Wednesday, January 7, 2009

Looking Back at the 2002 'Moneyball' Draft

[Non-hockey post, yet again...]

Something I read today prompted me to take my annual look at the so-called 'Moneyball' Draft, where the Oakland Athletics had seven first-round picks and selected, among others, the now-legendary Jeremy Brown. Brown was an unheralded catcher played at the University of Alabama who signed with the A's for just $350000, compared to the picks before and after him who required at least a million dollars each.

Rather than re-visit the specifics of 'Moneyball', whether it's the A's strategy or the book my Michael Lewis, I thought I'd look at how the draft actually turned out - objectively - for the A's.

Here were their first-round picks:

16. Nick Swisher
24. Joe Blanton
26. John McCurdy
30. Ben Fritz
35. Jeremy Brown
37. Steve Obenchain
39. Mark Teahen

Keep in mind that this is not the optimal place to be drafting in the first round. The #1 player is usually far-and-away the best player available in the draft (though not in 2002) and after a huge drop to #2, the caliber of available players keeps dropping. To give you a sense of what we're talking about: from pick #16 to pick #102 at the end of the third round in the 2002 draft, just 38 players reached the majors (44%) and only 20 (23%) posted a WARP3 of 3 wins or more in a single season between 2002 and 2008.

So let's look at what the A's picks did:

Swisher: 26.4 WARP3
Blanton: 19.5
Teahen: 20.4

The rest combined for 0.1 WARP3 at the major-league level. The A's had 7 of 24 picks (between pick 16 and 39) and selected three players who totaled 70.3 WARP3. The remaining 17 players contributed 77.4. The A's clearly outperformed the other teams in this stage of the draft (the next four picks after Teahen have not accounted for any major-league production.) In the next 100 picks after Swisher, the only one who has outperformed him thus far is Curtis Granderson, who had to wait until the 80th slot for his name to be called. Brian McCann and Cole Hamels will probably end up with better careers than Swisher too, but the gap is not massive even if Swisher is just a cut below being a true star.

One story that everybody missed in the frenzy over Moneyball was the Cubs drafting 21st, 32nd, 36th and 38th. Not one of their four picks has yet to play in the majors. Even worse, of the top five overall picks, only B.J. Upton has produced anything of value in the major leagues. The A's Moneyball strategy may have been imperfect, but it was certainly a lot better than that employed by other teams.

Excellent point about the correct baseline for comparing drafts. The question isn't "did some of the A's picks fail?" but rather "did the A's do better or worse than competitors?" and it appears the A's did better.

I took a comparative approach to analyzing some recent NHL drafts in 2007. Here's a link if you find it of interest.
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