Finally, convincing evidence of Billy Beane's genius

It seems like just about everyone thinks Billy Beane is a genius, thanks to the Michael Lewis book Moneyball, which details the way in which his Oakland A’s use statistics in innovative ways to choose talent and win games.

I’ve never been part of the Billy Beane cult. For instance, in a January 2004 Financial Times interview about my research on sports, the subject came up:

There has been much hype recently about baseball clubs finding statistics to identify good players. Levitt read Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball about the supposed innovators, the Oakland As, and is unimpressed. “If you look at all the stats they say are so important, the As are totally average! There’s very little evidence Billy Beane [the club's general manager] is doing something right.”

The simple point I was making is that the A’s don’t win for the reasons Moneyball implied, i.e that they put a bunch of misfit looking characters on the field who have out of this world on base percentages which somehow leads them to manufacture runs without paying high salaries. The reason the A’s win, year after year, is because they have better pitchers than anyone else. the 2004 season is typical: the A’s were ninth out of fifteen teams in the American League in scoring runs, but had the second lowest ERA.

I was surprised how many people were upset by this quote. As just one example, the following post of my quote generated 143 comments

link to posting

So what does Billy Beane do in the off season? He deals two of his top starters to other teams. And after four years of averaging 97 games a year, the gambling markets at www.tradesports.com project the A’s to win 83 games this year. If there were markets for multiple years in the future, my guess is that Oakland is not expected to be a good team again for the forseeable future. So I guess not everyone is in the cult of Moneyball after all.

But, in spite of this, I recently stumbled across the following Oakland A’s press release:

Beane, Crowley join ownership group
OAKLAND — The new Oakland ownership group headed by Lewis Wolff added another wrinkle to their $180 million purchase of the A’s on Friday. General manager Billy Beane and club president Mike Crowley both joined the group as limited partners without the liability of underwriting losses sustained by the team, Wolff announced at a media conference. Both men also had their contracts extended: Beane to 2012 and Crowley to 2008.

Just as the A’s are about to head south, he negotiates a lucrative contract extension and becomes the first baseball GM to get an ownership share (but he doesn’t have any liability for losses, only sharing in the gains!).

That is genius.

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  1. KL Snow says:

    I think there’s a case to be made for both sides here. Because when John Schuerholz picks up a middle of the road pitcher and he posts a 3.04 ERA (John Burkett), a lot of the credit actually ends up going to Bobby Cox and Leo Mazzone, and while it’s certainly not a quantifiable thing, the value they seem to add to their players is largely accepted as being part of the reason they win every year.
    I agree with your argument about Beane’s team OBP still being low, but I’d counter it with this: he largely avoids busts. He consistently succeeds on low-risk, medium-high reward players, meaning his teams are consistently meeting expectations, or doing slightly better. Given the chance, I don’t think he could turn the Tigers into the Yankees, but I do think he can be counted on to get the most out of the resources available to him.

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  2. Anonymous says:

    I’m not sure how you can say There’s very little evidence Billy Beane is doing something right,” while acknowledging that the A’s have averaged 97 wins per season over the past four seasons.

    To me, that seems like A LOT of evidence. Maybe it’s not the OBP thing, sure. But that’s still a lot of evidence indicating that Beane has some idea about what he’s doing.

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  3. g eugene says:

    The Braves have roughly twice the payroll as the A’s, so the comparison is unfair. The A’s have scouts too, they just don’t always have the final say. By the way, everyone has caught on to OBP (and OPS) as a way of measuring a players ability, so the A’s have developed metrics to measure defensive ability. In other words, players with high OBP are now fairly valued, whereas excellent defensive players are probably undervalued. Look for this year’s A’s to play excellent defense behind their young starting pitchers.

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  4. Anonymous says:

    The comment above mine has it exactly right. To build a perennial playoff team while spending in the lowest quartile of baseball clubs is all the evidence you need that Beane is a superior GM (genius is, of course, hyperbole). If others, like Lewis, are wrong about the causes of his success, that’s their problem, not his. Beane did not write the book.

    That said, I don’t agree that if Oakland’s offense is ninth out of fifteen in run production than Beane’s signings of high-OBP players is a fiction or, at best, a distraction. In evaluating general managers, everything must be referenced to payroll and if Beane can produce the ninth best producing offense with the fourteenth highest payroll, that’s nice work (Oakland’s stadium is an offense-suppressor too and hoepfully that was accounted for.) Otherwise, we are forced to the seemingly absurd conclusion that the Yankees and Red Sox have the best general managers every single year no matter who performs the role.

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  5. PaulNoonan says:

    It’s also worth noting that pitching is addressed in Moneyball. People seem to have seized on the offensive portions of Moneyball, but there is certainly a lot of discussion on pitchers too. Barry Zito and Chad Bradford are both discussed at length. Even if you make the point that Beane’s offense is not up to par, then the Moneyball principles of pitching seem to work very well.

    But I agree with the larger point. Beane’s new contract and ownership stake may be ther smartest move made by a GM in history.

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  6. Anonymous says:

    Mr. Levitt includes a quote by himself “If you look at all the stats they say are so important, the As are totally average!”

    Given that the As have a way-below average payroll, though, that seems to me to be pretty darn good.

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  7. Anonymous says:

    Adjust those offensive numbers for ballpark and salary, and see if your assertion still holds.

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  8. Anonymous says:

    levitt finally over his head?

    steve,

    it’s called moneyball not walkball for a reason.

    it’s all about talent valuation.

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