Nick Swisher And… Who Else? Moneyball Draftees, 10 Years Later
Long before it was a $100 million film starring Brad Pitt’s rakish haircut, Moneyball was an introspective glimpse into the inner workings of Major League Baseball. And in his bestselling book, author Michael Lewis described the traditional way teams were run, prospects were graded and the revolutionary changes brought about at the dawn of the century by Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane. Along with his team of mathematically-inclined assistants—sabermetricians, as they've become known—Beane brought to the table a new way to measure players efficiency: statistical analysis. He used this metric to gauge players on the team, players he wanted, and players he wanted to draft.
Turning the old yardsticks of offensive production—batting average, home runs, and RBI—on their head, Beane and his sabermetricians put their theories to the test in the trade market, in the free agent market, and more than anywhere else, in the 2002 amateur draft.
The draft, as Lewis explained it, was to be the real make-it-or-break-it moment for the testing of sabermetric theories, and it was via the draft that Beane would prove to the world that his way was not just the best way, but the only sane way for teams to scout talent.
Now, ten years later, it’s time to sit in judgment.
The rules of the road are as follows: I'll be judging the players Beane and his 2002 Oakland A’s selected, as well as the players Beane and his analysis missed, including both the stars he overlooked and the lemons he dodged. We’re limiting this analysis only to the first round, for three reasons:
1) Thanks to compensatory picks and trades, the A’s had seven first-round picks in 2002. And if you haven’t taken the guys you want after seven chances, you’re just not going to get them.
2) The draft goes on, essentially, ad infinitum. Over 1,000 players are selected in the MLB draft every year, and most never make the bigs—heck, a sizable number never even sign a contract—so it would be a waste of time to analyze every Tom, Dick, and Javier that the team selected. We’re narrowing our focus to the players Beane was really excited about.
3) By the time teams reach the 700th, 800th or 900th player selected, it becomes more or less a crapshoot. Yes, the Athletics did eventually select future All-Star and World Series champ Jonathan Papelbon in the 40th round, with pick number 1,208. But that’s a footnote in history. Papelbon didn’t sign with the team anyway; he waited until next season when he was drafted in the fourth round by the Red Sox. So late rounds don’t count.
With that preface established, let’s take a look at who Beane, the master of the dispassionate statistical analysis that was meant to revolutionize baseball, actually got.
1st Pick (16th Overall): Nick Swisher
As covered in great detail in Moneyball, Swisher was the guy that Billy Beane really wanted. And the A’s got him.
As it turns out, this was a great pick. An everyday player for the last eight years, Swisher was an All-Star who spent four major league seasons with the A’s before being traded and eventually settling with his current team, the Yankees. He’s in the middle of a great career and is a New York fan favorite—even Yankee-haters agree that he’s a hard-nosed hustle player who belongs in the bigs.
Who was passed up to get him: Jeff Francoeur, Jeremy Guthrie, Denard Span, James Loney, and Cole Hamels. There’s a lot of talent there—but with the exception of Hamels, Swisher has arguably turned out to be the best player of the bunch.
2nd Pick (24th Overall): Joe Blanton
Another guy who’s been in the league for nine years, Blanton was also a strong draft pick. According to the book, Beane had rated him as the second-best pitcher in the draft, behind Jeremy Guthrie (who was represented by Scott Boras and expected a package worth $20 million—money the cash-strapped A’s didn’t have).
Admittedly, that means that Beane rated Blanton below future phenoms like Scott Kazmir and Zack Greinke, both of whom were still teenagers at the time. But then, no one could have expected how the high school pitchers in the 2002 draft class would turn out.
There were some busts, however. Out of Chris Gruler, Adam Loewen, and Clint Everts, the number three, four, and five picks in the draft, only Loewen made the bigs, and he only pitched 49 games before hanging up his spikes. This is why Beane wouldn’t take high schoolers. But other young pitchers in the draft grew into aces, including the aforementioned Zack Greinke, Scott Kazmir, Cole Hamels, and…
Who was passed up to get him: Matt Cain. Ouch. The A’s held the 24th and 26th picks in the 2002 draft. They took RHP Blanton with pick 24, leaving their crosstown rival, the Giants, with pick 25, which they used on Matt Cain. Three All-Star nods later, which player would you rather have?
3rd Pick (26th Overall): John McCurdy
A middle infielder with average speed and little eye for the strike zone, McCurdy never made it past one season in Double-A. He led college ball in slugging percentage for one season, but his career A-ball OPS—over five seasons, no less—was under .700.
Who was passed up to get him: Nobody. John Mayberry was picked but didn’t sign. Sergio Santos was selected, then spent the better part of a decade in the minors being converted from an infielder to a middle reliever. Yes, McCurdy was a wasted selection, but at least the A’s didn’t miss somebody better. Cold comfort.
4th Pick (30th Overall): Ben Fritz
Another guy who never made it out of the minors, Fritz went 6-6 with an ERA near 6.00 and a walks-to-strikeouts ratio of nearly 1-to-1 in his one season of Triple-A ball. At 6’4”, he at least had some speed behind his pitches.
Who was passed up to get him: Three guys who never made the majors and Dan Meyer, a left-handed pitcher with a negative career Wins Above Replacement ratio, which measures how many more wins a player would give a team as opposed to a minor league or bench player. Meyer’s career win-loss record was 3-9, and in his last season in the bigs, he gave up three walks for every strikeout.
Grade: D, but only because by picking Fritz, the A’s at least managed to avoid drafting Meyer.
5th Pick (35th Overall): Jeremy Brown
Brown had a great minor league career. He hit 27 HRs for AA Midland in 2005, and 27 in total during two half-seasons for AAA Sacramento in 2006 and 2007. He even went three for 10 with two doubles in his cup-of-coffee call-up with the A’s big league club in 2006.
With production like that, how come Brown never caught on in the bigs? The answer is that Brown, despite his promise, ended up third on the A’s depth chart at catcher behind Kurt Suzuki and backup Rob Bowen. Unable to face the prospect of another season in the minors, Brown, like Field of Dreams’ Moonlight Graham, retired after his brief taste of the big time.
Who was passed up to get him: Chadd Blasko, a pitcher who never made the bigs.
Grade: Brown showed talent and real promise; Beane did well in drafting him. It was the club’s ineptitude in not keeping him that hustled Brown out of the game, not any performance problems on his part.
6th Pick (37th Overall): Steve Obenchain
Obenchain was a righty from Evansville who never made it out of double-A. It didn’t help that his ERA was consistently over 5.00
Who was passed up to get him: Nobody of note.
Grade: F. “Nobody of note” is, unfortunately, also a fitting way to describe Steve Obenchain.
7th Pick (39th Overall): Mark Teahen
Corner infielders are simply not allowed to be Mendoza-line hitters that flash no power, and unfortunately, that’s exactly what Teahen withered into in his last season. Thus, Teahen’s seven-year MLB career came to an end this offseason after an unproductive 2011 split between the White Sox and the Rays.
That said, Teahen had a few good years with the Royals, having ended up there in the trade that brought Octavio Dotel to the A’s some years back. So Beane wasn’t totally off-base in wanting to select him.
Who was passed up to get him: No other picks from the first round of the 2002 draft ever made the big leagues.
What About the Others?
Looking back, the 2002 draft of the Oakland A’s appeared relatively successful. Working under budget constraints and with no picks in the first 15, Billy Beane was able to draft a future All-Star in Swisher, two solid career players in Joe Blanton and Mark Teahen, and a near-miss in Jeremy Brown. Yes, there were three lemons in McCurdy, Fritz, and Obenchain, but a .500-something hit ratio is pretty darn good when drafting amateur talent. And at least Beane missed out on busts like Number One pick Bryan Bullington, who, after a bonus-baby signing by the Pittsburgh Pirates, managed to string together a career line of only 1-9 with a 5.62 ERA in 26 games before ending his major league career.
But there are other folks that Beane—and every other GM in baseball—missed. While Beane earned a solid “B” grade for his 2002 draft class, he could have done even better. The following future All-Stars weren’t selected at all until well after the close of the first round of 2002.
2nd Round, 44th Pick Overall: Joey Votto (CIN)
The first of many great late picks. Votto is a three-time All-Star and the 2010 MVP. His career OPS is near 1.000, and he’s currently leading the league in doubles, walks, and OBP—all categories Votto also won last year.
2nd Round, 57th Pick Overall: Jon Lester (BOS)
Lester is a two-time All-Star with a career 81-43 record. Even if you hate the Red Sox, you have to admit that Lester was a good draft pick.
Better than Steve Obenchain, anyway.
2nd Round, 60th Pick Overall: Jonathan Broxton (LAD)
2nd Round, 64th Pick Overall: Brian McCann (ATL)
McCann was an All-Star selectee for six straight years squatting behind the plate for the Atlanta Braves. He’s the MLB leader in total home runs by a catcher over the past seven seasons.
He may not be a household name outside of the south, but if he keeps up his pace, McCann could end up a Hall of Fame candidate.
3rd Round, 80th Pick Overall: Curtis Granderson (DET)
Three-time All-Star Granderson led the league last year with 136 runs and 119 RBIs, good enough for fourth in the MVP voting.
Not bad for a guy who was passed up by every team in the league multiple times.
4th Round, 113th Pick Overall: Josh Johnson (FLA/MIA)
Johnson, a two-time All-Star selection, is coming into his own. He won the ERA crown in 2010 with an impressively low 2.30, and his career win-loss record is a Pedro Martinez-like 54-30… and that’s while playing for the Marlins.
Every team in contention was trying to land Johnson by the trade deadline. Time will only tell what he will be able to do once he escapes from south Florida.
What Have We Learned?
So what’s the lesson in all this? That’s hard to say. Are sabermetrics useful when drafting? Perhaps, and perhaps not. No one can argue with Nick Swisher’s production in the major leagues. And Beane certainly helped the A’s avoid a number of expensive mistakes. But who would you rather have: Jeremy Brown or Brian McCann? Joe Blanton or Matt Cain? Mark Teahen or Joey Votto?
Until baseball is played out using strict statistics like a glorified Strat-o-Matic, intangibles like player makeup and development track will always come into play. So, even 10 years after the Moneyball draft class of 2002, we fans are left to scratch our heads and guess at who will bust and who will be the next big star.
And you know what? Managers, GMs and owners are still left doing the exact same thing.