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The Years After Moneyball: ESPN Weighs in on Movie, Beane

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First of all the AN DAY DEADLINE is Friday at noon! Get your tickets now!

Also, the Holliday trade usurped my post on this last week, but Lone Star Ball posted my story on Ron Washington. There are some interesting comments from Rangers fans that I thought you might want to read.

For today's discussion, I thought we'd look at Billy Beane, who has certainly taken his share of heat this season; not just from AN, but from around the league, as well. Certainly a frustrating part of the A's dismal last three years can be laid on the offense. As it has been well-documented, the A's have brought up many major-league pitchers from their farm system, but aside from Kurt Suzuki (who is having another great season), not a position player to speak of. And as exciting as the prospect of a future starting rotation is with pitchers like Braden, Mazzaro, Cahill, Outman and Anderson, it has been hard to enjoy any of that with the A's unbelievably bad offense. The starting pitching has glimpses of being really good; the bullpen has been rock-solid, but nothing about the offense has worked out for the A's, despite a couple of explosive wins this year. 

But whose fault is it, really?

Could anyone have predicted that a superstar like Holliday would show up and just put his his time for four months (watch a Cardinals' game; his very demeanor is different). Did we really think Giambi was that washed up? Did we expect Crosby, Barton, everyotherplayer to be a bust? (Okay, maybe the last part.) We mortgaged part of the future for a chance at the playoffs with the Ethier/Bradley trade for the 2006 season, and it has taken us until this week to feel like we have a couple of offensive prospects in the system that will actually stick around as major league players.

This ESPN article made a brief appearance in yesterday's DLD, but I thought I would bring it to the front page for further discussion.

I thought Howard Bryant (the author) gave a pretty well-written look into some combining factors in the perceived decline of Billy Beane, as the A’s are more than halfway through a third consecutive uninspiring losing season. Bryant parallels the A’s dismal seasons to the first failure of Moneyball the movie, and makes some interesting comparisons. Not to mention, he throws in some snippets of dialogue from the now-defunct movie script.

 

Yet there is sort of a delicious, comical irony to the war. The most defining characteristic of Moneyball lies in its ultimate mischaracterizations. One important and erroneous school of thought is that teams with $100 million payrolls, such as the Red Sox, play Moneyball. They don't. While those teams can choose which tools they value -- Boston prizes on-base and slugging percentages, for example -- they don't have to do so at the expense of other valuable tools such as speed, batting average and defense.

The Moneyball concept -- recognizing the most valuable but least expensive commodities in player evaluation -- was immediately transformed in public perception into an obsession with on-base percentage. Therefore, a team that values on-base percentage is considered to espouse "Moneyball principles" -- even though, as Beane points out, players with high on-base percentages have now become extremely expensive.

This site has been regularly accused of drinking Billy Beane's Kool-aid, and I'm not sure that it's entirely fair. I think what a lot of us like about being A's fans in the early 2000's has been the "underdog", "different" status, where we felt like we knew something that the rest of the league didn't; that we had an edge on the "old school" style of baseball. Billy Beane and the "new" statistics that were inexorably tied to him in Moneyball helped us gain a more rounded sense of the game, and we were ahead of the curve before the rest of the league caught up. It's actually pretty heartening to see how OBP and OPS have been incorporated into mainstream MLB numbers over the last ten years.

Baseball has changed, but not in favor of the small-market team. Let's face it; we have an undesirable stadium; we barely draw 10K on weekday nights, and our leading homerun hitter has 16 homeruns at the end of July. We don't have the Bay Area market cornered, the money for good players, or the draw to keep them here, and not all of that is Billy Beane's fault. He wasn't looking for undervalued skills to be different; he knew it was the only thing the A's could afford to do. It's not like he doesn't care:

Now, as the A's fortunes have sunk, Beane has been accused of lowering his profile in reaction.

...

"I've always been intellectually restless, but it is the building part of it that most interests me," Beane says. "It is the constructing of the team that is my favorite part. Anyone who is familiar with the history of the A's franchise, even dating back to Philadelphia, knows that every five or 10 years, you have to tear it apart and rebuild it.

"I may not be as visible as I used to be, and by that I mean being in the clubhouse or on the field. But I'm just as invested as I've always been. I hate this idea that I've somehow become detached. It's like I can't win. I'd been hearing all these years that I was too hands-on, that I was the guy writing out the lineup card. Now, I'm not present enough. How is it possible to be a detached micromanager? What do you think is going on over here? Do you really think I'm saying to myself, 'Ho hum, we lost again. I think I'll turn on 'The Colbert Report'? [Expletive] no."

No one has been more accessible to Athletics Nation than Billy Beane himself. From his guest speaking appearances (in the article it mentions that Beane commands a $40,000 honorarium per speaking engagement) to his regular interviews with Blez for us, Beane has gone the extra mile for his A's fans. And that doesn't give him carte blanche with this site, nor should it absolve him from criticism, but he was our GM for some fun years of A's baseball. He wasn't the sole reason the A's were so good then, and he's certainly not the sole reason the A's are so bad now.

The article also addresses some of the critiques of "Beane's style", such as assembling a team who fits a certain set of data, but flat-out can't hit, something that is a familiar refrain in the 2009 game threads. Who cares about their OBP if they can't hit a hittable pitch?

"Ever since we learned how to play this game, we were told 'You can't bunt your way to the big leagues. You can't walk your way to the big leagues.' Now, in the big leagues, we're getting to a point where 0-0, 1-0 and 2-0 counts may not necessarily be hitters' counts anymore," the scout says. "If you take this thing too far, you'll have hitters more concerned with seeing pitches than hitting pitches.

The questions are on the table for discussion. Did the league finally catch up with Billy Beane's style of exploiting the cheapest set of skills in a player? It makes sense that the A's finally ran out of bargains when the rest of the league figured out who exactly to buy; yet have more money to spend than the A's. Has Beane made franchise-changing decisions with recent trades? Has Beane allowed personal friendships or biases to cloud his baseball judgment? Has it really gone wrong for Beane, or is this just a down-swing in the cycle of Oakland Athletics baseball? Is there light at the end of this tunnel? What is next for the A's?