October 17, 2020

The GM who started Moneyball closes the book

This week marks the end of an era–or, at least, one man’s impact on it–in baseball. In what has been an unsettled and unusual season, and even as the Leagues’ championship series play on, an article in this week’s Wall Street Journal, as reported by the geeks and stat-heads over at fivethirtyeight.com caught my attention:  Billy Beane is walking away from baseball. For those who don’t know, Beane has been the general manager of the Oakland Athletics since assuming the position in 1998. And, given the often skimpy player budget Oakland’s GM generally has to work with, “assume the position” is a pretty apt descriptor.

But Beane did something amazing with the A’s and, in doing it, he set the model for the modern baseball GM. Because Billy Beane wasn’t just any GM. He was the first Major League Baseball GM to adapt the analytical principles that would later be dubbed “Moneyball” by Michael Lewis’s best-selling book to the game’s top flight. Rejecting traditional measures of player value, Beane both boiled down the tasks of the game to their bare essentials (e.g., for hitters, get on base; for pitchers, eat up innings and minimize bases conceded) and collected new and innovative ways to measure player value. He wasn’t alone in his work. The kind of people who obsess over baseball statistics—SABRmetricians, as many call themselves, based on the name of Bill James‘s Society for Advanced Baseball Research—recognized Beane as one of their own. But none of those people had Beane’s profile or his ability to see how the number theories played out in real life.

Turns out, real life results bore out the theory. Since Beane began his tenure, the A’s have won the sixth-most games in baseball and won seven division titles, all while spending the second-fewest dollars per wins above replacement. How did they do it? By picking up the guys everyone else passed over, signing them for cheap, and letting them move on when they got too expensive. Guys like Jason Giambi–commanding a $315,000 salary for the A’s in 1998, up to just over $3 million when he won the American League MVP award in 2000, and ballooning to the $23 million-plus that the New York Yankees (the antithesis of Moneyball) would pay him in 2007 and 2008, just to be a designated hitter–and Miguel Tejada–who would have a similar career trajectory to Giambi, winning the MVP with Oakland in 2002, before cashing the eight-figure checks with Baltimore and Houston from 2005 to 2009.

And, specifically, Beane looked for inefficiencies. A pitcher who racks up a dozen strikeouts every start commands a top salary. A pitcher who gets a dozen groundouts isn’t as sexy, but he gets the same job done and probably costs less. Fans may dig the long ball, but are home runs worth paying extra for? And are they worth more than just consistently making contact or even drawing a walk? (The A’s home field in the cavernous Oakland Coliseum made paying for the long ball a particularly inefficient use of resources.) Beane paid attention to bizarre new statistics—OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging), WAR (wins against replacement), VORP (value over replacement player)—to change the way that teams and players are evaluated. What Beane ultimately did was bring analytical and business principles to the baseball side of baseball.

Sadly, the one place where Beane didn’t succeed was in the playoffs. In thirteen playoff series under Beane, the A’s won only two. As Beane himself explained to Lewis “My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs.” The small sample size of a five or seven-game playoff series versus the 162-game regular season skewed results against success for the A’s. Beane always felt his job was to get the team to the playoffs, and whatever happened from there was luck. But playoff success or no, other teams took notice, and Beane’s analytical approach has become the model for the modern baseball GM, informing the work of Theo Epstein–himself fielding the teams that broke the curses of both the Bambino and the Billy Goat–and Jeff Luhnow, who would see the Houston Astros to their first World Series win.

And this week brings the news that Beane, through his Redball Acquisition Corp., has acquired a stake in the Boston Red Sox. Because baseball rules don’t allow anyone to be involved in running more than one club, this presumably means Beane has to walk away from the Athletics. Hopefully, Beane will lend his talents to Red Sox owner John Henry and his Fenway Sports Group‘s efforts in other sports. (Notably, Fenway is the owner of my 40-year English Premier League obsession, Liverpool, F.C.  I can only imagine what Beane’s mind applied to soccer analytics might create.) Whatever his next chapter may bring, Beane’s mark on baseball is indelible. And if Brad Pitt plays you in the movie, who could ask for more?