Saturday, October 07, 2006

Bonderman banishes the Bombers back to the Bronx

Jeremy Bonderman
The Yankees didn't get swept, but they did play like vacuum cleaners

As 8-3 victors on Saturday behind Jeremy Bonderman's filthy right arm, the Detroit Tigers have done baseball fans a huge favor: they have banished the despicable New York Yankees from the 2006 playoffs. The resulting matchup between the Tigers and the Oakland A's in the American League championship series appears to vindicate Billy Beane's Moneyball formula for winning baseball games on a limited budget.

Or does it? Jeremy Bonderman, as it turns out, figured prominently in Moneyball, but not as the type of player Billy wanted in an A's uniform:
In the confusion [of the 2001 draft], Grady Fuson, the A's soon to be former head of scouting, had taken a high school pitcher named Jeremy Bonderman. The kid had a 94-mile-per-hour fastball, a clean delivery, and a body that looked as if it had been created to wear a baseball uniform. He was, in short, precisely the kind of pitcher Billy thought he had trained his scouting department to avoid.

Grady Fuson
Grady Fuson, who now scouts for the Padres
It was impossible to say whether Jeremy Bonderman would make it to the big leagues, but that wasn't the point. The odds were against him, as they were against any high school player. . . . [Y]ou had only to study the history of the draft to see that high school pitchers were twice less likely than college players, and four times less likely than college position players, to make it to the big leagues. . . .

When Grady leaned into the phone to take Bonderman, Billy, in a single motion, erupted from his chair, grabbed it, and hurled it right through the wall. When the chair hit the wall it didn't bang and clang; it exploded. Until they saw the hole Billy had made in it, the scouts had assumed that the wall was, like their futures, solid.
Michael Lewis, Moneyball 15-17 (2003).

On this fine Saturday in October 2006, Jeremy Bonderman mowed down the Yankees and gave the Tigers a postseason series win merely three years after Detroit lost 119 games in a single season. Does his success undermine Billy Beane's method of evaluating talent by the numbers rather than by scouting instinct?

There are good reasons to think that the answer is "No":
  1. Mark FidrychIt's too early. In 2006, his fourth season in the majors, Bonderman beat the park-adjusted league-wide ERA for the first time. He's only 23 years old. And Detroit fans undoubtedly remember this 21-year-old who won 19 games in 1976 but won only 10 more times in four more major league seasons.

  2. It's the postseason. It's treacherous to draw conclusions from the few games that are played in October.

  3. Again, it's the postseason. The extreme salience of winner-take-all baseball plays tricks with otherwise rational minds.
Supreme Court
Yeah, yeah, I worked here. That was then; this is now.
In law school terms, what Bonderman's success says is this: Don't bail just yet on the Moneyball/MoneyLaw approach to evaluating talent by productivity rather than pedigree. Just as some first-round bonus babies eventually play good baseball, some people in this profession turn out fine in spite of their Ivy League law review memberships and their Supreme Court clerkships. In any event, whether the managerial choice at hand consists of committing a seven-digit signing bonus or risking a grueling tenure vote five years out, the wise manager knows better than to decide by anecdote.

Jeff WeaverHaving said all that, I can't resist one last anecdote. The Yankees had a close brush with Jeremy Bonderman in a deal that had Billy Beane's fingerprints all over it. As Baseball America reported four seasons ago:
The Yankees got Jeff Weaver . . . in a three-team trade that saw four major prospects change addresses. Detroit got Carlos Pena, Franklyn German and a player to be named from Oakland, which received Ted Lilly, John-Ford Griffin and Jason Arnold from New York.
Jeff Weaver, though he is enjoying some postseason success for the Saint Louis Cardinals, was catastrophically bad as a member of the Yankees. They took an overrated, overpaid veteran off the payroll of a team willing to rebuild in anticipation of future success. Such are the wages of buying championships instead of building them. And which "player to be named later" did Billy Beane ship to the Tigers? Jeremy Bonderman.


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