Don’t look now, but Moneyball is back.
The Oakland A’s have won seemingly every game they’ve played since early June, and now find themselves in the hunt for the AL Wild Card. The offense has come alive, and the pitching has been as staunch as any A’s team of recent memory. I’m happy to see it, too, because I’m not ashamed to admit I’m a fan of Billy Beane and how he runs his team (and as an added bonus, every game they win makes it less likely that George Stienbrenner can buy Mark Kotsay). Here’s a guy who consistently has taken low payroll teams where stars defect to chase dollars faster than Anna Nicole Smith, and has made them competitive year in and year out.
This season, after the A’s traded away Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, the vultures were thick above the Coliseum, waiting for Beane’s big experiment to fail. They seemingly got their wish at the beginning of the season, when injuries and terrible offensive slumps conspired against Oakland and contributed to a horrendous start. Finally, people could expose Beane as a fraud, carried by the success of the Big Three more than any philosophy. So much of this comes from the publication of Moneyball, a book roundly criticized by many baseball people (like Joe Morgan, who continues to assail the theories and concepts described in the book despite, to my knowledge, never having read it). Baseball can’t be boiled down to computer numbers and OBP, they said. It’s still a game with soul, and Beane has none.
But those people completely miss the point. The theories of Moneyball aren’t rigid- "We only take guys with high OBP, guys who hit home runs, and guys who make consistent contact, and we don’t care about defense." It goes way beyond that. Moneyball is about maximizing every dollar spent by maximizing value. That happens when players who have positive skills that are undervalued on the open market can be brought in to contribute. Sometimes the skill being undervalued is OBP, sometimes it’s strikeouts to waks, sometimes it’s defense. And it doesn’t mean that a player who contributes in many areas and will cost money, as Kotsay will next season, can’t stay because he’s expensive. If his value in creating and taking away runs is equal to or greater the amount of money he makes and the percentage of payroll he eats, than he’s a bargain, relatively speaking. The same can be said for how Theo Epstein in Boston. Despite the large payroll, many of Moneyball’s tenants can be adhered to. Paying guys like Schilling, Manny, and Ortiz makes sense, because they provide value. Paying Jaret Wright in New York doesn’t, because he doesn’t. There are plenty of guys who can do what he does, at a far smaller price.
That’s what I respect most about Beane’s philosphy. It can move teams beyond throwing cash at players with name value, simply because GMs and fans are more comfortable with them. If two players can replace the offense of one at a price that allows a team to add five more parts, that’s a good deal, even if you need a media guide to figure out who they are. Beane took a chance by trading Hudson and Mulder, but it was a calculated risk at worst based on the prospects he got in return. Danny Haren has been great, and Kiko Calero has been lights out since returning from injury, and Deric Barton is doing well in the minors. As for the Hudson deal, Thomas and Cruz have been useless, but it’s too early to call Dan Meyer a bust. With time, he could become the solid pitcher he’s projected to be. Meanwhile, with Street, Blanton, Duchscherer, Beane has quickly recreated a solid pitching core that should keep the A’s competitive for a while. The defense isn’t nearly as bad as it used to be, while the offense is quietly improving around Eric Chavez, Bobby Crosby, and Kotsay.
I don’t think the A’s will be able to jump over the batch of teams in front of them. Cleveland and Minnesota are quality, and there are those pesky fellas in New York. But it’s not out of the question, if the pitching continues to thrive and Chavez plays like he should. Either way, the 2nd half should provide a lot of encouragement for fans by the bay, and more than that, it should force critics of Billy Beane to bite their lips, even if they start to bleed.