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Billy Beane Visits Athletics Nation May 2008 Edition Part II

Yesterday you read part I .  Today is part II of Athletics Nation's exclusive interview with A's GM Billy Beane.



Blez:  You brought something up earlier that I want to go back to.  You mentioned how this team is so founded on pitching.  It’s really been the success of this team with first The Big Three and then Haren and Blanton and now this year you have Eveland and Smith added to that mix.  Harden is…(Beane gestures for me to silence myself for fear of the jinx)

Beane:  Yes, he’s doing good.  When he’s out there it’s a beautiful thing. The thing about Rich, when you watch him pitch…

Blez:  Do you hold your breath every time?

Beane:  No, he’s such a great talent and in fairness to him, everyone knows how good he is and what an impact he can have on this team that everyone gets impatient with him as if it’s something he can control.  He knows how good he is.  He really is special.  He’s the one guy in the league when you talk to any GM or any hitter and they’ll tell you that when he’s on, he’s the best in the game.  I look at a guy like Josh Beckett who is still a great package.  He’s got great stuff.  A big imposing presence on the mound, but there are two guys that when they’re on you feel like you have no chance.  Felix (Hernandez), up in Seattle, is the other one that if he’s on and he has it that day, that’s it.  He’s dominating. 

Blez:  Rich seems to be throwing, and this is something I’ve observed, but he seems to be throwing exclusively fastballs and change ups. 

Beane:  He’s been a lot like that the last couple of years which should give you an idea as to how good those two pitches are. 

Blez:  In other words, to be able to go out there and get out major leagues hitters with two pitches exclusively is astounding.

Beane:  Yeah, that being said, those two pitches are pretty remarkable.  (Former Cincinnati Reds pitcher) Mario Soto was a bit like that back in the mid-80s.  He had a dominating fastball and an excellent changeup.

Blez:  Is he sticking with that mostly to try and avoid injury issues? 

Beane:  He’s been like that the last couple of years.  He’s really gotten away from the other stuff.

Blez:  He used to throw a pretty nasty splitter too.

Beane:  Yeah, but his changeup moves so much…

Blez:  That it can behave like a split.

Beane:  Yeah.  You know watching him this last Saturday, you just admire what he does.  It’s just so overwhelming with those two pitches you wonder ,why bother to mess around with anything else?

Blez:  I guess so.  What I was trying to get to earlier was talking about the offense.  The offense is a sore spot with this team.  It’s better this year, but it has those seemingly wild spells, and you and I were chatting about the Angels’ series when they scored something like 14 in one game, zero runs in the next one, one in the following game and then 15 in the final game.  I know you obviously value pitching quite a bit because that was something you pursued in the trades, but is there a point where you think, “I have to do something to improve this offense a little bit because if I can just improve the offense a little bit to complement the fine pitching, then this team is really formidable right now without even really thinking ahead.”

Beane:  I agree, but it’s not very easy.  You think about this last road trip which was a difficult road trip.  But we could’ve easily won every single game.

Blez:  If you’d had a little bit more offense.

Beane:  Yeah, but the reason you’re in that position is because of the pitching.  The fact that you can have a frustration level (and I have it too) is…well, we played three very good teams on the road trip and the fact is that every single one of those games we could’ve won.  That’s why you want to make sure you have a foundation of great pitching and that’s why you want to be careful in taking away from it.  But to get on your point, yeah we have some young players who are just coming into their own.  Ryan Sweeney is just getting his sea legs underneath him.  I mentioned Travis earlier and Daric has gotten off to a slow start, so with some of these younger players you’re just going to have to be patient with them.  You’ve got Eric (Chavez) coming back soon off his injury rehab, which I’m sure you’re aware of.  But Jack (Hannahan) has been great in his absence.  He had a tough start but he’s battled back nicely.  Having Eric out has had a big impact, and hopefully he’ll come back to the level he was in previous years. 

Blez:  Not to belabor this point, but when you decided to pick up Frank Thomas and Daric is struggling a little bit, do you pause for a second and think, maybe he should be given some more time in the minors and he starts to feel more comfortable.  You know that a lot of success in the majors has to do with a guy feeling confident at the plate.  Maybe he then gets more confident in Sacramento while you get to field the best possible team up here by having Mike Sweeney play first, Frank Thomas as DH and Jack Cust in left field.  Have you thought about that possibly being the best option right now for the big club?

Beane:  Playing first base might be difficult for Mike on an everyday basis, so that kind of rules that out.  We’ve always been hesitant to just send guys down once they’ve gotten here when we feel they’re long-term answers.

Blez:  Because it can be deflating psychologically?

Beane:  Yeah and I just don’t like that up and down yo-yo.  We’ve been pretty good about avoiding that over the last 10 years.  It’s not that it hasn’t happened.  I’m not convinced that it’s a good idea.  We’re just not convinced that’s the best option at this point.  Daric’s done a good job defensively.  He’s played good defense and I think I saw somewhere that one of the defensive fielding bibles had him as the best defensive fielding first baseman in the league. 

Blez:  Someone on AN wrote a post about that.

Beane:  Yeah and some of the numbers that we use in-house are really good too.  We think Daric is going to be a great major league hitter and we just have to exercise patience.  If a time comes that we feel that a young player needs to go down to get some more experience, we will.  But in Daric’s case part of becoming a good major league player is being allowed to go through some struggles.  Very few guys come up and hit their whole career.  That’s just part of becoming a major league player.  And then there’s an organizational balance too when maybe you say perhaps sending someone down would be best for the player.  I think in Travis’ case, we felt that was the right thing to do at that time.  We do think he’ll be back soon because we think so highly of him.

Blez:  The minor league system for the A’s is stacked and has gone from mediocre to poor ratings. Now you’re rated near the top by most of the experts.  It also now appears like the major league team is a lot better than people might have suspected.  Did you honestly believe that you could accomplish the goals of remaining very competitive in the AL West while completely rebuilding a barren farm system?

Beane:  The goal was to restock the farm system and the second part, we didn’t really know.  I wasn’t convinced that we were going to be a terrible team, which is what some people thought.  I wasn’t also ready to run up a hill and say we were going to be the best team in the league either.  We weren’t really sure.  There were a lot of what ifs there that didn’t really allow us to get a gauge on where we were.  I was looking forward to rebuilding this thing and making it really good for a long time, but it makes it a lot more pleasurable when you’re winning at the major league level.  So you find yourself getting used to winning after a while and then when you lose a few games in a row, you have to remind yourself that you have a young team.  Then you have to stop and appreciate where you’re at and what you’ve accomplished and be pretty happy.

Blez:  Part of that improved minor league system is Henry Rodriguez, someone you wouldn’t have found in years past.  But because you’ve added revenue to the Latin American scouting program, Rodriguez turned into a gem you were able to unearth.   Is that an area of great market opportunity for you to exploit moving forward?

Beane:  I don’t know that you can exploit it anymore.  It isn’t like it’s any great secret. The fact of the matter is is that 15 to 20 years ago we had a lot of success down there.  We kind of coat-tailed the first big clubs going in there, like the Dodgers, Blue Jays and they were the best at it.  We kind of followed them and had a nice little run signing a lot of guys.  It didn’t cost us a lot of money.  What ended up happening was that the cost of doing business there ended up going up significantly.  We tried to do business the way we used to do it and we spent less than anyone down there and it just wasn’t going to work any more.  In international signings over the last decade, we were last in all of baseball.  We thought that the way we did business before was going to work and it just didn’t.  And the proof was showing up at the major league level because Casilla was really the only one we got out of there in the last decade.  If we were going to go down there and have an academy and get something out of it, and the fact is you need to get something out of there because 30 percent of major league players are coming from there, then we needed to go in there like everyone else.  We started in the fall.  We’ve now signed a number of players out of there since the fall, out of Venezuela, the Dominican (Republic) and a kid from Mexico named (Arnold) Leon who has been excellent.  We just missed on signing a great kid out of Australia.  And the reason I recently went down to the Dominican was that we had a huge try out camp and I was seeing a bunch of kids from there.  It’s an area of focus, we’ve gotten off to a good start and we’re going to continue to be aggressive down there.

Blez:  How excited are you about Rodriguez?  Peter Gammons wrote during spring training that a few of the scouts he talked to said that he had one of the best arms they’ve seen in a while.  He’s struggled a bit since being promoted to Double-A.

Beane:  We were hesitant to move him up because he is so young but we felt like even during the earliest times of the season that he was so dominant that we had to consider it.  He’s actually getting better and learning some things.  We hesitated sending a 21-year-old up there, but people in the organization felt like it was best that he go up there and start learning some of the things he need to learn like throwing his offspeed pitches a little more.  We had almost needed to clear the Stockton team out because we had some kids in Kane County who needed to be up there like (Trevor) Cahill and (Brett) Anderson.  We thought it was good to create some mobility for those guys coming through.  Rodriguez has had a few ugly lines, but some of them have been deceiving.  We usually get pretty detailed reports and even though he hasn’t dominated there he’s still striking guys out which is usually a good indicator of future success.

Blez:  In general, the scouting budget has been increased.  Some of the old-school baseball minds might call this a bit of “backpedaling” from the philosophy Michael Lewis outlined in Moneyball.  The A’s were trying to get by on the shoestring budget.

Beane:  I don’t know that Michael necessarily wrote about that when it came to the draft.  We did spend a lot less in terms of the draft and there were a lot of dynamics in play there.

Blez:  What I’m saying is that, rightly or wrongly, Moneyball is always sort of seen as the scouts versus computer geeks lightning rod.  I don’t think that’s the best way to represent the book, but for better or worse, it seems to have taken on that popular view. 

Beane:  When was Moneyball published?  What 2002, so that’s six years ago now and we’re still talking about it?  I usually let Michael and others define what they thought what the book was about.  The bottom line is that I don’t there was anywhere in the book where we sat down and gave a manifesto on how to do things so I think that’s the most misinterpreted thing.  But as far as how we do business in the draft, the more you do this job, and this can apply to almost any business job, the more you realize you don’t know.  The idea that you are going to create a template that is going to work forever in a very competitive business just doesn’t happen.  Are there some things we still believe in?  Absolutely.  There are also some things where we say, “Maybe we need to take a look at this.”  But that’s the evolution of any business if you’re going to stay on top and try and be successful.  I’m glad we’re like that.  Maybe seven, eight, nine years ago I wouldn’t have been so much like that.  Successes and failures are things you can learn from.  For us, we’re constantly trying to evolve.  Just because we do something different that we didn’t necessarily do a previous year doesn’t mean it’s something we don’t believe in.  Someone will inevitably say that’s blasphemy compared to how we used to do business.  We’re constantly checking ourselves.  And the business is changing.  The people running teams now, in my opinion, are as good as they ever have been.  There are some really smart guys running businesses.  It’s incredibly competitive and the idea that you’re going to have an “intellectual edge” anymore is, and I not sure that there ever was, but I’m not sure it exists any more.  I can tell you the guys running teams now have some really, really smart guys working for them.  You’re not going to outsmart too many people.  We all have the same information available to us.

Blez:  Is (the influx of young talent in front offices) the result of Moneyball?

Beane:  No, you know what I think it’s a result of, is that it’s a result of being big business so the people who are really successful buy baseball teams.  Very smart people buy baseball teams and they expect results so the more money pumped into the business, the better people are going to be attracted to it. 

Blez:  You’ve taken a lot of steps to change the organizational processes in relation to keeping players healthier.  Yet injury problems already cropped up again a little bit with Duke and Harden, Chavez, Denorfia, Ellis, Buck and even Mike Sweeney.  Granted many of these guys have injury histories, but do you think that you have possibly turned the corner with the injury issues with some of the changes you have made?

Beane:  One of the things I’ve noticed with the injuries is that you really, really notice them when you don’t have depth.  We all get anxious, including fans, when you’re waiting for a player to come back, but when you can bring up a Greg Smith to replace Rich in the rotation and he pitches the way he does it allows you to go through the due process of a guy who is injured normally so you aren’t pushing them out there too early.  It becomes a vicious cycle if you don’t have depth.  You get a guy hurt and you push him back early and he might get hurt again and be out for a longer period of time.  The process is more than just being about looking at the team doctors and how you do things. That’s certainly part of it, but our responsibility on the baseball side is providing enough depth in understanding that you’re playing a sport where you’re going to have injuries.  If they are injured then we give our guys the proper time they need to heal and don’t expect them to play half way through the injury, then expect them to be healthy.  The less depth we had, if you noticed, the more injuries we started to have because we kept pushing those guys out there.  To some extent, like Eric (Chavez), who busted his rear end to get out there in time for spring training.  We all said, we really want him out there and need him out there and then we took a step back and said, wait a second let’s do this the right way.  He’s almost there now and has had a very detailed program since the end of spring training.  He’s out playing in games right now.  But the fact that Jack has performed so admirably up here allows that process to happen.  I think that part of our medical problem has been not having the depth in the organization that we probably should’ve had and each year it got tougher and tougher.  I am happy with the new process though.  Soup (Head Trainer Steve Sayles) has done a phenomenal job.  Meanwhile, Steve commands a lot of respect as a trainer because he has a great presence.  He’s conservative by nature.  Our rehabs are longer but he’s also had the advantage of having depth.  He’s very conservative.  If I’m thinking something is going to be 2-3 days, he’ll probably say it should be 7-8.  That’s just the way he is. 

Blez:  And perhaps that will help the guys stay on the field longer too once they get back.

Beane:  Yeah, exactly.  He’s definitely showed great leadership since we hired him which is something I think we all expected.

Blez:  There is going to be a roster crunch coming.  Especially with Chavez coming back and you mentioned that you want to get Buck back in there.  I know you can’t really say what you’re going to do with all the extra players and the first base, DH and left field shuffle, but how much does a win-now mentality affect that decision compared to giving those young players a chance to develop and mature?

Beane:  It’s one of those questions that I say that you’ll probably have to check with me at the time.  The press is always asking those questions…you know, what are you going to do in two weeks when this happens?  Well, when we get to two weeks we’ll let you know.  Inevitably something always seems to happen in between.  Not to avoid your question because those are all fair points, but I think it will be something we’ll be better equipped to answer when the time comes.  Right now it’s just too early to speculate.

Blez:  Speaking of the upcoming roster crunch, what did you like about Rajai Davis so much to go ahead and pick him up?

Beane:  He’s got unique speed.  It’s hard to find that kind of speed you can pick up for $20,000.  He’s right handed and one guy we’ve never had is someone to come in in the seventh inning to pinch run and steal a base.  He’s actually handled left handers well in the past and we thought he was a great complement and dimension that we didn’t have.  We felt like he was too good of an athlete to pass up for the cost.

Blez:  How close did you come at the beginning of the season to keeping both of the Gonzalezes (Gio and Carlos) with the big club coming out of camp?

Beane:  They’re both so very young.  They’re both only 22 years old.  So we had pretty much made up our mind up that they would need some time down in the minors.  And then when Carlos had the hamstring injury, it kind of impacted it in that it wasn’t as though we couldn’t have had that conversation in the spring.  We would’ve liked to have taken Carlos to Japan for the exhibition games but it would’ve taken quite a bit for us to break camp with them.  They’re still both very, very young even for the level they’re at now, which is Triple-A.

Blez:  Did the number of years you could have them under contract control factor into the decision?  I believe some media sources out there reported that some veterans on the team, and they were unnamed sources I believe, wanted Carlos to remain on the club. 

Beane:  That means they might not have been here then (laughs).  But no, that’s not the case at all.  Spring training is not a good judge.  I think I hit .400 one year in the Cactus League which will tell you it doesn’t mean a whole lot.  That happens every year.  I remember one year the veterans wanted to keep Mark Mulder.  He promptly went out and had like a 5.00 ERA in Triple-A that year.  Just because you have a good spring training doesn’t mean you’re ready for the big leagues.  I think in both of those kids (Carlos and Gio) they’re still both cutting their teeth at Triple-A.  Carlos got off to a good start and then went through a little lull and now he’s back over .300.  And Gio has had some great games, but he’s also had games in which he’s struggled.  They still need some time.

Blez:  The pitching staff down in Stockton and Kane County seem to almost unfairly loaded with pitchers like James Simmons, Cahill, Anderson and de los Santos.  I know you don’t like to make predictions about what players are going to be but do you think that we’re going to see some true major league aces come out of this crop of talent?

Beane:  (without hesitation and emphatically) Yes. 

Blez:  And when I say aces I mean, number one starter ability.

Beane:  Number twos do everything the number one does, but the number one is the guy.  It’s like when Stew (Dave Stewart) was here.  We had Mike Moore and Dave Stewart and when you look at them it was hard to say who was actually better on the mound but Stew was number one and Mike was number two because of the presence factor and the cache.  The number one label is based on presence.  I’ll say this, there are a lot of guys down there who have the ability to be good number twos and threes.  But we’ll just see if they have the cult of personality there after a couple of years. 

Blez:  How much research do you on the personality when it comes to trying to decide if they might evolve into that type of guy?

Beane:  Personality may be the wrong word.  It’s more like a swagger.  (Tim) Hudson had it when he was here. 

Blez:  Would you have called him the number one out of the Big Three?

Beane:  When he came up, Tim seemed like this nice quiet kid from the south, but then after a few years in a major league clubhouse he became a very self confident guy.  The way a GM knows a kid versus the way a kid really is takes a few years.  And in order to be a number one, you have to develop a track record too.

Blez:  I often ask you this question when we get together, but since the minor league clubs have changed so much since we last got together, I’m interested to hear what you think now.  Tell me about some unheralded gem in the A’s system that the fans might want to keep a close eye on.

Beane:  Yes, you do always ask me that (laughs).  There is nothing win-win for me in this one because I’ll inevitably have to single someone out which means excluding a number of others.  How do I answer that?

Blez:  In the past, you’ve given me names.  Sulentic was someone you gave me one year.

Beane:  David (Forst) actually saw him in high school and I can remember when he saw him in high school.  I’m going to take the fifth because there’s a lot of guys.

Blez:  Is it because the system is stacked so it’s harder to choose someone?

Beane:  I’m trying to do the proper thing in a leadership role.  You know what, Aaron Cunningham has come back and he wasn’t one of the heralded guys in the Haren deal but he’s a guy that we like quite a bit.  He’s a right-handed bat, plays all three outfield positions and he had a real good start to camp.  Then he broke his hand and just got back.  It’s fun seeing him and he’s played pretty well since he got back.

Blez:  I assumed if I kept you talking long enough you’d give me someone.

Beane:  Probably (laughs).


Coming tomorrow:  The final part of the interview.  Beane discusses the Jack Cust phenomenon of striking out, walking or hitting homers, Bobby Crosby's improvements this season and whether or not Beane believes in clutch hitting.