When I read Moneyball a while back, it was already a few years old, and already seemed it (a whole chapter devoted to Scott Hatteberg?!) I don’t remember all of it, but one part in particular stood out for me at the time:
The hardest thing,” says Billy [Beane], “is there is a certain pride, or lack of pride, required to do this right. You take a guy high no one else likes and it makes you uncomfortable. But I mean, really, who gives a f**k where guys are taken? Remember Zito? Everyone said we were nuts to take Zito with the ninth pick of the draft. And we knew everyone was going to say that. One f**king month later it’s clear we kicked everyone’s ass.
A lot of people in the room have forgotten that the scouting department hadn’t wanted to take Barry Zito because Barry Zito threw an 88-mph fastball. They preferred a flamethrower named Ben Sheets. “Billy [Beane] made us take Zito,” Bogie [a scout] later confesses.
Well, now that both guys’ careers are essentially over, we can ask the question: who had the better career, Zito or Sheets? Did Billy really kick everyone’s ass with that pick? Or were the scouts right?
I have chosen to measure the careers by fWAR (Fangraphs Wins Above Replacement) because I think that’s probably the best way. (If you want to do it some other way, be my guest, but bear with me for this part.) Now, before I reveal who has accumulated more WAR over his career, what do you think the answer will be, based on what you know about both careers?
Personally, my guess was Zito. I didn’t follow either guy especially closely during their careers, but I recall that while Sheets probably had the higher peak, Zito was much, much more durable, and he wasn’t so bad himself, even winning a Cy Young award along the way. Sure, he’s been awful since joining the Giants, but he’s still been above replacement level. So I would have guessed Zito would have accumulated more WAR, maybe about 15% more.
Well, here’s what Fangraphs says — Zito: 30.8 WAR. Sheets: 31.7.
So, yeah. Sheets’ peak was WAY higher than Zito’s. And it actually gets better — the FANS prediction for Zito this year is 0.9 WAR, which means he and Sheets would be exactly even in WAR at year’s end.
“But wait,” you might say. “It’s not fair to compare their entire careers. The A’s would only have had control over their pick for six years, before he hit free agency. Who accumulated more WAR over those first six years?” Good point, theoretical reader. Let’s take a look: during Zito’s time with the A’s, he accumulated 24.2 WAR. Meanwhile, in Sheets’s first six years with the Brewers* he accumulated 24.5 WAR.
* I’m not sure when he would have first hit free agency — the Brewers bought out at least one year of it with a contract extension. This number might actually be higher.
So to recap: the A’s didn’t exactly “kick everyone’s ass” with this pick. If anything, it was a wash. But there is an amusing postscript to the story — the A’s did end up signing Ben Sheets to a one-year contract for $10 million at the end of his career. He gave them 0.6 WAR for their efforts. Guess they just picked him up at the wrong time.