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Revisiting the “Moneyball Draft”

February 25, 2011

The book Moneyball focused a lot of attention on the 2002 Amateur Draft and the A’s and Billy Beane in particular’s method of selecting draft picks, with an emphasis on college players, and those who could put up high OBPs. So I thought, it has been nearly nine years, lets look back at that draft and see who ended up best. If we could see have seen into the future, how would we have picked?

The first overall pick in the 2002 draft was Bryan Bullington a right-handed pitcher out of Ball State University. He like many draft picks was a bust. The A’s had the 16th, 24th, 26th, 30th, 35th, 37th and 39th overall picks which allowed them the ability to get a lot of top draft picks to quickly replenish a team that found itself unable to afford the likes of Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon. In those spots respectively the A’s would draft (all out of college), Nick Swisher, Joe Blanton, John McCurdy, Ben Fritz, Jeremy Brown, Steve Obenchain and Mark Teahen. Of these players only three would truly become major league ballplayers: Swisher, Blanton and Teahen (though Brown made it to the majors for five games).

In all in the 2002 draft, the A’s drafted 51 players and of them 12 would go onto play in the Major Leagues of these three would not sign with the A’s but subsequently would make the majors after being selected in other drafts these three were Jonathan Papelbon, Ty Taubenheim and interestingly enough Brad Ziegler. So of the players they drafted and signed only nine made the bigs.

Overall if you take players from the 2002 draft and look at guys with at least 0.0 bWAR (though I typically use fWAR this article for simplicity’s sake will use bWAR due to the ease of use of sorting on their website, so from now on when you see WAR it is bWAR) or more (there are numerous players with negative career WAR) you get 98 players (this number includes players like Papelbon, Taubenheim and Ziegler who did not sign). So let’s assume every team could have figured out who was going to be on this leaderboard of sorts when they drafted in 2002, and every team got the best player available to them. How different would this draft have been?

First and foremost Bryan Bullington would not have been the first pick, he did not even make this list with a -0.4 career WAR. If you sort out your draft board by WAR, the first overall pick should have been Zack Greinke. Greinke, who was drafted by the Royals with the 6th overall pick has a career WAR of 22.8 making him the best in the class of 2002. Assuming the A’s have the same picks they had then, who would have been the best in each of those positions? Well here you go:

Draft Pick Player (Career WAR) Position High School/College
16th Joe Blanton (10.8) RHP Kentucky
24th Brad Ziegler (5.8) RHP Missouri State
26th Jesse Crain (5.1) RHP Houston
30th Joel  Zumaya (4.4) RHP Bonita Vista HS (CA)
35th Craig Breslow (3.9) LHP Yale
37th Brian Bannister (3.4) RHP Southern California
39th Clay Hensley (3.2) RHP Lamar
67th Eric Stults (0.7) LHP Bethel College

Interestingly enough, and I am sure this has not gone unnoticed, two of these guys are guys that the A’s did draft that year anyhow Blanton (who the A’s drafted in the 24 spot) and Ziegler {who was picked by Beane and company with the 938th overall spot). Otherwise what is interesting is that the A’s would’ve spent all these picks solely on pitchers which is just the way this worked out. I found it amazing to see how quickly the quality tapered off. Eric Stults was barely better than a replacement player yet he was the 67th best player available in 2002 (if you total everyone’s performance since then). It is interesting also that Breslow managed to find himself back in the Green and Gold in this little scenario. Other things of note, Blanton was the A’s second choice, and he was the second best guy that the A’s got in this draft, Nick Swisher whom the A’s selected at 16 was the ninth best player out of the 2002 draft with a career WAR of 15.9.

So now that we have our hindsight glasses on how did the A’s really fare? Not that bad. Of the 98 players in the 2002 draft who would go onto have 0.0 WAR or better careers, the A’s drafted ten of them (in order of WAR): Swisher, Papelbon, Blanton, Ziegler, Jared Burton, John Baker, Taubenheim, Bill Murphy, Shane Komine and Brown for a combined 52.1 WAR. The only two teams to come close to that were the Giants and Twins at seven a piece though they fell far short in WAR (31.3 and 23 respectively). No team came close in total WAR either (now note, these are just the positive WAR guys so when you include Teahen for Oakland you lose a little as he has a -0.7 career WAR).

So overall the A’s strategy seemed to work. But really when you look at it a lot was luck. Though all but one of the picks that would’ve fallen to the A’s with in the “foresight draft” we conducted ended up being college players in line with Beane’s strategy in reality the mock foresight draft wasn’t so heavily laden with college players – of the top ten only two were college players, Curtis Granderson (#2 overall) who played with the Fighting Illini and fellow Big-Ten man Nick Swisher with Ohio State, the other eight of the top ten were all out of high school. Overall however 47 of 98 were four-year college players, 14 were junior college players and 37 were high schoolers.

Part of the thinking behind picking college guys were that they ought to reach the majors faster. Let’s see how this panned out looking at the best five of these players who played at a four-year or junior college and the best five who came from the high school ranks. While some may not like this method of using their total careers from 2002-2010, I think it makes sense because these are the guys who ended up the best, let’s see if that was a slow or long process for them.

College Players

Player Debut
Curtis Granderson September 13, 2004
Nick Swisher September 3, 2004
Jonathan Papelbon (who signed in 2003) July 31, 2005
Jeremy Guthrie August 28, 2004
Russell Martin May 5, 2006

High School Players

Zack Greinke May 22, 2004
Matt Cain August 29, 2005
Brian McCann June 10, 2005
Jon Lester June 10, 2006
Cole Hamels May 12, 2006

It seems by and large it was true, but not to a great degree, that college players got to the majors sooner. All made their debuts two seasons after they were drafted and signed with the exception of Russell Martin, who went to a junior college. For the high schoolers aside from Zack Greinke, it took them three to four years to make it to the bigs. So it seems Oakland’s strategy was quite sound.

Despite Beane lately saying that he is more open to high school players it seems – at least in 2002 – the strategy of college players seemed to work as they were by and large the best of the best come time to play major league ball. Over all though, the lesson learned is that the draft is still a crap shoot. Think about it for a minute: there were 1,482 players picked in the draft, yet only 98 had a WAR greater than 0.0. The 1st overall pick wasn’t one of those players, yet the 1,417th player picked (Angels catcher Bobby Wilson) is.

3 Comments leave one →
  1. elmaquino permalink
    February 25, 2011 7:48 pm

    Did they get their hitters based on stats and scout pitchers? Or did they have something for pitchers, too?

    • February 25, 2011 9:11 pm

      The hitters were based largely on on-base percentage and their ability to talk walks, work counts. With pitchers it was the opposite, it was the ability to throw strikes – which explains why a soft-tosser like Barry Zito was drafted, as he had pinpoint control. I imagine nowadays the thinking regarding pitching is a bit different and would aim to find more guys who throw a lot of strikeouts and don’t give up home runs, but strikeout throwers tend to be very well compensated and not a market inefficiency that could be exploited. So yes it was very sabermetrically based for both hitters and pitchers.


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