Moneyball: Did the Yankees once sign a player without ever seeing him play?
BASEBALL URBAN LEGEND: The Yankees signed a player sight unseen based solely on his statistics in an independent league.
One of the main (if not the main) conflicts in Michael Lewis' book Moneyball and the recent film of the same name is between "traditional" scouting (people who judge players by watching them play in person) versus statistical scouting (making decisions about players based on their statistical achievements). In the film, traditional scouting is portrayed as almost an archaic way of doing business but in reality, there is not a single Major League Baseball team today that does not place a great deal of emphasis on traditional scouting, including the Oakland Athletics. The differences between the various teams is how much emphasis they each give to statistical scouting in augmenting traditional scouting, not replacing it. While nowadays there is a general acceptance that the two modes of thinking are complimentary and not adversarial, it admittedly seemed pretty darn adversarial during those first few years after Moneyball came out. And in 2007, a 26-year-old relief pitcher became a symbol of the divide between traditional scouting and statistical scouting when the story came out that the Yankees signed Edwar Ramírez without seeing him in person.
But was that actually what happened? Read on to find out!
Edwar Ramírez was originally signed as an amateur free agent by the Anaheim Angels in 2001. He played for the Angels' Class A club in 2002 and 2003 before being released in 2003. He did not play baseball professionally in 2004. The Angels re-signed him in 2005 but released him again after just one game for their Triple A team. He signed on with the Pensacola Pelicans of the Independent League. While out of baseball in 2004, Ramírez taught himself a change-up. His change-up soon became a dominating pitch in the Independent League. In 2005 and 2006, pitching for the Pelicans and then the Edinburg Coyotes, Ramírez put up very impressive numbers. In 43 games with the Pelicans, Ramírez had a 1.45 ERA with 93 strikeouts and 15 walks. In 25 games with the Coyotes, Ramírez had a 1.07 ERA with 46 strikeouts and 10 walks.
Midway through the 2006 season, the New York Yankees were looking for a reliever to fill out their class A club in Tampa. Billy Eppler, the team's director of professional scouting began looking through a list of players who had recently been released by other clubs. Meanwhile, Troy Caradonna, the assistant director of baseball operations in the Yankees' Tampa office (along with intern Kiley McDaniel), began looking at statistics of players in the Independent Leagues and he was wowed by the numbers Ramírez was putting up for the Coyotes. In July 2007, after Ramírez shocked everyone in the Yankees organization by going from organizational fodder to becoming a legitimate prospect by blowing through all levels of the Yankees minors in 2006 and 2007 and making the Yankees major league roster, Ed Price of the Newark Star-Ledger looked back on the day that Caradonna and Eppler first looked into Ramírez. After Caradonna saw Ramírez's strong numbers, he brought him to the attention of Eppler, who later recalled, "We didn't send anybody in to look. I looked at a few old reports, didn't see anything [negative], and made a couple of phone calls checking on [mental] makeup." After checking with the Angels organization and not hearing anything bad about him, the Yankees purchased Ramírez's rights from the Edinburg Coyotes for under $3,000. Thus, Ramírez was a player who was signed just on his stats. As Eppler himself stated, "statistics found him." Granted, we are talking about a player originally signed just for organizational depth, but still, the soundbite was significant and got a lot of play around the internet, especially when Ramírez made his Major League debut by striking out the side against the Minnesota Twins (including reigning American League Most Valuable Player Justin Morneau).
However, while that was the story, it was not exactly true.
Just three days after his original story, Price wrote a correction (and as is typically the case, people remembered the original story and not so much the correction). Here's Price:
Mark Batchko, one of the Yankees' top area scouts, last Independence Day weekend drove across Texas to see Ramirez pitch an inning for his independent-league team. Ramirez had first come to the Yankees' attention because of his statistics -- based on work by John Coppolella (who was then the Yankees' assistant director of pro scouting and now works for the Atlanta Braves) and Kiley McDaniel. Batchko reported that Ramirez had a 90-92 mph fastball and a devastating changeup. That report turned out to be accurate, and Ramirez used those pitches to move from Class A to the majors in less than a year after the Yankees signed him based on the statistical analysis and Batchko's evaluation.
So, as it turns out, rather than being a sign of one model succeeding over the other, Ramírez's signing was actually a perfect example of how both models work to compliment each other, with the Yankees ending up with a decent reliever for a few years.
So as for this legend...
Thanks to Ed Price for the information!
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Photo: Edwar Ramirez with the Yankees in 2007. Credit: Getty Images.