People will mark the day that the White Sox won the World Series as the beginning of the backlash, though it began at the tipping point the other way. The sabermetric revolution reached the masses -- and the ears of many owners for the first time - with Moneyball. Of course, it started years and years before. Moneyball begat The Numbers Game by Alan Schwarz, at least in the eyes of the public, tho it's Moneyball that became shorthand. Sabermetrics was a long, meaningless word with difficult spelling and to date, I'm not sure it's ever been uttered on ESPN without being attached to Moneyball.
As Beane's philosophy spread apostle-like (or more accurately, restarting a tradition of coaches such as Bear Bryant, Bill Walsh, and Vince Lombardi, as well as Paul Richards) to Toronto, Boston, and Los Angeles, as well as other outposts like Cleveland, Colorado, and Texas, the great story of Moneyball fast became legend. Legend, as we all know, trumps fact every time. The legend threatened a tobacco-stained oligarchy because they felt threatened, not that they were. No organization got rid of scouts and when they did fire them, it was never because they were replaced by a laptop. Scouts get fired, regularly, by organizations of all stripes. Almost everyone in baseball understands the "hired to be fired" mentality of the game.
Yet somehow, "fat scout" - the man that found Tim Hudson - was treated differently. Michael Lewis' insensitive nom de anon burned people. It was okay to call a clearly obese man fat if you're "one of us" but not if you're "one of them." The Capote-esque Lewis was anything but. Where it stops making sense is the transference of the vitriol from author, where it would be understandable if pointless, to subject. Billy Beane was that subject and his larger than life persona in and out of the inner circles allowed Lewis to write life writ big. Lewis wrote a story that became a legend, the goal of every writer, but Beane never set out to be a story.
Caught a rung below in the legend was Paul DePodesta. In the story, the former Harvard football player came off as a human laptop, the computer geek, the 98-lb weakling that would use a spreadsheet and Harvard education to get back at the bullies that had taken his lunch money. True? Not really. DePodesta had worked his way up and he was in the "new school" as a creator of information and reverse engineer.
Once the story was out - the negative things about Kenny Williams especially and the seeming disregard for scouting - the backlash began. But the backlash had already begun despite the outer appearance of a 'Moneyball revolution.' J.P. Ricciardi, Beane's former head scout, had taken over Toronto early enough to have an altered account of his team make the book. Mark Shapiro had his own information revolution, with a computer system, psychologists, and his own stathead assistant in place years earlier. Dan O'Dowd was in place in Colorado and several others, including Theo Epstein, were in waiting.
There have been books and columns and insane, fact-ignoring rants in the years since Moneyball came out and became the descriptive term for using business-based methodology in baseball. Most have some basis in friendship - writers protect their friends and more importantly their sources - and in fact. The book short-shrifted scouts in order to make a good story. By writing that good story and shifting it to a Faulknerian good vs bad scenario, Moneyball did as much damage as it did good. Don't get me wrong - it's a phenomenal book. It's a bad legend.
So it's really the book, or the idea of the book, and not the Kenny Williams-Ozzie Guillen Series win that started the backlash. We'll see it in retrospect, but history might say it was the sweep. It might look back and say that "Moneyball never won," either in the playoffs or in front offices. Days after the win, Theo Epstein is unsigned, Josh Byrnes moves to Arizona, and DePodesta is out of a job, stabbed by the oldest of the old school, Tommy Lasorda.
Tampa is an interesting situation, but there seems to be a creeping old-school movement, perhaps a current, where the old boys network is tightening up the ship and getting ready to use the White Sox as their next weapon of choice. "See, we run! We're a team, with chemistry and makeup!" they'll say. "No numbers running this team," they'll say, ignoring Dan Fabian, the Sox information director. A lack of self-awareness, of snap judgements as fast as Guillen's mouth will be the central theme.
"Luck is the residue of design." Branch Rickey is the patron saint of baseball. He's remembered as the man that hired Allan Roth and had the courage to stand up to racism, bringing Jackie Robinson into baseball, a choice of man that is as precious as the act itself. It's too simple to call it luck. The White Sox won the Series because they were the best team, both all season and through the playoffs. What we don't see - and we've looked - is a design, a masterplan. I'll leave that analysis to the analysts, but a cursory look makes it seem almost like the team equivalent of the 'best available athlete' draft strategy.
Carlos Lee was not turned into Scott Podsednik and Luis Vizcaino alone; the money saved became Jose Contreras and Orlando Hernandez. (Consider them one pitcher, as Don Cooper does.) Freddy Garcia was a happy accident, the near-relative of the manager that came available. At the time, the dollars and prospects seemed high. Russell Ortiz and Kris Benson changed the contract's relative value while Jeremy Reed was simply overrated by statheads. Williams probably enjoys that trade as much as any he's made -- and well he should.
Did Williams make these trades to fill out a rotation and swap Podsednik for Reed, two players with similar skills (at least in theory at the time of the deals)? Unlikely. Podsednik wasn't an expected trade and though Lee had been on the market, I couldn't find any discussion of the deal until it had happened. Once it had happened, even then, people focused on the loss of power. Lee's bat was replaced on the cheap - and possibly with the cost savings - by Jermaine Dye. Chalk another up to Kennyball. Dye had failed in Oakland, almost entirely due to his brutal leg injury. Two years out, he was damaged goods that most didn't want to risk a couple million on. The two moves I liked at the Winter Meetings last season - not that there were many - were Richard Hidalgo to the Rangers and Dye to the Sox. At least I was half right.
Add a castoff catcher with a whiff of BALCO on him, a waiver bait pitcher or two, and some underachieving inhouse players. Simmer, stir, and attempt not to be distracted by the one great player the team has during a cameo appearance. Six months later, World Series. That's hardly the recipe. Teams will talk about the Sox model, but no one outside of the Angels has tried this year over year and there, it's more money than anything despite a Latinization program. Is there a way to intentionally do what the White Sox have done?
It's the potato chip plan, a term I learned in the insurance industry. The legend goes that Cornelius Vanderbilt liked his french fries thin - very thin. He sent back a set and a peeved chef shaved them as thin as paper, fried them up and sent them out as a "screw you" to the robber baron ... who loved them, building a snack industry a century later. Happy accidents happen and like Seinfeld says, cinnamon seems to always be the secret ingredient. The White Sox might have some grand plan on a white board inside US Cellular. There might be a formula that Dan Fabian found. Don Cooper might be the next Leo Mazzone. Ozzie Guillen could be the next Casey Stengel (and is about as understandable at times.) Mark Buehrle could be the next Greg Maddux and Jon Garland could be the next Tom Glavine, rattling off wins for the better part of a decade.
And like luck, potato chips leave a residue behind.
The upcoming backlash is a quick snack, the snap judgement of those looking for a reason. The White Sox are a broken bottle, the weapon of opportunity, not of choice. They'll just as soon bludgeon the Yankees and Red Sox with their own checkbooks. They'll ignore the blended approach of Tim Purpura, Kevin Towers, and Walt Jocketty for the more expeditious free-swinging high risk, high reward Angels and White Sox. The backlash will be led by people that would be better served by trying to find a new generation to mold, to find the middle ground that so many refuse to acknowledge exists.
Ever heard a journalist use the scouting scale? Even in the "anonymous" scout quotes we see occasionally, they'll edit out the "he's got an 80 heater" comments, as if the public can't understand. Or is it that the journalists are also kept out of this secret society? I had a long conversation with someone on the scouting side of the street about "makeup." It's the secret sauce of scouts and according to many, it's the big factor in why some first round, cant-miss prospects miss. Bad makeup. What is that? Asked, this person described ten or twelve different factors to makeup and I asked "well, which one is common in the failures?" Wouldn't it be better to have twelve factors to see if one is more important than the other? What if work ethic was the real problem, or pitchability? Arguing makeup is like proving a negative. Scouts would be better served by a more objective approach while statheads could learn a lot from a long talk with a man who's watched more baseball than I ever could hope to.
So watch out. With DePodesta's firing and the upcoming moves, we're likely to see the backlash in full effect. Smile, duck your head, and try not to get too much of it on you. The road of evolution is longer than that of revolution, but much more lasting.