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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 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.