Tuesday, August 05, 2003

Playing Beaneball

Among the great pleasures of a non-tourist vacation was the chance to catch up on some reading. Last month I had the chance to delve into a pair of very satisfying books, Michael Lewis's Moneyball and Richard Russo's Empire Falls.

Lewis's book is a fascinating look at how the Oakland Athletics have managed to field a successful team over the last several years despite having among the lowest payrolls in Major League Baseball. Mr. Tabitha Soren was granted intimate access to team officials and players, and the result is a very readable argument for how one guy is turning the game of baseball on its ear.

That guy is the hero of the book, A's general manager Billy Beane, a former can't-miss prospect of the Mets whose superior physical talent was derailed by a poor mental makeup. That makeup now manifests itself as a mercurial temperament that cost Beane his marriage and turns him into a foul-mouthed jerk from time to time. In his mostly fawning portrait, Lewis's descriptions of a couple of these dark episodes are the only dents he perceives in Beane's otherwise shiny armor.

(An interesting passage in Moneyball has Beane admiring his former minor league teammate Lenny Dykstra, who used a remarkable determination and an ability to accept and learn from failure to overcome inferior skills and enjoy a successful career as a player.)

Beane's genius has been to realize that the player traits that help a team most (in his eyes) are those that are least valued by MLB owners and fellow general managers. On-base percentage leads this list. Batters who take pitches get on base more, thus putting themselves in a better position to score runs while also wearing down opposing pitching. Speed and defense are overrated and, thus, overpaid. So even though Beane's A's have lost really good players over the years -- Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon, to name just two -- he's been able to replace their skills and contributions in affordable ways.

By combing the waiver wire for castoffs whose talents remain hidden to other GMs, Beane has managed to build yearly contenders at a fraction of the cost of the Yankees and Red Sox, to cite a couple of American League competitors. The book also gives an insider's glimpse of the Athletics' participation in last year's amateur draft, and Lewis doesn't shy away from the tension between Beane's Ivy League sabermaticians and the old-school baseball guys that can't understand how the hell a laptop and T1 line could help them draft players that will win more games. By rebuilding the A's scouting system -- and its approach -- from the top down, Beane is ensuring that there will be a strong supply of young, cheap guys who play the game the way he feels it should be played.

Several times while reading Moneyball, I was struck -- and surely I'm not the only one -- by the notion that it's insane that more teams aren't following Beane's lead. My own Phillies, for example, overpaid for Jim Thome (whose year has been good, but not great) and David Bell (whose year has sucked), and inked Pat Burrell to a $50 million contract extension only to watch him flame out in an orgy of strikeouts and weak grounders. Now, I supported all of those moves, and understood that the team's history of failure necessitated overpayment in some cases. But while the Phils are firmly in the mix for a playoff spot, they're also unexpectedly way behind Atlanta in National League East. If Billy Beane's A's win so consistently on such tight budgets, why don't more teams give his system a shot?

Part of the answer has to do with baseball's economic politics, as Lewis describes. But what Lewis doesn't discuss is that while Beaneball works wonders for teams playing in markets such as Oakland, there are other ways to win besides cheaply. In other words, just because the A's need to pinch pennies doesn't mean the Braves need to.

However, the book's largest failure is its inability to connect Beaneball and Oakland's regular season success with playoff success. None of Beane's teams has won a league pennant, let alone a World Series. He hints that the playoffs are a crapshoot; series of five and seven games provide too small a sample size for his system to play out. The best you can do, he says, is develop three top-notch starters, throw them out there, and hope for the best. Which his A's have done, and the best hasn't been good enough.

So Beane may be right, but -- and here's where Lewis allows his admiration for Beane to get in the way -- the name of the game is a championship. The GM hammers the baseball cognoscenti who argued that the A's needed to change their tactics during last year's AL Division Series, which they lost to the Twins. But perhaps it really is a different game in the playoffs. After all, the competition is much better -- there aren't any chances to feast on the corpses of fallen teams like the Tigers and the Devil Rays -- so even though the Athletics scored more runs per game in the Minnesota series than during the regular season, they were facing a more talented offense than they did on average over the previous 162 games.

Moneyball is an intriguing, and different, look at the game. A more clear-eyed look at Billy Beane and his unorthodox approach might have answered what is to me a critical question: Is Beaneball destined to result in good teams that compete every year but never dominate? That leads to a second, equally vital question: If so, is that preferable to a less consistently good team that wins it all every so often?

A look at Empire Falls later. . . .


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