An Experiment That Changed Baseball: The Moneyball Draft 15 Years Later
For this oral history, we spoke with more than a dozen people who were directly, and indirectly, involved in the Oakland A's 2002 draft, which changed baseball forever.
Illustration by Maceo Eagle
"The Moneyball draft, for better or worse, is kind of a line of demarcation between the way things had been done and the way things are done now. We were kind of unwilling participants in a science experiment of sorts, I guess, to see if it would work or not."
— Stephen Obenchain, one of the Oakland Athletics' seven first-round picks in 2002
In 2003, author Michael Lewis published Moneyball, a chronicle of the Oakland A's groundbreaking analytical approach to player evaluation. At the heart of the book was Oakland's preparation ahead of the 2002 amateur draft, the first time the A's would use these new techniques on a grand scale to draft and sign amateur talent.
The book revolutionized baseball. Eventually, every team in the majors adopted some or all of the concepts that Lewis outlined. By the end of the decade, "Moneyball" became the term used to describe a statistical-based approach in all of sports.
What follows is an oral history of the Moneyball draft and its impact on the game of baseball, as told by the many people involved or affected by it. Players are listed by their drafted position, college, and pick round and number. All non-playing personnel are listed by their job titles at the time of the 2002 Major League Baseball draft.
In 2002, Billy Beane was heading into his fifth major league draft since succeeding Sandy Alderson as Oakland's general manager. This one would be different. For one, his top lieutenant and director of player personnel, J.P. Ricciardi, had left to manage the Blue Jays. For another, Beane believed that, after years of development, a new, analytic-based approach to scouting players was ready to debut. For the A's, who had long operated on a shoestring budget, the experiment could pay dividends. All Oakland had to do was commit to it.
J.P. Ricciardi, General Manager, Toronto Blue Jays: I think Sandy deserves a lot of the credit for laying the groundwork, and Billy took the ball and ran with it. I think as soon as we realized we were definitely going to be a very small market club, we had to buy into a different way of doing things.
Jim Pransky, Area Scout, Oakland Athletics: Things don't happen overnight. Sometimes a thought process goes on for several years. You're looking at the draft, checking the results of the draft. I don't think it was a haphazard thing thrown together. Sandy put the foundation down and Billy worked with him, J.P. worked with Billy.
Ricciardi: I hired Paul [DePodesta, A's assistant general manager, 1999-2004].… In Paul's case, I knew his dynamic would fit what Billy and I were all about. I played with Billy, I'd been with Billy a long time. I knew what missing piece we needed in the front office and Paul was the perfect guy for that.
Chris Pittaro, National Field Coordinator, Oakland Athletics: Paul DePodesta said it best. He said, If we hadn't already been doing it this way, would we be?
Stephen Obenchain, Starting Pitcher, University of Evansville, Pick 1s.37: Their payroll was miniscule compared to most teams and compared to the top teams it was definitely miniscule, and they're trying to make the playoffs and win a World Series. Money was not going to solve the problem, so they had to find another way to do it.
Pittaro: We had to find an area where we could compete and it obviously was not the free-agent market, where we weren't as attractive a destination as New York or L.A. for whatever reason—money, prestige, whatever you want to call it.…
When Paul came in, I started to see things move in a different direction in terms of we needed to find a way to compete. How? What are the answers? I don't think we really had any answers. We just tried to find an area that we felt like was not so much our niche, but here's where we can maybe get a leg up on somebody else. We started to think a little bit differently, outside the box, in terms of a non-traditional type of scouting. It was kind of our way to be relevant or to stay alive in the game.
Beane and his staff came to believe that the amateur draft could be that advantage. At the time, teams were awarded two early draft picks for every major free agent lost. For Oakland, a team that routinely had its players poached by bigger-market clubs, the draft was the only sphere where they had a bevy of resources to work with.
After the 2001 season, the A's lost first baseman Jason Giambi (to the Yankees), center fielder Johnny Damon (Red Sox), and closer Jason Isringhausen (Cardinals) in free agency. That gave them a staggering seven first-round picks: four in the proper first round, plus three more in the draft's supplemental portion.
Pransky: It became pretty clear-cut when we first got there [in 2002, before the draft] that there was certainly a lot more emphasis on the college guys, more so than ever. And also there was a still a group of people in the organization that were still [saying], Let's not eliminate the high school guys. Let's not do that, there are still some exceptions out there.… I don't think Billy thought there were any exceptions. He didn't want any exceptions. He didn't want to talk about exceptions. He was really set on, This is the best route we could go and it's probably easier to have this one route instead of looking for a possible detour. There are no detours. This is the way we're going. This is the direction we're going.
Pittaro: The cost of being wrong was prohibitive for a team like us. When you draft 50 guys and two or three get to the big leagues, sometimes that's considered a pretty good draft. Now, when your first-rounder doesn't get there and you paid $1.8 million for him back then or whatever it is, or a million and a half dollars and you only had a budget of $3 million or $4 million, that was prohibitive for us. We were trying to find a better way to get a return on our dollar. That's all we were trying to do.
John Sickels, Lead Prospect Writer, ESPN.com: They realized that the statistical analysis of players at the college level was something that, while it had been utilized, it had not been utilized enough and they could gain a competitive advantage by doing that more often.
Pransky: I think that's where some of the mistakes were made in earlier drafts, where [they] were projection-based too far. Automatically, you say, The guy is going to get bigger, he's going to get stronger, the guy's going to throw harder, he's going to hit the ball farther. And that doesn't always happen. Some guys are going to throw as hard as they ever do at 16 and that's it. They're not going to throw any harder down the line.…
Once you've gone with the college route, you've gone with the older player. So you've got guys anywhere from three to four years older, so the projection is lessened dramatically.
Pittaro: We still loved guys with tools and upside, but … sometimes the college player was more attractive to us because we had a little better history on them and there was a little less guesswork. Sometimes that means a little lower ceiling but, again, the cost of being wrong for us is prohibitive.
Sickels: Scouts were always aware of what the players were doing. The hard part is, This player is ripping up college, can he continue to do that in pro ball?... There was always some distortion in college because of the aluminum bat, and a lot of times a player who was really impressive in college would maybe get downgraded a little bit because scouts weren't sure how that was going to translate into pro ball. What happened with the Moneyball thing, is Oakland had realized, OK, yeah, college stats can be misleading but there's ways to adjust for that.
Pittaro: I think we just told [our scouts], listen, you go in and you see a player on any given time and it's kind of like taking a snapshot, whereas the statistics and numbers will tell the whole story of a year. They'll give you the film. So which one is more likely to be what the player is? No one ever said, Hey, you've got to go in and like this guy because he's hitting .400 with 20 home runs. That wasn't the purpose of anything. It was, Hey, maybe you need to give this guy another look.
Sickels: There were trends that were already there and the whole thing with the Moneyball draft was the Oakland staff under Billy Beane. They just took it further and in a more intense direction.
Pransky: We had the extra picks that year, too. Which if you're going to try something out, and try something that's somewhat unique and different, you might as well as do it when you've got the numbers to try it. And we did.
Pittaro: If we're wrong, it sets us back in ways that it doesn't set other teams back.… I can remember turning to [director of player development] Keith Lieppman and saying, Either we're going to look really good or we're going to have an organization full of Double-A players, tops.
The 2002 draft began even better than expected. With their first pick, at 16th overall, the A's selected Ohio State star Nick Swisher. Eight picks later, they chose University of Kentucky right-hander Joe Blanton. Each was a consensus first-round prospect, players who passed both the analytics and eye tests with flying colors. No one in the baseball world batted an eyelash at either selection.
From there, the analytics kicked in and Oakland's new strategy became evident. Instead of focusing on a player's raw ability or body type, the A's turned their attention toward skill sets. For hitters, it was on-base percentage. For pitchers, they prized polished arms over punishing velocity. And in both cases, the college stats were of supreme importance.
The result? A collection of names that, on aggregate, stunned the baseball world. In many cases, the people caught most off guard by when they were selected—and by whom—were the players themselves.
Obenchain: I spoke with the Cardinals, and the area scout said, I think we're going to try and take you at 55. It took a while to sink in. He's not saying 55th round. He's saying 55th [overall]. That doesn't make sense. Me? I'm not that good.
I really hadn't spoken to Oakland and, a day or two before the draft, my advisor—who turned into my agent—said, Oakland is looking to take you 35 or 37, would you sign there? I'm like, Uh, yeah! I'm just hoping to have a team pick me, and when he said top 30-something, yeah I'm interested!...
It was kind of a whirlwind because I'm just a no-name guy from not a baseball powerhouse program... I went to the University of Evansville. We're known for our basketball team that wore sleeves and that Andy Benes pitched for us.
Steve Stanley, Center Fielder, University of Notre Dame, Pick 2.67: In my junior year, I was drafted in the 50th round, the last round of the draft. The Florida Marlins drafted me in the 50th round and it was a favor of a pick because of my coach at Notre Dame.…
The next year, my senior season, [I figured] that I would get my degree, get drafted somewhere in the 10th to 20th round because I was a safe pick.… Those were my expectations heading up to the draft.
Two days before the draft occurred, my coach called me and said, Hey, are you sitting down? I said , Yes, who died? I thought it was bad. He said , No, nothing's wrong. I got a call from Oakland. They want to draft you in the second round for $200,000. Of course my jaw drops, I start to scream excitedly. At that time I was married—we were married for about six months. The neighbors called the cops because they thought my wife and I were in some sort of horrible fight.
Drew Dickinson, Starting Pitcher, University of Illinois, Pick 28.848: I never talked to the Oakland A's, nor did I ever fill out a questionnaire from them, when I literally had filled out every single other club.… The two clubs I talked to the most were the Dodgers and the Angels.…
It was getting late. At that time, 2002, you're listening on your computer—simulcast, broadcast, whatever. It's the 28th round and I'm actually frustrated by that point. I know I'm going to get drafted but by that round, I'm kind of disappointed. So I hear Angels, nothing. Dodgers, nothing. So I get up out of the chair and I'm starting to walk down the stairs to get something to drink, and literally I'm halfway down the stairs and I hear my name.
Ben Fritz, Starting Pitcher, California State University, Fresno, Pick 1.30: Things changed throughout the year. I think junior year, it was top ten [rounds]. As things progressed and got better, you started hearing third to fifth, then started hearing before the third. I think my mindset was more second.
By the time we got to the draft, to obviously have your name called 30th and be the last pick of that first round, it was awesome.… There definitely wasn't a whole lot of dialogue with [Oakland].… Honestly, I had no clue going into the day.
Mark Teahen, Third Base, St. Mary's College of California, Pick 1s.39: As the draft got closer, I was expecting go in the top five rounds.… Before the draft, John Baker and I had a workout at the Coliseum where it was just him and I, so I figured they must have a good amount of interest.
John Baker, Catcher, University of California, Berkeley, Pick 4.128: I was definitely expecting to go back to school, graduate and I was going to go to law school, and I was going to be suing people or something.
Anyway, I get a really weird phone call a few days before the draft from Will Shock, who was a Cal guy himself who was an A's scout at the time. He says, Would you be willing to go to the Oakland Coliseum and take batting practice for our scouts? You have to realize, I'm a kid who grew up an A's fan.… The whole time, I'm trying to hit a homer, because who the hell wouldn't do that? I did, too, with a wooden bat. I was fired up after that. I didn't care about getting drafted after that, to be honest. I was just pumped I got to take BP at the Oakland Coliseum.…
They called me and said, We feel like we're going to take you in the fourth round if you're available. And I'm laughing, because I'm like, Nobody's going to take me before that. Of course I'm going to be available.
Teahen: I was at my parents' house in Yucaipa, California, with my family. We are watching the draft online. At that point I knew the A's were supposed to take me at the 39th pick. There was a huge time gap between the first round and the supplemental round and I remember being nervous throughout that time that they might change their mind. Thankfully they didn't.
Baker: The actual draft day, I went with my girlfriend at the time—who I'm now married to—we went to downtown Walnut Creek and we had crepes when it was happening. This is before TV, all that stuff. Further, and I hate to say this, but I still didn't believe anybody.… I didn't even believe [the A's], necessarily. I'm sitting there eating crepes and I got a phone call. Hey, we took you in the fourth ground, congratulations. And I went, Oh, wow, this is real. That's amazing.
Lloyd Turner, Second Base, Kennesaw State University, Pick 16.488: I remember there was a high school all-star tournament at my college. In hopes that I would get drafted, I said , Let me go and get some practice in the batting cage at the ball field. I'm walking up with my bat and my workout gear on, there's a lot of scouts at the game watching the game, and as I'm walking through the stands down the left-field line, I saw these guys. I didn't know who they were but they said, Hello, great job this year. I said thank you and I hope I can continue my career. I'm just going to work out. They said, You shouldn't have anything to worry about, you're a good ballplayer. I said, Thanks, that means a lot. I went on about my business, got drafted by Oakland, obviously, and my first spring training, I'm a new face, I'm walking through the clubhouse and walk outside, and I see this guy. The first thing he says is, Hey Lloyd. I told you [that] you didn't have anything to worry about, didn't I? It was [Oakland director of scouting] Eric Kubota.
All told, eight members of the A's 2002 draft class would play in the major leagues. Gradually, two players established themselves as the faces of the group. One was the very first pick in Oakland's draft, Swisher. The son of former major leaguer Steve Swisher, he was a rare combination of power and patience, packed inside a muscular six-foot frame. But his play on the field was only part of his appeal. No 'Moneyball' draftee had more tools than Swisher, and no one had a bigger personality, either.
Baker: The first day I got to professional baseball, we had a team meeting. We were in Salem, Oregon, and the manager says, Hey we've got a team meeting, new players signed, that sort of thing. We're all sitting around, he's talking and talking, he starts looking around and is like, Somebody's missing. And out of the laundry basket, like a jack-in-the-box, Nick Swisher, who's been hiding, pops up screaming something incoherent. That was my first meeting of Nick, him scaring me and somebody in the room by popping up like a jack-in-the-box. I go, Who's that? Somebody turns to me and is like, That's the first-rounder. That figures. That's what I thought first-rounders were supposed to be like. It was perfect.
Stanley: He was a combination of everything the scouts wanted and everything Billy Beane wanted in Moneyball. He was the perfect science experiment. It was a lot easier to buy into Nick Swisher because of his power potential. You could basically say, We're going to invest our time, money, and potential in Nick because that's not such a far-fetched proposal.
Pittaro: If Moneyball had never come along, I think Nick would still have been a guy we were extremely, extremely interested in. He absolutely would have been that guy, and his career proved that out, too. He was a Team USA guy, a center fielder at a major college program that had success at a major college conference. That's a thing where we weren't smarter than anyone else.
Teahen: Swisher did become the face of our draft class and he wouldn't want it any other way. He has a ton of personality and I remember right after the draft there was a conference call with me and John Baker, because we were the local guys drafted by the A's, and Nick Swisher, because he was the first pick. On the conference call, John Baker and I each answered one question quickly and the rest of the call was Swish talking.
Dickinson: Swish had been acting like a big leaguer since he was 12. That's just how he was. We called him 'Big League Swish.'
Teahen: I do laugh once in a while when I see Swisher on TV in a suit, because during our first instructional league, Drew Dickinson had to take him to the mall to show him how to buy collared shirts.
Baker: He grew up in a major league locker room. He acted like a major leaguer when he wasn't, and truthfully it pissed off a lot of people. A lot of people got pissed off by his act. But baseball is so complicated with those things, because how many people are angry because they're jealous he's a first-rounder who got more money, and how many people are really annoyed with the stuff that he does? Because when I look back at all my experiences with Nick, even batting behind him in Double-A and getting hit when he would pimp homers and they wouldn't go over the fence—I would get hit for him, it happened multiple times—when I look back at Nick Swisher as a teammate, I always laugh and it always brings a smile to my face.
The second face of 'Moneyball' was far more reluctant to be in the spotlight. Jeremy Brown, the fifth of the Athletics' seven first-rounders, was a record-setting catcher from the University of Alabama. He was also, by conventional wisdom, not a first-round talent. That made him the unwitting embodiment of the 'Moneyball' ethic. No draftee had more ink spilled about him in Lewis's book, or more screen time devoted to him in the eventual movie adaptation. For a different player, it would have been the opportunity of a lifetime, but according to many of those closest to Brown, the attention weighed on him like an anchor. It would become a major catalyst in his premature retirement from the sport at age 28.
Sickels: The only one that I thought, at the time, was a real surprise was Jeremy Brown. He was seen more as a fourth- or fifth-round guy. And, of course, the story is that he had really great college numbers but a bad body, not a guy who was a real pure athlete and somebody who traditional scouts didn't like. And I think that was very true. He was basically the first one [who made people] say, Oh, wow, why'd they pick that guy?... He was the one a lot of the attention ended up getting focused on.
Pittaro: Having seven [first-round] picks was great. Affording seven picks was another issue. Jeremy Brown allowed us to draft the rest of the draft. He was a senior. We got him for a senior signed slot and it freed up money to do other things. Mainly, draft the rest of the draft.
Dickinson: The ultimate nicest guy. At the time, always trying to buy and pay for everything. I think he got the least amount of those seven first-rounders, like $350,000, but he'd try to buy you dinner and buy you drinks all the time. He was just that guy. One of the nicest humans you've ever met.
Brian Stavisky, Outfielder, University of Notre Dame, Pick 6.188: Nick really likes the spotlight and he shines in it, really enjoys the attention on him but deflecting it on other people, too. Jeremy is kind of the opposite.
Joe Blanton, Starting Pitcher, University of Kentucky, Pick 1.24: If you watch the movie, the attention wasn't the most enlightening attention, either. I don't think the book did this, but the media after that kind of took their own spin and was more into, Oh, look, he's not a normal draft pick who is 6-3, 5 percent body fat, 220 pounds. He didn't fit that mold but he was a great baseball player.
Dickinson: I thought Jeremy Brown would be a big leaguer. Jeremy Brown was so good.… He actually hit for power, and as a pitcher, he was always so invested in you. You knew, Hey, this guy's got my back. He's not back there thinking about his four at-bats or what he could do to be about himself. He did what big-league catchers do. Big-league catchers run the pitching staff, and he did that.
Baker: I think if people dive deeper into that story and get to the bottom of him leaving baseball, I think the pressure became too much. Because it is unfair, to come from a place that is that small and to have so many people expect so many things of you. Even to be put in places where you're not baseball-wise ready, thrust into the big leagues or moved ahead when you shouldn't have been moved ahead because you have these expectations.
Pittaro: I know people are going to say that, Oh, he played there because Billy got him. Well, the guy did play in the big leagues.… When you go out to play and you have to try and prove everybody else wrong or everyone else right, it's a very difficult game to do that. Unfortunately for Jeremy, he was made almost into a caricature of himself and his abilities. I don't think it was fair to the kid.
Fritz: We lived together on a couple of different occasions throughout the minor leagues and if he had trouble dealing with it, he dealt with it himself. It wasn't verbalized by any means. I think all of us were a little shocked when he decided to stop playing. Especially when he's about to get this big-league job, backing up in the big leagues. The timing of it all was shocking to me, for sure, but we don't always know what goes on behind closed doors. The guy did a good job of masking whatever it is he had going on, and that's what caused him to step away.
Dickinson: Jeremy just had all the off-field stuff and it kind of brought him down and he never had the big-league career I thought he would have had. At the very least, he would have been a Henry Blanco–type, a lifetime 15-year backup type. That's how good he could have been. I always feel bad he never got to do that.
Tabitha Soren, Photographer and Journalist, Wife of Moneyball author Michael Lewis: He doesn't really like being away from home. He likes living in Hueytown, Alabama. He likes being with his family. He doesn't need to be on a world stage. He loves baseball, he would love to be someone who owns an indoor facility where he could train kids year round and have sort of like a mini-university for baseball in Hueytown. Instead, he went back and got paid really well and got amazing medical benefits to be a coal miner in Alabama with his dad and work the night shift.… If his personal life hadn't imploded, I think he would have stuck around. He says he doesn't have any regrets. He seems happy.
On June 17, 2003, a little more than a year after the 2002 amateur draft, Lewis's 'Moneyball' hit shelves. It was an immediate commercial sensation, rocketing up best-seller lists and revered by casual and hardcore baseball fans alike.
Within the game, however, the book was far more divisive. Beane and many in his front office came off as strident, sometimes to the point of downright arrogance. It was one thing for a front office to espouse new ideas. It was another to spit in the face of tradition. Inside baseball, many in the scouting community regarded the book as the latter. In some cases, they even wondered if Oakland's real mission was to eradicate their livelihood.
Pransky: I didn't know a thing, to be honest with you, until I was in a CVS or a pharmacy or something, maybe in October or November. I saw a copy of Sports Illustrated on the shelf and one of the captions on the cover was something about the A's Moneyball draft or something like that. Well, of course that got my attention. I think they ran a couple chapters, a couple excerpts.
I sat down in my recliner and I read those chapters and I said, Uh oh. This is going to get some attention… This is going to hit the news and this is going to be something big. And you knew that some people weren't going to like it, just some of the things mentioned in there. Some people just weren't going to see it the way other people saw it.
Ricciardi: I think the biggest misconception was the scouting community looked at anyone associated with the A's as basically the guys with the black hats, that we were going to get rid of scouting, we were going to do the draft differently. They totally had a misconception about what we were going to do and what we were all about, and nothing could have been further from the truth. But it was a shock to the industry because it was a different mindset, and it got a lot of paranoia up among traditional scouts—and a lot of traditional writers who were friends with scouts, who got all of their information from scouts.
Eddie Bane, Special Assistant to the General Manager, Tampa Bay Devil Rays: I think old-time scouts, whether they said that or not, felt threatened by it. Because a lot of times, we didn't understand it and when you don't understand something, you always feel threatened by it. I think the old-time scouts, hopefully not including me, but even the middle-age guys thought people were trying to cost them their jobs. So that's why people got so fired up about it, I think. Wow, you're threatening my livelihood. Which I don't believe at all.
Pransky: Initially Moneyball was so dramatic and had so much press and stuff that automatically you kind of divided the camps a bit between the old school and the new school. That went on for several years afterwards. You had that, Oh we don't needs stats, we don't need this, and you had the other ones saying, We need all these stats. When in reality, you really needed to know right down the middle a little bit. You needed a bit of both. You needed scouts' understanding and you needed the numbers to do these things. For a while, there was definitely, no doubt about it, it was old and new school. There was no way around that. I couldn't walk into a ballpark without somebody mentioning Moneyball or the draft and You guys think you're better than me.
Pittaro: I felt the cold shoulder many times walking into a ballpark.… People didn't talk to you. In particular cases, I can remember, a guy didn't talk to me for a couple of years. That was part of the blowback. I think when you go in and challenge someone's view of themselves, it can be startling, obviously.
Ricciardi: I've had people say to me, You're an analytics guy. Well, nothing could be further from the truth: I was an area scout almost ten years. I signed ten big leaguers myself, non-drafted players, free agents. My whole background was scouting but all of a sudden I became a nerd.
Bane: Especially when the book came out, there were some people who made fun of them—or not made fun of them, that's the wrong word for it, but thought they were on the wrong track and they were taking it too far. But there were a lot of other people thinking, OK, we already kind of do this and they're just getting more attention for it.
Pittaro: Billy Beane didn't write the book. The Oakland A's didn't write the book…. Did we open the door a little too far? Yeah, probably. I think if you ask most of the people, Do we regret saying some things or letting some things [go]? Yeah, sure, probably. I just think there was probably more access given than we would have liked at the time. A lot of it was just locker room talk that came out in the book. I can't speak for Billy or anybody or else, but I don't know, if we were given the opportunity to do it over, we would have done it again.
Unlike the men who drafted them, the members of the 'Moneyball' draft class had little interest in changing how the game was played. " It's not like any of us said, 'Hey, we want to be a part of this fun thing,'" says Obenchain. "We all said 'Hey, we want to play professional baseball.'… They picked our name and we said 'Heck yeah, we'll play.'"
Nevertheless, it didn't prevent some of the front-office enmity from spilling over onto the field itself. Occasionally, it was malevolent. More often, it was innocuous. It all added up to the same thing: the 'Moneyball' draft class were marked men, and not just outside the organization.
Baker: It was the next year in spring training when people found out that a book was coming out. The previous draft class, the kids from the class in front of us, you could feel their eyes. They felt that they could now blame every non-call-up or pass over on us being a part of this Moneyball draft class. That we're going to get special treatment because we're in some book. I definitely think some of us did and some of us didn't.
Teahen: Lots of other prospects and players definitely knew we were part of the Moneyball draft. People that didn't read the book would make comments once in a while because all they heard was the stuff about walks and scouts not being as important as they once were. Obviously, the book was much more complex than that. For the most part, people were very supportive, but early in my career I noticed some people from other organizations possibly cheering against my draft class in hopes that Moneyball would look bad.
Stavisky: The Moneyball guys were at the lower levels but they changed the whole minor-league system to where they were trying to emphasize walks and on-base percentage. I think we probably were looked at as "the Moneyball guys" by the Double-A, Triple-A guys at the time, the new guys coming in once everyone knew what Moneyball was.
Fritz: You definitely heard the term "Moneyballer."
Baker: We were up with the Dan Johnsons and the previous year's class, and they really thought we were being shot through the system without any merit. It felt like that to me at certain times. Not that anyone was overly malicious, they just actually said that stuff out loud. I'm not saying I felt a vibe but they'd be like, Oh yeah, I wish I were drafted one year later because then I'd be in Double-A right away. That's just a natural element of baseball players and insecurity in a game inherent with failure.
The unique circumstances in which the 'Moneyball' draft class came together and how they started their careers forged an unusual bond. It was also aided by the writer who made them all famous. In the years after 'Moneyball,' Lewis mulled over the idea of a sequel, called 'Underdogs,' that would chronicle the players' lives since the draft. Meanwhile, his wife, Tabitha Soren, began photographing each of the players at the onset of their professional careers and continued for the next 15 years. It resulted in a book entitled 'Fantasy Life: Baseball and the American Dream,' for which several members of the draft class contributed essays.
Well after most groups break up and go their separate ways, the 'Moneyball' draft's closeness endured along with their reputation.
Stavisky: The numbers really don't measure personality and character and things like that, but either something must have gone into that, in addition to the numbers, or the numbers just produced a bunch of guys who really could get along that well.
Fritz: In my experience still being in the game as a coach, I think it was a uniquely tight group.
Baker: Everybody was 21 or so when we started our first season, 22, and everyone had gone through three years of college baseball where you develop how to be a teammate. And they drafted players that were thoughtful about their approach in baseball, so we had that common ground. And you add the element of everybody thinks you're only getting promoted because you're part of this special draft class. So you have something that links everybody.
Teahen: I think there was a bit of a sense that a lot of people throughout baseball weren't exactly cheering for our success, so we stuck together and pushed each other to continue to improve and grow as players.
Blanton: I don't think it was intentional but obviously seven first-rounders is quite a few and we all kind of moved together along the way for the most part. We all, I feel like, from '02, '03, '04 there were at least a few of us playing together on every team. So you play with the guys for a few years.
Fritz: [Tabitha] was there every spring and it was that whole draft class, so it wasn't just a select few or five guys she was taking photos of. It almost created a tighter bond between that group of guys because you were doing stuff together after the fact where she's doing a photo shoot at sunset and you're all coming back for it. There's 30 dudes out there for it.… Off-seasons come around and you're still in contact because of certain things with Tabitha and Michael.
Dickinson: With the Moneyball stuff, it was having Tabitha keep doing stuff and emailing us. It's allowed us to, when we may not have kept in touch as much, we talk more through email or something like that. Even that is nice to bring up a story when we played together. It's the stuff you never forget.
Today, Joe Blanton is the last active player remaining from the Moneyball draft class. To date, the eight signees who played in the major leagues combined to gross 41.2 wins above replacement, more than three quarters of which come from Blanton and Swisher. No baseball draft class is more famous or more influential, but is it actually an on-field success?
Stanley: It definitely would not have had the impact that it did had we not had a couple of players that really had success. Nick being one of those, Joe being another one that made an impact.
Pransky: I don't think Swisher and Blanton were guys that weren't on other people's lists.
They were going to go in the first round to somebody. I think once you get past those guys, that's when the other stuff pops in, the other aspects of it pop in.
Ricciardi: I think it was a little bit out there in the sense that they took some guys most people wouldn't take and they over-drafted some guys most people wouldn't take.
Sickels: But even back then, it was not as different as everybody thought. It wasn't like they were drafting people that nobody had ever heard of in the first round. Swisher, Blanton, Fritz, McCurdy—these guys were all legitimate first-round picks by either scouting or statistics.
Pransky: Now it's 15 years later and now people can go back to that draft and you can analyze it. And you know what? You're going to get arguments on that.
Sickels: So basically, seven guys at the top, two of those guys became major league regulars—Swisher and Blanton, who had long major-league careers. A third, Teahen, was a decent role player. That's three out of seven right there, which is really good considering how difficult these kinds of things are. If you look at history, a lot of times when teams have multiple picks, there are many examples of teams that had multiple early-round picks and none of them panned out. So overall it's a successful draft. There's no question about it in my opinion.
Bane: Joe Klein told me one time—and I think it was brilliant, when he was my GM in Cleveland—that you get your first-round pick to be a good major-league player, you get one of the two-through-fours to be a good major-league player, one of the five-through-tens to be a good major-league player and you hit on one other guy after that. If you did that, you had a really good draft.…
Grading off the scale that I always use, it's not a successful draft. You need to produce more major-league talent out of a draft than that. In [the Angels'] 2010 draft, we got Kole Calhoun and Cam Bedrosian.… We had five picks in the [first] 80 or something like that and I didn't consider that a successful draft.
Ricciardi: There was some unconventionality to it but in our game, if you don't try things, how are you going to find out things? Look, if I came away with Joe Blanton and Swisher, and the rest of the guys didn't work out because they took chances, I wouldn't sit here and say that was a failure. I would say it was an exercise in trying to figure out something and if it didn't work, then I move on to something else.
Pransky: I think there's more argument about how the draft came out than, Should they even have done it this way?
Ricciardi: Moneyball is a way of surviving for teams that don't have money. I don't think it's going to be the end all, be all of you're going to win it all because history has told us in the last 20 years, it's been the teams with the top seven payrolls in baseball that win it. The Moneyball aspect is you're always going to have deficiencies but you're probably going to make yourself as good as you can on a limited budget.
I think that was lost on a lot of people. They come back with, Moneyball, it doesn't work, they don't win the World Series. Well, it's tough to win the World Series on a $50 million payroll. What you're trying to do is put out the best product you can and be as competitive as you can within the budget that you have, and I think that's where a lot of the scouting community missed out and were quick to pass judgment, and a lot of the writers were, too. Oh, how good are the A's? They can't get out of the playoffs. I don't think they realized how hard it was to make the playoffs on that type of payroll. And I think that was one of the biggest misconceptions that was out there.
Bane: Guys would always point to, Well, what's Oakland ever won? How many titles have they won with this group? That's the way people approach things when they're threatened by something: Nah nah nah nah nah, you didn't do this or you didn't do that. Instead of looking at the whole picture and saying, Hey, they've got some good ideas here, we need to start thinking about this.
Fifteen years later, baseball has done much more than consider the ideas 'Moneyball' wrought. It has implemented them across the board; every team in the sport has changed the way they hire, scout, draft, and construct their organizations. Meanwhile, Oakland's 'Moneyball' class distinguished itself as the most recognized group to ever come out of the Rule 4 Draft. All told, a draft day born of desperation became one of the most influential moments in baseball history.
Stavisky: It's kind of neat that after all those years that the organization has existed, and the organizations that draft every year, this is the one draft class that kind of stands out with a title.
Fritz: I don't think they can name people but when you say Moneyball, they say "Oakland, 2002."… Even players now, when somebody mentions it, Oh really, you're Moneyball? They couldn't mention names but just Moneyball draft, you know Oakland, 2002. You at least know it was something beyond the norm.
Sickels: Fans of a specific team would remember certain drafts.... But baseball fans in general, I think the Moneyball draft is the one that gets remembered most often for logical reasons. I also think that back then, 15 years ago, there was not much attention paid to the draft in general. I think that's changed now, and the rise of the internet has made it a lot more visible. MLB has done a lot of work to get the draft more attention … and I think the Moneyball draft feeds into the increasing amount of attention that the whole draft process has received over the last few years.
Pransky: It hasn't just been the last 15 years. You take the 15 years before that and there wasn't anything of that note, I think, as far as the baseball draft. There wasn't anything that ever rivaled the attention.
Sickels: Statistical analysis for us, for draftees, is looked at a lot more now than it was 15 years ago, but that change can be exaggerated. Teams did look at it 15 years ago. I think Oakland maybe did it more, but it wasn't as big a change as, say, Hollywood would want you to think.
Blanton: On the stat side, there was probably a little bit going on before that, but [the 2002 draft] brought it to the forefront.… That's kind of where everyone started talking about analytics and this is how they do it and what it's turned into today. You're talking about spin rate, perceived velocity, exit velocity, launch angle, you're talking about so many things and that was the start of it, with on base plus slugging.
Baker: Baseball is always a sport I feel like is a little bit behind, even working in it now. It's a little bit behind and always catching up on that progressive front. What they did absolutely changed the game, not necessarily their particular methods but their way of viewing things and realizing that we need to dive deeper into this information.
Bane: We needed to get pushed into this century and that philosophy kind of helped.
Ricciardi: If you look at where the game has come in the last 15 years, I think if you talk to a lot of those scouts, they're a lot more open-minded today about what the numbers are. I think any time you can have a hybrid between scouting and player development, and scouting and the numbers, that's when you're going to have more success.… A lot of the unknown has been demystified, so to speak.
Pittaro: I don't know if there was any one point in time but over the course of a few years you started seeing teams hire analytics people. You look at the general managers who have been hired since 2001 or 2002, you look at the departments that have been created, you look at the positions that have been created, and over the course of time you realize that the owners have come to the realization that, yeah, you know what? There's something in this. I think that's for every team to realize exactly what that is.
Baker: And now, if you look, so many of these front office that fit those kinds of decimals—Ivy-league or equivalent educated, they're generally white, liberal-arts background or economics, they go to business school or law school, like in the case of my boss Theo [Epstein]. I want to say 18 of the 30 GMs fit this type of thinking. Progressive thinkers relying on data. If it didn't work, then it wouldn't be in baseball 15 years later.
So it's really worked in that this kind of ethos has now swept through all of professional baseball. And I think if you're not looking at it from that perspective, if you don't have that research and development team or you don't have a sabermetric team and you're not using this information, then you're behind and you're going to get beat.
Billy Beane (current Athletics president and former general manager), Paul DePodesta (former Athletics assistant general manager), David Forst (current Athletics general manager) and Eric Kubota (Athletics scouting director) all declined requests for comment for this story.
Multiple interview requests by VICE Sports to Michael Lewis's publicist went unreturned.
Where Are They Now?
Eddie Bane: Special Assistant to the General Manager, Boston Red Sox
John Baker: Mental Skills Coordinator, Chicago Cubs
Joe Blanton: Relief Pitcher, Washington Nationals
Drew Dickinson: Pitching Coach, University of Illinois
Ben Fritz: Manager, Tri-City Dust Devils (San Diego Padres Short-season Single-A affiliate)
Jed Morris: Head Baseball Coach, Eastern University – St. Davids, Pennsylvania
Stephen Obenchain: Supervisor of Portfolio Support Services, Donaldson Capital – Evansville, Indiana
Chris Pittaro: Special Assistant to the General Manager, Oakland Athletics
Jim Pransky: Area Scout, Colorado Rockies
J.P. Ricciardi: Special Assistant to the General Manager, New York Mets
John Sickels: Executive Editor, Minorleagueball.com (SB Nation affiliate) – Lawrence, Kansas
Steve Stanley: Owner, Stanley Insurance Agency – Scottsdale, Arizona
Brian Stavisky: Inside Sales Analyst, Dresser-Rand – Olean, New York
Tabitha Soren: Author, Fantasy Life: Baseball and the American Dream – Berkeley, California
Mark Teahen: Owner, Sorso Wine Room – Scottsdale, Arizona
Lloyd Turner: Hitting Coach, Vermont Lake Monsters (Oakland Athletics Short-season Single-A affiliate)