A number of years ago, about the time Michael Lewis’ Moneyball was making the rounds among the faithful, it was not unusual to hear Billy Beane, the General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, referred to as a genius. In fairness, “genius” is not a term that Beane was or is comfortable with, but others used it freely. He was the first MLB G.M. to reject a moribund and haphazard approach to scouting. He embraced a new way of evaluating talent, one based on the sort of statistical analysis that Bill James had been doing for years.
We started hearing more about stats like OBP. I remember an interview with Terrence Long in the early part of the last decade. Long was one in a string of mediocre outfielders that played for the A’s. When asked about his struggles at the plate, Long said he didn’t pay attention to his batting average; OBP was his focus. He should have focused on hitting the ball. His OBP for 2003, his last year in Oakland, was an anemic .293.
We also heard that stealing bases at a success rate of less than 75% was akin to giving away outs and the A’s stopped stealing bases. They were 10th in the AL in stolen bases in 2006, the year of their best post-season finish of the decade. We were given to understand the importance of walks, of simply getting on base, and an entire organization started working the count. In 2006, the A’s finished second in the AL with 650 bases on balls.
When the A’s found themselves consistently in the playoffs in the early 2000′s, Beane’s vision was validated. A small market team that is smart, that can identify undervalued assets and get them at a bargain, can compete. And when the team got bounced in the first round of the playoffs each year from 2000 through 2003, Beane insisted he wasn’t about to jettison an entire institutional philosophy on the basis of a five-game series. Dollars per win was the crucial measurement, and by that measurement the A’s were, in spite of the first round losses, remarkably successful. Beane’s vision appeared once again validated in 2006 when the A’s swept Minnesota in the ALDS.
However, consider the A’s post-2006 record: Oakland has finished under .500 every year except for 2010 when it posted an 81–81 mark; the A’s attendance has been either last or next to last in the AL, shedding 500,000 attendees by 2011; and the A’s payroll has averaged between 24th and 25th lowest in the league.
So what is the philosophy of an organization that for the last 5½ years has fielded mediocre or sub-mediocre teams in front of dwindling crowds? Should its institutional philosophy, whatever it is, be discarded? We keep hearing that the casual fan doesn’t understand what Beane and others are trying to accomplish. Honestly, the A’s management is starting to sound like the guy at the bar who keeps saying his wife doesn’t understand him. Well, I’ve been an A’s fan since the lean years of the late 1970s, and I’ve been married for more than 27 years. My wife understands me; neither one of us understands the A’s.
It bears asking again: what is Oakland’s current institutional philosophy? Are we still looking at dollars per win? If that’s the philosophy then the A’s need a new philosopher. In 2006 the A’s spent $670,000 for each of their 93 wins. In 2011 they spent $900,000 for each of their 74 wins. So maybe it’s not dollars per win.
Is the team’s philosophy focused on rebuilding the franchise by developing young talent? Like Carlos Gonzalez – traded to the Colorado Rockies after his rookie season in 2008? Like Gio Gonzalez – traded to the Washington Nationals after the 2011 season? Like Trevor Cahill – traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks after the 2011 season? (I realize it’s only one game, but the specter of Trevor Cahill shutting down the A’s on Sunday for the D’backs while Jarrod Parker, the pitcher Beane traded Cahill for, gave up a grand slam and got otherwise slapped around was tough for a casual A’s fan to swallow.) As far as rebuilding goes, FEMA has a better record of rebuilding than Beane and company do.
If the big picture doesn’t really include dollars per win, developing young talent, or rebuilding the franchise, then what is the big picture? From where this casual fan sits (while shoving down nearly $20 worth of stadium dogs and garlic fries), what’s happening to the big picture looks like this: someone is ripping it out of its frame and crumpling it up into a barely recognizable ball in preparation for giving that crumpled ball the boot out of Oakland. It’s no secret that A’s ownership, which includes Beane, wants to move out of their current unattractive digs. And it looks increasingly like the big picture, the institutional philosophy, is to do whatever it takes to make the team so unattractive that when it finally limps out of town there will only be a few “casual” fans left who will actually care. That plan seems to be working. So in other words, yeah, Billy Beane is still a genius…