For as long as baseball is played, scouted and debated, they will be known as the Moneyball draft class: Nick Swisher, Joe Blanton, John McCurdy, Ben Fritz, Jeremy Brown, Steve Obenchain and Mark Teahen.
The Oakland A’s had seven of the first 39 picks in the 2002 amateur draft; the cache of extra selections resulted from the departures of free agents the franchise could not afford. The strategy the A’s used to select the seven players — out with the scouts, in with the stats — was immortalized in Michael Lewis’ bestselling book and the motion picture starring Brad Pitt.
The revolutionary draft occurred 10 years ago this month.
History has judged it a failure. And the Toronto Blue Jays quietly took note.
The A’s spent all seven of those picks on college players, believing they would have a greater immediate impact than a comparable number of high-schoolers. The most capable college players — as this group was supposed to be — need no more than 2 1/2 years of minor-league seasoning. Thus, 2005 should have been the first full year in the majors for the Draft Class That Changed Everything.
By that logic, the Moneyball picks have had seven full seasons (2005 through 2011) to impact the majors. And during those 49 seasons — seven players times seven years — they accounted for one All-Star appearance: Swisher in 2010. Three never made the majors; Brown played five games.
A decade later, the A’s continue to employ one of the smallest amateur scouting staffs in baseball: 15 area scouts, according to the most recent Baseball America Directory. After reaching the postseason five times in a seven-year span at the start of the last decade, the A’s are on pace to finish with a losing record for the sixth consecutive season. Billy Beane, now in his 15th year as the Oakland general manager, has won one playoff series.
Baseball, like any industry, has its trends. Successes are mimicked. Misfires are reversed. So, it was only a matter of time before an organization took note of what happened in Oakland — fired scouts, lost games — and decided the opposite approach might be wiser. The Toronto Blue Jays were that team, and 2010 was that year.
Alex Anthopoulos succeeded J.P. Ricciardi (a Beane disciple) as the Toronto general manager in October 2009. The following year, because of departing free agents, Toronto had seven of the first 80 selections. Presented with a similar opportunity to the one Beane had in Oakland eight years prior, Anthopoulos took the diametrically opposite approach: He hired more scouts.
Anthopoulos, 35, while youthful and analytical, believes strongly in the expertise of veteran baseball observers. He thinks competitive advantages can be found in human capital. Today, the Blue Jays employ more area scouts — 24 — than any other franchise in baseball.
Toronto’s theory has become baseball’s latest experiment, and executives with other clubs — not to mention a few owners — are paying attention to the Blue Jays’ 2010 draft. The names might as well be known as the Anti-Moneyball class: Deck McGuire, Aaron Sanchez, Noah Syndergaard, Asher Wojciechowski, Griffin Murphy, Kellen Sweeney and Justin Nicolino.
“Maybe,” Syndergaard said one recent afternoon, “they’ll make a movie about us.”
We can’t say — yet — that the Blue Jays have devised an ideal system. Five of those top seven picks were high-school seniors, meaning it will take longer for them to develop. But if a counter-revolution is afoot, the center of the uprising is a minor-league ballpark in Lansing, Mich., named after the Thomas M. Cooley Law School. That’s where the most prized prospects of the group — Sanchez, Syndergaard and Nicolino — are spending the summer.
Ask a scout to describe his dream pitcher, and he would come up with some composite of the three: Sanchez, the righty from California, is 6-foot-4. Syndergaard, the righty from Texas, is 6-5. Nicolino, the lefty from Florida, is 6-3.
Choose your favorite scouting bromide — “His arm works,” “He looks the part,” “You can dream on him” — and it would apply here. All were signed straight out of high school, a no-no for the Oakland A’s in 2002.
The Blue Jays are tightly controlling their workloads, restricting them to three (and more recently four) innings per outing throughout the first half. Sanchez, 19, and Nicolino, 20, had been pitching in the same games until this week. One started, the other relieved. Sanch-olino became the buzzword for the best friends, and their results rarely disappointed: a 6-0 record and 0.77 ERA for Sanchez, 2-0 and 1.21 for Nicolino.
Syndergaard, the youngest (he doesn’t turn 20 till Aug. 29) and biggest of the trio, has a higher ERA (3.92) but leads the team 57 strikeouts. The innings limits haven’t hurt the Lansing Lugnuts, who own the best record (47-22) in the Class A Midwest League.
As Lewis detailed in his seminal book, high-school players are riskier than their college counterparts. Because they are younger, there is greater variability in their health, performance and overall maturity. The statistics attached to them are less reliable, due to uneven competition. Yet, it’s folly to ignore talented teenagers such as Bryce Harper and Mike Trout.
So how can baseball teams embrace the upside in high-school prospects while lowering the associated risk? The Blue Jays believe the answer is a scouting inundation — and the early returns indicate they may be right. Toronto entered this season with the No. 5 farm system in baseball, according to Baseball America. “It’s not just our draft class,” Sanchez said. “It’s unreal, the talent we have here.”
More scouts mean smaller territories, and smaller territories mean a greater depth of knowledge about each player’s ability, character and family background. To put it another way: If you were going to give $500,000 or more to an 18-year-old, wouldn’t you want to know as much as you could about him?
If anything, scouts have become more essential under baseball’s new collective-bargaining agreement; player signability is a greater consideration than ever before, because of the cap on draft spending that went into effect this year. It’s not enough to assess the ability of amateur players. Teams must have a firm idea of the player’s asking price and desire to play professional baseball. That sort of information is only revealed by getting to know the family.
“The Jays scouts have a unique way of doing it,” said Nicolino, who was signed by Carlos Rodriguez. “As an organization, you want guys that want to compete. Since I’ve been part of the Jays, that’s all we have. I know this team here, we don’t like losing. The Jays do that. They find guys who want to compete.”
Anthopoulos said this week that Blake Crosby — the area scout whose territory included Sanchez’s hometown of Barstow, Calif. — attended every one of his starts as a high-school senior. “We knew him as well as anybody,” Anthopoulos said. “That’s one of the advantages. But if you have the wrong set of eyes, it won’t matter. You can’t forget that it’s still quality over quantity.”
Syndergaard had a similar experience with Steve Miller, the Jays’ scout in the Dallas-Fort Worth metroplex. Miller met with Syndergaard during the fall of his senior year, around the time his fastball velocity jumped to 92 mph. As the draft neared, Miller called every week. In the end, he made more visits to the Syndergaard home than any other area scout.
“That’s the most beneficial way,” Syndergaard said of the Jays’ scouting strategy. “Nothing against Billy Beane, I guess, but I don’t think you can generate players with a computer.”
Not all has gone according to plan for the Blue Jays. McGuire, who received a $2 million signing bonus, is struggling at Class AA with a 2-8 record and 6.62 ERA. Others in the 2010 class — Wojciechowski, Murphy and Sweeney — have not stood out among their peers in the minor leagues. In the major leagues, the Blue Jays entered Thursday last in the American League East (albeit with a winning record) and looking for their first postseason berth since 1993.
It will take years to evaluate the Anti-Moneyballers of 2010, just like it has taken a decade to reveal the full wisdom of Oakland’s 2002 draft. But if you turn on your television a few Octobers from now to find Sanchez, Syndergaard or Nicolino starting a World Series game, the casting call is sure to follow. Already, Syndergaard has an idea about who should play him: “Why not Brad Pitt?”