WOW’s Book of the Month – Built to Win

WOW’s Book of the Month – Built to Win

I am not John Schuerholz’s greatest fan. In fact, I think I am part of what I call the questioning decade when it comes to Schuerholz. These are general terms so please don’t get offended. If you are 40-years-old or older right now, you probably have a very good opinion of Schuerholz because you recall the 80’s much clearer than those under 40. Conversely, if you are under the age of 30, the 80’s are nearly a foreign concept and while you remember The Streak, you also lived through more of the Braves’ lack of success since 2005 and your opinion of Schuerholz suffers.

I’m smack dab in the middle of the missing decade – the 30-to-40-year-old demographic. Maybe we don’t recall the 80’s as clearly, but we remember The Streak much more vividly. We also remember the feelings of heartbreak all but one of those Octobers brought and how the team seemed to go belly-up after The Baby Braves of 2005.

It can sour one’s opinion of Schuerholz, an architect of many of Atlanta’s great moments. At the same time, Schuerholz seemed incapable of bringing a second or third or fourth world title in Atlanta. In more recent years, he’s been one of the most recognizable faces of “The Braves Way,” a phrase that has mutated to mean “old, antiquated, and more bluster than anything.”

Between the success and the failure, there was “Built To Win.” Originally published during the spring of 2006, Schuerholz’s book has an unfortunate title because the season that followed would be the first season the Braves failed to win their division since 1990 (ignoring the ’94 strike). Over a decade later, a lot of its revelations shared in the book are common knowledge at this point or at least not nearly as noteworthy as they once were. And for a guy many believe has a giant ego, Schuerholz’s book only re-enforces that view.

Am I wrong? I’d love for you guys to read along with me over the next month. In addition, what book would you recommend next? I’m thinking Chipper Jones‘ “Ballplayer,” but we can go in a different direction. With that out of the way, I’ll review the first two chapters of “Built To Win.”

But before I do that, let’s touch on the forward written by Bob Costas. I have always liked Costas. He’s one of the best things about Ken Burns’ Baseball and is generally one of the guys I just love to listen to. His ability to draw from a seemingly unending collection of trivia has routinely impressed me. That’s why this forward is so disappointing. I was seriously given the impression that Costas was asked at the last second to provide a forward and he wrote this on an airplane.

This line especially bugged me.

(Terry) Pendleton was just the first in a long line of veteran free agents or trade acquisitions to restart or jump-start their careers in Atlanta: Marquis Grissom, Fred McGriff, Brian Jordan, Denny Neagle, John Burkett. Alongside them would be a never-ending stream of talented young players from the Braves system: Tom Glavine, David Justice, Chipper Jones, Javy Lopez, Andruw Jones, the list goes on.

I understand that forwards written by a friend of the author should be very complimentary of said author, but this was utter hogwash. Grissom was an All-Star Gold Glover who had finished in the Top 10 in the MVP vote during 1993. McGriff was an All-Star Silver Slugger who had finished sixth in the MVP vote the previous season. Jordan and Neagle were solid players coming off great seasons before the Braves got them. That leaves Burkett. Credit goes to where it’s due there.

Why Costas only includes one player the Braves signed after Schuerholz came on board to show how the Braves were developing young talent is a total mystery, though. There were some great names Costas could have used here – Kevin Millwood, Rafael Furcal, even Jermaine Dye. I get that Costas’s part in this book is minor, but it really bothered me to start with this attempt at propping Schuerholz up with misleading information. It was needless for one thing – there are enough positive things about Schuerholz’s time in Atlanta. But also, it just comes across as believing the reader is an idiot.

Chapter 1 – Barry Bonds a Brave – Briefly

This wasn’t that much of a revelation if you had followed the news clippings during the spring of 1992. It was also covered in some detail in Tomahawked, the book I recently reviewed (if you can call it that?). But Schuerholz starts here with an interesting tale of how close the Braves were to acquiring Bonds. If you appreciate the dance of two general managers going at one another, this is a fun behind-the-scenes.

To set the scene, Schuerholz was working with Ted Simmons, a former ballplayer who was on the job just a few months. The Pirates had lost Bobby Bonilla that winter and were destined to lose both Bonds and ace starter Doug Drabek after 1992. It was the end of an era for the Pirates and Simmons tried to get ahead of it by dealing Bonds. Atlanta had the deal in place – Alejandro Pena, Keith Mitchell, and a prospect to be named. Mitchell was a nice prospect, but this deal remains shockingly low in terms of value going to Pittsburgh.

Of course, you probably know what happens next. Jim Leyland complained to the Pirates’ club president and got the deal nixed. Schuerholz does touch on something that I find a bit of an ironic point. “I’ve never had to worry about being overruled.” There have been accusations that Schuerholz would later overrule his successor, Frank Wren, at different times during the latter’s time as general manager.

Schuerholz also goes into a point that might be a bit relevant to today’s Braves when he discusses Bonds. Unlike his time with the Pirates or especially the Giants, Bonds would have come to Atlanta and been one of the boys. He wouldn’t have a recliner in the clubhouse and would have had to ditch his earring. Schuerholz uses this as an example of decreasing the “I” while increasing the “we.” At its core, Schuerholz wants this book to be as much a guide to leadership as it is baseball stories.

“In addition to banning earrings and limiting other jewelry during games, we ask our guys to wear their uniform in a manner we think is proper and which projects pride in our organization.” You hear that, Ronald Acuna Jr.?

Schuerholz compares the Bonds deal to the one in which Gary Sheffield came to the Braves. Before the trade, the Braves went over a number of the expectations the Braves had with Sheff. The outfielder, who often had been labeled a team cancer, had no problem with any of them. This, I believe, is a strength that Schuerholz has. While team chemistry is often an overblown concept, it’s just common sense to want to build a clubhouse of guys who don’t hate one another. This is especially true when you are bringing in a big personality into a winning atmosphere. The Braves were straight with Sheff and he respected that. Too many teams expect players to get in line without actually sitting them down man-to-man and talking it over.

Next, Schuerholz goes to Raul Mondesi and I’m not really sure why. He will later attack Moneyball because of the latter’s minimization of scouts and the human element, but he talks up how Jose Martinez, a long-time Schuerholz employee, went to go see Mondesi and talk with him. Martinez was sure Mondesi was ready to contribute after abandoning his previous teams three different times. While the Braves invested just a million in Mondesi, he would spectacularly fail in ’05. He looked old and slow during his 41 games with the Braves before they cut him. Schuerholz does end on a nice note as Mondesi talked up Ryan Langerhans on his way out.

A semi-comparison is made between Bo Jackson and Deion Sanders. There’s always a comparison here because they both played two sports at the highest level, but consistent with this chapter, Schuerholz focuses more on how the two players worked with the “we” versus the “I.” Jackson could do anything and even though he later played football over staying with the Royals, which shortened his career, Jackson was a great teammate for the Royals. Schuerholz doesn’t have quite as many good things to say about Sanders, though Bill Zack’s “Tomahawked” would disagree about the team angle. According to that book, his teammates loved Sanders, though you have to imagine the act of “will he be here?” for important games ran thin.

Chapter 2 – Gentlemen, Start Your Moneyball Arguments

Oh, boy.

I knew this chapter was coming up and I was already dreading it. When it originally came out, I can’t say I read “Built to Win.” That said, I do recall being in a Barnes & Noble and specifically reading this chapter. I was beginning to get into analytics – we didn’t call them that at the time – and I wanted the Braves to embrace the philosophy more. Instead, here was the general manager of the team I loved essentially attacking them with a flawed understanding.

Michael Lewis’ book is a good one, but it misses a number of key factors – many of which were clear in the movie. The movie doesn’t even bother to cast anyone to play Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, or Barry Zito. In some ways, that’s understandable. The book barely touches on the trio, either, and that’s probably because they aren’t part of the premise of Moneyball. A lot of people don’t understand the term – even now – but it doesn’t refer to a specific set of skills that are desired, but an economic principle within baseball in which you target the skills that the market undervalues. The reason the term is pretty much dead nowadays is because it’s extremely hard to pinpoint those type of undervalued skills in today’s data-driven atmosphere.

The A’s Big Three represents a more traditional approach – “use high draft choices on talented arms and lean on them.” But Schuerholz doesn’t use this. Nor does he attack the analytical approach of the time of overemphasizing on-base percentage without consideration to defense. Instead, he spends most of this anti-Moneyball chapter focusing on the idea that the A’s and their approach ignores the human element and scouting for more data-driven ideas.

There is some truth to Schuerholz’s assertions. The A’s did attempt a great experiment. And “Moneyball” definitely gave the impression that it wasn’t the scouts, but the data that delivered some winning ballclubs at a bargain rate. Whether that was Lewis taking some poetic license or Billy Beane‘s own ego, the truth wasn’t nearly as extreme. The scouts did their time and helped push the A’s to take each of the Big Three, including Hudson with a sixth-round draft choice. They found Miguel Tejada in the Dominican Republic and Ramon Hernandez out of Venezuela.

But the scouts didn’t want Scott Hatteberg. They didn’t love Erubiel Durazo. They didn’t think much of Chad Bradford.

“Moneyball” overplays the data. “Built to Win” overplays the human element. The truth is somewhere in the middle and Schuerholz misses that and to an extent, that miss is one of the reasons the Braves were one of the slowest teams to get on the data bandwagon. More disappointing for me is how little Schuerholz seems to think of Moneyball.

One interesting note is on Dan Meyer. A lefty who the Braves took in the 2002 first round out of James Madison University (Go Dukes!), Meyer made it to the majors for a cup of coffee in 2004. In the winter that followed, the Braves were speaking with Beane the A’s about Hudson. Like many of Oakland’s stars during the time period, the A’s couldn’t afford to keep Hudson and didn’t want to lose him for only draft pick compensation. However, with just one year of team control – and lingering oblique concerns for Hudson – the market was thin.

Enter the Braves and Meyer, who the A’s insisted on should a deal go down. The Braves didn’t want to give him up largely because their scouting director, Roy Clark, felt he was too good to trade. In this deal, we have the data-driven A’s, who see a fast-moving southpaw with great metrics. Also, you have the Braves, who see a kid with great maturity on the mound, stuff, and control. They’re both seeing the same thing, essentially. The deal goes down – “much to Clark’s dismay.” In the end, Meyer’s arm didn’t hold up outside of one year out of the Marlins’ pen in 2009. But his maturity and understanding of pitching would later land him a coaching job in the Braves’ organization. Everyone was both right and wrong. That’s the nature of prospects.

One thing I wish Schuerholz didn’t do was try to explain away the “postseason flameouts.” It’s included in this chapter after Schuerholz tries to show that the proof is in the pudding. He makes light of all of the division and pennant flags that decorated the facade of Turner Field’s upper deck. He also mentions how opposing managers, general managers, players, and even owners would tell him that no team would ever match The Streak. The question naturally becomes, “Yeah, but what about the Titles?”

He refers to this as dwelling, but it’s legit criticism. To the naysayers, he floats the old “well, there’s wild card teams now” excuse and I’d rather Schuerholz not even touch on this after that. While he talks about how the Angels, Marlins, and Red Sox won the World Series in consecutive years despite all being Wild Card teams, he ignores that another team won four World Series titles in five years as division winners. That team also won 11 division titles in 13 years. Not as impressive as The Streak in terms of division titles, but a much more successful run.

But the Yankees had an endless checkbook! That’s fair. However, Schuerholz suggests that people “dwell” on the lack of championships in Atlanta during The Streak without adding the proper context of the Wild Card. Certainly, expanding the playoffs in 1995 made it more difficult for the best regular season team to win in all. But it didn’t make it impossible. Schuerholz calls those that criticize the lack of postseason success as “negative observers who don’t truly understand baseball.” Such a comment is not only condescending but just flat-out wrong.

Julio Franco | By User Dlz28 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Schuerholz moves onto Julio Franco. By the way, Schuerholz does give much of the credit here to Wren for finding Franco after the latter read an article on the ageless wonder in Baseball America. Schuerholz uses this as a reason that his way is better than Moneyball. After all, would Beane’s system find a guy over 40 out of the Mexican League? Maybe not, but would have another team looked at Hatteberg and thought, “that’s my first baseman?” Again, there exists room for both of these competing thoughts and in future years, that’s what we would get.

The Braves general manager tries to pad his argument with two other players to show that scouting reigns supreme. One example is much better than the other.

In Jaret Wright, the Braves got a player struggling greatly with the Padres despite improving scouting reports filed with the Braves. Atlanta took a chance on him and they landed an arm that many believed would be a star in Cleveland before injuries took him down. You always take a chance on a stud arm – especially if you clock his fastball in the mid-to-upper 90’s, which Atlanta did. I don’t think any sabermetric fan would tell you otherwise. In fact, I would argue it was the traditionalist approach that aided the Braves in landing Wright. Sabermetric teams would see a homer rate that was likely to regress to more career terms, an uptick in groundballs, a ridiculously high BABIP, and his prior success and see a guy worth taking a gamble on. A traditionalist team – the kind that passed on Wright as he went through waivers – would see an 8.37 ERA after a number of down years and think “he’s done.” Clearly, there were not enough sabermetric teams in the way of the Braves when Wright was on waivers.

The Braves were in a special circumstance. They had an atrocious bullpen so they were a bit more willing than other traditional-mindset teams to take a chance. I imagine that Wright gets a pass by the team if the ’03 Braves weren’t relying so much on Trey Hodges, Roberto Hernandez, and Kevin Gryboski. Further, Atlanta had little money to work with. This was the year Atlanta had to deal Millwood. They couldn’t just go out and acquire a reliever earning a big salary. They had to take more chances. Schuerholz doesn’t mention this.

The other player that Schuerholz highlights – and misses on – is J.D. Drew. “Would the green eyeshade boys have gone after…” is how Schuerholz begins this passage. It’s dumb language, but the first paragraph is made worse with this inclusion: “…rather pedestrian .374 on-base percentage for a feature hitter, and coaxed just 36 walks.”

It’s like Schuerholz is grasping at straws here. Drew would have been the perfect pick-up by such a data-driven team. You are talking about a guy with a proven ability to get on-base and hit for pop. The only question was his health. That probably would have kept a team that involved analytics to a heavy degree with a small payroll from including Adam Wainwright, though. The team would see Drew as too much of a risk to invest their top pitching prospect because they knew they couldn’t retain him. Schuerholz ignores this and he also ignores that the team that did invest heavily in Drew, the Dodgers, were led by Beane’s former partner-in-crime, Paul DePodesta.

Schuerholz’s first two chapters are full of fun tidbits. Unfortunately, his hatred of all things Moneyball leave a bad taste in my mouth. Here’s hoping the next series of chapters will improve my view of this book.

This week’s assignment – Chapters 3, 4, and 5. Feel free read along and provide your thoughts.


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