Game's shifting strategies leaves Beane, sage of Moneyball, behind
A movie version of Moneyball premieres in Sept. with Brad Pitt as Billy Beane
Beane got the Oakland A's to the playoffs five times in seven years from 2000-06
Strategies Beane used have been copied by even the richest teams in the game
Arizona GM Kevin Towers telephoned Oakland GM Billy Beane at 11 p.m. Pacific Saturday and asked, "That deal we talked about a couple of weeks ago? Would you still do it?" Within five minutes, while Beane was driving his car, the deal was done: reliever Brad Ziegler moving from Oakland to Arizona for first baseman Brandon Allen and pitcher Jordan Norberto. Beane simply asked Towers to wait until the next morning to announce the deal so he could inform club personnel.
It was an old-fashioned small deal between two friends, and it would be the only trade Beane would make in July. Once the king of July, Beane -- who came to regard the season in thirds: the first to see what you have, the second to fix it and the third to let it ride -- otherwise found only frustration at the trading deadline.
Next month, as portrayed by Brad Pitt in the movie Moneyball, Beane will be coming to a theatre near you, but, for a fifth straight year, not to the playoffs, let alone even a winning record. The movie will come across as an historical piece, so far removed are the Athletics from any success and baseball from the era when Beane made up for a lack of resources with an edge in information that was chronicled in Michael Lewis' book upon which the film is based.
"Is it a more challenging environment? Absolutely," Beane said. "Ten years ago teams didn't value young players, other than as chips or assets to get the players they needed. Now, even the large market teams with great resources, everybody values their young players. You have large market teams valuing young players exactly the same as Tampa Bay, Kansas City or any small market team."
July for Beane was like sitting at a casino table with no whales. To complicate matters, he found old-school "gunslingers" such as Towers, a dying breed among his colleagues, replaced by young, well-educated number-crunchers who did their baseball undergraduate work as disciples of . . . Billy Beane.
Beane and Towers both played professionally, and bring a certain competitiveness -- an understanding of the rules of engagement -- to trade talks. They operate, as ballplayers do, without a fear of failure. This year Beane found too many phone calls that came his way that sounded like this: "I have interest in one of your players and this is what I'm going to give you for him."
"That's not deal-making," Beane said.
It's name-your-own price. The art of the deal has been replaced by the science of the deal, like an internet-savvy car shopper walking into a dealership with a research folder -- the buyer gives the seller a price.
With the speed and ubiquity of information, every club places a value on players in a fairly narrow range. It's a far cry from a decade ago, when whip-smart GMs such as Beane and Theo Epstein could pluck undervalued players out from under aging GMs whose generation still cherished flawed measurements such as batting average. Now, Beane found only frustration with the kind of homogenous, risk-averse thinking of the industry.
"What you'll find is that the window for a small market team will grow smaller and eventually go away completely," Beane said. "We had seven years. Tampa Bay -- and they are very, very smart -- has made it to the playoffs two out of the past three years, and may not make it this year, and then what? To have any kind of window will take building a team organically, having to have something like 80 percent of your roster [homegrown]. That is extremely hard.
"Eventually it becomes like Premier League soccer, where the teams that spend the most money are the teams that win every year. They'll all come from the top quartile in payroll."
Beane is correct in how the modern game has come to overvalue young players. The words "under control" -- as in contractual control -- rule the business of the game. It's why the Padres could trade Mike Adams (under control through 2012) and not Heath Bell (under control for two months) before the deadline. Draft picks -- the generic slots, not the specific players -- have become so wildly and unexpectedly valued that the free agent compensation system needs to be reworked. No one anticipated that hoarding picks would harm the hard-earned free agent value of established big leaguers.
Like most emerging trends, the valuation of young players is based on solid theory but has come to be overemphasized -- except in San Francisco, where old-school Yoda Brian Sabean shipped off a former first-round pick, Zack Wheeler, to try to win a second straight World Series by renting Carlos Beltran.
The emphasis on young players is such that Cleveland, suddenly blessed with one of these rare "windows," was criticized for trading two top pitching prospects to get 27-year-old star pitcher Ubaldo Jimenez, and the Yankees pronounced their pride in having traded nobody.
New York has forfeited some of its advantage in resources for a second straight year by holding prospects as if it were a small-market team. (Prospects are more easily replaced by large market teams -- via free agency, over-slot draft picks and international signings -- and by definition should have a value proportional to resources.) It cost the Yankees the pennant last year when they held Eduardo Nu˝ez rather than include him in a deal for Cliff Lee. This year they will bring one reliable starter to the postseason, but still hold their best prospects.
Truth is, young players have acquired more perceived value than real value. First-round pitchers, for instance, still flame out about half as often as they make it. What's changed, though, is the attention and tub-thumping that's given to prospects. When the Yankees were trading off Jay Buhner, Doug Drabek, Fred McGriff and the like in the 1980s, they were little known faceless names in agate type. Now, given the hyper-niche ways of new media, prospects are afforded glowing reviews, flowery scouting reports and, most famously, unquestioned status as the doppelgangers of famous major leaguers. So Matt Wieters isn't just promising, he's Joe Mauer with power. Justin Smoak is Mark Teixiera. Desmond Jennings is Carl Crawford. Jesus Montero is Mike Piazza. And so on.
General managers, already armed with metrics to enhance the value of young players (chiefly, they are cheaper and more durable), now are saddled with swollen reputations of young players that make moving them more risky -- from a public relations standpoint. Pat Gillick, the only Hall of Fame general manager of the free agent era, once traded Gio Gonzalez and Gavin Floyd for Freddy Garcia without getting the heat that Indians GM Chris Antonetti did for the Jimenez deal.
Drew Pomeranz, one of the pitchers Antonetti put in the deal, was drafted on national TV and become a familiar, can't-miss name. "The MLB Network is the worst thing to happen to baseball," one veteran player told me recently, knowing I appear on the network, "because every young player is a star."
Moneyball has become such a period piece it might as well have cast Helen Mirren or deployed the Ken Burns Effect on sepia-tinged photographs. The foundation of Beane's success actually was in giving the ball to Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito about 100 times a year. (Oakland, which made the playoffs five times in seven years from 2000-06, hasn't had a winning season since the last of them, Zito, left.) Beane did, however, maximize Oakland's window by finding value in players others missed.
As Beane's "advantage" became neutralized by the availability of information -- and now the herd mentality of overvaluing young players -- Oakland did not find the next so-called "market inefficiency." Worse, the Athletics whiffed in two emergent areas where ballclubs could carve out propriety advantages: "prehabilitation" (the nexus of medical and baseball information; identifying and reducing injury risks) and -- this is the real Moneyball story -- stadium revenue.
While most every other club leveraged their major league status for new and revamped ballparks and sweetheart deals, Oakland and Tampa Bay remain disadvantaged by playing in outdated ballparks -- though Oakland is the only one that does so while sharing a market with a team that showcases a gem of a ballpark of its own. The Athletics, waiting and waiting for Bud Selig to broker a deal to allow them to bolt for San Jose and its money, operate as if assigned to the "Jail" corner of a Monopoly board.
"The biggest problem we have is that until we get a stadium it's going to be treading water for us," Beane said. "There cannot be any long-term planning. It's likely to get worse before it gets any better. It's going to be more than challenging."
Things are so bad in Oakland when it comes to attracting players that Beane has taken to hyping the team's groundskeepers; that Oakland plays on one of the best-groomed fields in baseball. Alas, even that advantage only goes so far. When Beane presented his sales pitch to one free agent in recent years, the player responded, "Yeah -- until the Raiders start playing on it in August."
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