How the Rockies Helped Make Moneyball

Mr. Moneyball, former Rockie

A week from today, Moneyball will debut in theaters. When the specifics of the movie were initially released, it was met with near unanimous eye rolls. I mean, Brad Pitt as Billy Beane? Jonah Hill as Paul DePodesta a character modeled after Paul DePodesta named Peter Brand. And how can a book like Moneyball be made into a movie anyway?

I have not yet seen the film (we are not important enough for a pre-premiere screening) though I will see it. Reviews have started pouring in over the last week. Aaron Gleeman of Hardball Talk liked it. Jon Weisman of Dodger Thoughts and ESPNLA thinks Moneyball will earn Oscar consideration. Then there is Keith Law, who was hired by JP Ricciardi in Toronto as part of their copycat movement. Law hated it.

Whether the film is a success or not, the book, which helps explan Oakland Athletics' incomprehensible streak of success under Beane from 1998-2006, was a monumental piece of non-fiction for many baseball fans - and more importantly, people in the industry. Beane's ability to identify and procure underappreciated assets was second to none, and Moneyball helped spill the secret.

The movie premiere would obviously provide a lot of interesting fodder for this blog if it were Athletics Nation, which it is not. But for those who haven't read the book or have let it slip through the cracks in their cranium, the Rockies were featured prevalently in passing as much as any team other than Beane's Athletics. Ties to the Rockies in the book and/or movie include:

  • An entire chapter devoted to replacing the production of current Rockie Jason Giambi, who apparently has always been all about the hugs.
  • One scene focuses on the 2002 draft day, in which Billy Beane is set on drafting Nick Swisher with the 16th overall pick. He is confident Swisher will be there, as he knows who everyone ahead of him wants to draft. Until a few hours before the draft, word came out the Monforts balked at the asking price for Denard Span. Colorado selected Jeff Francis instead, sending Beane into a conniption at the real possibility Swisher would be selected by Steve Phillips. Scott Kazmir fell to the Mets and Beane got his Swisher, but one of his fits hysteria in the book (maybe movie) is due directly to the Rockies.
  • The book mentions the Royals are gunshy about trading with Beane, as they gave up Jermaine Dye to the Athletics in exchange for nothing. In actuality, the trade was actually a 3-team deal, with Dye going to Colorado for Neifi Perez. Dan O'Dowd then traded Dye to Oakland for Mario Encarnacion, Jose Ortiz and Todd Belitz.
  • In the movie, Miguel Tejada is played by Rockies' 2004 shortstop Royce Clayton.
  • Oakland manager Art Howe, played by Philip Seymour Hoffman, was the Rockies bench coach in 1995, their first playoff season.  It was his last job before he became the Athletics' manager the following season.  
  • Current Rockie Mark Ellis and former Rockies John Mabry and Kit Pellow appear in the movie, with Micah Bowie making an appearance in the book.
That is a good bit of connection. The plot is an interesting fantasy many fans wish they would live out. Imagine discovering something about the game no one else knows (or more accurately, uses), giving you free reign to bring in good players on the cheap, making some poor GM look like a fool.

Moneyball, both in text and on screen, prominently features one free agent hitter scooped up in the winter of 2001 for dirt cheap. A player who would take over first base from Jason Giambi, who would be an important player in Oakland's franchise best 103-win season in 2002.  Beane signed him for less than $1million after he was released by....the Colorado Rockies.

His name is Scott Hatteberg. Rockies fans can be excused for forgetting he was ever Rockies property. Hatteberg never donned a Rockies uniform, even in Spring Training, and his time as a "Rockie" lasted just two days.

Hatteberg had been a catcher with the Red Sox, but a ruptured nerve in his throwing elbow put his ability to catch very much in doubt. Despite a .267/.357/.414 batting line in parts of seven seasons, the Red Sox decided to move on. On December 19, 2001, Dan O'Dowd traded second baseman Pokey Reese, whom he acquired with Dennys Reyes for Gabe White and Luke Hudson a day earlier, to Boston for the 32-year-old Hatteberg.

The Rockies liked Hatteberg a lot. They wanted to keep him and hopefully, if he healed well, make him their catcher in 2002.  Said Assistant GM Josh Byrnes:

"He's a left-handed hitter with power. We like him a lot."

Other than the injury, there was only one problem with Hatteberg. The Rockies had a $57million payroll and didn't want to give Hatteberg much of it. After all, the Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle blockbuster signings weren't looking so good, and a catcher who couldn't throw wasn't worth much. 

From the book:

The Rockies quickly made it clear to (Hatteberg) that they weren't going to risk having some arbitrator say they had to pay Scott Hatteberg $1.5million.  A million and a half dollars actually wasn't that much for a guy who'd spent five years in the big leagues, but the Rockies thought it was three times what he was worth.  Thinking no one would take an interest in a catcher who couldn't throw, they immediately granted Hatteberg his free agency.  Then they proposed a deal:  five hundred grand for one year.  That was a 50% pay cur from what he'd made in Boston the year before.  Hatteberg refused.

The Rockies had two days to work out a deal with Hatteberg before he could receive offers from other clubs.  One minute after that window expired, one minute after midnight on December 21, Paul DePodesta called Hatteberg's agent and offered $950k to play first base.  The Rockies nearly matched the offer, but it didn't matter.  Hatteberg knew the Athletics valued him more.

While Hatteberg was far from an All-Star in Oakland, he had a strong season for very cheap. He became one of the main symbols of the Moneyball story, which he punctuated with a walk-off home run in the Athletics' 20th consecutive victory late that season.  Meanwhile, the Rockies rolled with Gary Bennett and Bobby Estalella behind the plate. Colorado added Sandy Alomar and Walt McKeel late in the season. Woo.

Scott Hatteberg

#21 / Oakland Athletics

6-1

212

Dec 14, 1969

G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB K SB CS AVG OBP SLG
2002 - Scott Hatteberg 136 492 58 138 22 4 15 61 68 56 0 0 .280 .374 .433

By the end of the season, Hatteberg finished 13th in the AL in OBP (tops on the team), ahead of Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, and the Athletics' leadoff hitter the previous year, Johnny Damon, who had left in free agency.  His BB/K ratio was 4th in AL and his P/PA was 3rd.  His defense was pretty good, where he had the 6th best UZR in MLB at first base and led the AL in Total Zone.

The Rockies deserve credit for bringing in Hatteberg to be sure.  His bat would have been very valuable behind the plate if his elbow healed.  O'Dowd had to do some creative maneuvering and a preparatory trade just to acquire him.  Ultimately, it was an attempt to pull a fast one and save a little bit of money that allowed Hatteberg to leave, and ultimately, a large part of the Moneyball story to be written.

Moneyball focuses on Oakland, not the Rockies.  If Brad Pitt, the Athletics and sabermetric analysis don't pique your interests but you bleed purple, there is still a reason to watch Moneyball.  You can watch Chris Pratt (as Hatteberg) hit a home run and imagine him in purple pinstripes instead of Bobby Estalella and Gary Bennett, and check for all the other Rockies ties within.

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