- TOP PLAYERSOffensePABLO S. TORRE | August 20, 2012
- TAMPA BAY buccaneersENEMY lines WHAT A RIVAL COACH SAYSJune 28, 2012
- Faces in the CrowdJune 11, 2001
Says Red Sox G.M. Ben Cherington, "I wouldn't want to comment on whether we made a bid, but we were involved in scouting him, spent a fair amount of time on him, liked him, recognized the talent. It's definitely a risk in investing that kind of money in a player on whom you simply have less data than a proven major league player."
Another G.M. was even more pessimistic. "Crazy risk," he says. "I wouldn't sign a guy for four-times-nine that you have no clue about. You don't know his makeup, you don't know his aptitude, you don't know so many things you need to know. The outcome of it? Already, I would have done it, now that I know what I know. Before it played out, I thought it was crazy."
It was a kind of crazy the A's had come to welcome. For one, they had come to believe that embracing the sort of risk their well-heeled competitors avoided, finding a $20 million player for $9 million ("an engaging of high-variance strategies," as Zaidi says), was one of the few ways they might contend. "You can spend your money on a guy like this, who's risky but has a chance to really be a star, or you can spend three-times-seven or four-times-eight on a big leaguer who is a more certain thing but isn't really going to swing the fate of your franchise much either way," says Zaidi. "If you're a team like New York or Boston, it probably makes less sense. There are ways for them to spend their money safer, to get similarly productive players who just cost them more." Zaidi was hired for just such analysis. Beane plucked the MIT graduate's résumé out of a pile in 2004, when Zaidi was a graduate student in behavioral economics at Cal. He finished his dissertation, titled Top of Mind in Task-Based Environments and Choice Under Risk, in 2010.
Another reason the A's felt Cespedes was worth it was that they believed they had gone far beyond what other teams had done to evaluate him. For at least three years they directed their scouts to do more than simply drop in on conveniently located major international tournaments to observe Cespedes. Their scouts traveled the world—to Europe, to Japan, to Mexico, to Taiwan—so as not to miss a single at bat in more than 20 games.
Dan Kantrovitz, a 34-year-old graduate of Brown and Harvard who was Oakland's director of international scouting from 2009 until the Cardinals hired him to run their scouting department in January 2012, watched Cespedes more than anyone else. As Kantrovitz tracked Cespedes, watching a swing that "is a little violent, but also beautiful and rare to see," he was surprised to see so few familiar faces in the stands with him. "I'd write in e-mails back to Oakland that we just saw some of the best players in the world play, and there were only, like, three or four other teams there," he says. "We took a lot of pride in the fact that when we would get memos from MLB—that a Cuban player's becoming a free agent—we never had to say, 'Who is this guy?'"
Once Cespedes left Cuba, it was decision time. Much of the work fell to Zaidi, who attempted to translate Cespedes's Cuban statistics to the U.S. He knew the exercise was problematic for a number of reasons, primarily because so few players have made the leap between leagues. "The sample of players is so thin that you're basically saying, Well, we think Yoenis is going to be good because Alexei Ramirez was good," Zaidi explains. "Alexei and Yoenis are two completely different players."
The bulk of Zaidi's task involved what to do with the body of positive reports that had been submitted by Kantrovitz, Owens and the club's other scouts. "You're trying to impose analytical discipline on what is fundamentally qualitative information," he says. To that end, Zaidi built a model that analyzed not just the grades the scouts had given to Cespedes on the usual eight-point scale, but also the scouts themselves. "Say three guys have a six power on him, three guys have seven power on him. What kind of minor leaguers or major leaguers do those guys have those grades on?"
Zaidi is known as Tools Police around Oakland's front office for his propensity for punching analytical holes in scouts' observations. This time, though, he more than agreed with them. "He came up with an analytical manifesto, almost, endorsing the signing," says Kantrovitz. With Beane and his longtime assistant, David Forst, Zaidi made an impassioned presentation to the club's ownership about why it was a good idea.
Ownership agreed, but a few things still had to fall into place. One was that Oakland's final bid was as much as they could afford. If a richer club continued to raise its paddle, it would be out of luck. The A's were helped by the fact that Cespedes hit the market relatively late in the off-season when many franchises had already exhausted their budgets. The Tigers, for instance, had given Prince Fielder a nine-year, $214 million deal in late January. The Rangers had just completed their pursuit of Yu Darvish. "I've thought about it a lot," says Jon Daniels, the Rangers' G.M. "We had a $100 million investment in a foreign player, so that's where our focus was."
Signing a risky player is one thing; having the gamble pay off is the more difficult problem. "We have a lot more Asian players who come over after playing in Japan, and we still can't get that right," notes Forst. "With Yoenis, it was the same as any free agent, anytime you commit that amount of dollars. You're really excited. But you also go, O.K., this had better work."