From yesterday’s USA Today, that's Hal Bodley's contention:
“This just in: Billy Beane has misplaced his copy of Moneyball.
Mention this to the celebrated general manager of the Oakland Athletics and there's a long silence over the phone. Of course, the loaded question of how this A's team is winning the American League's West Division doesn't help.
Beane sounds almost embarrassed trying to explain.
Moneyball is the 2003 best seller by Michael Lewis that exposes Beane's theories of new-age baseball, where a small-payroll team using statistical analysis can compete with the game's aristocrats — and win.
Since he took over as GM in 1998, Beane's A's have reached the playoffs four times, including three divisional titles, and are in position to clinch another this weekend when they face the second-place Los Angeles Angels
The 44-year-old Beane has never done a better job than this season. But astonishingly he hasn't followed the Moneyball script.
"In our marketplace it's a necessity to be mercurial at all times even when it comes to putting together a team," says Beane. "When everyone is zigging, we have to zag.
"Whatever style of team it is, the most important thing for us is trying to get Ws to make it to the postseason. It's going to come in different ways in different years."
In the past, given payroll restraints, Beane has used his Moneyball theories to build winners by taking inexpensive players from other teams' scrap heaps, drafting and developing players and always, it seems, being able to compensate for the loss of free agents or soon-to-be free agents such as Jason Giambi, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, Johnny Damon and Miguel Tejada.”
Beane himself told Bodley that this year’s A’s are "a team put together very differently than previous teams."
So, what, specifically, is different about this year?
Well, that’s where the story gets murky.
Beane did sign Esteban Loaiza to a 3-year, $21 million dollar contract this off-season. Letting high-priced free agents go, or trading stars nearing free agency, is an annual occurrence, as Bodley points out (and he left another critical free agent loss, Keith Foulke, off the list). Bringing in fairly expensive free agents, like Loaiza, is a novelty. But, though Loaiza has pitched very well since the beginning of August, his overall numbers are, to put it charitably, less than stellar. In other words, you’d be hard-pressed to argue that he’s contributed significantly to the A’s now mortal-lock on the division title.
Beane also brought in talented but mercurial outfielder Milton Bradley, signed Frank Thomas, and kept Jay Payton.
Of that veteran troika, Bodley writes: “Thomas, Bradley and Payton have, all with strong personalities that can disrupt a clubhouse, fit in so well and been big on-field producers says a lot about Beane's abilities.”
But, it’s not clear that any of the foregoing represents a departure from Beane’s underlying philosophy. As Bodley himself notes, Beane is not a big believer in the independent effects of chemistry. In Beane’s view chemistry is as chemistry does – if a team wins, their chemistry will be fine. If they don’t – well, who cares. There is nothing inconsistent here with Beane’s long-standing penchant for bringing in (or keeping) guys who someone else thought was an attitude problem.
Furthermore, the most consequential acquisition by far has been Frank Thomas. After a terrible start, Thomas has put together a fabulous season, whose production, especially in September has lifted him into MVP consideration. Thomas signed for $500,000 after the White Sox washed their hands of him this off-season, following an injury plagued 2005 season. It’s hard to figure what about Thomas isn’t a prototypical Moneyball player. Thomas’ value lies chiefly in two things – his ability to draw walks, and his ability to hit homeruns. Not only is this consistent with sabermetric principles, it’s arguably a money-ball throw back, to the late 1990s early 2000s, when Beane stocked his lineup with burly guys with lots of power, an ability to draw walks and an inability to outrun a mailbox. Thomas fits in with that type - from John Jaha, to Matt Stairs, to Giambi – to a tee.
But, it’s important to remember that when it’s not being over-simplified, the Moneyball approach is premised on finding those abilities that correlate with winning that, for whatever reason, the prevailing market undervalues. Six years ago, to a much greater extent than now, baseball front offices were paying less attention to on-base percentage. Consequently, guys with relatively low batting averages but who nonetheless got on base and had power - in other words, guys who would help put runs on the board, were being overlooked and could be had on the cheap. The Oakland teams of five, six years ago were very good offensive teams, putting up 897 runs in 1999, 947 runs in 2000, and 893 runs in 2001. But, the building blocks of a high-scoring offense became steadily more dear commodities, especially when Giambi reached free agency after the 2001 season, and Tejada did a year later.
So, to simplify the story, the organization began looking for other under-valued skills that would help the team win. The A’s haven’t scored 800 runs since the 2002 season, as their emphasis has shifted to players whose greatest asset was to turn batted balls in play into outs. The 2000 team gave up five runs a game. Since then, the four and a half runs per game they gave up in 2004 was by far their worst season in the last five in terms of run prevention. Having developed Zito, Hudson and Mulder had a lot to do with that change. But, Beane has had to let two of those three pitchers go in the past two years, and his most talented current pitcher, Rich Harden, cannot stay healthy for anything like a full season. In other words, a big reason why they have done such a better job of keeping runs off the scoreboard is the ability of their athletic defenders to turn batted balls into outs. If Matt Stairs was the poster child of the undervalued asset the A’s could exploit six years ago, Mark Kotsay has arguably filled the same role over the past couple of years.
In other words, Beane has been substantially re-tooling the organization for several years now. That Nick Swisher, a low batting average, but high walk power hitter and Thomas are the team’s two best offensive players suggests that Beane’s philosophy about offense hasn’t changed. It’s just that, given the resource environment in which he operates, he’s had to sacrifice quite a bit of the offense he still prefers, an increasingly pricy commodity, for something witha much lower price point – defensive range.
And, according to defensive efficiency rankings, a measure Bill James originally developed to evaluate how well defenses converted balls in play into outs (that is, excluding walks, strikeouts and homeruns), Beane has succeeded in finding those players. The mashing 2000 team was ninth in the AL out of 14 teams in this category.
But, beginning in 2001, the A’s were in top five every year until this year, including 2nd place finishes in 2001 and 2003, and a league best rating in ’05. (they’re 7th in 2006).
In other words, Beane really hasn’t changed his thinking in any significant way this year, his own demurrals notwithstanding. It’s clear that when it’s affordable, he still prizes the offensive skills now famously associated with sabermetrics – high on-base percentage and high slugging percentage, preferably accompanied by a batting average low enough to ward off less savvy investors. It’s also clear that the organization has deployed its limited resources to bolster its ability to prevent runs, rather than score them, since the former can be accomplished more cheaply. Player development, in the form of youngsters like Harden, Swisher, shortstop Bobby Crosby and outstanding young closer Huston Street continues to be central to the team’s success. Getting good young value in trades, as with starter Danny Haren, in the Mulder deal, also remain critical. Finally, Beane’s disdain of chemistry as an independent trait or quality in a club, and his preference for buying skills that he can quantify, not guess about, appears not to have changed.
Bodley’s got part of it right – Beane is flexible, and that flexibility has served him well as his team rolls toward its fourth division title and fifth playoff appearance in seven years. It’s worth recalling that, as of 1999-2000, there was a near universal consensus that no team with such limited resources could compete year in and year out. The A’s worst season in their past eight, 2006 included, was the 87-75 win season they put up in 1999, the first year of the current run. No team in major league baseball besides the Yankees has won 87 or more games every since 1999. Beane’s fealty to the principles of Moneyball, properly understood, has allowed the A’s to defy the odds, this year included.