OAKLAND—If you are a David in a land of Goliaths, you’d better learn something fast: You cannot beat the big boys at their own game.
In baseball, that means you cannot outspend the competition; you won’t outbid them for big-ticket free agents or even realistically expect to keep your own homegrown stars long-term. That means you must be nimble and quick, and sometimes, just maybe come up with a plan that will change baseball.
The Athletics may have done just that the last couple of years, defying all odds to win back-to-back American League West titles. For that creativity and nimbleness, Billy Beane is Baseball America’s Major League Executive of the Year.
Beane, the general manager of the A’s, does not have a fancy stadium or enormous local media deals. The A’s play in the still financially suppressed east side of the San Francisco Bay, sharing the only remaining multi-purpose stadium in the game. That stadium became something of a joke this year with several sewage problems, including one in the coaches’ offices that third-base coach Mike Gallego called, “A volcanic eruption of sewage.”
The place stinks, often literally. So when you have sewage, make sewage-ade. Or something like that.
Beane and his front office and coaching staffs have come up with a way to compete that defies the way the game has been played. Almost from the beginning, back when Ty Cobb and Harry Hooper roamed outfields, baseball has been a game of starters and bench players. Sure, there were a few platoons here and there. But nothing like this year’s A’s, where four positions in their starting lineup regularly used platoons and four players shared three outfield jobs.
The concept is a team not of starters and reserves, but rather mostly semi-regulars who buy into TeamBall: putting the best for the team above their own statistics and egos. Brandon Moss may have hit 30 home runs, but he would sit on the bench and not complain when the opposition started a tough lefthanded pitcher against whom he would have a diminished chance of success. While there is a scarcity of complete hitters in baseball, there are specialists who feast on certain types of pitchers.
“In Billy’s mind, there’s always a plan,” farm director Keith Lieppman said. “That plan continues to play out because of his attention to detail. It’s an overall, big-picture view that takes a lot of components and pulling them all together for the greater good.”
There is always a plan—and there is always a time to adjust and update that plan. Beane, of course, became baseball’s most famous general manager because of the book and movie “Moneyball.”
The concept of Moneyball is fairly simple—find inefficiencies in the system, then exploit them to your advantage. For that early version, much of the emphasis was on finding offensive players who built high on-base percentages and could use that both to draw walks and wear down starting pitchers with long counts. Ever nimble, Beane has adjusted and found something new.
“Because of who we are, and that includes Tampa, it’s harder and harder to find ways to be competitive,” Beane said. “We have to look at what’s available to us and take advantage of that. In a perfect world, you would have a complete player who plays 162 games, but there are only so many Mike Trouts around. So we looked for players with specific strengths, who might have some weaknesses, too, to create one player out of two or three.”
Baseball has changed, and dramatically, since the chemically enhanced era of the big home run numbers. Mighty sluggers and five-tool players are harder to find and priced well out of the A’s budget anyway. The Mark Teixeiras and Albert Pujols of the world would not head to Oakland with its low budget and sewage-enhanced clubhouse. So there had to be another way.
Even in Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball” book—published in 2003—there was talk of two players equaling one, but not on this scale. The realization came after a 2011 season that simply did not work. The A’s put together a team they expected to win, acquiring such hitters as David DeJesus and Josh Willingham in the final years of their contracts to complement a pitching staff that had led the AL in ERA in 2010. Yet the 2011 A’s were 14 games under .500 at the all-star break and out of contention. Beane and assistant GM David Forst made a bold decision. They rebuilt the team by trading three of their talented young pitchers—Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey.
“I think it became clear the current personnel was not indicative of the formula of winning for the long term,” special assistant to the GM Grady Fuson said. “We had good starting pitching and a fairly good bullpen, but the offense was really lacking; hitting homers and getting on base were really lacking.”
The revelation was that lefty-hitting Seth Smith and righty-swinging Jonny Gomes made one very good combination. Gomes left for a big contract in Boston after the 2012 season, but the platoon plan grew in 2013: there were combos at first, second, DH and catcher, plus four semi-regular outfielders. Manager Bob Melvin did a remarkable job of selling the team concept to his players, and they bought into the opportunity to be big leaguers on a winning club. The idea has echoed through the farm system as well.
“It’s the same in the minors as in the majors,” said catching prospect Bruce Maxwell. “We believe in team baseball.”
Beane acknowledges that he enjoys the challenge of finding new ways to compete. “Absolutely,” he said. “We do sort of see it as a puzzle, and one that you never have solved. The group of people who run baseball teams are very bright people. Any advantage you may have is going to be brief.”
When one plan founders, keep tweaking. Find one that works. Beane has been nimble enough to try new formulas, and wise enough to make good calls. And one came with Fuson, who served as scouting director for the A’s before leaving for other opportunities.
In the book and movie “Moneyball,” Fuson is depicted as sort of a dinosaur, a relic of old-line thinking by old-time scouts. Beane knew better. Fuson became available after parting ways with the new management of the Padres in 2009, and he said, “Billy was the first one to give me a call.” So even while Brad Pitt was skewering Fuson in the 2011 film, the real Fuson was helping chart the new course for the A’s. It is one of those anomalies that makes baseball so delicious. And a tribute to Beane that he could make such a call. A key part of Beane’s success is recognizing the value of good staff members.
“That’s the one thing I’m going to pat myself on the back for,” Beane said. “It goes back to when (former GM) Sandy (Alderson) was here. We’ve created a fraternal, close-knit group that buys into what we are doing. I’m usually the dumbest guy in my own room, which doesn’t bother me. The intelligence of the people we have is outstanding. There’s no hierarchy of what can be said to anybody.”
The staff appreciates the situation, and Beane’s leadership.
“Billy sets the tone and direction of the entire baseball operations department,” Forst said. “And while his fingerprints are on every member of the department and every player that comes through the system, he trusts the people throughout the organization to do their job.”
So Beane and his staff have come up with a different way to win—to change the starter/bench concept into a band of specialists who put team first; perpetual underdogs who outfight the big boys. It was innovative and creative: a new way to succeed in a world skewed against them. It is how David could battle the Goliaths.