Oakland A’s: How Billy Beane Puts Moneyball Theory into Practice
By Marc Rubin
The 2012 Oakland A’s sustained a nine-game losing streak in late May and were 22-30 on June 1. As recently as June 30th they were still only 37-42.
Since then they have surged, going 23-9. At 60-51, the A’s are playoff contenders, despite carrying only a $53 million payroll, down from $67 million a year ago.
Featured columnist Mark Reynolds recently wrote a wonderful article entitled, “Oakland A’s General Manager Billy Beane Should Be MLB Executive of the Year.” He reviews and correctly extols some of Beane’s shrewd personnel moves, including the signing of Cuban star Yoenis Cespedes.
I’d like to expand on the logic behind some of his other deals.
The Moneyball theory is essentially that of the stock market: “sell high, buy low.” How has he applied this fundamental Wall Street practice to the game of baseball?
In the trade that acquired Seth Smith from the Colorado Rockies, the A’s dealt pitchers Guillermo Moscoso and Josh Outman. At first glance, both pitchers appeared to be promising prospects: Moscoso went a respectable 8-10 in 128 innings with a 3.38 ERA, while Outman was 3-5 with a 3.70 ERA.
However, closer examination of these guys splits reveal that they are dangerous “flyball” pitchers who benefited from playing their home games at the cavernous Oakland Coliseum.
Moscoso induced ground balls on only 26.7 percent of his pitches put into play (109 out of 407), a historic low. Consequently he was 6-3 at home with an impressive 2.42 ERA, but on the road was a sobering 2-7 with a 4.70 ERA. Outman produced similar splits. These numbers suggest that these two guys have limited upside.
Now what did Beane see in Seth Smith?
First he saw a 2009 on-base percentage(OBP) of 37.8. Those who have read MoneyBall and/or watched the movie know how important a measure OBP is to Beane and colleagues. This is the criteria that brought Kevin Youkilis to Beane’s attention.
However, there were additional measures as well. Smith’s career 51 home runs in 1,285 at-bats through 2011 is an appealing one home run for every 25.2 at-bats. Another crucial measurement is run productivity per plate appearance.
Run productivity is defined as runs scored plus RBI minus home runs. Looking at Smith’s career numbers through 2011, his 200 runs scored, plus 181 RBI, minus 51 home runs, divided by his 1,449 plate appearances yielded a 0.228 run productivity ratio. Anything exceeding 0.215 is very good.
Beane saw the same qualities of patience, productivity and power in both Jonny Gomes and Josh Reddick, whom the A’s acquired during the offseason. Gomes—whom the A’s signed as a free-agent for only $1 million—had produced a 37.2 percent OBP in 2005 and, through 2011, he had hit one home run every 20.06 at-bats, producing a career run productivity ratio of 0.216.
Reddick had an OBP exceeding 35 percent in the minors (2007-9); in limited play with Boston in 2011, he generated a run productivity ratio of 0.223.
The acquisition of Reddick is another great illustration of the “sell-high, buy-low” philosophy put into practice. Beane traded primary closer Andrew Bailey to get Reddick. Bailey’s 75 career saves made him a quite appealing trade prospect.
What did Beane see in Bailey? He viewed him as a closer who would command close to $4 million in arbitration, a sizable eight percent of his payroll budget. He also saw a guy with “inflated numbers”: of Bailey’s 24 saves plus one hold in 2011, only eight involved protecting a one-run lead. Most of his saves were in less stressful multiple run-lead situations.
Beane saw the four losses, the two blown saves in one-run settings and the 37.1 percent ground-ball generation rate and realized that Bailey was not the elite closer he appeared to be.
Beane’s most recent addition is reliever Pat Neshek who was injured in 2008, missed the entire 2009 season, and made only 36 major league appearances in 2010 and 2011 combined. He was obtained from the Orioles organization for mere “cash considerations.”
What might have attracted Beane’s interest in him? Neshek this season had produced 49 strikeouts while surrendering just one home run in 44 innings in Triple A. Already he is paying dividends for Oakland since in four appearances he has struck out six of the 13 batters he’s faced.
Beane and his associates really do study the numbers. They scour minor league statistics to procure players they perceive another organization has overlooked. They study major league statistics to project what a player might become in the future.
Certainly other franchises have embraced the sabermetrics approach to baseball analysis, but it seems Beane’s commitment to the approach exceeds that of his counterparts
For the time being, he remains my choice as the top executive in the game.