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Rethinking Moneyball

Jeff Passan
Yahoo Sports

CHICAGO – Another Jason Giambi.

Mark Teahen was called that once. During the preparation for the 2002 draft, the Oakland Athletics' scouting director, Eric Kubota, said if there were someone in the class who could develop like Giambi – from a big, strong singles hitter into a powerful corner infielder – it was Teahen. And this is public knowledge only because the A’s opened their doors that year to author Michael Lewis, who chronicled Oakland’s methods in the seminal book “Moneyball.”

“I’d like to say I’m past all of it,” Teahen said, “but it’s always going to be with me. It’s always going to be with all of us.”

It’s been more than four years since the Moneyball draft, in which the A’s had seven first- and sandwich-round picks, and their modus operandi that day still divides even the greatest baseball minds. Considering Oakland selected all college players, with the idea they were closer to the big leagues and safer bets, it seems like a fair time to look back at that draft, particularly with what Teahen has done for the team to which Oakland traded him, the Kansas City Royals.

Since they recalled Teahen on June 3 after a month-long demotion to Triple-A Omaha, he has been among the best third basemen in the American League, if not the best. In 68 games, he’s hitting .307 with 13 home runs and 49 RBIs. His on-base percentage, the a la mode to the A’s pie, is a robust .392. For the time being, Teahen has turned into everything Kansas City hoped when it acquired him as the centerpiece of the Carlos Beltran trade – and just as much as Kubota hoped, seeing that Teahen’s numbers in that span are not only similar to Giambi’s but better than his teammate Alex Rodriguez’s, too.

“We couldn’t possibly be happier for anyone,” said A’s assistant general manager David Forst, one of general manager Billy Beane’s trusted lieutenants in 2002. “He’s such a good kid. We knew from the limited amount of time we had him, his potential was very high.

“Along the line of things that were unfair to players, [the comparison to Giambi] was near the top. Eric hears that one just about every day. It was just a sign of confidence that he was going to be a good player.”

Teahen has graduated to that level, much like outfielder/first baseman Nick Swisher, chosen by the A’s with the 16th pick in 2002, and pitcher Joe Blanton, taken 24th overall. They are big leaguers, no question about it, and any scouting director will contend that a draft class with three established big-league players is a success.

At the same time, with seven of the first 39 picks in 2002, the A’s did their share of busting. Shortstop John McCurdy is still stuck at Class A, as is pitcher Steve Obenchain, who underwent arm surgery last season. Pitcher Ben Fritz, coming off Tommy John surgery, is up to Triple-A and should get a shot sometime next season.

The final player in the class, catcher Jeremy Brown, has bounced between Triple-A Sacramento and Oakland this season. Along with Teahen, Brown boiled the scouts’ blood. They barely knew of him, and those who did dissected his rotund physique like a panel of Mr. Universe judges.

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.

“It’s hard for anyone to be objective about that draft because of the publicity it got, because of the discussion it created over the last four years,” Forst said. “Ultimately, what we took out of the draft and that book is that it brought a lot of attention to what we do and what players do. No matter which side of the fence you’re on, it’s been good for the game.”

While Forst is right – anything that challenges baseball’s staid traditions is welcome, if for no other reason than to see if those traditions are, in fact, what work best – there remain skeptics. They are referred to as “baseball men,” as if those who crunch numbers aren’t.

Teahen’s manager is a baseball man. His name is Buddy Bell. He played third base for 18 seasons in the major leagues, won six Gold Gloves and made five All-Star teams. He likes players who do things “the right way,” which is another baseball term that means they show up on time, work hard and don’t forget the fundamentals. He preaches aggressiveness at the plate and rarely consults statistics. He has not read “Moneyball.”

“There’s so much more to this game than just stats and OPS, PMS, whatever it’s called,” Bell said. “Stats do have some influence on me. I try to look at a minimum of them. Matchups over a course of time. I do a lot of that, and it tells me some stuff. But I have found that knowing the little I do about it, the guys that come up through that system – it’s almost like they’re too passive. They’re not aggressive early in the count. There’s probably a stat out there that tells me I’m wrong.”

Bell is tan, his face creased with wrinkles from scowling so many times at the woebegone Royals, but players like Teahen give him faith. Since Teahen returned from Triple-A, Bell sees a different ballplayer, one who no longer panics with two strikes.

On Thursday, Teahen was facing his former teammate, Chicago White Sox reliever Mike MacDougal. He worked the count to 2-2, then fouled off three consecutive pitches. On the fourth, a sinker riding away, the left-handed Teahen extended his arms and drove an opposite-field home run.

“Pitchers are pitching him differently, too,” Bell said. “He’s a threat. If I’m the pitcher and see a guy who’s a run producer, I’m going to pitch him differently. He’s probably swung through more balls since he came back than he did before he went down. He’s not afraid to swing through balls. It doesn’t have to be the perfect pitch for him to get after.”

Oakland values players who have the eye to pick a perfect pitch and the discipline to hold back if it isn’t the right one. They draft kids from high school and college who show it – though high school data is far less reliable than that of college players – and instill it further at each level. Bell believes this neuters the natural instinct of a player, and he trusts his scouts will find the players with the most innate ability.

Teahen? He knows Oakland drafted him because he values taking pitches … yet sometimes he can’t seem to lay off some really bad ones. He is like the swing voter, with both sides tugging at him and trying to get him to buy into the platform.

“It hasn’t hurt me,” Teahen said. “In Oakland’s organization, they were pushing (Moneyball) guys to prove they were right. And at the same time, people around baseball weren’t exactly rooting against us, but if we failed they wouldn’t be sad about it.”

Teahen read the book. He liked the behind-the-scenes action that Lewis captured so well, and for a while, whenever he spoke with his peers in the class, they talked about it.

Now, not so much. While Teahen chats with them frequently, the book rarely makes its way into the discussion. Even though “Moneyball” is stuck on them, they’re no longer stuck on it.

Because Teahen’s got a career to carve out. He’s only 24. He’s batting cleanup against right-handed pitchers. He might move to right field next season to make room for Alex Gordon, perhaps the top prospect in baseball. He wants the kind of career Eric Kubota alluded to, as wild as it seems.

“You can feel success,” Teahen said, “and at every level I’d had it. For my first year in the big leagues last year, and for the start of this season, I didn’t remember it.

“Finally, I’m staring to get it again. It’s vindicating”

The more the Moneyball class succeeds, the more the Oakland A’s know what he means.

You're so 'Money'
Some of the first-round choices from the Oakland A's Moneyball class have started out well in the big leagues, and others don't look like they'll come close to getting there. Here are the current numbers for the A's seven first- and sandwich-round picks.
Name Team Pick Age BA OBP SLG HR RBI R BB/K
Nick Swisher Oakland 16 25 .254 .365 .481 25 70 83 68/112
Mark Teahen Kansas City 39 24 .280 .357 .519 15 58 58 37/69
Jeremy Brown Sacramento 35 25 .254 .320 .434 10 30 31 22/49
John McCurdy Stockton 26 25 .282 .321 .459 12 46 46 14/69
Name Team Pick Age W-L ERA IP H BB K
Joe Blanton Oakland 24 25 13-9 4.53 149 177 47 79
Ben Fritz Sacramento 30 25 6-8 4.17 146.2 140 57 97
Steve Obenchain Stockton 37 25 0-1 0.63 14.1 14 1 19
Notes: Brown spent time with Oakland this season but did not get into a game. Fritz's numbers are combined between Double-A Midland and Triple-A Sacramento and Obenchain's are between the A's rookie-league team and High-A Stockton.
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