Deadspin Classic: The Forgotten Man Of Moneyball

Moneyball the movie is in theaters on Friday. Eric Walker doesn't appear in the film, and he's mentioned only briefly in Michael Lewis's book, but he was central to the statistical revolution that Moneyball chronicles—the "pebble that started the avalanche," in his words. Two years ago, he told us his story. Originally published Oct. 7, 2009.

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's 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.

Deadspin Classic: The Forgotten Man Of Moneyball

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.

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.

* * *

Modern analysis has shown a whole treasure chest of interesting and often useful performance metrics, but it remains so that the bedrock principle of classic analysis is simple: out-making controls scoring. What I call "classic" analysis is the principles that I presented to the Oakland Athletics in the early 1980s, which governed their thinking through 20 or so successful seasons, and which were dubbed "moneyball" by Michael Lewis in his book of that title. Because of that book, there has arisen a belief that whatever the A's do is, by definition, "moneyball"; with the decline in their fortunes in recent years has come a corresponding belief that "moneyball" is in decline—dead, some would say [3]—because the A's and moneyball are seen as essentially one thing.

That is simply wrong. Analysis is not moneyball, and moneyball is not analysis. "Moneyball," as the name says, is about seeking undervalued commodities. In my day, what I regard as the crucial aspects of run-generation, notably on-base percentage, were seriously undervalued, so "moneyball" consisted in finding batters with those skills.

A team that today sustains one of the lowest on-base percentages in baseball, and actively acquires players with drastically low career on-base numbers, is very obviously practicing a different "moneyball" than that for which it became famed. Today's A's, it seems, see the undervalued commodities as "defense and athletic players drafted out of high school" (as a recent article on the organization put it). These are not your father's A's. What success their new tack will have remains to be seen (their present fortunes are a transition state); but "moneyball" as practiced today by the A's seems no longer to have at its core the same analytic principles that then-GM Sandy Alderson and I worked with a quarter-century ago, and that I presented to Billy Beane in that now semi-famous paper.

* * *

Deadspin Classic: The Forgotten Man Of Moneyball

Back then, Sandy was fighting an uphill battle. As a man who had not come up through the baseball establishment, he met quite a lot of entrenched opposition, especially to the ideas of the then-new analysis. He thus kept mostly quiet about analysis, even while using its results to help shape both general approaches and particular decisions. When I had worked for the Giants, I was under express orders to not disclose my relation with the team; with the A's, I adopted a policy of silence on my own, but there were subtle suggestions that that was the way Sandy preferred it. I think almost everybody in the front office (including the Haas family, the owners) knew who I was and what I was doing, but I believe no one at the field level did.

In 1994, Sandy promoted Billy Beane to assistant GM. At the same time, he asked me to prepare an overview of the general principles of analysis for Billy, so that Billy could get in one sitting an idea of the way the organization was looking at talent. In the end, I delivered a report titled "Winning Baseball," with the subtitle: "An objective, numerical, analytic analysis of the principles and practices involved in the design of a winning baseball team." The report was 66 pages long; I still grit my teeth whenever I remember that Michael Lewis described it as a "pamphlet."

Both Lewis in Moneyball and Alan Schwarz in The Numbers Game have reported Billy's reaction to his first reading of "Winning Baseball." Lewis says Beane "experienced—well, he couldn't quite describe the excitement of it." He quotes Beane:

It was the first thing I had ever read that tried to take an objective view of baseball. Something that was different than just a lot of people's subjective opinions. I was still very subjective in my own thinking but it made sense to me.

Schwarz put it in much the same terms: Beanes's "eyes all but popped out of his head when he read it."

One of those two (Lewis, I think) told me that the phrase Billy used to describe his initial reaction was "the scales fell from my eyes." Billy took up the new ideas with, as is now known, considerable enthusiasm. I remember once being in Billy's office when he told me—pointing to a sample copy—that he had had "Winning Baseball" printed up in quantity and distributed throughout the organization, to scouts and minor-league managers and coaches. (That was one of the very few times that either Sandy or Billy ever made clear to me that they were placing more than casual emphasis on the work I was doing for the club.)

Deadspin Classic: The Forgotten Man Of Moneyball

My goal in that report, which I seem to have met, was to put the ideas—not the detailed principles, just the ideas—forward in simple, clear language and logical order, so that they would be comprehensible by and reasonable to a working front-office executive. Sandy Alderson didn't need a document like this, then or at the outset, but he was a Harvard-trained attorney; I considered myself to be writing not just to Billy Beane but to any veteran baseball man (which, as it turned out, was just as well).

As I now look back and reflect, I think that possibly the most important thing I accomplished in those years was not so much the actual analyses I did (though I believe they were important), but rather that communicating to baseball people what analysis was all about in ways that made it reasonable and plausible. Despite all the seasons that have flowed by since Rickey and Cook and James, there remains to this hour a great divide, a sort of cultural barrier, between "old-time baseball men" and the so-called "new breed" of analysis users. That pains me, because though the details of analysis can be abstruse and mathematical, the basic concepts, with only a modicum of patience, can be explained even to hostile disbelievers, who disbelieve for the very reason that no one has ever troubled to make those clear explanations to them—at least not in language they speak. Some of the published materials on analysis have been more educational than others, but none that I can recall offhand has ever been aimed at actual working baseball men. Indeed, not a few modern analysts almost brag about the fact that they have never been down on a field or in a front office.

At least in the receptive atmosphere of the Oakland organization of the 1980s, with that report I was able to bridge that cultural gap. I admit that we never tried to take it down to the field level during Tony La Russa's term, by the end of which I was 150 miles away from the Coliseum and not able to visit in person frequently. But it is my firm belief that there are few "old-time baseball men" who could not—unless they were to willfully refuse to listen—be persuaded of the logic and validity of analysis. It is, after all, the way things really work, and its logic is not hard to follow if presented with the idea in mind that the audience has hard-won preconceptions. Selling ideas to interested fans with open minds is a very different kettle of fish from selling ideas to men who have been acknowledged as important experts in their field and who have spent a lifetime acquiring a set of beliefs that they think work well. And the disdain for and sarcasm about such folk found in most books of analysis do nothing to ease the way.

* * *

Re-reading "Winning Baseball" now, after 15 long years and a lot of advances in the field, I am pleased to see that it holds up remarkably well. Throughout the text, I placed in boxed, emphasized text such summary keystone statements as I wanted readers to remember. They were, many of them, quite iconoclastic at the time, though most will today sound quite familiar to anybody who's been paying attention to baseball over the past decade. Things like:

Winning a seven-game major-league baseball series is much more a matter of luck than inherent ability.

There is a definite relation between runs scored and runs allowed over a stretch of games and games won during that stretch.

Young pitchers' arms are easily damaged by extended outings.

Virtually all tactical ploys—the sacrifice bunt, the stolen base, the hit-and-run—operate on average to reduce run scoring.

From Double-A on up, minor-league stats mean just as much as major-league stats.

Trade all players by age 29.

No free agents!

And most important of all, on the subject of roster construction:

NOT ALL GIANTS—
JUST NO MIDGETS.

The only two particular player-personnel matters I can remember ever being asked about by Sandy were an evaluation of Reggie Jackson versus some other old DH possibilities prior to the 1987 season (for what it's worth, I recommended Jackson over the others, and he was the one they signed), and of the defensive play of shorstop Alfredo Griffin (Sandy wanted to get rid of his dreadful bat, but faced a lot of resistance from within the organization on the supposed value of Griffin's fielding), whom the A's did trade away after the 1987 season.

Deadspin Classic: The Forgotten Man Of Moneyball

When Sandy left and Billy took over as GM, one of the major changes in my work was an especial emphasis on evaluation of six-year minor-league free agents, Rule 5 draft possibilities and some veteran free agents. Recall that translations of minor-league stats were, at that time, rather arcane matters; Bill James had published a methodology, but few if any other front offices were then (to my present knowledge) doing much in that area. A couple of names that I am particularly pleased to recall are Billy Taylor and Matt Stairs, each of whom I pushed hard for. Seeing their successes was, I must say, immensely gratifying. I certainly didn't have everything my way—the A's despite my continual pleadings, didn't acquire Mike Aldrete till late in his career (a career that could and should have been a lot more distinguished, the next Keith Hernandez, but he had the misfortune to come up at the same time as Will Clark)—but all in all it was rewarding work.

I think the worst thing that happened during that era derived from the growing tension between the front office and the field level. A young man named Doug Jennings, who had outstanding minor-league translations (especially in OBP) was put on the 25-man roster. Tony La Russa apparently took the position that you can force me to have him, but you can't force me to play him. Jennings was on the big club's roster for parts of four seasons, and never accomplished anything; but it is hard to accomplish anything when in four seasons you get 323 plate appearances. A precious few men can still be productive with scant and irregular play, but most cannot (that's an analytic fact). The needless barriers between modern and old-time cost Doug Jennings a career—probably a pretty good career.

* * *

Today, I have retired, both from baseball and from my non-baseball business, but I keep an iron or two in the fire (in fact, I keep far too many irons in). Besides my main baseball site, High Boskage House, I not long ago established another baseball-related site, Steroids, Other "Drugs", and Baseball. As Alan Schwarz put it in his New York Times article on it, "One of the most influential baseball minds of the last 40 years is angry. And he is coming out of retirement to vent." That site can and does speak for itself, but the long and the short of it is that I was, and am, sickened and angered by all the dolts, from senators to sports writers, mindlessly and pompously parroting as fact things about which they know as much as a fish knows about bicycles.

Maybe one of these days I'll desktop-publish a copy of my report to Beane, perhaps coupled with a reprint of The Sinister First Baseman, which folk are constantly inquiring about. Or maybe I'll just re-write the report a little and shop myself around again to some teams. Who knows?

I left the A's in the late 1990s (I forget the exact year). They did not, as The Numbers Game mistakenly put it, "stop contracting" my services. I resigned. Why? It's ironic, all things considered: The team I helped teach how to win on the cheap wasn't willing to pay enough to keep me.

[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.

[3] I hear a lot today that "analysis is dead," meaning that its crucial lessons are few and now understood and accepted as a basis for planning by virtually all organizations. What nonsense! The merest glance at even just team on-base percentages (never mind things like Pitcher Abuse Points) should make it blindingly obvious that a good fraction of ball clubs still Just Don't Get It.

That gravels me. I cannot think of another industry in which the uttermost basics of how the product works are a mystery to the people in that industry. There is nothing, to any with IQs much over their hat size, mysterious or controversial about analysis: it's just the way things work, and that's that. Yet a coach on the major-league level (coaching on a team last in all the majors in OPS) can to this hour be found publicly remarking, "You want to see a walk? Go watch a mailman." How is that possible? How can businesses with annual payrolls approaching a tenth of a billion dollars not have any least idea how their business works?

Eric Walker lives in eastern Washington State. He currently maintains over a dozen web sites, two of which are related to baseball: The High Boskage Baseball-Analysis Web Site and Steroids, Other "Drugs", and Baseball. A full menu can be found at his main web site. He can reached at webmaster@highboskage.com.