Sometimes, we need a reminder of why Billy Beane is the best general manager in baseball. The team's current AL-best record is certainly a strong indication, and gambles on guys like Yoenis Cespedes and Bartolo Colon and Scott Kazmir have paid big dividends. We all know about the role players he picks up cheap and milks for all their worth, from Jonny Gomes to Brandon Inge to Michael Wuertz and even Brandon McCarthy. Sure, there's a Chris Young here and there, but most of his moves work out pretty well. However, here are a pair of transactions which fully illustrate the depth of Billy's greatness:
November 25, 2013: Fernando Abad traded by the Washington Nationals to the Oakland Athletics for John Wooten (minors).
December 11, 2013: Jerry Blevins traded by the Oakland Athletics to the Washington Nationals for Billy Burns (minors).
In the span of two weeks, Beane made a pair of deals with the Washington Nationals. The first was to acquire Abad, who was out of options, for a non-prospect outfielder. (Wooten currently has a .691 OPS in Single-A at age 23.) The second was to send them Jerry Blevins, who is also out of options, in exchange for a very real prospect, speedster Billy Burns (currently walking once for every strikeout in Double-A, with 12 steals in 13 attempts). The overall deal:
Fernando Abad and Billy Burns
-- for --
Jerry Blevins and some dude
How has that worked out so far?
Abad, 2014: 0.00 ERA, 11 innings, 12 strikeouts, 2 hits, 2 walks
Blevins, 2014: 3.55 ERA, 12⅔ innings, 16 strikeouts, 11 hits, 5 walks
Don't get me wrong. Jerry Blevins is a good pitcher and I will always have fond memories of his years in Oakland. He was a key member of the back-to-back division winning teams after putting up by far his two best seasons during those campaigns. But he isn't much more than an above-average middle reliever. Abad can't be as good as his current stats, but the eyeball test suggests that he's not a total fluke -- his pitches are nasty. He didn't come out of nowhere, either; last year, armed with a few extra miles on his fastball velocity, he posted a better-than-average ERA and struck out more than three batters per walk. There was no reason to doubt that he could be an effective middle reliever, and it's not like the Nationals were burdened with too many good bullpen arms; Blevins is now the top southpaw in their pen.
The Nationals could have just stuck with what they had and turned out as good or better. Instead, they dealt a useful prospect who is a good bet to eventually reach the Majors and added $1.1 million to their payroll for the privilege of "upgrading" from Abad to Blevins. Even if Everyday Jerry turns out to have a better season, it's unlikely to be by enough to warrant the huge premium Washington paid in this swap.
Now look at it from Billy's perspective. He swiped a legit lefty from another team for free when that team inexplicably decided not to retain him, and then he traded a comparable-but-more-expensive reliever back to that same team for a top prospect. All in the span of two weeks. It doesn't even make sense. Now that Abad is outperforming Blevins in real games. it's gone from a head-scratcher to an outright robbery. This is the kind of marginal-but-real improvement that Beane has made his career on. Oh, and Abad is two years younger than Blevins. And he has three more years of team control, whereas Jerry can become a free agent after next season.
What has Abad done to transform himself into a dominant hurler? He throws three pitches -- a fastball (about two-thirds of the time), a curveball (about a quarter of the time) and a change-up (about 10 percent of the time). As previously mentioned, that fastball jumped from an average of about 90 mph to 93 last year, and has settled in at 92 so far in 2014. According to Fangraphs, it's also gone from being a roughly neutral pitch to being a huge positive this year. Furthermore, his offspeed pitches have actually gotten slower, which is a good thing because the entire point of changing speeds is to throw off your opponent's timing and so a bigger velocity gap is better. That curveball used to be a negatively valued offering, but it's been a huge plus for him. So, he's gone from having no particularly good options to having two "plus" pitches this year.
The effect of those plus pitches has been an increase in swinging strikes. His overall swinging-strike rate (percent of overall pitches resulting in a swinging strike) has gone from a career mark of 8.4 percent to an absurd 15.7 percent. That ranks eighth in MLB among hurlers with at least 10 innings, behind names such as Jordan Walden, Kenley Jansen, Craig Kimbrel and Masahiro Tanaka. Those swinging strikes are coming largely from his ability to get hitters to chase out of the zone; while opponents are going out of the zone about as often against him as they always have, they're only making contact around 45 percent of the time -- last year that rate was 69 percent, and his career mark is 73 percent. That's a massive improvement, and presumably it's the result of his curveball doing its job.
The A's have the fifth-best bullpen ERA in baseball (2.60) despite the fact that Jim Johnson (5.73) and Sean Doolittle (5.68), two of their top guys, have struggled. Abad is a big part of that, along with Ryan Cook (0.96) and Dan Otero (1.42). The lefty will eventually give up a run, and his numbers will balance out a bit as the season wears on. But he's already filled in admirably for the lefty he replaced in Oakland's pen, and all the A's had to do to get him was shed payroll and add a prospect. Billy Beane may or may not be a wizard, but he really outdid himself on this one.