In 2003, “Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game” followed Oakland Athletics general manager (and now executive vice president) Billy Beane, as his new-wave analytical thinking took the MLB by storm. Under Beane, Oakland won 103 games — 20 of them in a row — while maintaining one of the lowest payrolls in baseball. Beane was labeled an innovator, bringing “moneyball” into the public eye and into virtually every MLB front office today.
But, according to one of our previous columns, that magic has worn off. Almost every team in baseball now has a designated analytics staff full of statistics majors, looking for the next Scott Hatteberg or David Justice. And while baseball is evolving, Beane’s prowess seems to be slowly fading away while running a now-defunct ballclub.
It’s easy to throw Beane under the table. The A’s have been hovering around .500 for the last nine seasons while fan favorites have been traded like baseball cards. Fans hate it. They hate him. But while they call for their once-celebrated GM’s head every day, they fail to realize just how much worse off they would be without his guidance.
Trades and Billy go together like peanut butter and jelly. Transactions are one of the biggest reasons — if not the biggest — that A’s fans demand his release. But it’s also a huge reason they can enjoy a team that’s lost more than 88 games only once since 1998.
Let’s go back to “Moneyball.” In 2001, the A’s lost Johnny Damon via free agency to the Boston Red Sox. As compensation to losing a top-tier free agent, they were awarded a compensation pick in the 2002 draft and chose Nick Swisher. Swisher hit .251/.361/.464 in four years with Oakland but was traded in 2008 to the White Sox for Gio Gonzalez, Ryan Sweeney and Fautino De Los Santos. Sweeney hit .286/.347/.383 in four years for the A’s before getting shipped to Boston in 2011 for the A’s current right fielder, Josh Reddick, who’s hitting .257/.321/.441 with 81 home runs for Oakland over the last five years.
If we follow Gonzalez, we see him getting traded to the Nationals in 2011 for A.J. Cole, who gets traded for John Jaso in 2013, who gets traded in a package for Ben Zobrist in 2015, who was traded during last season’s trade deadline for current A’s rotation member Sean Manaea.
This formula of trading the team’s best assets when they become the most valuable for even more talent has worked for more than a decade and has helped Beane win the division in eight of his 18 seasons.
Billy Beane’s intrenched cycle of winning traces back almost a decade, but fans don’t seem to realize it. They’re too busy complaining about him trading away Josh Donaldson, which would have never even happened if Beane hadn’t traded fan favorite Rich Harden to get Donaldson in the first place. They’re too busy whining about trading Addison Russell for Jeff Samardzija to realize that without the trade, the A’s would not have solid pieces in Marcus Semien, Josh Phegley and Chris Bassitt.
“Moneyball” isn’t about walks. It isn’t about on-base percentage. In fact, it isn’t any one thing at all. It’s about winning a game that’s specially designed to be unfair. And Beane has proven time and time again that he knows how to win despite playing with the serious handicap of a small market team. Even when his team is struggling, he lurks in the background, conjuring up more moves and ideas that will bring together a 70-win team at the minimum. All this, while his old trades develop and gain a professional seasoning in the minor leagues.
Although it often comes at the fan’s expense, Billy Beane undeniably runs one of the most successful ball clubs in the Majors. So while fans of other franchises wear Ryan Howard and Joey Votto jerseys to their home teams’ games, they are left to realize that a single impact player does not equate to the success of an entire team. Because I root for the team and not for names on the backs of jerseys, I can wear a generic A’s shirt to the Coliseum and enjoy great baseball, regardless of how many times the players on the field might change over the years.
Contact Chris Tril at [email protected].