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The Backlash
2005-10-30 17:44
by Will Carroll

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.

2005-10-30 20:18:02
1.   Jon Weisman
Great post, Will.
2005-10-30 20:45:44
2.   FoulTerritory
When he comes back, he comes back big. Thanks, Will.
2005-10-30 21:36:24
3.   Scott Long
Great piece, Will. It needed to be said.

As someone who felt like a lone wolf crying into the night about how Kenny Williams' moves since the Garcia trade have been excellent, this year was a vindication, but even I could never have even dreamed of the heights the Sox reached. Having said that, I hope there isn't a big swing away from the sabermetrical approach, because outside of OBP, the White Sox success is mostly measurable. I think the statistical approach to baseball can provide all the answers, it's just that we haven't figured out all the elements and the right formulas to measure it completely. Maybe the White Sox success will open eyes to including defensive range and how some spots in the batting order, OBP is more vital than in others.

2005-10-30 21:39:42
4.   Louis in SF
Will wonderful post, and love the line about Money Ball has legend. I think more than anything else Money Ball has taken on a larger than life philosophy, that many teams now employ to some degree or another. It is unfortunate that many in Dodgerland now will not be able to use some of its core philosphies, because the word has become so politicized.
2005-10-30 21:40:00
5.   chris in illinois
Don't you think Billy Beane is smiling just a little right now?? He was the subject of a book that didn't quite give the rest of MLB a blueprint for success on a budget as it provided an outline. Now it seems as if his method is losing cachet. Do not fewer teams following his strategies mean his own plans would be easier to carry out?? A succession of Indian, Blue Jay and Dodger playoff runs could have made it hard on the A's to keep up with additional teams 'goin' Moneyball'. Now if the Royals, Devil Rays or Rockies ever settle on a plan it'll probably revolve around giving away outs (games run long anyway you know).

This offseason should be interesting.

2005-10-30 21:50:31
6.   chris in illinois

I'd still would have rather seen Crede, Uribe, Dye....hell, let's be honest, everyone other than Konerko, get on base more often than they did in 2005. They probably would have won 115 games if they had a good+ offense.

Nice points all year about the defense and pitching which is clearly the key to their season. Where sabermetrics admittedly is weak is defensive evaluation. Uribe and Crede might be data points arguing in favor of defense over offense. The ChiSox victory might lead to the reduction of Jeff Kent type players in the middle infield, going back to a 70's style roster construction of athletic weak-ass hitters up the middle.

Of course these are the Sox who exist primarily to be ignored, so the burning question the national media will probably dwell on will be how Roger Clemens has dealt with his World Series loss.

2005-10-31 05:58:03
7.   Sushirabbit
I think I'll be rooting for the Twins now.
Boo hoo hoo.
2005-10-31 06:40:34
8.   thewebb
"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."

Am I reading this right that the Angels success is more about money?

2005-10-31 08:22:58
9.   Jason Wojciechowski
I think it's a more accurate statement to say that public sabrmetrics is weak on defense. The teams themselves, with much more money to throw at the problem than you or I probably have, can (and, I'm certain, do) collect the kinds of data (which result in the kinds of analysis) that we can wish for: speed and angle off the bat, exact location of the fielder before the play, velocity and angles of throws, etc. etc.

For "public" sabrmetrics, the defensive problem is a data one, not theoretical.

2005-10-31 08:33:23
10.   chris in illinois

Excellent point. That defensive data is mostly proprietary makes it difficult to discuss its importance in public forums.

I still think that defensive stats by nature will always be a bit theoretical no matter how much $$$ is thrown at the issue. To my mind there are simply to many variables to ever get a really accurate picture of defensive worth, although I'm sure the A's and Red Sox have far superior models than you and I have access to.

2005-10-31 08:36:58
11.   Tom
Use of the phrase "White Sox model" confounds me in much the same way the phrase "Bush doctrine" does. There's a model/doctrine here?

I'm not being snarky, but I don't see how Kennyball can be alternative to Moneyball, because there is no there there. Having everyone on the team play out of their minds isn't a theory.

/end bitter cub fan rant

2005-10-31 09:42:29
12.   metz
If you read betwen the lines of Moneyball you'll realize that beane's "strategy" is not stats vs scouting. It's to look for the skill that is currently undervalued by the majority of other teams. The idea is to maximize the talent on the A's based on the smaller budget he has to work with. You maximize your talent by buying low (undervalued) and selling high (trading away over valued players).

The fact that so many people in the game took it as an assault on old school thinking shows the lack of reading comprehension by most people.

2005-10-31 10:31:22
13.   dbt
metz -- most people criticize the legend and never read the book. In fact, some of the biggest critics (A certain ESPN Sunday Night Baseball color commentator and Ryne Sandberg-snubbing Baseball Hall of Fame Vice-Chairman, perhaps?) proudly proclaim they've never read the book, and don't understand why Billy Beane wrote it.
2005-10-31 10:33:15
14.   chris in illinois

I agree that the "Beane Way" isn't solely an assault on old school thinking, but by seeking out undervalued talents the A's were attacking the converntional wisdom. After all why is a player (more to the point: his talents) undervalued in the marketplace?? Primarily because the typical organization places value on different types of skills than Beane does.

I don't think Beane set out to offend the rest of MLB, but his methods themselves were an implicit criticism of what the rest of the league thinks is the correct method to construct a team.

Short Joe Morgan Moment
...if Beane didn't want criticsm, he shouldn't have written that book....
Joe's gone now

Clearly lots of people don't know the first thing about the book and defer to the 'old boy' network for guidance.

2005-10-31 10:34:05
15.   chris in illinois

Beat me to it.

2005-10-31 10:48:19
16.   thewebb
From stuff I've read about the book including Will's own "Saving the Pitcher", I believe you are right metz. I just borrowed a copy of Moneyball so I'm excited to start reading it tonight to get my own take on it.

I think almost everyone would agree that you need to use stats as well as intangibles in building your team. The difference lies in how heavily they weigh stats and maybe most importantly which stats they weigh the highest. The Angels have several guys that go against the OBP theory, but Scoiscia has been quoted a few times as basically saying he'd love to have all guys with high OBPs, but since that is what everyone is looking for there's no way they could do that within a budget. So the Angels are really doing the same thing, find the best guy that has a skill set that is undervalued.

I say, if you have a team that has a talented enough core to make the playoffs, when you add free agents why not add more economical players that are typically clutch in big situations including playoffs over expensive guys that have astronomical regular season numbers that can't hit playoff pitching?

Lastly, to say the White Sox didn't have a plan last offseason or to say they received any more luck than any other team that has ever won it would be selling the team short. I doubt they'd make as bold a move as trading one of the up and coming sluggers (el Caballo) from a team filled with big, burly righties with power for a middle reliever and a speedy lefty leadoff guy that fits more into Guillen's style of managing if they didn't have a plan. You don't trade a guy that your fans see as part of the solution for a guy that was coming off his worst season, but plays your desired style of baseball if it isn't part of a greater plan.

2005-10-31 12:15:20
17.   Will Carroll
To clarify:

1. Yes, I think the Angels are more about money. Their payroll could compete with the Red Sox very soon and could go to Yankee proportions shortly thereafter, if they make all their deals. I'll credit Moreno with this and say that it's a good strategy if you pick well and they have. Vlad's a great value and Colon's certainly worked. I'm not sure why Konerko would be a fit or how much you give up for Manny.

2. I'm not saying that the Sox didn't have a plan, but that I can't see one. Williams, Hahn, et al aren't obligated to tell me squat, but usually you can look and say "oh, he did this, he did that." I can see that when they decided to deal Lee, they thought they could go pitching and defense and made a deal that fit. It was a high risk/high reward model that Williams used with Dye, Pods, AJ, and even Contrenandez. It paid off. What I'm saying is I don't see the repeatability, the formula, the plan. I see it as "best available", which works.

2005-10-31 14:49:18
18.   dbt
Epstein OUT in Boston.
2005-10-31 15:05:39
19.   thewebb
Thanks Will, very good points as always. As an Angel fan, I'm definitely biased on them and I'd just add that I think Stoneman has done a great job building this organization and winning a title with limited resources (preMoreno and even postMoreno if comparing to Red Sox/Yanks ie 90 million range with contracts like Salmon's tying up money with no production), and Moreno has been a Godsend putting this team over the top and single handedly turning this team into a big market team regardless of what Disney said. Too bad for Twins fans Moreno didn't by them at that same time!

Konerko doesn't seem to make sense adding him to their 1st base logjam especially when you know he'll be overpaid. Manny only makes sense as a DH, at the right prospect price, and I'm not sure he fits into their clubhouse philosophy (or anyones).

In regards to the 'having a plan' portion, I was replying more to Tom's bitter cub fan rant than The Backlash, but I do think your clarification adds even more to the original blog.

2005-10-31 15:53:49
I think the truth of the matter is that Kenny Williams' backup plans turned out better than his main plan.

The first important part of the offseason was that the White Sox tried to sign Magglio. This ended up not working out at all and Kenny moved on.

With some of the money saved, Kenny Signed Jermaine Dye, who ended up producing more than Magglio. He also afforded Dustin Hermanson who closed for the most of the year.

Next, Kenny Williams wanted RJ and was willing to give up a fair amount to get him. When Arizona started getting ridiculous, Kenny moved on.

He then traded Lee for Podsednik, after wanting to trade Konerko first. He cleared up salary to get a big name FA pitcher.

He then planned to sign Matt Clement. Clement signed with Boston and the White Sox instead got El Duque and then could afford Pierzynski and Iguchi when those opportunities came up.

The general trend is that Kenny Williams tried to get a big name to this team, or to keep the big names, and he was unable to do so and instead got balance. Instead of putting out a team with big names and a lot of holes like the Sox had before, he had a balanced team that was incredible defensively and did not really have a hole. The Joe Borchards, Ben Davises, and Jason Grillis of the world were not to get full time.

So I agree with those that say that Kenny Williams didn't end up coming through on his primary plan. He did enact his backup plan however and Kenny Williams's "Plan D" ended up being the plan that led the White Sox to the World Series.

It's inevitable that some teams are going to misinterpret the 2005 White Sox. The success of the White Sox comes down to this: no holes on offense, very strong bullpen, excellent defense and very good starters 1-5 who strike out hitters at an average rate of 6 K/9 and walk very few.

2005-11-02 07:01:02
21.   strangeluck
Will, I think you make a fantastic point about Moneyball's good vs. evil tone being a big part of the hostility directed at sabermetrics, but I think that there's more to it the tone. To read Moneyball one would think that sabermetricians are adherents to a strict dogma (scouting is worthless, pitch counts are very important, etc), rather than a group with diverse and constantly evolving ideas, defined only by a desire to examine those ideas objectively. As you say, it makes for a great story, but a horrible way to introduce sabermetric thought to the mainstream.
2005-11-05 13:45:24
22.   DrBox
Billy Beane, a veritable messiah. He doesn't want the publicity, it just comes to him. Give me a break. And wake me up when he or an apostle wins anything in post-season with a budget below $120 Million.

Williams had a plan. That plan was to fix the starting pitching -to put 5 above average startes out there. Part 2 was to fix the defense. Part 3 was to finally get a lead-off hitter, something they haven't had sinced Tim Raines. Check, check and check. To do that, they had to drop payroll - bye Carlos Lee.
That's okay - no need to give him credit. No need to see the plan. If it doesn't fulfill preconceived notions, it must be......luck.

Williams owns a ring, and Beane and his apostles own ZIP. Williams will continue to be the whipping boy, and I'm confident that Kenny Williams won't accuse others of "bigotry" either.

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