The Forgotten Man Of Moneyball, Part 1

He calls himself "the pebble that started the avalanche," the man who taught baseball analysis to Billy Beane. Gandhi, someone wrote, sparking MLK's revolution. Today, Moneyball remains a hotly debated phenomenon. Eric Walker is a footnote. Here's the footnote's story.

This is a two-parter. The first discusses Walker's stint as a consultant with the Giants (more than 20 years before Bill James would secure similar work with the Red Sox). The second, which will run this afternoon (you can read it here), will look at Walker's time with the A's and the evolution and distortions of what's come to be known as moneyball.

On a warm morning in mid-May of this year I was standing on a hilltop overlooking Los Angeles, talking with Steven Soderbergh, the noted movie director, about baseball. The conversation was not a casual chat: Soderbergh was interviewing me about Billy Beane, the Oakland Athletics, and more generally about what Michael Lewis used as the title of his famous (or notorious) book, Moneyball, and I was being filmed — the end result, with who knows how much cutting, to be used as one or more inserts in Soderbergh's movie adaptation of the same name.

Regrettably — certainly for me — only a few weeks later, for reasons still not generally agreed on, the studio put the movie in turnaround (even though over $10 million dollars had already been spent on it). Even if the project is revived, all indications are that my little interview, as well as several more with other key figures in moneyball history, will end up on the proverbial cutting-room floor. But it is not simply Moneyball the movie project that may be dead: not a few voices are now proclaiming that moneyball the concept is dead, or at least dying.

But who am I, and why would I be considered some sort of expert on moneyball? Perhaps you recognized my name; more likely, though, you didn't. Though it is hard to say this without an appearance of personal petulance, I find it sad that the popular history of what can only be called a revolution in the game leaves out quite a few of the people, the outsiders, who actually drove that revolution.

Anyway, the short-form answer to the question is that I am the fellow who first taught Billy Beane the principles that Lewis later dubbed "moneyball." For the long-form answer, we ripple-dissolve back in time ...

* * *

. . . to San Francisco in 1975, where the news media are reporting, often and at length, on the supposed near-certainty that the Giants will be sold and moved. There sit I, a man no longer young but not yet middle-aged, a man who has not been to a baseball game — or followed the sport — for probably over two decades, but a man who in childhood used to paste New York Giants box scores into a scrapbook, and who remembers, dimly but fondly, such folk as Whitey Lockman and Wes Westrum.

Carpe diem, I think.

With my lady, also a baseball fan of old, I go to a game. We have a great time; we go to more games, have more great times. I am becoming enthused. But I am considering and wondering — wondering about the mechanisms of run scoring, things like the relative value of average versus power. Originally an engineer by trade, I am right there with Lord Kelvin: "When you cannot measure it and express it in numbers, your knowledge is of a very meagre and unsatisfactory kind." I fiddle with some numbers; but I vaguely remember Branch Rickey's work, the cover story in Life magazine for Aug. 2, 1950, and think that I may not need to reinvent the wheel. I go to the San Francisco main library, looking for books that in some way actually analyze baseball. I find one. One. But what a one.

If this were instead Reader's Digest, my opening of that book would be "The Moment That Changed My Life!" The book was Percentage Baseball, by one Earnshaw Cook, a Johns Hopkins professor who had consulted on the development of the atomic bomb. Today, when numerical analysis of baseball performance is a commonplace, it is hard to grasp how revolutionary, even shocking, were the concepts Cook was developing (Rickey's work, which had quickly dropped off everyone's radar, notwithstanding). The book was, and remains, awe-inspiring.

That is, it remains so to me, anyway: Bill James and some others, who were in high school when Cook was conceiving the many sorts of formulae they would later get famous publicizing in their own works, have had harsh things to say about Cook and his work. James, for example, wrote in 1981, "Cook knew everything about statistics and nothing at all about baseball — and for that reason, all of his answers are wrong, all of his methods useless." That is breathtakingly wrong, and arrogant. Bill James has done an awful lot for analysis, both in promoting the concepts and in original work (most notably a methodology for converting minor-league stats to major-league equivalents). But, as Chili Davis once remarked about Nolan Ryan, "He ain't God, man." A modicum of humility and respect is in order. (Wikipedia reports that Cook's slide rule, which he used during his research for Percentage Baseball, was donated, by their request, to the Baseball Hall of Fame.) Cook's further work, using computer simulations of games to test theory (recorded in his second book, Percentage Baseball and the Computer), was ground-breaking, and it came long before anyone thought to describe what Cook was up to as "sabermetrics" and longer still before anyone emulated it.

I chronically wince at the term "sabermetrics" today. James coined the phrase as a "catchy" name for analytic methodology; its ensuing popularity abetted the idea that baseball analysis popped full armored from the brow of James like Athena from the brow of Zeus; that is misleading, and disrespectful to the largely anonymous many who labored to bring forth this new land. I know that I risk sounding peevish by saying that, but it's not about me: a major thrust of this article is that there are a lot of folk needing more public credit than they're getting, especially those who were there before this was a cottage industry — Craig Wright, Eddie Epstein, I daren't try a comprehensive roll call lest I, too, omit worthy names.

Well, eventually, I wanted to get a lot closer to the game than box seats. I had, some years before, been a radio newscaster and telephone-talk host, and I decided to trade on that background. But in a market like the Bay Area, one does not just walk into a major radio station and ask for a job if it has been years since one's last position; so, I walked into a minor radio station, a little off-the-wall FM outfit, and instantly became their "sports reporter"; unsalaried, but eligible for press credentials from the Giants. My output then was a daily five-minute report — not "news" but commentary and analysis. I'm not terribly proud of that output, and am glad virtually nobody ever heard it, because I was pretty much phoning it in (sometimes literally): the station didn't really care, but it validated my standing as "press".

Meanwhile, however, I was constantly working on expanding Cook's work in various ways, trying to develop more-practical methods of applying his, and in time my, ideas. It seems risible when I look back on it: endless quantities of yellow legal-size pads and a handheld calculator. It was a banner day when I brought home my first computer, a "luggable" Kaypro that took half an hour to compile a fairly simple program in BASIC.

When I felt I had my principles in a practical, usable condition, I started nagging the Giants about their using the techniques. At first, it was a very tough slog; in those days — this would be 1979 or so, well before Bill James' Abstracts were more than a few hundred mimeographed copies -– even the basic concepts were unknown, and, to old baseball men, they were very, very weird ideas.

* * *

In early 1981, as a demonstration, I gave the Giants an extensive analysis of their organization; taking a great risk, I included predictions for the coming season. I have that very document beside me now as I type; I don't know its page count (the sections were individually paginated), but it's about an inch thick: it includes detailed analyses of every man on the major-league roster at the time, and combines their numbers for team stats. As we all know, the 1981 season was strike-shortened; but, pro-rated for actual games played (and weighted for the actual playing time of individual men), I was, despite the relative crudeness of the methodology in those days, a winner: 440 runs projected, 427 scored; ERA projected, 3.35, ERA achieved, 3.28; errors projected, 103, actual errors committed, 102; and, bottom line, projected wins, 57, actual wins 56.

Now a rational soul might think that such results, predictive results, would have brought the front office running breathless to my door; but this is baseball we're talking here. It was not till quite some time later that I finally entered into a contract with the Giants for consulting services, and that came about, I think, chiefly because I spent an entire Spring Training (attended at my own expense) daily haranguing Tom Haller, then the Giants' general manager.

By this time, I had taken a big step up as a broadcaster, moving from that inconsequential little station to KQED, the NPR outlet in San Francisco, whence I would eventually be syndicated by satellite to 20 NPR affiliates across the country, about half in major markets.

As a first consequence of that move, a book editor who had heard the daily module while driving to work and thought it interesting approached me with a proposal that I write a book in the general style of my broadcasts. I began work in the fall of 1981, and the book, The Sinister First Baseman and Other Observations, was published in 1982, to excellent reviews and nearly no sales. Frank Robinson, then the Giants' manager and a man I had come to know tolerably well, was kind enough to provide the Foreword for the book, which was a diverse collection of baseball essays.

The Forgotten Man Of Moneyball, Part 1

It is now apparently a part of the folklore that in that book I set forth much of my analytic work, but that is not so: only about one-third of the essays concern what one might call numeric matters (a deliberate choice: one-third informational, one-third lyrical, and one-third numerical), and not even all of the latter deal with what one today would call "analysis." It was in one of those essays that the runs-scored equation I was using, somewhat dumbed-down for simplicity [1], first saw print; but it was in "A Desultory Phillippic" that there first appeared the words that would later become the crux of moneyball:

In baseball, some numbers are known, some are not, and the meaning of most of them can be debated. But there's one number everyone knows and agrees with: three. Three outs and you're gone. Period. The end. All runners cancelled, all theories moot, all probabilities zero. That number must, in any rational evaluation of the game, dominate planning.

Many, many years after, George F. Will — the foremost living exemplar of the term "pundit" — was to write in a New York Times review of Alan Schwarz's excellent book The Numbers Game:

Alderson was in a San Francisco bookstore when he came upon a volume by Eric Walker, the most important baseball thinker you have never heard of. Alderson reading Walker was, Schwarz says, like Martin Luther King Jr. reading Gandhi, sparking a revolution. Scoring runs has always been the point of baseball, but Walker's epiphany was that when you make three outs you have to start over from scratch. Hitherto, the assumption was that runs — and wins — were achieved by hits. Nowadays the stress is on avoiding outs. [2]

At any rate, there I was, finally on contract with a major-league ball club, the Giants, but in a dubious situation. The GM, Tom Haller, was, ah (let us not speak ill of the dead), not a progressive thinker, and the rest of the team's Brain Trust was of the same vintage. I was fairly close to the field manager, Frank Robinson, but that was a minus, not a plus, in that there was open hostility between Haller and Robinson. I did persuade them to trade Gary Lavelle to the Blue Jays, but instead of names like John Cerutti and Jimmy Key, whom I had suggested, Haller got Jim Gott, who gave the Giants one good year as a starter and two forgettable years in the pen, plus two guys who never made the majors. But deals for Ken Oberkfell and especially for John Tudor, which I lobbied for intensely, didn't get made (Haller called 20 minutes too late to get Oberkfell). I still remember then-Giants owner Bob Lurie, when I was actually admitted to the Brain Trust sanctum on trade-deadline day, saying around his cigar, "What's all this about John Tudor?" (Tudor, then openly available, had a high AL ERA because he was a lefty in Fenway — this was well before "splits" and "park effects" were commonplace concepts — and I tried to explain all that, but no dice; Tudor went on to an NL ERA of 2.66 over seven seasons.)

When Robinson was fired by the Giants, I knew that owing to guilt by association (remember, Robby wrote the Foreword to my book) I would soon be gone, and so I was. My term as a consultant with the Giants was about half a season. In that brief term, I had had some input into a few decisions, but most of what I advocated, while listened to, was never acted on.

But having once crossed the major-league threshold, I was not about to sink back into oblivion. Across the Bay was an organization with a famously more forward-looking front office, with which I had already had contact. I asked, they answered, and so my career with the A's began.

[1] For fun, I just applied that "dumbed-down" equation to the Giants' 2009 final stats: it was within 1.4% (648 calculated vs. 657 actual) — not so very dumb.

[2] Also in that book, written in 1981, well before even the first printed Abstract had hit booksellers' shelves, was the presentation of a concept called "Fielding Efficiency" — the percentage of balls put in play that a team's defense turns actual outs as a measure of team fielding competence. Today, essentially the same measure, called "Defense Efficiency Ratio," is universally described as an invention of Bill James. Am I peeved over that one? Yes.