Or, why Billy Beane has taken (most of) the fun of the A's away from me.
Copyright 2007, Evan Morrison
Originally written 4/09/07, statistics further down in the article reflect the old date, for I do not account for the emergence of Jack Cust here.
I, being a longtime die-hard A's fan, have been dreading the opening of this season for a while now. To be quite frank, the quick coming and going of spring training sounded more like bad news to me than good. Am I the only one who can't forget the five years of excruciating playoff losses, followed by my favorite players continually leaving? Not to mention last year, with the pathetic 0-4 sweeping by the Detroit Tigers? Have you ever seen a playoff team in the league championship series (only four wins from the World Series!) more flat? Lots of people like to heap praise on GM Billy Beane for building a team with the best regular season winning record in recent years, popularizing on-base percentage as a cornerstone stat, and getting a team with such a (relatively) small payroll to the playoffs 5 times since 1999, being a maverick/genius, etc.
I don't necessarily disagree that he has done some great things - but I also think he's been keeping the A's from doing what I value most as a fan: Going to, and winning, the World Series. And he's failed at doing another thing that I value almost as much: creating a team that I, as a fan, want to watch. Not wanting to get to know new people because they're going to be gone soon is the kind of attitude you expect from soldiers who regularly see their friends die in combat - not baseball fans.
You see, for me the players that I enjoy and value the most are the players that step up in big situations, they perform in the clutch. It seems that those are the kinds of players that Billy Beane actively avoids. I think it is those kind of players that endear fans to a team, and it is those kind of players that win big games - playoff games. Billy Beane has said (I'm paraphrasing) "The playoffs are a crapshoot." I say that it is this kind of thinking that keeps the A's performing in the playoffs like crap.
Let's start with a look at some statistics. The A's playoff winning percentage since 1999 is 0.407. That's good enough to rank 12th on the list of 16 teams that have been in the playoffs more than once since the 1999 season. For comparison's sake, the Yankees, Diamondbacks, Giants, Angels, Mariners, and Braves all have better records in the playoffs than the A's since 1999. "Here is the entire list. You'd think with the A's ability to do so well so consistently in the regular season, they'd be able to do similarly in the playoffs. Most, if not all of those teams that have performed better than the A's in the postseason do not have a record over the past eight seasons that can match the A's in the regular season. Before we get into Beane's methodology that leads to playoff failure, I'm going to go over with you one of the glaringly obvious flaws that Beane has. He gets rid of the players that do well in the playoffs! I know we all could argue until we're blue in the face about how to measure what defines a 'clutch' performer, but I think we can agree that performance in the playoffs is a good indicator. Below is a list of the A's who have batted over .280 with at least ten at-bats in all of the series' the A's have appeared in since 1999, and those who have left the team are bolded with their last year on the club next to their name. To see the complete statistics, click "here.
2000 Division Series
Miguel Tejada 2003
Ramon Hernandez 2003
Jason Giambi 2001
2001 Division Series
Johnny Damon 2001
Miguel Tejada 2003
Terrance Long 2003
Jason Giambi 2001
Jeremy Giambi 2002
2002 Division Series
Ray Durham 2002
Scott Hatteberg 2005
2003 Division Series
Eric Byrnes 2005
Jose Guillen 2003
2006 Division Series
Jay Payton 2006
Frank Thomas 2006
2006 League Championship Series
Jay Payton 2006
Twelve of the 17 players to perform well offensively in the playoffs for the A's left the A's within three years of their performance. Many left the offseason immediately following their productive postseasons. How can a team build any momentum when the players that carry it leave so quickly? I'm not arguing that we should have kept all of these players, especially Terrence Long and Jeremy Giambi (who had overstayed their welcome by the time they left). But I am saying that letting so many of this caliber of player go has a high probability of hindering any efforts to win any playoff series. I would also say that the only reason that the A's won the 2006 Division series is because they had stellar pitching - and since Beane has always treated pitchers much differently than position players we have to look at them separately as well.
Except for the 2002 Division series and the 2006 League Championship Series, the A's have had great pitching in the playoffs. The eleven playoff wins they have had since 1999 would have been much more scarce if they didn't. I've only had one real complaint about how their playoff pitching has been handled, and I can sum that up in one name: Ted Lilly. If you don't remember, before Ted was the grossly overpaid $10 million a year mid 4 ERA, mid-rotation lefty for the Cubs - he was the A's fourth starter in 2003. After going through a mediocre 2002 up to mid 2003, Mark Mulder got injured and Lilly became the number 3. That is where he shined. Down the stretch when the A's needed wins to get into the playoffs, he became the ace that we could count on for a solid performance every fifth day. Though I don't have those statistics as I'm writing this, I remember him being more reliable and effective than Zito or Hudson at the time. Once the A's reached the playoffs, he proceeded to pitch nine innings of two-hit ball. He gave up one unearned run in the entire series, in one appearance as a starter and another appearance in relief. Without question, he was the best pitcher on that staff during that series. What did Beane do with him in the offseason? TRADED HIM FOR BOBBY KIELTY! F***ING BOBBY KIELTY!!! Now, I have nothing against Bobby Kielty personally. I think he's done a fine, even exemplar, job in his role with the A's. YOU JUST DON'T TRADE THE ACE OF YOUR PLAYOFF STAFF, AND A PIVOTAL REASON WHY YOU MADE IT TO THE PLAYOFFS, FOR A GUY WHO'S GOING TO BE YOUR FOURTH OUTFIELDER AT BEST! What did Ted Lilly do, sleep with Billy Beane's sister? How can you justify that?
By the time it came to making the Hudson and Mulder trades, and letting Zito go, I have to say I was already numb to the whole A's experience. I think that whether or not fans are conscious to it, that when a player comes to the plate when the team needs a run and he gets a base hit - that is what endears fans to them. When they make the diving play. When they go above and beyond what they've done before, that's when fans truly love them. Those are the kind of players that can win games, because they can steal a base, knock them home in a tense moment, make the spectacular stop with the bases loaded. When these players are hot, they can carry an entire team. But sometimes they are streaky (Eric Byrnes), sometimes they aren't the greatest on defense (Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon, Ray Durham), sometimes they need to feel supported more so than the normal player (Miguel Tejada), sometimes they just don't fit the prototype (Marco Scutaro - betcha he won't be on the A's in '09). But these are the players that change the momentum of games. They can, and regularly do, change the entire course of the game with the swing of a bat, or a catch, or a stolen base. These are the kinds of players you need to win in the playoffs. You can build a team that statistically will win 90+ games every season, which Beane has done, but you need this kind of player if you need to win one game. When you need to win one, the one that is going on at that moment - not three out of the next five or six of the next ten - you need players like this. Every team in the playoffs has players that regularly put up good numbers. That's why they are in the playoffs. If you want to win in the playoffs, you need players who will push themselves to accomplish more than they've accomplished before. If neither team in any given series does this - then you do get a crapshoot. 'Hey, if we just play like it's the regular season, eventually we'll win enough games to move on.' It is that kind of thinking that led to the A's getting spanked by the Tigers last year. The Tigers didn't treat it like a crapshoot, for them they knew that they had to push themselves and do whatever they could to win, and they were going to steal it if they had to. Do you think Dave Stewart would say the playoffs are a crapshoot? How about Rickey Henderson? They A's simply got outclassed by a team that wanted it. Just like they have in almost every playoff series they've been in since 1999.
Why? Because Billy Beane doesn't want players that want to push themselves beyond their limits. You know what happens when people do that? They mess up, sometimes very badly. Sometimes so badly that they can lose a game, or lose a series of games until they figure out what they aren't doing right. That is what goes against Billy's entire philosophy. Beane just wants good pitching, and for people not to mess up on defense or offense. Eventually, since the pitchers (ideally) won't mess up, someone will score a run and his team will win. He figures that's a great way to win games. In a way he's right, he's eliminated a lot of the mistakes that make other teams lose games. But he's also eliminated the risks and chance taking it takes to win a game when the cards are stacked against you. And he also hasn't accounted for the fact that good pitching doesn't always beat good hitting, especially in the playoffs - and his A's teams have had no defense for when that happens. The A's will never have real success in the playoffs as long as they continue to play it safe.
So, as the 2007 season begins, I am not excited. I'm going to enjoy watching a game occasionally. But I know that, even this year, it's just going to be more of the same. While I'm watching I'll be wondering how much longer we'll have Nick Swisher (he's just too good to stick around), when Huston Street is going to ask for too much money, and how soon the A's will be convinced a certain often injured underachiever (Bobby Crosby) will be in good enough shape so they can trade Marco Scutaro. Because really, haven't we seen this before? What's going to be different this time? I think Billy Koch said it best when he was traded away from the A's after getting 40+ saves for them but faltering in the postseason (paraphrasing): "What does a guy have to do to stay on this team?"
PS: Oh, and if any of you want to draw your own conclusions about why Beane doesn't value offense, here are his career stats as a baseball player.
PPS: One could make an argument, though I won't go into depth on it here, that the A's have so much trouble attracting paying fans (the way to pay large salaries) because they don't keep good players into the prime of their careers - when true stardom really happens for players. Can you imagine if the A's still had Giambi (even with his steroid woes), Tejada, and Zito? How about Byrnes, and maybe even Ramon Hernandez to throw into the mix. That would be a great team. That would be a team that could win the World Series - and fill the seats. And sell merchandise. And ink large marketing contracts. And...
Here is my ideal A's roster as of April 9th, 2007. The only things I've done differently are not making a few trades that Beane made and keeping a few free agents Beane let go. Players that are on the disabled list right now are on the one at the bottom of the roster.
Starting Lineup Healthy Lineup
1 LF Eric Byrnes LF Eric Byrnes
2 1B Nick Swisher CF Mark Kotsay
3 SS Miguel Tejada SS Miguel Tejada
4 DH Jason Giambi DH Jason Giambi
5 3B Eric Chavez 3B Eric Chavez
6 CF Milton Bradley RF Milton Bradley
7 C Adam Melhuse 1B Nick Swisher
8 2B Mark Ellis C Ramon Hernandez
9 RF Travis Buck 2B Mark Ellis
SS/2B Marco Scutaro
OF Hiram Bocachica
1B/3B Olmedo Saenz
DH/C Mike Piazza
CL Huston Street
SU Justin Duchscherer
C Ramon Hernandez
CF Mark Kotsay
Bocachica and DiNardo are filling roster spots for players on DL