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July 27, 2009
Six years after its publication, it's understandable that Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane is a little perplexed with the fact that people still want to talk about Moneyball. "I think there's been a broadly held misconception that the ideas put forward in Moneyball were a permanent template as to how we'd do business," said Beane during an interview on Friday. "But, it's really just a snapshot in a moment of time."
That much is clear when one looks at how the A's operated early in the decade as compared to now. There were lessons learned from Moneyball, and the A's have made adjustments. While the book helped make Beane a cult hero among more statistically-minded baseball fans, if anything, even his legion of followers have been forced to subsequently adjust their thinking when it comes to the value of judging everything by numbers alone. "A lot of people assumed that we'd be spending less on player development and scouting," commented Beane. "In reality, we've spent more, and we've hired more scouts."
To stick to the business metaphors so often used in Moneyball, if there's one thing the A's have done since those days, it's been to diversify their portfolio. That diversification has begun with the draft. The so-called "Moneyball Draft" of 2002 had the A's selecting seven times within the first 39 picks, and with each of those picks, Oakland selected what scouts often refer to as a polished college player; that year, they didn't take a high school talent until the 18th round. From among those college players, the A's selected three players who are big-league regulars today (Nick Swisher, Mark Teahen, and John Baker), as well as one quality starting pitcher in Joe Blanton. However, for the most part the selection of those players all had support from the scouting side of things as well. It's the players who had big numbers in college (particularly in the on-base department), but didn't have glowing scouting reports that were the most controversial of selections, and where some lessons were learned. Alabama catcher Jeremy Brown, one of the players focused on in the book, wound up playing in just five big-league games. Notre Dame outfielder Steve Stanley and University of Pittsburgh first baseman Brant Colamarino-of whom AGM Paul DePodesta said, "might be the best hitter in the country"-both fizzled out in the minors.
The internet-driven Cult of Beane would once mock those selecting high-risk high school players during that time, but slowly those players have moved up on Oakland's draft board. By 2006, when the team used its top high school selection not just on a high school player but even more riskily upon a high school pitcher (current big-league rookie Trevor Cahill), Beane supporters adjusted their thoughts, claiming the exposure of a new market inefficiency.
In reality, the A's simply adjusted their philosophies. Speaking of his list of top 20 players in 2002 draft from Moneyball, Beane says, "That list would look very different today," while adding, "Each year our draft board ends up looking a lot more like the draft goes, and that wasn't the case ten years ago."
According to Beane, one reason for that is the fact of the information age itself, as the amount of detail available on each player has increased significantly with the growth of the internet. "If you think about it, Baseball America was the first to do it," explained Beane. "They'd list their Top 200 draft prospects, and it was one list and you wouldn't always agree with it. Now you add ESPN and Baseball Prospectus to the mix, and you have a wisdom of the crowds, and more and more information. When you publish your Top 50 pre-draft players at Baseball Prospectus, you have your own opinion and biases, but you've also surveyed a diverse group of people that have seen these players a number of times. So there's more and more information out there and while we are still making high-dollar decisions with little information, it's become much less of a crapshoot now."
A second factor in the A's willingness to take so-called "high-risk" high school players is that with today's industry-wide focus on scouting and player development, Beane simply doesn't see them as the risk they once were, but more for reasons that have little to do with the talent itself. "Things have changed significantly for young players versus when I came out," explained Beane, himself a first-round pick out of a San Diego high school in 1980. "So much of the failure rate is tied to things off the field, but now so many of these kids have played on travel clubs, traveled internationally, maybe even played on television-they're much more prepared then they once were for professional baseball."
The other aspect of player procurement, the international market, is another place where according to Beane the A's have changed significantly since the days of Moneyball, or more accurately, it's one where they've returned to previous form. "We were very busy in Latin America in the 1990s, and we had a lot of success there, signing guys like Miguel Tejada and Ramon Hernandez," said Beane, "But then we spent the last decade spending very little money there, getting passed by, and ignoring a market that was once very good to us."
Last year the A's responded by not only building a new, state-of-the-art complex in the Domincan Republic, but also by signing right-hander Michael Ynoa to a historic bonus, and following that with more significant signings this summer.
Ultimately, if there's been any one major change for Beane, it's been that so many teams have followed his lead, not adopting a purely analytical approach, but simply adding that as one piece to their own player-development puzzle. "Being a general manager today is far more difficult than it was ten years ago," said Beane. "You have lots of really smart guys running clubs, and then they're all surrounded by more smart guys," he explained, while showing that once again, the information age has changed the way baseball teams are run. "Look at Baseball Prospectus for example," he said. "Ten years ago, you were this rogue publication with numbers people didn't understand, and now look at where you are-you're mainstream."
And with the way things are going, with so many teams having learned the lessons of Moneyball and adapted, a much larger part of the game is taking a more intellectual approach to baseball, and that's making his job that much tougher. "I won't be able to apply for this job ten years from now," Beane jokes. "And that's a good thing."
While Beane's inconoclastic style has come under some fire as the big-league team is on pace for its third straight sub-.500 season, Beane insists that optimism still rules the day in Oakland. It should be, as recent drafts and series of trades have given the organization one of, if not the most impressive collections of young talent in the game.
"The idea that any sports franchise is going to win all of the time... I just haven't seen that one," said Beane. "We knew we'd have to tear down and build things up again; it's the only way to do it. To sustain success we have to create things organically, and everything we are doing is geared towards trying to create something that will last. When you hit bottom, you want to bounce, not hit with a thud and stick there."
A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider .