I don't think I've used this word as an adjective since some time in 2006, but this is a Moneyball draft. Not a Moneyball draft—literally a draft that appears to be guided by the book Moneyball. If you've just read it for the first time, in the movie-tie-in edition, you will understand the St. Louis Cardinals' 2012 MLB Draft intuitively. (If you need to catch up, Tom summarized yesterday's picks in full right here.)
With the first pick they basically took Joe Blanton, a top college pitcher with polish and great college numbers. With the next pick they took Jeremy Brown, a startling college pick with outstanding college numbers adjusted for all those computer-y things Paul DePodesta adjusted things for. Through five first round picks, and even with Jeff Luhnow gone, they never once wavered from their draft book, which has, by now, become almost comically predictable. College pitchers with great numbers; college hitters with great numbers; occasionally a high schooler for taste.
A little less than 10 years ago, when I started blogging—when I started thinking about blogging, at least—the influence of Moneyball and Baseball Prospectus extended all the way into the amateur and minor league side of the game. It wasn't just that, say, Jason Giambi was a better player than Ichiro, it was that Jack Cust was also a better prospect than Joe Borchard.
Then Keith Law, in a memorable heel turn to scouting from his status as arch-sabermetrician in Moneyball, superkicked Ben Grieve through a plate-glass window during Brutus Beefcake's Barber Shop. Now Kevin Goldstein does most of the prospect writing for Baseball Prospectus, whose print version periodically all but says, "Ignore the stats on this guy, he has The Good Face."
In general this has probably been for the good—we've stopped ignoring defense, and we've stopped overrating the world's Jackie Rexrodes and Jack Custs. We've also, as a baseball internet community, begun to talk about baseball players almost exactly like all the scouts Keith Law and J.P. Ricciardi wanted to fire. We want hulking guys with enormous power, high schoolers with triple-digit fastballs, shortstops with cannons for arms.
But the Cardinals, who while Moneyball was being written and then ripped to shreds by angry sportswriters were busy spending enormous sums of money on Chad Hutchinson and company, seem to believe that 2012's market inefficiency is the same one Michael Lewis wrote about back in 2002.
For a boring draft, then, it's a very interesting draft.
Editor's note: If you're looking, this afternoon, for updates on who the Cardinals take on the draft's second day, I'd be remiss (since I edit it) if I didn't suggest SB Nation St. Louis's draft storystream, where the newsroom staff and I will be periodically updating with pieces on the Cardinals' draft results to date. Also: I don't edit it, but if you're one of the few draft fans on this site who don't already, you should also be following azruavatar and company on Future Redbirds.
Michael Wacha, the Cardinals' first pick, seems like a good bet to please both Moneyball and neo-Moneyball fans. He's an Adam Wainwright-shaped college pitcher with low-to-mid-90s fastball, an off-speed pitch, and command that suggests he's a nearly-finished-product even if his breaking ball doesn't. He's not Adam Ottavino or Chris Lambert, the Cardinals' last top-of-the-draft college arms, who seemed to combine all the risks of drafting high school pitchers with all the benefits of being older and less likely to fix their problems—he seems more like a better Lance Lynn. (That is, Lance Lynn before he gained a few miles per hour on his fastball and turned into The Lance Lynn.)
He's safe in the good sense. If he were a ghost who haunted this website, for instance, he would probably spend most of his spare time reading classic literature and thinking about macroeconomics, instead of interrupting my posts with insults and watching Andrew Dice Clay bootlegs on YouTube. And if he were a pitcher who starred in a book about baseball that was later made into a major motion picture starring Brad Pitt, he would be Joe Blanton.
James Ramsey, the second pick, is where it goes Full Moneyball. I actually didn't realize this at first—MLB.com trolled the internet by comparing him to Skip Schumaker, so my initial assumption was that it was the Cardinals going Full Grit. Luckily our own Cody G. decided to play Twitter contrarian and look up his college numbers—
hey look at this first Ramsey skeptics collegesplits.com/cgi-bin/csLead…— Cody G. (@CodeeG) June 5, 2012
—whereupon it became clear that Ramsey led Division 1 in OPS when when adjusted for park and schedule in 2012. (He was also very strong in 2011.) It's weird—I would have killed for the ability to make all these adjustments while I was reading Michael Lewis's account of DePodesta doing it, and now it's just sitting on the internet, where I don't bother looking at it.
If Ramsey can stick as a center fielder or a second baseman, and his hitting is stouter than scouts have yet realized, this could be a fine pick. (It's worth noting that Shane Robinson put up great unadjusted numbers for the same team, but in the years before the bats were toned down.) This is exactly what, after reading Moneyball, I and every other suddenly empowered baseball nerd suddenly believed Billy Beane and company could do: Fool 29 other clubs by cutting your budget and getting a valuable player anyway.
Which brings us to the real problem with the pick and the Cardinals' first day, which has nothing to do with whether we overvalued offense or discounted scouts too readily 10 years ago. The real problem is that the Cardinals aren't the Athletics, and they don't have to economize on every aspect of baseball operations.
Right now the Cardinals don't look close to reaching their newly instituted draft spending cap, and if they don't they will have successfully cheaped out in the last place a team ought to economize. It's not that it isn't great that the Cardinals will be able to sign Ramsey, a college senior, for well under slot, and that they might be able to get significant value out of him anyway if their draft strategy has merit. It's that all that money they saved will offer worse returns anywhere else they spend it.
Moneyball's subtitle is "The Art of Winning an Unfair Game"; if baseball's unfair, it's unfair in favor of the Cardinals, who have learned the book's lessons and also have an enormous, enthusiastic fanbase to fall back on. Right now this looks like economy without purpose—short-term and seemingly for its own sake. But that could change tomorrow; the Cardinals have more picks to make, and money, still, with which to make them.