Are Nine Scott Hattebergs Really Best?

One of the most famous lines in Michael Lewis' best-selling book Moneyball was when Lewis talked about the importance of the patience of Scott Hatteberg and theorized that nine Scott Hattebergs would be a top performing offense. Since that time, the "nine Scott Hattebergs theory" has become part of baseball lexicon. But is the theory true? Nathaniel Stoltz takes a look.

"Nine Scott Hattebergs are, by some measure, the best offense in baseball."

These words, written in the famous book Moneyball, by Michael Lewis, have ignited a half-decade of controversy. Hatteberg became a central figure in the post-Moneyball "Scouts vs. Stats" debate. Hatteberg's high walk rates, pitches per plate appearance and on-base percentages exemplified the "Moneyball philosophy" for how to build an offense. However, scouts typically were unimpressed with his approach, as Hatteberg's batting averages, home runs and RBI totals were relatively middling.

Hatteberg spent four years with the Oakland A's, from 2002 to 2005. Now 38, he was recently released by the Cincinnati Reds. There's no telling if the 14-year major league veteran will catch on with another ballclub, but whether he does or not, now is probably a good time to reevaluate Lewis' assertion about Hatteberg.

You may be familiar with Ultimate Value Index (UVI), the stat which I have been using to evaluate many players in the A's system in my last several columns. (Click here to read about UVI.) The first way to test Lewis' statement is to simply examine Hatteberg in terms of UVI2, which adjusts for a batter's home park.

Year (TEAM—Plate Appearances)

Hatteberg UVI2

1995 (BOS—2)

.000

1996 (BOS—14)

.271

1997 (BOS—395)

.435

1998 (BOS—410)

.458

1999 (BOS—100)

.449

2000 (BOS—271)

.457

2001 (BOS—316)

.382

2002 (OAK—568)

.482

2003 (OAK—622)

.423

2004 (OAK—638)

.464

2005 (OAK—523)

.357

2006 (CIN—539)

.465

2007 (CIN—417)

.495

2008 (CIN—61)

.292

Career Totals (BOS/OAK/CIN—4876)

.447



As you can see, Hatteberg's career UVI is a rather mediocre .447. He has never topped .500, although he did post a .510 UVI1 in Cincinnati last year. However, his career UVI is dragged down by poor showings in 2001, 2003 and 2005. Every other year he has registered more than 100 PAs, Hatteberg's UVI has been at least .435.

Lewis uses Hatteberg's 2002 performance to fuel his argument. He compares Hatteberg to the high-powered offense of the 2002 Yankees, and claims that nine Hattebergs would outscore the Yankees' 897 runs. However, this argument is flawed on several levels. First, Hatteberg's .482 performance in 2002 was well out of line with his career, and the only other season where he came within .015 of that mark was 2007. Thus, it is incorrect to believe that Hatteberg's 2002 line best represents his true ability, as it is far above his career average.

Even if we believe that the 2002 Hatteberg was for real, there is still the matter of the 2002 Yankees. As a team, the Yankees posted a UVI of .491 in 2002. That includes several dozen plate appearances from their pitchers, so their position players as a whole posted a UVI near .500, well above Hatteberg's 2002 and miles ahead of his career average.

That's not to say that Hatteberg hit badly in 2002, or was a bad hitter for his career. In fact, the American League as a whole posted a .447 UVI in 2002, so Hatteberg was well above-average for the league, and his career UVI is basically right about average. Nine Scott Hattebergs may not comprise the best offense in baseball, but as a group, they certainly wouldn't embarrass themselves.

However, there is one large caveat that must be applied to Hatteberg, and it has to do with defense. Scott Hatteberg can play one position—first base (he was a catcher at the start of his career, but a bad shoulder has limited his ability to play anything but first since 2001). First base is not a difficult position to play, and it is considered the easiest of all the positions. Consider the defensive spectrum below:

DH

1B

LF

RF

3B

CF

2B

SS

C



This spectrum ranges from the least challenging defensive positions to the most challenging. Since it's more difficult to find good hitters who can play the most challenging positions, it's no surprise that there is a strong negative correlation between positional difficulty and hitting quality. Put simply, DHs and first basemen tend to hit better than shortstops and catchers, as teams are forced to tolerate lower offensive production from players on the right side of the spectrum because of positional scarcity. Consider what each position did in the 2007 season according to UVI:

Pos.

2007 UVI

DH

.483

1B

.495

LF

.478

RF

.475

3B

.465

CF

.446

2B

.446

SS

.429

C

.410



Obviously, that's just a single-season snapshot, so the numbers jump around a bit from year to year, but the trend is clear—there is a lower offensive standard for more demanding defensive positions. The problem with Hatteberg, and thus with Lewis' famous claim, is that Hatteberg can't play anywhere but first base. While his .447 UVI looks fine compared to the league as a whole, and his .482 UVI in 2002 is comparable to the Yankees' offensive dynamo that year, neither figure is the least bit impressive when you consider his position. While nine Hattebergs would be an adequate-or-better offense, nine first basemen would be an absolute calamity on defense. Note that the 2007 1Bs out-UVI the 2002 Yankees.

Lewis constantly praises Hatteberg's selectivity in Moneyball, stating that his patience at the plate is what makes him such an underrated commodity. In truth, however, Hatteberg's walk total was never overwhelming; his career high in walks was 74. In fact, Hatteberg's biggest asset may well have been his avoidance of strikeouts, as he never struck out more than 58 times after his rookie season of 1997 (he struck out 70 times that year). The low strikeout rate and above-average walk rate is nice to have, but it's tough to be a good offensive first baseman with a career slugging percentage of .410. Note on the positional UVI chart that Hatteberg would be a great offensive catcher, a good offensive shortstop, an adequate second baseman or center fielder and maybe a passable third baseman in a good year. However, in a long career, he only surpassed that 3B mark of .465 twice, and he only hit the 1B standard of .495 once (weirdly enough, at age 37 last year). That means that while Hatteberg was an average or better offensive player in seven different seasons, he was an average offensive first baseman only once.

The same argument can be made for any number of backups on the left end of the defensive spectrum. For example, former Mets and Rangers outfielder Victor Diaz, a player who is quite opposite to Hatteberg in his approach (1:33 BB:K ratio last year) owns a career UVI of .464, and a .481 mark in 2007. While the two are polar opposites in terms of their discipline, they both wind up in roughly the same place. That place is nice if you play on the right side of the defensive spectrum, but neither Victor Diaz nor Scott Hatteberg can do that, so they only end up average for their position if everything breaks right.

Scott Hatteberg had a nice 14-year career, and using good plate discipline and a knack for contact, he was able to put together two good years and six average years offensively. However, his lack of defensive flexibility (especially starting in 2002 when he moved to first base) mean that his legacy should not be that of a sabermetric hero, but rather, one of an average first baseman whose 2002 season was dramatized in a book.

About The Author: Nathianel Stoltz is a statistics major at James Madison University in Virginia. He is the creator of the "Ultimate Value Index" or "UVI" baseball statistic. He hopes to some day work in the front office of a major league team. You can e-mail him with questions or comments by clicking here.


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