Thursday, April 23, 2009

Billy Beane and Moneyball

Somehow, it looks as if a movie is going to be made based on the seminal baseball book Moneyball, by Michael Lewis. I'm as dumbfounded as you about this development, but Steven Soderbergh is a pretty great director, so I'm sure he'll figure out something good.

The key protagonist of Moneyball is Billy Beane, the GM of the Oakland A's. So I thought it'd be worth a few moments to take a closer look at Beane.

Beane, the player, qualifies as one of the biggest busts in the history of the amateur draft. Beane, the general manager, qualifies as one of the most successful team-builders in the history of baseball.

As described in Moneyball, Beane was one of the most coveted amateur players in the nation when he was taken in the first round by the New York Mets in the 1980 draft. Everything came easy to Beane—until he got to the minors and he wasn’t able to adapt to the higher-quality pitching. Scouts loved him; he was built like the star ballplayer they all thought he would become. But Beane never succeeded at the plate, and he finished his major league career with a .219 average and 3 homers over parts of six seasons.

Before the 1990 season began, at the age of 28, Beane abruptly walked into general manager Sandy Alderson’s office and asked for a job as a scout. Imagine turning down a chance to play on a major league team in order to drive around small towns scouting amateurs. It shocked Alderson so much that he gave Beane the job and kept a close eye on him.

It didn’t take long for Beane to work his way up to assistant general manager, and when Alderson left the A’s in 1997, Beane took charge. During his tenure, the A’s either made the playoffs or at least contended more often than not, despite one of the league’s lowest payrolls. He did it the way a good investor operates: by buying low and selling high. For example, Beane believed that ace closers are overvalued. So he would sign an unknown or out-of-favor hard-thrower to be his closer, watch him succeed, then trade or let him go when he became too expensive. This tactic worked with, in order, Billy Taylor, Jason Isringhausen, Billy Koch, and Keith Foulke.

Beane’s most glaring failure as GM has been his team’s inability to win in the post-season. Pundits claim it’s because his teams rely too much on walks and home runs and can’t play “smallball”—bunt, steal bases, hit and run, and so on. In fact, I think the reason his teams haden’t won in the post-season (until 2006, when they won a first-round series) simply comes down to bad luck. In a short series, almost anything can happen, and blaming Billy Beane because Jeremy Giambi failed to slide or Miguel Tejada didn’t take an extra base is just wrong. Still, despite the A’s victory in the 2006 ALDS, the lack of significant post-season success is a stain on Beane’s record and will remain so until his A’s win at least a pennant or two.

And now he's going to be played in a movie by Brad Pitt. Not bad. Not bad at all.

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