How Moneyball Came to Seattle, Part One

The "Moneyball" ideal, which affirms the value of advanced analytical integration as opposed to sheer physical tools and truckloads of money, has proven to be a ruthlessly efficient system. In Part One of his look at the Seahawks' new paradigm, Doug Farrar takes us back to the beginning.

”We’re blending what we see, but we aren’t allowing ourselves to be victimized by what we see.” – Billy Beane

It was a simple idea, really.

In 1993, at the same time that the NFL implemented its current salary cap (promising an equitable playing field on paper for each of its teams), Major League Baseball was about to suffer victim to the biggest Baby Huey it could possibly imagine. George Steinbrenner, the New York Yankees’ owner and resident Mephistopheles, emerged from a two-year suspension mandated by Commissioner Fay Vincent. Steinbrenner had been given the boot due to some tacky dealings with known gamblers in an effort to discredit one of his own players, outfielder Dave Winfield. The suspension was supposed to be permanent, but The Boss was back in the game by March of 1993. Frustrated by the Yankees’ 15-year World Series championship deficiency at that time, Steinbrenner began spending money hand over fist…shooting the team’s payroll over $100 million by 2001, and over $200 million by 2005. While the Yankees won four Fall Classics from 1996 through 2000, their championship drought since then has become an embarrassment of fairly colossal proportions, given their financial advantages - and a damning indictment of the team’s inability to spend wisely, or to develop their own talent.

Meanwhile, on the Left Coast, a new idea (or series of ideas) was taking shape. Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, was faced with a seemingly insurmountable problem: How do you compete with a team that outspends you by the ratio of three or four dollars to your one? There were teams, such as the Devil Rays, Brewers and Royals, who had given up in the face of such inequity – better to cry poverty and fall back on a decade of “rebuilding”. Who could reasonably expect those skid row entrants to field consistently competitive teams?

Billy Beane, that’s who. Beane took a hard look at the playing field, and decided that the goalposts needed moving. His simple idea was to redefine the way in which players were scouted and valued, with the assumption in mind that the old paradigms were inefficient enough (and his new sabermetric evaluations proficient enough) to erase a great deal of the game’s financial imbalance. It’s important to note that Beane didn’t invent the systems he used to succeed – he merely brought them out of the realm of theory.

Sabermetrics, the deep and complex statistical analysis of sports performance, was essentially invented by Bill James in the late 1970’s. Given the seemingly infinite permutations of possibility in a baseball box score, it is perhaps somewhat surprising that such advanced analysis was not codified before. What was surprising (and alarming) to James and his disciples was how long it took the men who ran the game to catch up to the new system.

Scouting, in and of itself, has generally been professed by those who practice it as an extremely inexact science – a game of hunches, first looks and the magical day when you walk into a ballpark in some Podunk town and see the kid who has it all. Whether such forced mysticism was a product of limited information or the desire to elevate said scouts above the milieu of “normal folks” (“Ooh…there’s a scout – look at the pointy wizard hat!”), sabermetrics were regarded by a great many front offices as tools of heresy.

Beane’s modus operandi was very different, and far more practical. Given the notion that “tools players” were so highly valued by other teams (especially the ones who could outspend his), he needed ways in which he could efficiently quantify which of the bad-body guys and overlooked ugly ducklings had hidden talents seen only by the sabermetric eye. Noting the value of walks, on-base percentage, pitchers with odd deliveries that batters found difficult to pick up, and many other sub-factors, Beane and his right-hand man Paul DePodesta put a system in place which endeavored to bring richer teams to their knees. He completely disregarded what a player looked like or could be – he didn’t have the luxury of long-term appraisal. Beane had to base his evaluations on what the player had already done.

It worked. From 1998 (Beane’s first year as Oakland’s GM) through 2004, the A’s won 644 games and lost 489. By contrast, the Yankees won 699 and lost 431. 55 more wins for New York in those seven seasons– an average of 7.8 more per year. The frightening (and somewhat hilarious) factor is the price the Yankees paid for those little victories.

Year

NYY W-L

OAK W-L

NYY Payroll

OAK Payroll

Differential

2004

101-61

91-71

184,193,950

59,425,667

124,768,283

2003

101-61

96-66

152,749,814

50,260,834

102,488,980

2002

103-58

103-59

125,928,583

40,004,167

85,924,416

2001

95-65

102-60

112,287,143

33,810,750

78,476,393

2000

87-74

91-70

92,938,260

32,121,833

60,816,427

1999

98-64

87-75

88,130,709

24,150,333

63,980,376

1998

114-48

74-88

63,159,898

20,063,000

43,096,898

Source: The Baseball Cube

In 2003, Michael Lewis’ book, “Moneyball”, was published. An in-depth analysis of Beane’s methods, the book was a runaway bestseller and an instrument of polarization – from then on, you were either a “Moneyball guy”, or you were not. In other words, you either accepted and tried to integrate new and more advanced scouting methods, or you stuck with the old ways – potentially at your peril – while those who followed the new paradigm ran rings around you. The book promoted a new fan interest in advanced statistics. Baseball teams who hadn’t done so before began hiring resident “stats guys”. The power of the almighty dollar as the ultimate instrument of victory was being challenged as never before.

The NFL had no such financial inequity from team to team (at least from a payroll perspective); the salary cap saw to that. However, at the turn of the millennium, another new organizational template was being established in New England. It would prove to be even more successful than Beane’s.

The New England Revolution

“What we want are football players - not guys who blow away the tests…The people who come and fill these stands won’t be here to watch guys lift weights, run the 40, or make some incredible vertical leap. Maybe some of the guys we get don’t fit the prototype the rest of the world has, but they’re our kind of players, and they’re the kind of guys we want on the field.” – Scott Pioli, New England Patriots’ Vice President of Player Personnel

As the validation of Beane’s new paradigm reached its apex, two reclamation projects collided in Foxboro, Massachussets. The New England Patriots had ramped their finances to a level beyond all reason after three years under head coach Pete Carroll and VP of Player Personnel Bobby Grier. From 1997 through 1999, the Patriots led the league in payroll outlay, and they had exactly one playoff win to show for it. On the heels of Bill Parcells’ total redefinition of the team (beginning with a 5-11 record in 1993 and ending with an appearance in Super Bowl XXXI at the end of the 1996 season), it was quite a bit less than expected.

Meanwhile, Bill Belichick had spent the last half of the 1990s recovering from an unhappy head coaching turn in Cleveland from 1991-1995 that ended with the announcement that the Browns were moving to Baltimore. Belichick headed east to New England and was credited with the defensive turnaround that helped the Patriots get to Super Bowl XXXI. He then joined the Jets’ staff when Parcells became the head coach there. After accepting and subsequently refusing an offer to become the Jets’ top cat following Parcells’ departure, Belichick was named New England’s head coach on January 27, 2000.

The rest of the NFL had no idea what this assemblage of circumstance was about to accomplish.

To put it mildly, Belichick had inherited a mess. According to James Lavin, author of “Management Secrets of the New England Patriots”, the combined salaries of just 36 players of the 53-man roster exceeded the salary cap ($57 million at the time) by $10.5 million. In a pre-publication draft of Volume Two of “Management Secrets”, Lavin describes how Belichick and new VP of Player Personnel Scott Pioli went about cutting the dead weight and rebuilding the team:

“The Patriots used (the year) 2000 to escape “Salary Cap Jail” and carve out training and playing time for young players who would help win a Super Bowl in 2001: Tom Brady, Matt Chatham, Kevin Faulk, Antwan Harris, Tebucky Jones, Patrick Pass, Lonie Paxton, J.R. Redmond, Greg Robinson-Randall, Grey Ruegamer, Jermaine Wiggins, and Damien Woody. They also signed some low-cost veteran free agents who would contribute to the 2001 championship season: Grant Williams (March); Bobby Hamilton (July); Otis Smith (August); and Joe Andruzzi (September). They worked hard to bring in high-character veterans who knew Belichick’s system and could build a professional team culture.

Before the 2001 season, the Patriots continued cleaning house and brought in 23 low-cost free agents, 17 of whom contributed to the Patriots’ Cinderella season. Fourteen contributed substantially, despite being virtually anonymous signings at the time and receiving an average annual compensation of just $865,232, far below the 2001 average NFL player’s compensation of $1,100,500, the average starter’s compensation of $1,799,047, and the average 2001 unrestricted free agent compensation of $1,389,300. The Patriots basically signed fourteen starters and paid them backup money.” – James Lavin, “Management Secrets of the New England Patriots,” Vol. 2

Most indicative of this purge, as Lavin also notes, is that New England ranked 29th in the NFL in payroll in both 2000 and 2001, and 26th in 2002.

Just like the Oakland A’s, who also led their sport in player payroll a scant few years before the reckoning, Belichick and Pioli would prove that with precise objectives in mind for the players and the system, slashing costs did not automatically translate to mediocrity on the field.

The Fit Is the Thing

”Belichick and Pioli are very much in tune with each other on the type of player they want. They seem to have a very good understanding, scheme-wise, what players fit their scheme and they have great patience in finding that player.” – Carl Peterson, General Manager, Kansas City Chiefs

When Belichick assumed control of the Patriots, the team was “top-heavy” with stars whose production was not in line with their salaries. Perhaps the most graphic example was wide receiver Terry Glenn. Drafted by New England in 1996, Glenn earned Rookie of the Year honors after bagging 90 receptions for 1,132 yards and six touchdowns in his first season. Glenn was one of the team’s few stars – and unfortunately, he appeared to be all too conscious of that fact. 2001 marked the beginning of the end for Glenn in New England when he missed the first four games of the season after being suspended by the NFL for violating the league’s substance abuse policy. He left the team without permission the day it was announced, and Belichick suspended him for the season because of his absence. That suspension was overturned by an arbitrator. Glenn was traded to Green Bay after the season, and the Patriots won their first Super Bowl without their second-most “obviously” talented player. Their most “obviously” talented player, quarterback Drew Bledsoe, was riding the bench.

“Decent arm. Could be an NFL backup…doesn’t have the total package of skills…skinny kid, average arm, average athlete, average physical skills. Not much there… his lack of mobility could surface as a problem…it will be interesting to see what happens when he is forced to take more chances down the field... the tenth-best quarterback prospect of 2000.” – Excerpts of scouting reports on Michigan QB Tom Brady, the Patriots’ 6th-round draft pick in 2000.

New England’s one notable financial stretch during Belichick’s tenure proved the old Branch Rickey axiom: “Luck is the residue of design.” In March of 2001, the Pats looked to solidify their quarterback position by signing Bledsoe to a 10-year, $103 million contract that was the largest in NFL history at the time. Selected by the Patriots as the first player in the 1993 draft, Bledsoe had been selected to the Pro Bowl in 1994, 1996 and 1997. But in Week Two of the 2001 season, Bledsoe suffered a serious chest injury and was replaced by a second-year scrub named Tom Brady, who was making the NFL minimum of $298,000. Bledsoe sat the rest of the regular season as Brady began building one of the more improbable mythologies in NFL history. Bledsoe did have one Patriot curtain call in Pittsburgh when he spelled an injured Brady in the 2001 AFC Championship game, helping the Pats beat the Steelers on the way to their first of three Super Bowl victories in four years. Brady was back in action thereafter, and Bledsoe was traded to Buffalo in April of 2002.

“Brady is a calm and cool quarterback. You're not going to rattle him. You are not going to be able to confuse him. They've done a great job preparing him to play.'' - St. Louis Rams linebacker London Fletcher, before Super Bowl XXXVI

What Belichick saw in Brady, who became the winning quarterback in three Super Bowls before he turned 28, was an almost obsessive desire to better himself in Belichick’s system. Brady was able to grasp former offensive coordinator Charlie Weis’ complex schemes and translate the Xs and Os into postseason bling because he took the time required to make such complexity instinctive. Those who believe that Brady makes it look easy might be right…but to overlook the infinite gruntwork that paves the way for such seamless gameday performance would be a mistake.

Asked why New England’s braintrust has been able to score consistently when “reaching” for players disdained or underrated by standard scouting methods, Lavin pointed to the big picture. “Belichick and Pioli are wholehearted believers in continual improvement; and coordinated team defense, offense and special teams,” Lavin said. “That's why they care so deeply about hiring motivated team players who push one another constantly and who understand the philosophy behind each play and how all the pieces fit together into a coordinated performance.”

In the salary cap era, building “wide” as opposed to “tall” is absolutely crucial to team success. The Indianapolis Colts possess one of the most fearsome offenses in NFL history, but with so much long-term cap space tied up in key offensive players (Manning, Harrison, James), the Colts’ defense has long been an underfunded entity. The Patriots believe that by reducing costs on the top end, depth at every position is possible. This is why, when their payroll was 29th in the NFL in 2001, they were able to shock the world and defeat the frighteningly talented St. Louis Rams in Super Bowl XXXVI. This is why, when they led the NFL in player games lost to injury in 2003, the Lombardi Trophy was theirs again. As former Dallas Cowboys and Miami Dolphins head coach Jimmy Johnson once noted, “Some teams’ starting 22 might be better, but New England’s second 22 are better than anybody’s in the league.”

Another example of New England’s ability to find hidden value speaks to the need to understand the types of players needed in their system. One pre-Belichick player who blossomed in the new regime was WR Troy Brown. Drafted by New England in the 8th round in 1993 (a round so low, it doesn’t even exist anymore!), Brown was a gifted second-tier receiver until Belichick came along. Never having gained more than 607 receiving yards in a season through the 1990’s, Brown enjoyed two very different career years during New England’s dynastic run. In 2002, he had career highs with 101 receptions and 1199 yards. 2004, however, would be the year that defined Troy Brown. Asked to learn the nickel corner position by Belichick, Brown took 250 defensive snaps during the 2004 season, grabbing three interceptions to bolster the team’s injury-depleted secondary. Brown made his name as a football player in one of his worst statistical years as a wide receiver. Although he only caught 17 passes for 184 yards and one touchdown, Brown’s value to the team was immeasurable.

Position switches have been a major part of this new paradigm, according to Lavin. “The Patriots' defense is so flexible because most of their defensive linemen and linebackers are smart enough to switch places, making it excruciatingly difficult to figure out who's rushing and who's dropping into coverage on any given play. Other teams are now trying to copy this, so Tedy Bruschi-type players are now being drafted in Round 1, not Round 3,” Lavin said, referring to the former Arizona standout linebacker who came to personify New England’s defense. Bruschi was a defensive end in college.

A Very Expensive Lesson (prelude…)

Needless to say, it would take the rest of the league a few ticks to catch up to the Patriot Way – free-spending teams still dominated the NFL landscape, cap or no cap. As we turn our attention homeward to the Emerald City in Part Two of our “Moneyball Manifesto”, we can engage in a bit of foreshadowing:

In 2001, the Patriots paid a total of $2.123 million in signing bonuses to their 23 free agents. One Patriot who flew the coop did so due to a substantially better offer from the Seattle Seahawks - $3.5 million in bonus money alone as part of a four-year, $10.7 million contract.

That player’s name? Chad Eaton.

The Seahawks had a long way to go, and a great deal to learn.


Many thanks to James Lavin, the author of the "Management Secrets of the New England Patriots" series, for his generous assistance. You can learn more about James and his fine work at www.patriotsbook.com.

Doug Farrar is the Editor-in-Chief of Seahawks.NET. Feel free to contact him at doug@seahawks.net .


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