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Sunday, August 01, 2004

MoneyBall versus Old-Time Baseball

Score one for Old-Time Baseball. Perhaps by knockout.

Lots of trades in the Major Leagues yesterday, and lots of Monday-morning quarterbacking (or the baseball equivalent thereof) about which teams did the best and worst. I'll leave it to the people who write as their day jobs to go through all of the details as to each trade. That said, I'd like to point out perhaps the starkest juxtaposition of all trades.

Paul DePodesta went to Harvard, was the long-time assistant GM to Oakland's Billy Beane, the father of statistics-dominated MoneyBall, and he became the Dodgers' GM before this season. Armed with his facts and figures, DePodesta helped steer the Dodgers' franchise to first place in the lackluster National League West. But like a master tinkerer, DePodesta couldn't leave well enough alone. Jayson Stark, ESPN's outstanding "other" baseball writer, provides a great report. He viewed his team as having some weaknesses, so he made some major trades before the trading deadline, no doubt relying on all sorts of stats as to why what he was doing made sense. He traded his team's catcher and spiritual leader, Paul LoDuca, an All-Star, his fleet OF, Dave Roberts, his starting RF, Juan Encarnacion, the league's best set-up man, Guillermo Mota, and one of the league's best situational lefties, Tom Martin, and ended up landing an underachieving fifth starter, Brad Penny, a part-time 1B in Heep Sop Choi, a back-up outfielder in Abraham Nunez, journeyman catcher Brent Mayne and almost-out-of-gas but still dangerous 39 year-old OF Steve Finley. And, he agreed to pay some of LoDuca's salary.

Zoologists are still trying to figure out why lemmings hurl themselves off the cliff, and these trades absolutely make about as much sense in the present as the D-Backs getting free-agent-to-be Richie Sexson from the Brewers for Junior Spivey, Craig Counsell, Chad Moeller and Lyle Overbay (a fantastic, franchise-changing trade for the Brewers if there ever was one) did in the recent past. So why did DePodesta do what he did? Are the MoneyBallers that much smarter than everyone else? Or did this Harvard baseball egghead outthink himself and everyone else in the process?

Now, Larry Beinfest didn't go to Harvard, doesn't rely on the same boatloads of numbers that DePodesta, Beane and Theo Epstein do, but does it take a Harvard economics professor (such as its president, Larry Summers) to figure out that if you can get the haul that the Marlins did to help reinvigorate your team you do so regardless of what the numbers say? (Outside of making sure that the Marlins can play the Phillies all the time, this trade is the best thing that the Marlins could have done to rocket themselves into the thick of the NL East race). I don't know who the prospects are that the Marlins gave up, but Stark doesn't seem to think that they are that material to the overall deal. This trade might do for the Marlins this year what their deadline moves last year did for them (such as getting another bat and leader in Jeff Conine). And, if they do, people should be studying the art of Larry Beinfest, and not the science of the Moneyballers.

One more caveat, and this time, for Mets' fans. At least your team made some bold moves, unlike the Phillies, who will probably can Larry Bowa (and the Phillies' plight, or, rather, blight, isn't his fault) and then sit there and wonder what went wrong. But don't get too giddy about your acquisitions -- in giving up Scott Kazmir, Matt Peterson and Justin Huber, you gave up three of your top 5 prospects. In giving up Ty Wigginton, you thrust a rookie (David Wright) into a starting role in the thick of a pennant race. And, in getting Kris Benson and Victor Zambrano, you get a pitcher with an iffy hose who hasn't done it yet (Benson) and a very wild potential stopper whom a young team gave up on (Tampa Bay). Perhaps one or both will be a late bloomer a la Curt Schilling, but remember, your pitching coach, while excellent, is named Rick Peterson, not Harry Potter. Don't get drunk on "Peterson can turn anyone around" the way BoSox fans did about Joe Kerrigan during the past decade, because outside of Leo Mazzone, no pitching coach has been able to turn out outstanding staffs year in and year out. Benson and Zambrano could help the Mets, but the Metropolitans still have to hit the baseball.


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