Billy Beane's sabermetric philosophy is still making an impact today.
Late September in the baseball year is usually the time for post season surges, when teams jockey for position and aim to win the division or wildcard. That’s probably the reason that Moneyball, the book, now movie starring Brad Pitt about the 2002 Oakland Athletics, is out this Friday. That year, under famed GM Billy Beane, the A’s won 103 games, collecting a late season stash of victories (including a 20-game winning streak) en route to sealing the A.L. west division title. How they got there is more impressive.
Oakland, the quintessential small market team, found itself in a perplexing situation during the 2001 season. All three of their top stars were in the primes of their career; they also were going to be free agents at the end of the year. The motto quite literally was “do or die,” “win or go home,” well, you get the picture. Yankees fans know what happened that year. A certain Jeter play called “the flip” became immortalized, and the A’s fell to New York in the ALDS.
The free agency period came and, like everyone predicted, Oakland’s biggest stars were all scooped up. Johnny Damon headed to Boston, Jason Isringhausen became a Cardinal, and Jason Giambi, then the best 1st baseman in the league, donned pinstripes after being wooed by the Yankees’ glamorous contract. In the movie, Billy, played by Brad Pitt, quips, “Now we’re gutted, organ donors for the rich.” Giambi signed a 7 year, 120 million dollar deal with New York. The entire Oakland Athletics team payroll for the 2002 season: a microscopic 39,679,746.
With that big of a gap, it’s no wonder why the A’s had to get creative. Once players reached the heights of their career, they were packing their bags for greener pastures. Oakland couldn’t compete with Yankee money.
“Oakland’s kind of become a starting place or an ending place, and that’s no disrespect to the organization, but that’s what it’s kind of become,” said Yankee and former Athletic, Nick Swisher. “As soon as you make a name for yourself you’re bounced out of there.”
In 2001, it happened three times to Oakland.
“We had a very close-knit group of guys,” New York Mets reliever, then A’s closer Jason Isringhausen said. “We did a lot off the field together and you only come across that kind of group once in a career.”
So how do you put a team back together like that with a budget like Billy’s? Well it certainly can’t be how the rest of baseball tried. So Beane shook things up. He hired Paul DePodesta, a Harvard University grad with a major in economics, as an assistant and attempted to re-analyze the players his scouting team was looking for. Instead of searching for replacements for a Giambi or Damon, Billy and Paul looked to replace the things within their power; namely, on-base-percentage.
Both Beane and DePodesta were graduates of a Bill James philosophy. James, formerly a worker in a sausage factory, had revolutionary ideas about baseball. Instead of looking for great payers, he would claim that GM’s should look for great on base percentages. The more you got on base, the better chance your team would score runs; and scoring runs was how you won games. Michael Lewis, the writer of Moneyball, eloquently expressed this change in philosophy, one that had never been tried in the game before.
“At the bottom of the Oakland experiment," Lewis wrote, "was a willingness to rethink baseball: how it is managed, how it is played, who is best suited to play it, and why."
These questions, if they were going to be asked right, had to start from the bottom up; from Single-A, all the way to the Coliseum. Thus, Billy preached a definitive system to his minor leaguers, which he hoped would transition into the show.
“For an organization, all we really talked about was walks,” long-time Athletic now Yankee Eric Chavez said. “It was a really high priority for them that everyone have one walk per ten at bats.”
Do this, and you were eligible to move up within the A’s farm system. But Beane and DePodesta needed players now, and so they went on a spreadsheet scavenger hunt, picking up loose ends like Scott Hatteberg, Chad Bradford, and veteran David Justice for their undervalued ability. Eric Chavez, the starting 3rd baseman at the time, was wary of the moving parts.
“You kind of hope to put together a good team,” he said, “but you don’t look individually and say ‘oh, this is what we’re doing.’ You kind of just hope the players that you have in the room are good enough to win. And for the most part we felt like we had that.”
There was reason to speculate though, as more guys came into the clubhouse that just didn’t seem like “real” baseball players, or players like the former Billy Beane. Once an outstanding five tool high school athlete, Billy was on the top of every scout’s list. After deliberating with his parents, he decided to pass up a full scholarship with Stanford and signed with the New York Mets as the 23rd pick. His career never lined up how he thought however. He hit just .219 in 148 games over six seasons, which included playing with the Twins, Tigers, and A’s after his brief stint with New York.
Now the A’s General Manager, Billy wanted to learn from history, to find guys the opposite of himself. That meant scouting guys who had been unwanted in college by other teams because of things that to Billy just didn’t matter. In the 2002 draft, Billy had 7 first round picks at his disposal (6 of them compensation for losing such prized free agents during the offseason). Using his analytics, Beane selected Nick Swisher out of Ohio State as the A’s first pick.
“If you think about it,” Swisher said, “we were all just a test experiment, and we never knew it was going to be as big as it was now.”
Swisher was one of the few examples of a player who traditional scouts and Beane could agree upon. The A’s got him however with what should have been the Red Sox pick, but that was forfeited for acquiring Johnny Damon. This soon marked one of the many trends in baseball and is the reason more teams nowadays let go of their free agents to get highly valued draft picks in return. (In the current Mets’ case, Jose Reyes might be worth letting go for added 1st round picks who will be paid a fraction of what Reyes is sure to get on the free agent market).
Now a mainstay as the Yankees right field, Swisher became one of the many benefactors in Beane’s sabermetric scheme. Cherished for his walks and high on base percentage, Swisher embodied the type of player that the A’s had dedicated their scouts to.
“I was lucky enough that that’s [OBP] always been my philosophy. I’ve always walked a good amount and tried to be selective so I fit right into their philosophy,” said Swisher.
2002, on paper, was a success. Like mentioned, the A’s won 103 games, one more than the year before, all without a noticeable payroll. Emerging into the limelight were Oakland’s “Big Three” young hurlers. Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and, ’02 CY Young winner, Barry Zito led the Oakland pitching staff and quickly became baseball’s most daunting starting trio. The playoffs, however, were another story as the A’s lost to the Twins in the Division Series for the second time in a row.
But to say “Moneyball” didn’t work would mean that none of the players today acquired or drafted by Billy Beane mean anything to their respective clubs. It would also mean that every team’s group of sabermetric employees and statisticians hasn’t helped their ball clubs scout and find hidden players. Though the A’s missed the World Series in 2002, their unique and courageous philosophy changed years of traditionalist evaluation. Billy proved it could work by winning so many games, and now his methods have saturated into every level of baseball.
Nick Swisher definitively can prove that.
“He gave me my shot,” he said of Beane, “and I can’t thank him enough for that.”
Yankees fans probably can’t either, especially if Nick can help them to go deep into the postseason again.
“I’ve been fortunate with everything I’ve been given, and I just try and go out and play this game hard every day.”
It’s safe to say Billy knew what he was talking about.