Tuesday, August 31, 2010

Objective Analysis

Since there are still so many misapplied perceptions about Oakland Athletics boss Billy Beane; and he's still considered a top-tier GM based on little other than Moneyball, a few good maneuvers, some inherited talent and luck; and there are many people in the media and public advocating Beane as a reasonable successor to Omar Minaya as Mets GM, it's time to take an evenhanded examination of Beane's tenure in running the Athletics.

There will be as few mentions of Moneyball as is humanly possible. (Really.)

Let's take a look.

Rise to power:

Beane took over a moribund franchise in 1998 replacing Sandy Alderson as GM. Alderson himself had crafted a reputation as a successful administrator based on two things: money and Tony La Russa.

The Athletics of the late 1980s and early 1990s were built by La Russa and pitching coach Dave Duncan's excellence and owner Walter Haas's disinterest in turning a profit at the expense of fielding a competitive team. The A's were consistently at or near the top of baseball in terms of payroll. Alderson made some excellent trades in acquiring the likes of Rickey Henderson and signing underappreciated contributors like Dave Henderson and Ron Hassey, but to think that Alderson's career was the culmination of a brilliant baseball mind is nonsense.

All one needs do is look at what happened after the team was sold to Steve Schott, the money was gone, La Russa left and the team collapsed. Alderson is disciplined; he's smart; and he's brutal; he's also fond of fostering factions among his underlings (as the disaster with the Padres proved) in order to maintain command of the various turf battles.

Beane rose from advance scout to Alderson's assistant. Beane had walked off the field where he was a backup outfielder on those late 80s A's teams and joined the front office; his scouting acumen and desire were noticed and detailed almost immediately----Sports Illustrated article, Sept. 17, 1990----and he was immediately cast as a future GM.

Contrary to the cover stories being presented, there wasn't a ruthless rise to power under Alderson making the end result of consolidation and recognition a guarantee once he did take command; instead, Beane was said to follow Alderson around like a baby duck at the meetings and sit by passively, watching. He took over as full-time GM in 1998 and inherited a terrible team which Alderson, doubtlessly, thought was ungovernable and irreparable.

Naturally, once the A's began winning under Beane, there was Alderson to suggest that he laid the foundation for the turnaround and gave Beane his start. It was this "strawman" (a favored Bill James term for a specious argument that has no basis in reality when dissected) that led to Beane's rampant fame and Alderson's continued employment within baseball.

Just like any cover story to sell to the masses----George Washington chopping down the cherry tree and not lying about it; Robin Hood robbing the rich to give to the poor; John F. Kennedy writing "Profiles in Courage"----there's a kernel of truth, but it's not....quite....accurate.

On-field results:

The 1998 Athletics went 74-88. They were old and slow and packed with journeymen and mediocre youngsters. On the club were two core members of the future contender, Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada; aside from that, there was little to be excited about as the team looked hopeless.

Beane had yet to implement his "strategies" based on the sabermetric principles that were the impetus of the club's return to contention and Beane's rise to prominence. In 1999, there were signals for a positive future. Tim Hudson arrived and went 11-2 as a rookie; Giambi became a feared power hitter; and they received above-and-beyond performances from Matt Stairs and John Jaha. They finished the year at 87-75 and second place in the AL West.

The teams from 2000-2003 were built by Beane's smart maneuvering and the decisions that formed the basis for the future worship he would engender. Giambi evolved into a wrecking machine; the young pitchers Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito all developed into stars; they had a deep and well-constructed bullpen; and burgeoning lineup forces with Tejada and Eric Chavez. He found contributors in Scott Hatteberg and Cory Lidle. It was Beane's use of statistics and ancillary attributes that led to the success of those teams under a tight payroll and, by proxy, drew the attention of Michael Lewis; attention that sowed the seeds for Moneyball.

Every year from 2000-2003 the Athletics won and made the playoffs; and every year they got bounced. Beane used the absurdity "the playoffs are luck" to explain away his team's failures; it was a handy excuse for Beane to absolve himself of blame for a bad ending. Had he been holding up the World Series trophy at the conclusion of any one of those years and stood on the podium in a champagne soaked clubhouse, I have a hard time believing anyone with his ego would utter the words, "we got lucky".

In 2004, the A's finished one game behind the Angels for the AL West title and missed the playoffs. Hudson and Mulder were growing too expensive to keep; he sensed the window for the group was closing and he started trading his stars to retool.

2005 was something of a rebuilding year, but the A's still went 88-74; in 2006, they won a surprising division title and knocked the heavily favored Twins out of the ALDS before being swept by the Tigers in the ALCS.

By 2007, things started coming apart. Since that year, the A's and Beane----no longer able to use the statistically based agenda to find players they could afford because other teams caught onto the act----stumbled back into mediocrity and worse. They haven't won more than 76 games since.

Trades/free agent signings:

Was it brilliance?

Was it luck?

Was it freedom from accountability and public interest that allowed Beane to do what he wanted initially; then the idea that "the man must know what he's doing" that was a direct result of the accolades to protect him for being held responsible for mistakes?

Or was it all of the above?

First, the brilliance.

Early in his tenure. He specifically made the Mets GM Steve Phillips a victim by getting Terence Long (not great, but okay for a time) for Kenny Rogers; and the big score, Jason Isringhausen for Bill Taylor. He perpetrated an absolute heist in getting Johnny Damon, Mark Ellis and Lidle for Ben Grieve, Angel Berroa and A.J. Hinch (yes; that A.J. Hinch). He got Jermaine Dye for three non-descript minor leaguers; he acquired Dave Justice for Mark Guthrie and Tyler Yates (again from the Mets); Ray Durham for Jon Adkins; Ted Lilly came over for Jeremy Bonderman and Carlos Pena (neither of whom have done much to make that regrettable; Pena was dumped by a bunch of teams before finding a home----through luck----in Tampa); Chad Bradford was acquired from the White Sox for Miguel Olivo; he got Dan Haren and Daric Barton from the Cardinals for Mulder and Mulder's arm blew out 2 years later; Nick Swisher yielded Gio Gonzalez and Ryan Sweeney.

With free agents, Beane made some major hits like the aforementioned Hatteberg; Marco Scutaro; Jack Cust and Frank Thomas were both looking for mutually advantageous situations----Cust had run out of options with other clubs after failing time and again; Thomas wanted to prove he was healthy and signed an incentive-laden deal, nearly winning the MVP.

Then there are the bad trades. Milton Bradley behaved himself and was solid for the Athletics, but they gave up Andre Ethier to get him. Aaron Harang was traded for Jose Guillen. Tim Hudson went to the Braves for Dan Meyer, Charles Thomas and Juan Cruz. Haren was sent to the Diamondbacks for a package that included Carlos Gonzalez, but Gonzalez was spun to the Rockies for Matt Holliday, who couldn't handle the American League, got off to a slow start and was traded to the Cardinals for Brett Wallace. Rich Harden was traded to the Cubs for a bunch of bodies.

With free agents, Beane has been capricious with money and seen it go down the tubes. Ben Sheets was guaranteed $10 million for reasons few seem to understand; Esteban Loaiza received 3-years and $21 million; he inexplicably brought back a shot Giambi before the 2009 season in what was a concession to sentimentality more than hard data; and he signed Coco Crisp before this year.

You'll notice that as Beane's reputation and profile increased, teams were at first reluctant to deal with him for fear of getting ripped off; and then didn't want to help him because of his participation in the way Moneyball crafted the storyline of Beane knowing all/everyone else is an idiot. There are more than a few people within baseball who are not unhappy at Beane's struggles and fall from grace in recent years.

The draft:

I can't discuss the draft without wading into the Moneyball farce.

The implication in the book was that Beane and his consigliere Paul DePodesta had found a way to "count cards" in the draft and find baseball players rather than tools guys who looked good in jeans.

It's garbage.

The self-protective cover story regarding the playoffs being a crapshoot is misapplied; the true crapshoot is the draft. As the Stephen Strasburg injury is proving now, you never, ever know what you're going to get from a prospect; you can put all the pieces in place and insert your young players into the cocoon of history and numbers; provide a motherly, nurturing environment...and they can still fall flat on their faces.

The Jeremy Brown case is indicative of this phenomenon. The poster boy for the Beane draft technique was smothered rather than developed and that suffocation is a direct result of Michael Lewis. Because he was "fat" and slow, Brown was kept in the lower echelon of team draft boards, but Beane drafted him in the first round of 2002, got him to take a down-the-line salary and he epitomized the way the Athletics were "reinventing" the draft. In reality, Brown was a good player who might have had a chance to make it in the big leagues if he was more under-the-radar and didn't have Moneyball hanging over his head. He lasted six years in the minors, had a cup of coffee in the big leagues and retired after 2007 at age 27.

The Beane hits in the draft list follows. I'm not parsing due to who was in control of the scouting and development; Beane was the GM, he gets credit or blame; players are mentioned based on having some use whether it's in trades or for the A's themselves:

1998: Mark Mulder, Gerald Laird, Tyler Yates, Jon Adkins

1999: Barry Zito, Ryan Ludwick

2000: Rich Harden

2001: Bobby Crosby, Dan Johnson, Jeremy Bonderman

2002: Nick Swisher, Mark Teahen, Joe Blanton, John Baker

2003: Andre Ethier

2004: Huston Street, Kurt Suzuki, Ryan Webb, Dallas Braden

2005: Cliff Pennington, Travis Buck

2006: Trevor Cahill, Andrew Bailey

2007: Sam Demel

2008: Tyson Ross

I can get into the players they passed on to select the mostly negligible contributors above, but it's pointless. The draft is what it is----a selection of 18-22-year-olds coming from various backgrounds and talent levels whose abilities may grow or flame out as they reach the professional level. The game is so vastly different from the amateurs (with aluminum bats and sliding scales of competition) that there's no ironclad way to determine whether or not a player's skills are going to translate. Then there are maturity factors, personalities, coping skills----all contribute to success or failure. It can be accounted for, but it can't be guaranteed. To imply that Beane had "built a better mousetrap" fit into the myth and had absolutely no basis in reality.

Treatment of his managers:

Here's something I truly do not understand. How is it possible to give credit to the GM for the wins and blame to the manager for the losses?

Art Howe was never a great manager, but he's no worse strategically than Joe Maddon, Bud Black or even Joe Girardi. But Howe has become the epitome of a non-entity and "along for the ride" of an excellent team. Howe's contributions to his teams was more along the line of not scaring the young players into failure and it's an important, but unquantifiable, attribute. He didn't screw it up. The playoff losses from 2000-2002 were not the fault of Art Howe. Beane actually did Howe a favor by letting him out of his contract to take over the Mets in 2003 (financially anyway); yes, Howe's reputation took a beating, but he made an amount of money he never would've gotten from the Athletics or anywhere else.

Ken Macha was not popular among the players and Beane never appreciated him as anything more than a function of circumstances. Macha made mostly the correct strategic calls with a noticeable gaffe here and there; but he was at the helm when the A's broke through in the division series and beat the Twins in 2006. Then they got swept by the Tigers and Macha was fired. This was a year after contract negotiations broke off and the A's walked away from Macha only to have the two sides reconcile. Macha was being paid for two years after Beane fired him.

The floating value of the manager and his disposability has been exemplified by Beane's treatment of his latest manager, Bob Geren. Is Geren's holding onto his job amid the A's performance from 2007 onward anything more than a byproduct of him being Beane's "best" friend? Would any other manager----a middle-manager as they're referred to in stat zombie circles----still be managing the team after an annual 75 wins? The A's were expected to contend in 2009 and didn't; they were expected to contend in 2010 and (despite assertions to the contrary) aren't.

How is Geren still there?

By the logic that predicated the dumping of Howe and Macha, shouldn't Geren have been held to the same standard and gotten fired? Is this objectivity or is Beane showing weakness in the reluctance to replace his friend? (And the Athletics teams of recent years have fulfilled their potential for the most part; no other manager would've done much better than Geren has; Geren's a solid enough manager.)

The personality:

Billy Beane has reached larger-than-life status. Along with the accolades comes a certain amount of responsibility; responsibility he's been hesitant to accept. It's fine when everyone's referring to someone as a genius and they bear no burden for negativity. Beane is a sought after corporate speaker; has parlayed his crafted reputation into an ownership stake in the A's; and can essentially do what he wants because of that persona and the lack of interest inherent with running a team in Oakland. Very few people actually care enough to call him out on his mistakes.

Is it any wonder why Beane turned down the opportunity to take over the Red Sox after 2002?*

*By the way, if you read Moneyball, look at his planned list of moves upon taking over. They included moving Manny Ramirez to permanent DH (precluding the signing of David Ortiz); trading Jason Varitek; and signing the shot Edgardo Alfonzo; oh, and Kevin Youkilis would've been traded to the Athletics as compensation for Beane being let out of his contract. How would the Red Sox have looked then?

For Beane, the comfort of being in Oakland was, in part, due to the proximity to his young daughter from whom he was separated after his divorce; part happiness where he was; but it was also due to the lack of consequences for whatever he did. For years after the book and the A's run of playoff appearances, Beane could do whatever he wanted with impunity. If he wanted to fire the manager; clean house of expensive veterans; sign strange free agents; make bizarre trades----all were shielded by his identity as a "genius".

Such is no longer the case.

As the A's have floundered, new focus is placed on what Beane's actually done and the well of excuses has run dry. Financial constraints only go so far and eventually, there have to be results. The pressure in Boston would've been overwhelming from a fan base that would've expected him to win and win big immediately. Judging from the projected trades/free agent signings, that would not have happened. Then where would he be?

Billy Beane was and is a compelling story.

He's a smart baseball man.

But the continued reference to him as the man to fix an organization is misplaced and wrong. There are those ratcheting up the rhetoric against Mets GM Omar Minaya and continually postulating that Beane would be a perfect fit for New York and the Mets.


In the past 5 years, Minaya has actually done a better job in building a team and farm system than Beane has. Beane would be swallowed up by New York and there would not be the freedom to do whatever he wanted without anyone paying attention or questioning him. Those that are gazing from afar at Beane and wondering what he'd do if he were given control of a team with a payroll double what he has in Oakland need only look at what happened when DePodesta took over the Dodgers and had neither the evaluative skills nor the nuance to deal with everything that involves being a GM in a large market.

It's a similar sentiment as when Jeff Torborg was hired to take over the Mets after the 1991 season. There were "experts" in the media saying, "yeah, yeah, yeah!!" and entreating the club to do whatever needed to be done to get the poor-man's La Russa, someone immersed in logic and organization like Torborg, to come and restore order with a disorganized and fading group of stars. Torborg, a nice and intelligent man, was not suited to the cauldron of New York; he couldn't handle the media; was tuned out by the recalcitrant veterans; and went by the "book" to such a degree that he wasn't managing, he was pushing buttons and too often, the wrong buttons. It was only when the expensive package was unwrapped that the faults of Torborg were discovered and he's known as the worst Mets manager in my memory of following the team for over 30 years.

Billy Beane would be an expensive failure for the Mets along the lines of Torborg.

If the club is truly looking for a replacement for Minaya, there are other names----Mark Shapiro, Gerry Hunsicker, Logan White, Larry Beinfest, Rick Hahn, Bill Stoneman----to speak to before even thinking about Beane. It should not be assistant GM John Ricco and the Mets must not make the same mistake they've made in previous years by acting as if the prospective employee is doing them a favor by taking over and being granted full control of a team with a massive payroll, loyal (but disgusted) fan base, and beautiful new ballpark.

While his aptitude for corporate double-talk, adept manner in saying "stuff", but not saying anything at all, and deftness at handling crises will be a vast departure from Minaya's shaky command of the English language and outright discomfort in firing people, Beane would be a better out front organizational representative; but would he be a more effective GM in the imperative area of building the team?


It would take one bad trade or wasteful free agent signing for the fans to turn on him; and the media would quickly lose interest in his "story".

Beane is not the man for the Mets and they have to realize this before making another huge mistake in pursuing him with the promise of riches, autonomy and the arrival befitting a conquering king. He's conquered nothing aside from being a propped up demagogue and his risks far outweigh the potential rewards.

  • The Prince on the Podcast:

I'm scheduled to be on with Sal at SportsFan Buzz on Thursday. Prepare. Although it won't do you much good.

My book is still available on Amazon, I-Universe and Barnes and Noble.com. It's available for download as an E-book here. You can also now get it for less that five bucks on BN via download here.


Jeff said...

Your analysis is accurate, leaving me to think Beane is even more un-Brad Pitt like than I originally thought.

She-Fan said...

So when's the book coming out on this subject? You've already written most of it!

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