Some Respect for Beane?
It's been too long since I've written. So I'm dropping a big old article here.
I am now working for a new sports website: YourSportsFan.com.
YSF is a mix of 'premium content,' featuring writers like George Castle, myself, Mark Meyers, and Phil Meyers, and 'fan'-type blogging, plus photos, video links, and the like. Basically, it's meant to be a MySpace for sports, and it's pretty cool. I invite you all to come by and sign up. It's free.
Anyhoo, here's a piece I've written for the site on Billy Beane and the Swingin' Oakland Athletics.
Oakland General Manager Billy Beane may be baseball's easiest management figure to bash.
Beane's often misunderstood philosophy of talent acquisition (detailed in Michael Lewis' Moneyball) has made him a hero, a pariah, and a lightning rod for every viewpoint between blessing and damnation.
To some, Beane's philosophies--which to a large amount focus on acquiring players whose skills undervalued by others and freely available on the market--are a fresh way to approach the idea of competing with franchises who can more easily afford top-level veteran stars.
Others, usually those who align themselves with the more traditional thinkers among the scouting community, as well as those who are more old-fashioned baseball thinkers in general, tend to think that a little statistical analysis goes a long way, and that "tools" players, those with speed, power, and arm strength, will always be the ones to focus efforts on.
At the time that the Athletics were profiled in Moneyball, much of the team's focus was on acquiring unconventional but effective pitchers and hitters with good strike zone judgment. The former could get hitters out despite unusual deliveries, strange body types, or less-than-spectacular stuff; the latter ran up opposing pitch counts and put men on base consistently.
But the Athletics have, since Beane came along, also had key long-term front-line talent, including starting pitchers Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, and Tim Hudson, third sacker Eric Chavez, and closer Huston Street.
The rub is that the team didn't feel it could afford to keep ALL of its front-line talent--therefore, goodbye Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, Miguel Tejada, Hudson, Mulder, and, this winter, Zito.
In constantly having to retool, Oakland has made its good trades and its poor ones; Beane, though, has never been afraid to take chances, never been afraid to pull the trigger on a deal that could him win now if the opportunity came or else deal for a chance to stock up for the near future.
But with the Athletics not being able to move past the opening round in the playoffs for four years, and having missed the AL West title by 1 game in 2004 and 7 in 2005, even some of the sabermetric community has begun to turn against him.
"Why Doesn't Billy Beane's Shit Work in the Playoffs?" bayed an essay in Baseball Between the Numbers, a Baseball Prospectus book published this spring. The article's authors ran an endless number of studies to establish, mainly, that the reason the A's lost is because they didn't play as well as their opponents. Well, no foolin'!
One thing I've never understood is why people think they can pull statistically significant studies out of postseason games, when there are so few of them. Much of what happens in the postseason is due to luck, not skill; obviously the 162-game season is a much better test of a team's true sense of value. Sometimes, good teams don't win short series. Anyone want to claim that the 1987 Twins, 1960 Pirates, 1969 Mets, or 2002 Angels, just to name four off the top of my head, were really the best teams in baseball?
What I've always wanted to know from the more traditional thinkers is what exactly they would do differently from Billy Beane, and how would they go about accomplishing it? Since Beane has been the A's GM, the club made the playoffs from 2000-03 and from 2000-05 compiled the second-best record in the American League. Given his budget restrictions, isn't that pretty frickin' good?
While the portrayal of the retrograde-thinking scouts in the Oakland organization in Moneyball was a bit unfair--especially since Beane's controversial #1 pick, slow-footed catcher Jeremy Brown, hasn't panned out--there is plenty of validity in Beane's belief that the endless focus on "tools" players who don't know the finer points of baseball is a bad investment.
But oddly, certain management figures in the game continue to deny the importance of on-base percentage, running deep counts, and looking for quality pitches--which are proven to be effective strategies--in favor of what they see as an "aggressive" approach (as if good hitters weren't able to be both aggressive and patient) but is really an excuse for wild, without-a-plan hacking.
While he's not the only guy to--detrimentally--poo-pooh on-base skills, Jim Hendry, GM of the Cubs, comes to mind. His team has a huge payroll, which it has largely wasted on players with superficially good statistics but who give away at-bats and games with poor plate discipline, lousy contact hitting, and an unwillingness to work deep counts and accept bases on balls.
The Athletics regularly look for players who will get on base, but not at the expense of all other skills. It's a key part of the game, getting on base, and leads to runs and wins.
Besides stressing on-base ability, what else do the Athletics do? Sign low-cost free agents. This year they were the only club to take a chance on Frank Thomas. And what have the Athletics gotten for their $500,000? The comeback story of the year. Thomas' 38 homers and 105 RBI lead the first-place Oakland club, and his .960 OPS ranks seventh in the AL.
Without Thomas, the largely powerless A's offense would be in deep trouble. Oddly, that's largely because the club's "front line" guys--Chavez, former Rookie of the Year Bobby Crosby, and former offensive star Jason Kendall--have not produced, while the players the traditionalists and naysayers don't like (such as Nick Swisher, Thomas, and the much-traveled Milton Bradley) have saved the team's bacon.
Additionally, the Elephants have veterans who are middling at bat but important in the field, like Marco Scutaro, Mark Kotsay, Mark Ellis, and Jay Payton. This shows how Beane has also stressed obtaining solid defensive players during his reign, something his detractors tend to overlook.
On the mound, the A's have strong-armed starters who keep the ball in the park. While Joe Blanton, Dan Haren, Harden, Esteban Loaiza, and Zito may not strike fear into hitters' hearts, they do the job, and a good, if underrated, bullpen has gotten the ball to closer Huston Street.
Over the years, the Athletics have given important innings to guys like Joe Mecir, Chad Bradford, Cory Lidle, Kiko Calero, and Jeff Tam; these pitchers were (and in some cases still are) effective in spite of the low opinions many traditional baseball people had of their talents, and they provided quality support to their excellent "big three" rotation--which the Athletics built through solid drafts.
Announcers, writers, and fans who scoff at the Athletics ignore the facts. This is a GOOD team, has been for nearly a decade, and contends more consistently than their market-mates, the Giants, who play in more financially advantageous San Francisco.
And this year, with their stars struggling, a rotation without a single Cy Young candidate (Zito is 16-9 but has allowed 292 runners in 207 innings), and a rash of injuries to several key players, Oakland is going to win the AL West again.
"Why Doesn't Billy Beane's Shit Work in the Playoffs?" At least he gets there.