An oral history of the 'Moneyball' Draft

June 4th, 2023

A version of this story previously ran in June 2017.

What happened in June 2002 is an illustration of just how fascinating the MLB Draft can be.

That event 18 years ago provided seven first-rounders (, , , , , and ), three second-rounders (, and ) and a few other scattered selections ( in the third round, in the fourth, in the 10th and in the 17th) who would produce at an All-Star level at one point or another.

However, not one of those picks came in the Draft's top five. And the No. 1 overall selection from 2002 is generally regarded as one of the all-time busts at that prominent pick.

What the 2002 MLB Draft is most remembered for is the way Billy Beane's Oakland A's, with a tight budget and seven first-round picks, applied their algorithms to what had been an entirely scout-oriented endeavor and used every single one of their first 17 picks on college players. What's more, they had a bestselling author in the room, documenting it all for the book -- "Moneyball" -- that would change the industry.

What follows is the story of the 2002 Draft from many of those involved.

I. The Moneyball Guys
Michael Lewis (author of "Moneyball"): It was clear that big league teams had a hard time figuring out who was going to be a good player and who wasn't. The past records were so bad that it was like, "What the [heck]? We might as well try something new."

John Mirabelli (Indians' senior director of scouting operations): You didn't want to give out any industry secrets, so [the A's allowing their inner workings to be published] was a little surprising. And "Moneyball" was related to college players, but the performance from that Draft turned out to be lopsided in favor of high school guys -- Greinke, Fielder, Lester, Kazmir, Hamels, Cain. A strategy is good, but in the end, it has to correlate to the strength of the Draft.

(No. 39 overall pick by the A's): I do think there were some scouts or organizations that saw the book as a challenge to their way of doing things, so they were initially hopeful our Draft class would be a flop.

Steve Obenchain (No. 37 overall): We were science experiments.

(No. 24 overall): We had no clue about analytics. But after you're in the organization, you realize they put a lot of stock in developing their players.

Swisher (No. 16 overall): For all of us, it was a little different. Instead of going to the game and signing autographs, we were signing books. Dude, none of us really read a lot, but it was like, "We're all in this book, so we should really read this thing, guys."

The book contained "The Jeremy Brown Blue Plate Special," the Draft recap in which Brown unwittingly served as the focal point of the "stats vs. scouts" debate. Against the wishes of some of their own scouts, the A's took Brown, a 5-foot-10, 260-pound catcher from the University of Alabama, with the 35th overall pick and signed him to a $350,000 bonus that was nearly $1 million below that pick's slot value. Brown was also the player featured on video in "Moneyball" that led to Brad Pitt's famous line, "How can you not be romantic about baseball?"

Swisher: If you can put the barrel to the ball and get on base, you're an Oakland A's guy. No matter what you look like. And with that guy [Brown], you're talking about the first guy who had 300 hits and 200 walks in the SEC. When I went to Class A Advanced Visalia, I said, "This guy's going to be in the big leagues in like a month." And he eventually got his chance [five games in 2006]. You can't take that away from him.

John Baker (A's fourth-round pick in '02): That guy was a good hitter, he was a good player and a teammate that everybody loved. There was a whole lot more to him leaving baseball.

Lewis: He might still be in the big leagues if he had had the real desire to play. I felt like I screwed him up the most of all the players involved. Everywhere he went, he had to hear about the book. He was a bit resentful toward me about it.

Brown wound up returning to Hueytown, Ala., to work in a coal mine. But at least he reached the big leagues (10 at-bats over five games in 2006). The same can't be said about three of the A's first-round picks -- shortstop John McCurdy (No. 26), right-hander Ben Fritz (No. 30) and the right-handed Obenchain, whose career never gained traction after he was hit in the head by a fly ball during batting practice in the low Minors.

Obenchain: I heard one of our pitchers yell, "Heads!' And it got me right above my right eye. The next thing I remember, the trainer from Bakersfield is pinching my leg asking me if I can feel it. The next month after that was very foggy. That doesn't help your trajectory.

Lewis: [McCurdy] looked like this unbelievable power-hitting shortstop, but it turned out the University of Maryland had like a 260-foot fence, and he hit a lot of 270-foot fly balls. So the next year they park-adjusted their stats.

By the standards of a book in which the A's were thrilled to have landed 13 of 20 players on their wish list (a.k.a. the "Beane's List"), Oakland's 2002 Draft was a stinker. By the standards of the precarious MLB Draft, landing three viable big leaguers in the first round (Swisher, Teahen and Blanton) qualifies as a success.

Teahen: While it was not 100 percent successful, it showed that the way the A's saw stats did have some merit.

Swisher: We weren't in the movie, but we were a big part of the story. Once Brad Pitt took the Billy Beane role, I knew we were out of that thing!

Lewis: The bigger point that got missed in all the controversy from the book is that if the way it had always been done had any kind of intellectual credibility to it at all, anybody who came in and scrapped it and did it a different way should have experienced a total disaster. You can argue about how much better [the "Moneyball" Draft] was. Or maybe it was a little worse. But it was not a disaster. And they started to build an approach that could be evolved.

II. The No. 1 Guy
The perils of the Draft are best illustrated by what happened at the very top in 2002. Though high school pitchers would dominate the Draft's outcomes, none of the first three prep arms taken -- Chris Gruler (No. 3, Reds), Adam Loewen (No. 4, Orioles) and Clint Everts (No. 5, Expos) -- panned out. Neither did Bryan Bullington, the Ball State right-hander the Pirates took at No. 1 overall. The Pirates had some signability concerns regarding highly touted high school shortstop Melvin Upton Jr. (then known as B.J.) -- the consensus top talent in the Draft -- and went with a seemingly "safe" college arm.

Bullington: It was kind of a strange year.

Dave Littlefield (then-Pirates GM): That era was a little trickier -- depending on what club you were with -- than the current era, relative to signability.

Bullington: I remember one of our first scrimmages of the year was against Kentucky, and Blanton outpitched me. I talked to a couple scouts and they had ideas on things I might need to do to improve. Then we went down to Miami during our spring trip, and I had a real good start against Miami. That time of year, everybody was in Florida -- tons of scouts, high-level guys. That was a really good viewing for me in front of the right people.

Littlefield: He had a big, strong body with a plus fastball and he threw strikes. He was an athlete that was the son of athletes. He checked off a lot of boxes.

Bullington: That was back in the days of dial-up Internet and slow connection speeds. By the time we got the feed up at my parents' house in Indianapolis, they were already at pick eight or nine. I got the call from Dave Littlefield, and he was assuming I knew I had been picked already. As I'm getting it, I realized I'm the No. 1 pick. It was kind of a surprise.

Mirabelli: I think everybody agreed that was a bit of a [stretch].

Bullington: You put a lot of responsibility on yourself for the pick. It's undeniable. As soon as you show up on the Minor League side or even the big league side, you feel like you have a target on your back. Or at least that's how I felt. I admit I struggled with it.

Bullington logged a handful of appearances with the Pirates in 2005 and '07, and he'd get fleeting opportunities with a few other clubs before continuing his playing career in Japan. But in part because of surgery to repair a torn labrum in his shoulder in '05, he never reached his potential. He's now a scout for the Brewers.

Bullington: In hindsight, I would have gotten more opinions and gotten my shoulder fixed sooner. My [career], if I'm the 15th or the 20th pick, is probably right where it needs to be. But when you're trying to validate the No. 1 pick, it's just not there.

Littlefield: I dwell in reality, and it was not a successful pick. Bryan's a great young man, and I wish him the best. But that didn't go as well as we thought it would.

Bullington: Even looking back, I still can't believe that all happened.

III. The Other Guys
The Draft's most prominent pick fell flat, but there was plenty of quality -- and some interesting stories -- to be found elsewhere.

Granderson: I remember using dial-up Internet trying to see if I could hear my name. The first pick was announced, and then everything slowed down and I didn't hear anything.

Cain: It took a while for it to connect, so we missed the first 10 or 12 picks.

Lester (No. 57 overall pick by the Red Sox): I went golfing with my dad and one of my good buddies. I had to get away. It's different now.

Littlefield: Clearly now, Greinke should have been the first pick.

Allard Baird (then-Royals GM): That wasn't a chic pick, by any means. I give a lot of credit to Deric Ladnier and our crosscheckers, in particular Pat Jones. Those guys were really aggressive in wanting to take Greinke. There was very strong conviction on him. I think the one thing that stood out back then and has held with him to this day is he was fiercely competitive. He could really manipulate the baseball at such a young age, so there was less projection for him than we felt for the typical high school pitcher.

Steve Phillips (then-Mets GM): The strength of that Draft was definitely high school pitching. You had two guys from the same high school [Kazmir and Everts, from Cypress Falls High School in Houston], which is a rare thing.

Brent McDonald (then-Cypress Falls head coach): Their entire high school career, they never gave up more than two runs in a game. Ever. Even in the playoffs. Scott had the most attention early on. He was a varsity starter as a sophomore, and he set a record junior year with four consecutive no-hitters. Clint really fed off a lot of attention Scott was getting.

McDonald: I was sitting at Scott's house, and we were checking the Internet. It comes up at No. 5, Clint Everts to the Montreal Expos. Everybody's applauding, but we're also kind of shocked because Scott's getting passed on.

Phillips: We liked Kazmir a lot more than we did Everts. … We would have still taken Kazmir if we had the fourth overall pick in the Draft. We thought we were going to get Swisher at 15. We liked Swisher even better than Prince Fielder [who went to the Brewers at No. 7]. The only reason we didn't take [Swisher] is because Kazmir was shockingly still there.

Anonymous executive: Fielder was especially dangerous for the National League. It's just like when you look back at your high school pictures. You and your buddies have all gained 20 pounds. You look at Fielder at that point in time, and it's scary to think what this guy could be, weight-wise. But he had a monster bat and was incredible for a long time. There are exceptions to every rule, and that's what makes it so challenging.

One challenge in the '02 Draft was determining the value of Hamels, who broke his left humerus in two places in the summer between his sophomore and junior years at Rancho Bernardo High School in San Diego.

Marti Wolever (then-scouting director for the Phillies): I was sold from the first time I saw him. It was just a matter of whether the clubs in front of us would approve a medical. There was one club in front of us that I talked to the day of the Draft. They had interest, and I danced a little bit on that one. I asked a lot of questions, painted a little bit of a negative scenario in hopes that it would push Hamels down toward us. By the end of the call, I knew they were going to pass just because of the uncertainties.

Mirabelli: It's tough with pitchers, because of the injury factor and because their path isn't linear. One of my biggest regrets is that Draft, because we completely overplayed our hand on Jon Lester. We had the picks to get him, we spent a lot of time with him and we rolled the dice. Our plan was to take him at No. 41 [Editor's note: They took Louisiana prep infielder Micah Schilling]. We had a pick there, but we thought he could still get to us at 63 because he pitched in the Northwest and he had a little dead-arm period in the spring and yada yada yada. We thought he could get to 63, and he went at 57 [to Boston]. It was a lesson learned that if you really believe in a guy, grab him. [Editor's note: Cleveland took right-hander Brian Slocum from Villanova with the 63rd overall pick].

Cain: Lester was that year, too? Goodness!

Lester: You get people telling you you're going to be a top 20, 25 pick, and you end up going to the second round. As an 18-year-old kind of spoiled prospect, your feelings are hurt. "Screw you, I don't really want to play for you since I'm not a first-rounder." Just a lot of different emotions, man. You're 18 years old, and it's a lot to be thrown your way.

Votto: They say the cream rises, but it seems to me there's a ton of variables involved. It intrigues me, because maybe if I was in a different organization, I wouldn't have reached my potential because I would have been frustrated or given improper guidance.

Phillips: Of all the players in that Draft, Votto is the perfect "Moneyball" guy. He didn't necessarily profile as some others did, but when all is said and done, he puts together the most quality at-bats.

Votto: I don't think I gave off the power-patience combo at that time. I was 18, I was raw, I had a little of bit power and whip in my swing, and that's pretty much all they went off of. ... But I loved the movie. It's actually one of the few movies I'll re-watch. And it was a good book.

And a pretty good Draft, too.