Up until recently, the answer to this question would be quick: “Well, obviously.” The more relevant question had always been, “Is Billy Beane baseball’s best GM?”
Billy Beane runs the Oakland Athletics, a team in a small market with a low payroll (26th out of 30 in 2009), yet he managed to assemble a consistent contender, as the A’s made the playoffs four years running (2000-2003) and the ALCS in 2006. In that time, Beane became a mini-celebrity, thanks to being the subject of Michael Lewis’ 2003 best-seller Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. The book was so successful that a movie adaptation was slated to be made by Steven Soderbergh, with Brad Pitt playing Beane.
Recently, however, Beane’s reputation has started to suffer. The A’s have had two consecutive losing seasons since being swept in the ’06 ALCS, and in 2009 are on pace to have their worst season since Beane took over in 1998.
Now, it should be stated right away that this is not a polemical, anti-Moneyball tirade. The book, which detailed Beane’s use of so-called “sabermetrics” to identify undervalued players, garnered a lot of knee-jerk reaction and criticism, since Beane was seen as bucking tradition (which he was).
The analyses used by Beane were not wrong, but were in fact so precise that they quickly gained favor throughout the league, making these undervalued statistics accurately valued and, in some cases, overvalued. Howard Bryant of ESPN.com says in his recent profile of Beane that the war between “old school” and “new school” scouting is basically over.
But the fact is that, as Beane and Lewis are first to admit, Beane didn’t invent on-base percentage and OPS—Bill James had been touting them for decades—and he wasn’t the first to use them in evaluating players. In fact, Sandy Alderson, Beane’s predecessor as the A’s GM, was already incorporating them when Beane took over.*
*You could argue that Beane was more of a symptom of this new trend than he was the cause of it. Theo Epstein and J.P. Ricciardi, two other GMs with similar approaches, were each hired before Lewis’ book was published.
So how much did Beane have to do with the success of the A’s, and how responsible is he for their recent downturn?
Now, obviously Beane has a tough job, with limited payroll resources, but the Twins have built a perennial contender with similar restrictions, and the Rays similarly seem built for the long-term. But neither of those teams have had books written about their GM (in fact, I had to look up the name of Tampa Bay’s GM: It’s Andrew Friedman).
The 2000-2003 heyday of the A’s was really the result of three players: Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. These “Big 3” constituted the best rotation in the league for a few years, with shades of Smoltz/Maddux/Glavine in the mid-90s.
Of those three, only Hudson can be considered a “find” (though he was SEC Player of the Year and an All-American at Auburn), as the other two were taken in first round, and he was taken before Beane was the GM.
Perhaps the biggest moves of Beane’s career were trading Hudson and Mulder. Knowing that they would command too much money on the open market for the A’s to resign them, Beane had to trade the two of them in an effort to rebuild.
The Mulder trade has to be considered a full-blown success: From the Cardinals Beane received Kiko Calero, a competent set-up man for the A’s for four years, Daric Barton, a first-base prospect who has yet to work out but is still young, and Dan Haren, a veritable ace and a key component of the 2006 playoff team. While the first two have only been spare parts, anytime you can replace an ace with another, younger ace, you have done your job as a GM.
The Hudson deal, however, was as bad as the Mulder deal was good. None of the returns Beane got for probably the best of the Big 3—Charles Thomas, Dan Meyer, Juan Cruz—contributed meaningfully to the A’s, and all are now on different teams.
Now, dealing ace pitchers is always, as Jerry Crasnick says, a crapshoot. Not everyone can be lucky enough to turn Bartolo Colon into Grady Sizemore, Cliff Lee and Brandon Phillips. But it’s not unreasonable to expect to land at least one top prospect—a Hanley Ramirez, an Adam Jones, or even a Carlos Gomez—for your best pitcher.
In 2008, Beane would try the same thing, trading Rich Harden, then his ace, to the Cubs for four prospects, two of whom are no longer with the organization, one of whom has a career OBP of .176 and another who has yet to make his debut.
Haren himself, the lone prize in the Mulder/Hudson deals, was traded in 2007 after three seasons with Oakland for similar reasons: He was about to be a free agent, and Oakland didn’t think they could resign him. While it is still too early to fully evaluate that deal, Beane deserve credit for landing six highly touted prospects from the Arizona Diamondbacks, including Greg Smith and Carlos Gonzalez.
Beane, however, then turned around and traded those players to the Rockies for Matt Holliday, who was on the team for half a season before he was traded for more prospects.
The Holliday deal was questionable at the time. It was said that Beane’s plan was to get him to anchor the offense for one year and trade him (as they did) at the deadline if the team fell out of the pennant race. The problem with this plan was A) that making a one-year push coming off a 76-win season and by making deal in which you lose your most experienced starter from the year before (Smith) and your closer (Huston Street) does not seem very smart and B) a dip in Holliday’s production was predictable.
Holliday was coming to the American League from Colorado, where his Home/Away splits indicated that he was benefiting from Coors Field. As expected, Holliday’s OPS dropped over 100 points for Oakland this year.
The return Beane got on his Holliday investment may turn out to be worth it, as the prospects he got from St. Louis are highly touted, but that doesn’t justify an otherwise perplexing move.
Now, all these trades, considered individually, are defensible. Oakland cannot sign many big free agents, so they need to replenish their roster via trades, and Beane needs to trade his best players to get the most in return. The constant trades, however, result in a roster in constant flux (the only starter on the 2009 team who has been on the team longer than 3 years is Mark Ellis). Other small-market teams, like the Twins and Rays, have achieved success by letting a core group of young players develop; Oakland doesn’t seem to keep players around long enough for that. When players on the Rays (Crawford, Upton, Longoria) finally came of age, there was a “This is our year!” sense in 2008, but Oakland seems to trade too many of its potential stars (Nelson Cruz, Andre Ethier, Carlos Peña, Nick Swisher) before they have a chance to blossom.
Trades aren’t the only way to evaluate a GM, but even when Beane has had money to invest in free agents, he hasn’t always used it wisely. There was, of course, his widely praised signing of Frank Thomas in 2006, but a similar deal the next year with Mike Piazza did not work out, nor did a three-year, $21 million contract for Esteban Loaiza. And when Oakland was ready to invest in the biggest contract in their history, they gave it to Eric Chavez over Miguel Tejada. Though defensible at the time, this was clearly the wrong choice in retrospect.*
*Rob Neyer claims that the decision was right at the time because Beane could not have predicted the injuries to Chavez and Bobby Crosby (Tejada’s potential replacement), and points out that we now know that Tejada was two years older than he claimed to be. But come on, Rob, if Beane couldn’t predict the injuries, how could he have predicted Tejada’s real age?
Basically, what this track record indicates is that Beane is not all that good at evaluating players, particularly prospects. Take a look at this list, from Moneyball, of Beane’s “ideal” draft from 2002. Now look at players who were actually taken in that draft. Not on Beane’s list: B.J. Upton, Cole Hamels, Scott Kazmir, Prince Fielder, Zach Greinke, Joe Saunders, James Loney, Matt Cain. And that’s just from the first round. Of Beane’s ideal list, only seven are still in the majors, and the best is probably Nick Swisher.
He’s had some successes, of course, but he’s also had a lot of failures. Now, I will concede the points every fan of Moneyball is quick to make: Yes, Billy Beane is running a smaller team and he is playing by the rules of an “unfair” game. Yes, he has had some innovative strategies for valuing players. But a GM doesn’t get points for iconoclasm and unorthodoxy. He gets points for picking good players. And, overall, Beane hasn’t done that.