Beane has changed game for the better
A's GM still has magic touch since introducing advanced analytics in 2001
The Oakland Athletics just won the American League West for a second straight season, and virtually no one seemed the least bit surprised about it. Sure, the A's did it with baseball's 27th-largest payroll. No news there, right? Of course, it came after some offseason changes. So what? Same as it ever was.
In the end, this reaction, this expectation of winning, this raising of the bar, may be Billy Beane's enduring legacy in baseball. As general manager of the A's these last 16 years, he has changed the game in a very real and fundamental way. That's the bottom line in all of this.
Beane made baseball better, dramatically better. All these years later, almost everyone agrees on that part of the deal. He offered hope -- not to mention a blueprint -- to all the teams that may have wondered if they'd ever again be able to compete with the Yankees, Red Sox and other big-market teams.
Now, the men and women who run baseball teams understand that while money is important, smarts and judgment count for plenty, too. Shouldn't there be room in the Hall of Fame for a man who has had his impact?
When Beane introduced advanced analytics into Oakland's player evaluations in 2001, he was assessing players in a way they'd never been assessed before. He became famous for it when author Michael Lewis wrote a brilliant bestseller on the topic. "Moneyball" -- the name of his book and the movie in which Brad Pitt played Beane -- became the codeword for a school of thought that blew through front offices from coast to coast.
Moneyball has played a role in 15 of 30 teams getting into at least one postseason series -- not a Wild Card Game, but a postseason series -- the last three years. Moneyball may also be why nine franchises have won the World Series the last 13 seasons. Money still matters. But it matters less. That's why seven of the 10 highest payroll teams didn't make the playoffs in 2013.
Virtually every team has at least a few people who do evaluations based on the math models Beane introduced to the A's after the 2001 season. Some teams -- Red Sox, Rays, Cubs, Indians, Astros -- are deeper into analytics than others. But almost every team consults its analysts before making a move.
And that's why these last two seasons by the A's have been so impressive. At a time when Moneyball has changed dramatically in the last five years, at a time when more teams are racing to hire the smartest people and come up with better evaluations, Beane still has a magic touch.
Oakland has won the AL West with payrolls ranked 27th and 29th the last two seasons. At a time when the two toughest commodities to acquire are quality starting pitching and power bats, Beane has sorted through the game's bargain basement and found both.
While the Rangers and Angels have spent more money, the A's have won more games. Two years ago, Beane won by trading away three All-Star pitchers for a slew of young players. He remade that 2012 team on the fly and then watched as manager Bob Melvin molded it into a winner.
Beane was back at it a year ago, acquiring shortstop Jed Lowrie, outfielder Chris Young and catcher John Jaso. The 2013 A's resembled the '12 team because the core group was pretty much the one Beane had put together a year earlier. And this time, it was easier. Oakland climbed atop the AL West for good on Sept. 6 and had an 8 1/2-game lead at one point in those final weeks. Four A's hit at least 20 home runs, including Brandon Moss, who had 30. A.J. Griffin, Bartolo Colon and Jarrod Parker all pitched at least 190 innings. Grant Balfour saved 38 games at the back of one of baseball's best bullpens.
For a second straight year, the A's pushed the Tigers a full five games in the AL Division Series. For a second straight year, they drew Justin Verlander in the deciding fifth game.
And they'll be different in 2014. Colon and Young have signed with the Mets as free agents, and Balfour has departed for Baltimore. Beane has replaced them, acquiring Jim Johnson from the Orioles to close and Craig Gentry from the Rangers to be a fourth outfielder. And to replace Colon, he signed veteran Scott Kazmir.
So as another offseason hits its stretch run, the A's appear poised to contend again. The Angels and Mariners have gotten better this winter. The Rangers are good, too. But no one has Oakland's pitching depth. No one has the A's lineup versatility. And no one else has Beane.