PHOENIX—In Michael Lewis’s Moneyball year, Billy Beane wouldn’t have spent $10M on a closer like Jim Johnson. He wouldn’t have traded a 24 year potential corner power hitter like Michael Choice to a division rival for a 30 year old prime outfield defender, like Craig Gentry.
He wouldn’t have given Nick Punto a free agent two year contract, then mentioned how he contributes on the field and in the clubhouse. He likely wouldn’t have given a two year, $18M contract to Scott Kazmir coming off a 10-9, 4.04 season in Cleveland, which followed, the previous three years, earned run averages of 5.94 and 27.00 with the Angels and a 5.34 in an independent league. He probably wouldn’t have traded a credible major league lefthanded pitcher like Jerry Blevins for a minor league outfielder like Billy Burns who in three minor league seasons hit one home run and stole 125 bases.
Actually, he probably never would have invested the power he has invested in Bob Melvin, but, then he never had a manager like Melvin.
Back in the Moneyball Summer, Billy Beane used to say, “whoever hits the most homers usually wins,” and could live without stolen bases. But while the movie was superb, it was, in reality, fiction, or semi-fiction. “All movies are,” Beane said when the film was released. “Thirteen Days” wasn’t the way it really was, either.
“In our market (and a park that brings new meaning to Flushing Meadows) there isn’t one way to do anything,” Beane says. “Trying to compete is about always trying to stay ahead of the curve, always adjusting, always trying to find undervalued ways to win. That’s all.” He also probably wouldn’t have been so open to creating a goofball, laughing gashouse gang and handed them to a manager who is cerebral and exceptionally logical.
“There is no set way to doing anything, in baseball or business,” Beane says. “Hey, I’ve grown to really like stolen bases. I don’t like the concept when guys get thrown out, but when they don’t get thrown out, I like them.” Billy Burns, who is in the Billy Hamilton/Micah Johnson class of speed, in three years in the Nationals organization stole 125 bases and was thrown out 17 times. Going into the weekend spring training games, he had more stolen bases than all but six teams in Arizona. So Billy isn’t as big as Ken Burns? He is a switch-hitter, every infield ground ball turns opposing infields into British roundabouts and he has the range of Coco Crisp and Craig Gentry. “I have to be honest,” said another American League GM. “I’d never heard of him.” One A.L. scout joked that “I thought he was the manger’s kid the first time I saw him in the Nationals organization.
But while baseball traditionalists and lunch room scouts hated what they perceived to be the message of Moneyball and columnists like one in Boston referred to baseball operations staffs as “sun-deprived nerds,” the tidal rises and falls are what Beane follows, as if he were managing a hedge fund. The cost of starting pitching has shot through the bank roof; he couldn’t hold onto Hudson/Mulder/Zito for more than three years today.
With Kazmir and five young starters—two of whom, Sonny Gray and Jarrod Parker, could easily be at the front end of many rotations—the A’s are spending $9.5M this season on starters, $1.75M less than the Orioles are paying Ubaldo Jimenez, who after this season has three times the guarantee of the entire Oakland rotation. To support young, inexperienced pitching, Beane has constructed what may be the best bullpen in the league, with Johnson and Luke Gregerson making $15.M and Eric O’Flaherty, off Tommy John Surgery, guaranteed $5.5M in 2015.
One element of Beane’s team construction is not to go find the next Josh Hamilton deal, but to have a roster “without any great player (although Josh Donaldson’s WAR last year trailed only Mike Trout and Andrew McCutchen), but one that doesn’t have anyone who is terrible.”
The A’s are constructed to have depth, depth that waters down the impact of injuries and keeps the roster fresh for the stretch run, as happened last season when they went 20-6 in September. What their strategic planning for 2014 should be is to get someone other than Justin Verlander in Game 5 of the ALDS, as has happened the last two years. Then the depth might run deeper into October.
Along with depth, the Oakland credo is flexibility.
–Derek Norris against lefthanded pitching: .320/.410/.580, .990 OPS. John Jaso against righthanders: .282/.405/.398/.802.
–Eric Sogard vs. righthanders: .274/.352/.397/.695. Punto vs. lefthanders: .309/.362/.361/.723.
–Brandon Moss against righthanders: .268/.353/.552/.904. Callaspo vs. lefties: .268/.333/.430/.763.
–Jed Lowrie’s OPS was .797 vs. righthanders, .780 vs. lefties.
–Yoenis Cespedes crushed lefthanders at .280/.364/.516/.880.
–Enter Burns with his career minor league .420 on base and 148/143 walk/strikeout ratio.
It never was all about analytics. Beane always has had good scouts, be he Matt Keough finding Nick Swisher and Joe Blanton, or Billy Owens the last few years, finding top picks like Addison Russell, their crowned jewel shortstop; hey, on the last day of the 2012, the scouting department decided to change from Matt Barnes—whom they loved–to Sonny Gray, right before Boston picked, because the better predictability on the medicals. They have one of the best front offices in either league with David Forst, Farhan Zaidi and Dan Feinstein, as starters.
The Athletics have won 190 games the last two years, finishing first, finished only by Verlander. From 2000 through 2013, they have finished first six times, made the post-season seven times. With a budget that might not pay Alex Rodriguez’s annual private jet bill. Last year they were second in the American League in wins, third in run differential, second in earned run average.
Beane, like Andrew Friedman in Tampa and some of the other unconventional small market general managers, is forever searching for a different way to look at and approach the business. It has worked, and once again the Athletics are the real team to beat in the American League West, with a jackrabbit named Billy Burns, a $10M closer and the intellectual flexibility to be able to take stock of what doesn’t work and keep searching, as Lewis once wrote, for the new, new thing.