For this post, and another post next week, I'm supposed to write about "Moneyball Players Of Today." Not that I'm upset about the topic, but I didn't choose it. This is something I am doing for a couple dollars because SB Nation and the marketing team behind the soon-to-be-released movie Moneyball have realized there is a massive inefficiency in the baseball-movie-promotion market, and it's writing by dudes who spent a long time in grad school and care too much about bad baseball teams. I am the Jeremy Brown of Brad-Pitt-baseball-movie promotion!
The purpose of this post is promotional! There is a movie called Moneyball that will come out soon. I will see it. You should see it. If the book of the same name is any indication, it will be a story about a man who dared to see things differently while working in a stagnant industry. Part of it will be exaggerated, and some of it will be misleading, but much of it will be true.
It will be an historical movie. The story will have taken place in the past. There will be valuable lessons, but those lessons will not be about baseball. They will be about the importance of questioning conventional wisdom and of having the confidence to do something different. They will not, however, have many obvious, immediate applications for baseball teams, most of whom are well aware of the need to seize advantages presented by the market.
Who are the "Moneyball Players Of Today"? A decade ago, when there was a player who got stuck at Class AAA despite stellar performances, it was usually best to assume that he was there for no good reason. This was how it came to be that, for example, Matt Stairs never found a role in the majors until he got to Oakland at age 28, at which point he rewarded the A's with OPS+ figures of over 130 in each of his first three full seasons. This was how Erubiel Durazo accumulated 409 plate appearances in the minors in 1999 with an OPS of 1.192. This was how it came to be that Craig Wilson somehow tied the major-league record for pinch-hit homers in his rookie season in 2001 while his going-nowhere team started a worthless veteran at first base. These were all perfectly good, major-league-caliber players, but baseball didn't find a place for them, simply because baseball didn't question its biases then in the way it does now.
These things still happen occasionally. Good players still do occasionally get stuck on the bench, or in Class AAA. But usually, when a player puts up massive numbers in Class AAA and doesn't get a callup, or a trade, it's often best to begin with the assumption that there's a reason why.
Here's an example: Wilfredo Ledezma. Ledezma would, under some definitions, appear to be a "Moneyball" player. He has had fantastic minor-league numbers in each of the last two seasons, striking out 50 batters in 38.1 innings last year in Indianapolis and whiffing 64 in 48 innings in Las Vegas this year. Last year when the Pirates let him go, I and some other Pirates fans were confused. After all, he struck out 12 batters per nine innings, and his stuff was excellent for a lefty. (His fastball is averaging 94 MPH this year.)
He got called up to the Pirates for a while last year and struck out a lot of batters, but allowed a bunch of hits, 25 in 19.2 innings. This season, he got called up to the Blue Jays and has pitched six innings, striking out six while walking seven and giving up 11 hits.
This doesn't necessarily prove anything. Maybe there really is a good major-league reliever in there, and Ledezma just hasn't gotten enough time recently to show it. But at this point, I'm more likely to assume that major-league teams have accurately determined that he isn't that great, and that's why there hasn't been much interest in him, and why he hasn't performed well.
This isn't to say, of course, that major-league teams should be exempt from criticism. They still do things that are inexplicable sometimes. And, for whatever reason, while teams are mostly pretty good at sniffing out potentially good, undervalued players, the opposite does not hold - teams still occasionally weigh down their rosters with thoroughly pointless players like Pedro Ciriaco and Matt Pagnozzi. There are also still overvalued commodities like closers. But, by and large, the quality of major-league general managers is much higher than it was in the Moneyball years, thanks in part to Billy Beane himself, and Moneyball players are ever-harder to find.