Opinion: Carolina Critic

No. 136: Moneyball Reveals Beane

• Michael Lewis; Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game; W.W. Norton & Company, 2003, 288pp., $24.95

As I write this review, the uproar persists over Manager Grady Little’s ill-advised decision to leave tiring Red Sox starter Pedro Martinez in Game 7 of the American League Championship Series. Bostonians’ simmering frustration boiled over into full-throated rage after the Sawx (New England vernacular) once again blew a late lead at the hands of the New York Yankees. The genial Little, who lives in North Carolina, bore the brunt and lost his job.

Perhaps not quite paralleled, but similarly vitriolic, was the anger aimed at the Oakland Athletics, who for the last three years made the playoffs but didn’t win a series. This year they lost three games in a row and the division series after holding a 2-0 lead against…yep, the Red Sox.

Instead of the manager, though, in the A’s case the harsh criticism walloped General Manager Billy Beane.

The reasons were twofold. First, Oakland over the last few years has developed a choker reputation in the postseason, and this year choked at the hands of the world’s foremost chokers!

Second, the media has fawned over Beane because of his brilliance in assembling playoff-caliber teams with one of the lowest annual player payrolls.

The plaudits reached their pinnacle with the publication of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball earlier this year. Since then envy and resentment have created a backlash against Beane, especially from other general managers, but also from the media that once pedestaled him.

Lewis, a curious baseball fan with a business writing background, sought to find out why “one of the poorest teams in baseball, the Oakland Athletics, [won] so many games.” Unprecedented access to the team enabled him to uncover the answer, which is now (finally) reforming the game.

The revolution, the brainchild of statistician Bill James, is embodied in Beane. In 1977 James self-published his first Baseball Abstract book, which preached to an unwelcoming establishment a more logical way of digesting player statistics. He issued annual compilations of his quirky, but useful, findings until 1988.

As time passed James gained a wider audience, albeit not the one he wanted. His company, STATS Inc., where he served as creative director, became the source of so many “how did they know that” ESPN factoids. But the brainpower failed to infiltrate the game itself.

“The Jamesian movement set the table for the geeks to rush in and take over the general management of the game,” Lewis writes. “What was happening to capitalism should have happened to baseball: the technical man with his analytical magic should have risen to prominence in baseball management, just as he was rising to prominence on, say, Wall Street.”

Enter Beane, who became the A’s general manager in 1997. Physically talented but mentally apathetic as a ballplayer, Beane is intense and competitive as a general manager. His persuasiveness and adoption of Jamesian principles, combined with his drive, overcome the shortcomings in the Athletics’ payroll budget.

Beane also cares little about traditional statistics such as batting average and home runs, instead favoring slugging percentage and on-base percentage.

Still Beane’s success, despite postseason failures, cannot be disputed. Owners now see that victory is attainable without spending a fortune, and the game is experiencing a market correction.

Trends show the rest of baseball is getting it. Moneyball, with a gleeful smugness, shows how Billy Beane got it long ago.