September 23, 2011
The Moneyball Way
One of the most remarkable aspects of Moneyball is that, in an industry ripe with constant turnover, with an organization that continually struggles with budget limitations and a disastrous location and facility situation, the overwhelming majority of the main protagonists from the book (and soon-to-be-released movie) are still in Oakland. “We're like a family here, and people that come to work here tend to stay here,” said general manager Billy Beane. “There's a tremendous amount of friendship and respect. We've had people leave, only to come back to Oakland in the end.”
Still, with the film arriving nearly a decade after the events of Moneyball, if the people haven't changed, some of the thinking certainly has; many of the philosophies espoused during that time look like ancient history now. Instead of making educated guesses as to what has changed, I spoke to four key members of the Oakland front office to get their take on how things have changed, and how they must continue to evolve for Oakland to return to winning.
Much of the focus of the book, and the onslaught of analysis and criticism following its release, centered around the draft, where the A's became focused on college players with good performance history. “I've always said that our strategy was just about finding ways to get better,” said Eric Kubota, who has been in the A's front office since 1984 and the scouting director since 2002. “We had been successful before Moneyball, so it wasn't a reaction to being bad, it was just one of wanting to do it better.”
Still, the team insists that at the time, they were not simply drafting from a spreadsheet. “We were not as didactic as people think,” added Kubota. “The scouts were not having players jammed down their throat. It was more the way we valued players at the time. We were not in a competitive position to take high school players, so we valued them lower than the 29 other clubs.”
“The emphasis was simple,” said Beane. “We are risk-averse because we have to be. It's one thing not to hit on a guy, but for us, it's another thing to whiff completely. There were a few times where we were going to be very aggressive, and in retrospect, it would not have worked out.”
Nonetheless, the Athletics’ success turned the draft on its ear, and clubs began mimicking their strategy, forcing them to change course. Just four years after the 2002 Moneyball draft, the A’s used their top select to nab (gasp) a high school player in right-hander Trevor Cahill.
“The market changed quickly, and there were suddenly a lot of other clubs focusing as heavily on college performers as we were,” explained Kubota. “Guys we wanted suddenly weren't there for us, so we had to change things up, while also trying to add more high-ceiling players... and let's face it, those are generally high school guys.”
Like everything in baseball, water finds its level, and the A's drafts are no longer iconoclastic. Like every other team, they are just looking to identify the best available players. “There is so much more information out there, with so many people talking and sharing opinions that I think a lot of draft boards look alike and it becomes a wisdom of the crowds,” said Beane. “Ten years ago, we'd look at our board and one team's first-round pick wouldn't even be up there.”
The A's have continued to analyze the draft, trying to figure out what does and does not work, coming to a conclusion that puts them at odds with some of their previously statistic-driven ways and upsetting some of the people doing statistical translation work. “The great and frustrating thing about the draft is that there is no panacea out there, it's a constant quest,” said Kubota. “The more we've done this, the more we have learned that there is not a linear progression between success at the college level and success as a pro. You can't just analyze the numbers and come up with a plan. It's more complex than that.”
An emphasis on youth and ceiling, added to a newly invigorated focus on the international market, means changes in the development system as well. “With these younger players, our staff has had to learn how to be more patient,” explained Keith Lieppman, who has been in the A's organization for four decades, including the last 20 as the club's director of player development. “We need to understand that we are no longer going to get the results that we are looking for right off the bat, as it will take time to figure out what we have in certain players.”
As for changes since Moneyball, Lieppman insists that the biggest differences are external. “We haven't changed how we develop hitters; we're still very much focused on plate discipline and finding pitches to hit,” he explained. “What has changed is that I've gotten calls from maybe half of the organizations out there about how to teach plate discipline, but that's not a 15-minute talk, and that is something we are still trying to figure out.”
Lieppman also insists a focus on walks was never what the teachings of Moneyball were about. It goes much deeper than that. “Selective is good,” explained Lieppman, “but we're leaning more toward aggressiveness, where passive is a problem. It's about having a plan and teaching young hitters what they are capable of and picking good pitches to hit.”
Beyond acquiring amateur talent, the market has forced the A's to change the way they focus on acquiring big-league players as well.
“The highest-paid statistic right now in major-league baseball in on-base percentage,” explained Beane. “That just wasn't the case 10 years ago. The universe gets back in order, and you are never going to monopolize any arbitrage for an extended period of time.”
“I don't think much has changed in the way we make decisions,” said David Forst, who has been with Oakland for more than a decade, and the assistant GM since 2004. “What we do is different, but more so now than before. At the end of the day, we are trying to acquire the same players as other teams.”
It's not that Oakland has changed in the last decade as much as the industry catching up to their way of thinking, leaving the future of the Athletics a far greater challenge than Beane and company faced heading into the new millennium.
“We have our hands full,” explains Beane. “It's tougher now, but we've done it before. You asked me how things have changed. Well, we had a bad market and a bad venue 10 years ago, and now it's worse. The frustration is part of the deal, the challenge is fun to a point, but we've been trying to get a new stadium for 20 years, and now we're the last ones in line. Next year, once Florida moves into their new park, we will be the only shared facility in the game.”
Still, the A's welcome the assignment, and continue to look for advantages to exploit.
“Even in just the last 10 years, there are tons of new sources of data,” said Forst. “We have f/x systems, baserunning numbers, defensive stats, and all of that has grown exponentially. There was once an advantage to simply having the data, but now our challenge is to keep up with everyone else in how that data is processed.”
“It's really always come down to getting efficient evaluations of players, and it's a much more intellectually competitive business now,” summarized Beane. “We're still looking for that next edge, we're still going through all of the data. We want to know why did this player work and this player not work. But you don't always know what you are looking for until you find it.”
So it's a new way of doing things in Oakland, but in the end, it might just be about finding another route to the same things that teams have desired long before the days of Moneyball—walks and the three-run homer.
“That still works, by the way,” quipped Beane. “You can give me that any day of the week.”
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .