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Beyond Moneyball

Why A's Beane succeeds where others have failed

Posted: Monday September 11, 2006 11:52AM; Updated: Monday September 11, 2006 7:41PM
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Billy Beane (left) was shrewd in signing veteran slugger Frank Thomas to a base salary of $500,000 (with incentives) prior to this season.
Billy Beane (left) was shrewd in signing veteran slugger Frank Thomas to a base salary of $500,000 (with incentives) prior to this season.
Jed Jacobsohn/Getty Images
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It's the man, not the methodology.

Moneyball was a superbly written tale, and while the book got it right in that the stunning achievements of the Oakland A's should indeed be attributed to their great general manager Billy Beane, the Moneyball concept isn't proving to be one that transfers easily. If it really is even a tangible, definable, worthwhile style.

Since 2000, the A's have logged more victories than anyone except the Yankees (they are only 14 wins behind the so-called "über-team"). But according to one National League executive, the key to Oakland's startling small-market success has little to do with stats or drafting college players, as Moneyball suggests. Furthermore, that executive asserted that if other teams try to duplicate the book's blueprint -- and several have -- they are wasting their time.

The book, according to that executive, is "somewhat fraudulent" in that Beane's true strength is the same old skill that's basically blown off in the book: the tried-and-true formula of procuring the right players by scouting. "Billy Beane has got a way of finding winning players," the executive said. "The A's don't have anyone who stands out for talent, except maybe Frank Thomas. But they have a lot of winning players. Take Nick Swisher, for instance. He knows how to play to win."

Additionally, at least two of the key components of Moneyball are just about out the window now, at least in my book.

One of Moneyball's concepts is that it's better to draft better-prepared college players than high-ceiling high school stars, a notion that's being imitated by others at exactly the same time Beane has gone the other way; lately, he's been drafting undervalued high school players, including two in the first two rounds this year. Fortuitously for Beane, the prep stars are now the undervalued ones because so many others are following the book's college-first advice.

Another Moneyball notion is the extreme emphasis on stats, particularly walks, on-base percentage and home runs, which were sold as keys to success. While that strategy worked especially well in the steroid era, with Jason Giambi and previously Mark McGwire (both kings of homers and OPS), this year the A's have a .339 on-base percentage (eighth in the American League), 153 home runs (ninth) and a .748 OPS (11th). And yet they still lead the AL West by 5½ games with an 82-60 record.

"Billy Beane is a very bright individual who knows there are many different ways to skin a cat and find a way to be successful," Yankees GM Brian Cashman said. "Every year he comes up with a different game plan and finds a new way to win. He's no one-trick pony. The A's ownership and fan base should consider themselves very lucky to have Billy Beane." Indeed they are.

Beane Ball difficult to duplicate

While Beane continues to succeed, his very smart, Ivy League-educated, twentysomething Moneyball disciples have faltered lately. Paul DePodesta (Harvard) was out after two years of running the Frank McCourt-owned Dodgers and is now back working under Beane's old boss, Sandy Alderson, in San Diego. Boston GM Theo Epstein (Yale) helped the 2004 Red Sox win in the World Series before a series of unfortunate trades and injuries decimated them this year.

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