Billy Beane, "Unquestionably the best" - Tyler Bleszinski
Hello Baseball Fans! After a wonderful Memorial Day weekend, we return to our General Manager Series with a look at Billy Beane. In recent years, Beane has become a lightning rod for both praise and criticism as his controversial methods have produced much winning... and even more debate. Today's entry was written by Tyler Bleszinski of Athletics Nation, which if you've never visited... well you're missing out.
See our GM Series Table of Contents.
Perhaps there is no more polarizing figure in baseball management than Billy Beane. The Oakland general manager and subject of bestselling book Moneyball has become the poster boy for the "New Revolution" in baseball. How much of a revolution it truly is is debatable considering the fact that Branch Rickey and others had realized the importance of on-base percentage years ago. But regardless, he has brought the concept of valuing the patient hitter to the mainstream.
He's basically the leader of the "new school" versus the "old school" baseball thinking. Of course, what the old schoolers constantly miss is that Beane will adjust his philosophy to whatever is undervalued in the baseball market at the time. If they were to look at the bigger picture, they'd see that Beane has brought a philosophy of viewing baseball players like a portfolio and tries to adjust to rapidly changing economics. It's not solely sitting behind a computer and making decisions based on laser printouts.
In his wake, he has brought many disciples of his offensive system to baseball. If you look around the major leagues, you will see many believers in the Beane philosophy. The most high profile of which is Theo Epstein in Boston. And we all know how that turned out for them last season. In many ways, the Red Sox championship validated the patient-power approach that Beane had advocated for several years. Of course, the Oakland Athletics have to try and accomplish it with less than half of what those same Red Sox field. Therein lies the creativity and genius that make Billy Beane unquestionably the best general manager in the game.
Since Billy Beane took over as general manager from Sandy Alderson in 1997, the Oakland Athletics have steadily risen to become an American League powerhouse on a minuscule budget.
Look at the A's wins since 1997:
Michael Lewis discusses it in Moneyball, but a general manager's job is to maximize the number of wins you can get from your payroll and essentially the best way to judge a general manager is the number of dollars it takes to get each victory. If you reference the A's dollars-per-win over the past five years, it is clearly one of the best in baseball. From 2000-2004, the team averaged more than 96 wins a season on a fraction of the budget that teams like the Red Sox, Yankees and even Seattle and the Angels have. And the payroll has been a fraction of what those other teams have spent.
Here's the key:
The Boston Red Sox are the team du jour because they are the World Champions, but compare how much the Sox spend per victory last season to the Athletics. The Sox spent $1,298,964 per victory last year. The A's spent $653,029 per victory. Compare these two teams closely between 2000-2004 in per dollar spending per victory and it's clear cut which owner is getting the better bargain. Steve Schott and Ken Hofmann only had to pay, on average $449,886 to get a victory. Red Sox ownership? $970,754 per victory. The only team that is better than the A's during that time span is the Minnesota Twins who spent on average $427,570 per victory (that also includes a season of 69 wins and a total payroll of $15 million though).
The payroll limitations are an albatross that Beane downplays when he discusses his success over the years, but it can not be swept under the rug. We're talking about someone with the budget of "My Big Fat Greek Wedding" taking on "Titanic" at the box office and consistently performing better. The accomplishment is one of Beane's greatest feats. People can say it's his drafting, his other people making key decisions, but he is the architect and people have followed his lead.
Beane does have to act unconventionally and make bolder moves than other GMs would. Like what he did last December in preemptively moving Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder to try and maximize those two assets and build a deeper franchise with younger players who were close or nearly ready for prime time. Remember, when you're talking about Beane, he tries to view his team as a stock portfolio and the general approach is to buy low and sell high. Of course that means that he will make errors, like Terrence Long and Scott Hatteberg's contracts, like the Arthur Rhodes as a closer experiment and the Jermaine Dye long-term deal. That's because the market fluctuates wildly, especially more recently. Baseball people have speculated that the market is now moving so quickly, it can change by the month as to what is over and undervalued because everyone is trying to anticipate where to gain that extra edge. The pace is more like being on the trading floor now than running a brokerage.
So what do Beane's detractors say? Well, first is the playoffs argument and the fact that his teams have never made it out of the first round. Beane's contention that the playoffs can be a crapshoot is true. Often times, it's the team that catches lightning in a bottle that advances and wins the World Series. It's the hottest team at the time. It also is often the healthiest. And Beane's teams have never been 100 percent healthy in any of the playoff series.
People also point to this season and the fact that the 2005 team is struggling mightily. There are those that would argue that the 2000-2004 years are a credit strictly to having Hudson, Mulder and Zito, but someone had to have the foresight to draft and create a system to develop these pitchers. Beane was the architect of this system, even if others implemented his vision. And Beane said repeatedly during the offseason that he wasn't giving up on 2005, but knew that this year would have its share of challenges. He also knew that things would need to break completely right in order to take a flawed and weakening AL West. Well, having Rich Harden hurt, AL Rookie of the Year Bobby Crosby out for all but one game, three key bullpen parts injured (Calero, Bradford and Dotel) and an offense that is suddenly suffering a team-wide underperformance beyond all expectations have proven that basically nothing has gone right for the A's in 2005.
Still, even if the A's struggle throughout 2005 and only win 65 games, this team is well poised for the future with a strong farm system that Beane has concentrated heavily in building with many of the supplemental drafts picks the A's have earned from the mass exodus of star players and trades. Names like Street, Garcia, Suzuki, Barton, Swisher, Meyer, Johnson, Herrera, Robnett and others are a huge part of the Oakland future. Plus, they have value like Zito and Durazo for teams trying to make late season deals to bolster themselves. That is, if the A's don't suddenly turn it around and have a second-half surge unlike any they've ever had before which is highly unlikely judging by watching Oakland in May.
Beane is trying to recreate the magic that he created when he was first promoted to GM of the A's. In other words, the upward arc of victories from 98-03. And despite all his detractors, don't bet against him even if the 2005 version of the A's appear miserable. He's proven how he can build a winner and build it quickly. Besides, it's way too early to judge his reclamation project, and you never bet against the best. Even if he's currently seven or eight furlongs back.