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Tuesday, March 29, 2005

Beane Ball

Great article in this month's "ESPN The Magazine" about Billy Beane and "Moneyball." You probably think that you know all there is to know about Beane and "Moneyball" given that so much has been written about the Oakland A's, Beane and his proteges.

I thought so too.

But I was wrong.

Many of us think that the sole premise of "Moneyball", at least as to hitting, is that Beane and his disciples always look for players with a high on-base percentage. You'll recall that in the book Beane craved Eurabiel Durazo, liked a BoSox minor leaguer named Kevin Youkilis, and thought that former Major League catcher Steve Swisher's kid Nick was a great prospect. Oh, yeah, and the Beane numbers guys (in a tribute to accountants, let's call them Beane Counters) didn't think that defense mattered one iota. On the pitching side, they coveted pitchers like Chad Bradford, who don't walk batters and strike out more than their fair share. That's a short summary, but the point is that you might have thought that Beane's secrets were revealed and that his metrics were straightforward.

But you'd be wrong. Yes, for a time those were Beane's sole metrics, and for a time he rode the pitching troika of Tim Hudson (now with Atlanta), Mark Mulder (now with St. Louis) and Barry Zito to four straight 95-plus win seasons. But the point of the article is that Beane's strategy is not so much the pure metrics of, say, on-base percentage, but like that of Hall of Fame hitter "Wee Willie" Keeler, who said he "hit 'em where they ain't."

Translated, that means the Beane Counters cannot stand still in Oakland, they have to evolve, embrace change and find metrics where others aren't looking or become just another small-market team with a record of twenty games under .500 whose fans perpetually cry foul at how much George Steinbrenner spends on payroll. They have to evolve because Beane disciples are populating general managers' offices everywhere, so many of them are using the same metrics that Beane used for years in Oakland. Which means that now, for example, players with high on-base percentages are over-valued because there are enough GMs out there who value that stat. Does that mean that Beane is out of moves?

Hardly, and that's the point, again, that Beane's metrics are all about finding value in players. Take Mark Kotsay for example. He's been a highly regarded defensive player, and the A's traded for him. Many "Moneyball" readers probably wondered aloud whether Beane was smoking was they grow in Marin County, because in that book the A's front office showed little regard for defensive ability. In reality, the Beane Counters have probably found some algorithm that shows how good defensive players up the middle make a difference in a team's winning percentage, so they landed Kotsay. And they're probably testing a ton of other metrics as I write this. (One note: the Red Sox figured this out in the middle of last season, when they were struggling defensively playing your beer-league brother-in-law at first base and a gimpy Nomar Garciaparra at shortstop. Then they traded for Orlando Cabrera and Doug Mientkiewicz, their defense improved and they ended up winning the World Series).

Value investing? Yes. Knowing when to buy, when to hold and when to sell, absolutely. Portfolio diversification? I think so. Dollar-cost averaging? Another must. All of these are basic tenets of solid investing, and they hold true for the Beane Counters too.

How so?

Beane looks for value, period. Look at Scott Hatteberg, look at Durazo. Knowing when to buy, hold and sell, well, time will tell given the major pitching moves Beane made this past off-season. His critics (and others) will argue that Beane had no choice but to jettison two of his Big Three, that the small-market A's didn't have enough money to sign all three. They'll also argue, again somewhat convincingly, that he traded the two with the most trade value -- Hudson and Mulder -- because Zito had fallen off enough as to cause his market value to drop. And all that sounds plausible.

Except for some stats that first emerged at the time Fernando Valenzuela's career (and then Dwight Gooden's) fell off the table (and this is speculation on my part; this doesn't come from the article). The premise was that pitchers who threw too many pitches before they were 25 would flame out in their early 30's because they wouldn't have much left in their arms. So, while it may be true that Beane didn't have the cash to sign Hudson and Mulder to longer-term deals, perhaps he knows something that the rest of us don't. Perhaps he knows that those two pitchers, who have battled injuries, are closer to the end of their careers than the middle. No, he didn't peddle damaged goods, but yes, he probably ran the numbers and has some formula that says crafty lefties with big curves like Zito tend to get re-born at 30, while righties tend to fizzle.

That's all just a hunch on my part, but if Danny Haren, Rich Harden, Dan Meyer and the rest emerge as a formidable rotation, and, further, if Hudson and Mulder falter, then Beane will end up being even more of a genius than he was portrayed in "Moneyball." If the reverse happens, well, Beane's critics will cackle and say "I told you so." It says here that we'll have to wait 2-3 years before knowing for sure.

The article points out that many scouts believe that Beane got good deals from Atlanta and St. Louis and was careful to get pitchers who are close enough to the Majors to help the big club but far enough away from becoming arbitration eligible that they can help the big club. Talk about portfolio diversification, talk about dollar-cost averaging. Beane is steadfast in not putting all of his eggs on the Big Three, and he's careful about making sure his talent base is evergreen. Unlike the Yankees, you won't see a roster whose average age is 34.

There are Beane Bashers out there, the old-school baseball types who are suspicious of applied math and computers and anything they didn't invent, Beane Counters, who are the guys in Oakland's front office, and Beane Disciples, who think that what Beane and his colleagues have tapped into is really neat. Somewhere, there's probably a happy medium, a blend of the numbers and the old-school scouts, like the late Tony Lucadello, who signed 50 major leaguers, including Mike Schmidt, and who knew much more about slides than slide rules.

After all, Casey Stengel had a way with talent (winning a bunch of World Series) and with words. Once, after being presented with a bunch of statistics, he said, "That's all well and good, but just get me a lefthanded hitter who can hit the ball past the shortstop."

Words to live by.

Unless you're a Beane Counter.

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