This post is part of a series in which we count down the 25 best GMs in history. For an explanation, please see this post.
Michael Lewis’s 2003 book Moneyball depicted Billy Beane as the leading figure in the spread of analytics (more broadly: the use of data and evidence) in baseball management. Twelve years later all front offices combine analytics and scouting, and the dwindling number of people who decry this revolution have tended to blame Beane and like-minded GMs, while those who applaud it have treated Beane like their heroic surrogate. His ranking here would indicate that we believe the introduction of analytics has advanced front office decision making, which we do, but we also believe his impressive record fully justifies his standing.
A former first round draft pick of the Mets, Beane spent parts of six seasons in the big leagues without earning regular playing time. In 1990 Beane finally gave up and took a job as an advanced scout with the A’s. Beane spent the next seven years working with Sandy Alderson in Oakland, learning to view the game the way his boss did — using sabermetric principals to find undervalued players. After the 1997 season Alderson resigned, and Beane took over. The A’s had been going through a rough patch — new ownership had ordered Alderson to slash expenses, and the team has been on the low end of baseball payrolls ever since. After a great five-year run, the club had been under .500 since 1992.
The rise of the A’s is the early Beane years is due primarily to their great use of the amateur draft throughout the 1990s, when they selected Jason Giambi, Eric Chavez, Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito, and the signing of Miguel Tejada from the Dominican Republic in 1993. When Beane took over the big league team was struggling but this help was just around the corner.
But Beane also made several low-cost deals that had short term dividends, dramatically enhancing this core. Among these acquisitions were Gil Heredia (28 wins in two years), Kenny Rogers (16-8 in 1998), John Jaha (35 home runs in 1999), Jason Isringhausen, Randy Valarde, Terrence Long, Kevin Appier (15-11 in 2000), Cory Lidle, Johnny Damon, Jermaine Dye, Scott Hatteberg, David Justice, and Billy Koch. Most of these players were bought cheaply and moved on if they attained free agency or got expensive. Beane was one of the first to believe that closers were fungible assets, and he was quick to move players like Isringhausen and Koch if he found a buyer who overvalued their save totals.
Armed with his emerging core and his shrewd short-term patches, the A’s won 91 games and the division in 2000, and followed that up with 102, 103, 96, and 91 the next four years. They made the playoffs four times and lost in the division series (in the full five games) all four seasons.
In 2003, when the A’s were coming off their two best seasons, Moneyball was released, and a debate ensued as to why the A’s were successful. The principal premise of the book– that Beane was winning with low payrolls at last partly by finding market inefficiencies, players undervalued by other clubs–was undeniable. In 2001 the A’s had the second lowest payroll in baseball and won 102 games, and did basically did the same thing the next year. Yes, Beane was fortunate to have inherited a young core, but Brian Cashman inherited a great core in the same year (1998), had more than three times the payroll, and won fewer games in these two seasons. Beane was clearly doing something better than everyone else.
The controversy surrounding the book arose because Lewis depicted Beane as being at war with the scouts, who were often mocked as out-of-touch and unable to recognize good players who did not have obvious “tools”. As Lewis wrote: “[Beane] flirted with the idea of firing all the scouts and just drafting kids straight from [assistant GM Paul DePodesta’s] laptop.” Many baseball people were appalled — particularly because it should have been obvious that Beane’s A’s were a reflection of great scouting. His long-time scouting director Grady Fuson, who deserves much of the credit for their drafts and signings, left the club in 2001 to take a promotion with the Texas Rangers before the book came out depicting him and his scouts as dinosaurs. (In the movie Beane is shown firing a clueless Fuson, which did not happen.) Pat Gillick, whose Mariners competed with Beane in these years, also took offense at the book’s depiction of scouts, suggesting that Beane was going to have a tough time competing unless he paid his young players when they became free agents.
And in fact this is what happened. In the ensuing years the A’s lost all of their great players one by one and gradually slipped out of contention, with only one playoff appearance the rest of the 2000s and no more than eighty-one wins between 2007 and 2011. Much of the fall off can be attributed to the lack of success from Oakland’s college-centric drafting philosophy. From 2002 (the year after Fuson left) to 2009 the A’s drafts produced only three players who have turned in more than 10 career WAR, and no stars. Moreover, due to their small market size and intelligent use of expiring contracts to land compensatory picks, Beane had amassed a total of twenty-one first round picks (including supplemental choices).
In 2010 Fuson returned to the A’s as a special consultant to Beane, surprising many observers, at least partly because he was persuaded that Beane had begun to blend analytics and scouting as many successful teams had been doing.
In 2012 the Athletics returned to the top with back-to-back division titles and posted their best two records since the year Moneyball came out. It was a team filled with players Beane had acquired cheaply in trades (Josh Reddick, Josh Donaldson, Jarrod Parker) or in free agent signings (Coco Crisp, Brandon Moss, Bartolo Colon), a testament to the A’s ability to discover under-appreciated talent. Beane occasionally spent money, like on Yoenis Cespedes and Scott Kazmir, but their 2014 payroll was twenty-fifth of thirty teams in baseball.
Unlike the team from the early 2000s, the recent A’s have not have the benefit of a great core of developed talent. But the drafting of AJ Griffin and Sonny Gray early in the 2010s suggests that the A’s are again receiving value from the draft. Overall, their recent success, including a 2014 wild card appearance, testifies to Beane, his scouting organization, and his analytical staff, all working together. Seventeen years after taking over, Beane was still playing with less money, and he was still winning.
(We invite your comments below.)
To read more about the history of baseball operations and the GM, please buy our new book In Pursuit of Pennants–Baseball Operations from Deadball to Moneyball via the publisher or at your favorite on-line store.