (Scott Schowenwise & Guillermo Mota: I hate you)

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