In 2003, Michael Lewis wrote ‘Moneyball’, which may be the most influential book published on baseball since Jim Bouton’s ‘Ball Four’. In ‘Moneyball’, Lewis, a former bond trader on Wall Street, sought to understand how the Oakland A’s, a team with one of the lowest revenue streams and payrolls in baseball, were able to consistently outperform teams with much greater resources.
Lewis found a hero in the charismatic A’s General Manager Billy Beane, a young, attractive and glib former number one draft pick who never lived up to his potential as the number two overall selection in the 1980 draft, but has emerged as one of the most innovative and successful general managers in the game. ‘Moneyball’ gleefully chronicles how Beane is able to consistently out-smart the baseball establishment by going against conventional wisdom, which Lewis portrays as little more than superstitions and old wives tales. He surrounds himself with young educated Ivy Leaguers, who, according to Beane, have not been corrupted by major league baseball groupthink,
relying instead on quantification and statistical analysis in selecting players, as opposed to scouts who judge talent based on experience and, in many cases, instinct.
The key to understanding the A’s philosophy under Beane is that the team didn’t have the resources to recover from signing a player to a large contract who wasn’t performing. A way to reduce the risk as much as possible is to exploit undervalued assets that other teams didn‘t value as much as the A‘s, such as placing more value on on-base percentage than batting average, drafting college players who are more developed players than high school players, especially in the case of pitchers, and the use of statistics to eliminate chance as much as possible.
Lewis, who had published several other best selling books on Wall Street, politics and the Silicon Valley, is an exceptional reporter and basically spun the tale of Billy the Kid getting the best of a staid baseball establishment with its analytical theories seemingly rooted fifty years behind the times. While Lewis does not highlight certain aspects of the A’s success which detract from his thesis, namely that two of the A's best players at the time, Eric Chavez and Miguel Tejada, definitely do not fit
into the 'Moneyball' model, he is still able to deliver a rather
convincing and honest argument to explain the A’s division titles.
The group that bore the brunt of Lewis’ criticisms in ‘Moneyball’ were the old-time scouts, who traditionally have scoured the country searching for talent, with major league scouting directors and general managers relying on "projections" and, most importantly, (pay attention if you happen to read ‘Scout’s Honor’) their assessment of a player’s "makeup".
Needless to say, ‘Moneyball’ did not win a lot of friends and supporters within the baseball establishment, especially among the scouts that he mocked. A few teams, most notably the Minnesota Twins and the Atlanta Braves, have had vastly different approaches than the A‘s, and have achieved equal amounts of success with the accompanying payroll constraints in developing home-grown talent.
Finally this year, a champion emerged to take on all of the ‘Moneyball’ proponents and argue that there is a different and "braver" way to build a baseball team, which is not dominated by statistics or college players, and that organization/team (according to Shanks) is the Atlanta Braves.
The Braves are an organization that implements a vastly different approach to developing players. In short, they have been able to build one of the better minor league systems by relying on drafting high school players largely on the recommendation of their scouts and the skill of their minor league personnel in developing them into major leaguers. In doing so, this has enabled the Atlanta Braves, a team no
longer capable of affording the New York Yankee-like payrolls of their past, to compete by using younger and cheaper players, who are bound to major league teams for six years before they are able to file for free agency.
Shanks, who runs a website on the Atlanta Braves prospects,
BravesCenter.com, a sister site of Madfriars.com, had hosted a weekly television show on the Braves and was once the play-by-play man for the Rome Braves, the low Class A affiliate of the team. He obviously possesses a great love for the Braves organization and combines it with an encyclopedic knowledge of the players and organization for the past twenty years.
Despite a book jacket and the accompanying publicity that advertises it as a counter to ‘Moneyball’, ‘Scout’s Honor’ consists of nothing more than one unrelated profile after another, mixed in with a smattering of history on the Braves. Shanks seems to have an idea of the theme he wants to convey to the reader – that the Braves are in the business of finding and developing talent based on the knowledge and skill of their
staff – but, unlike Lewis, he is unable to explain why their scouts
have as much success as they do.
With the exception of an excellent piece on how former Braves’ star second baseman Glenn Hubbard turned current Brave second baseman Marcus Giles into a major league player, Shanks is unable, or unwilling, to answer how the Braves are
able to turn prospects into major league players. Instead, he relies on unrelated anecdotes as a substitute for argument, structure and evidence, being much more interested in portraying the Braves scouts as quasi Jedi Knights, magically searching the sandlots in search of those elusive players with “makeup” that those smarty pants college boys and their fancy pants computers can‘t quantify.
“Makeup” is Shanks' all-encompassing term, which, most importantly to ‘Scout’s Honor’, is unquantifiable. Loosely, it’s a combination of being both competitive and a good person all within a team concept. How these scouts are able to discern that in a few random meetings is beyond me, despite Shank’s repeating the word on seemingly every other page of his nearly four hundred page book.
In Shanks’ world, the Braves succeed by doing things which you can’t quantify, having instincts and knowledge that only comes with experience, as opposed to education, and knowing the value of a firm handshake over a high on-base percentage (yes, that statement actually appears on the book jacket). It gets tiring. Run-of-the-mill organizational players are given as much space as established major league players, every scout is lionized for his aversion to ever selecting a college player
and all analysis that does not begin and end with the word “makeup” is rendered meaningless.
What made ‘Moneyball’ such a fascinating read, and what is lacking in ‘Scout’s Honor’, is that Lewis took the reader inside the world of the Oakland A’s and was able to demonstrate, using selective profiles of various A‘s staff and players to build a thesis on, how the A’s win by using the same techniques that makes a trader successful on Wall Street; recognizing undervalued assets to beat the competition. All that ‘Scout’s Honor’ consists of are all the profiles of the people that have helped the Braves win. In other words, the book reads like this: "these people can see things you can’t and here is a profile of a guy who once played for the Richmond Braves".
Additionally, Shanks seems determined to fit his theories on “makeup” into every situation, regardless of the facts of each individual case. For example, Chipper Jones was one of the top prospects in the nation in 1990, a big, athletic switch-hitting shortstop. Jones was at the top of everyone’s draft board; however, to simply state that the Braves selected him with the overall number two pick in the draft detracts from Shanks’ theory that somehow the Braves are magically able to see into a prospect’s character. In his chapter “A Chipper or a Van
Poppel”, Shanks attempts to build his “makeup” argument by stating that the Braves put as much weight on Jones getting into a fight defending his pitcher at a game as they did with his considerable talent. This is nonsense. To state that the Braves placed equal value on his ability to throw a punch as they did on his ability to hit a fastball strains credibility, even for a Jedi Knight.
Further evidence of Shanks attempting to fit in his “makeup” theory at all times can be seen in the brief chapter on ‘Moneyball’, which is the reason most people picked up the book in the first place. After first totally misstating the point of ‘Moneyball’, Shanks then moves forward to assert that the Red Sox weren’t really that much a team built on a devotion to statistical analysis, but really one on “makeup”.
True, players such as Manny Ramirez, the MVP of the World Series and one of the best players on the team, are really character guys. Please. He highlights the acquisition of Doug Mientkiewicz as one of the players that put the team over the top, which is one of the first times I’ve read anything about Mientkiewicz' value associated with the Red Sox other
than he took the game winning baseball home with him. Shanks, in his desire to set up a straw-man argument, makes other obvious errors in his analysis of ‘Moneyball’ which seem influenced by an intense dislike of Billy Beane to not fully understanding the theory of undervalued assets.
So is the A’s system better than the Braves? Is it preferable to take high school players over college guys and how do you balance scouting versus sabermetrics? We don't find the answer in 'Scout's Honor'. I'd guess that it is best to build teams the way most do in baseball, by blending both "scouting" and "stats", but we'll never know that from this book. The sad part about reading ‘Scout’s Honor’ is that somewhere in there may be the book that its jacket advertises: how someone builds a baseball team in a manner totally opposite from ‘Moneyball’.
You just have to let me know when you find it.
John Conniff is a writer for OaklandClubhouse.com sister-site MadFriars.com, a Scout.com site dedicated to the San Diego Padres. The views in this article are strictly the author's own views and are not necessarily the views of OaklandClubhouse.com or Scout.com.