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If Billy Beane Is Done With Baseball, He’s Left An Indelible Mark

On Monday, the Wall Street Journal reported that Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane will soon have a stake in the Boston Red Sox through his company RedBall Acquisition Corp. Since you can’t be involved in running two MLB teams at once,1 it appears Beane will instead leave baseball entirely — joining Red Sox owner John Henry’s business efforts across other sports (most notably soccer — Henry owns the Liverpool club).

If this is how the Athletics’ Moneyball era ends, what do we make of it? Under Beane, whose first full season as Oakland’s GM came in 1998, the A’s have won seven division titles and produced the sixth-most wins in baseball, all while spending the second-fewest dollars per wins above replacement2 of any club (trailing only — no surprise — the Tampa Bay Rays). So in that sense, the main thesis of Michael Lewis’s book on Oakland’s process held true throughout Beane’s tenure: Using sabermetric principles to hunt for inefficiencies, Beane consistently found success on a shoestring budget.

In the wake of that success, Beane’s analytical approach eventually transcended the small-market A’s and reshaped the way every team crafts a roster, for better and for worse. But at the same time he was changing the game, Beane could never quite build the right team for October. In their 11 playoff appearances under his watch, stretching back to 2000, the A’s went 18-29 and won only two series in 13 tries — including their recent ALDS loss to the Houston Astros. “My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs,” Beane famously told Lewis in “Moneyball.” “My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is fucking luck.” Perhaps so, but Oakland’s postseason struggles are also part of the Moneyball story, an unavoidable aspect of Beane’s legacy with the A’s.

Still, it is difficult to overstate how much of a mark Beane will leave on the game of baseball. As detailed in “Moneyball,” he quickly transitioned from a mediocre playing career to a scouting role and eventually a front-office apprenticeship under then-GM Sandy Alderson — another nonconformist and an early adopter of analytics in his own team-building philosophy. The A’s roster Beane inherited in 1998 was the third-cheapest in baseball, a far cry from the star-laden team that had made three consecutive World Series from 1988 to 1990. If he wanted to win, Beane knew he’d have no choice but to find underappreciated talent. Analytics happened to be a mostly unexplored avenue for those seeking to do just that.

To the surprise of no one who read “Moneyball,” Beane’s early A’s teams improved quickly in on-base percentage after he took over as GM, rising from ninth in the American League in 1998 to third by 2000 and 2001. The 2000 team, which boasted five starters with an OBP of .349 or higher — led by Jason Giambi’s .476 mark — had the second-best offense in the AL with 5.88 runs per game. That represented the peak of what we might think of as the “Classic Moneyball” A’s, who loaded up on high-OBP hitters that other teams had overlooked. But despite the team’s reputation for getting on base, Oakland never ranked so highly in its signature stat ever again. For instance, in 2003 — a season after the one Lewis focused on in his book — the A’s ranked 10th out of 14 AL teams in OBP. Though they bounced back some the next season, Oakland has had an average AL ranking of 8.4 in OBP since Moneyball was written, never finishing any better than fifth over that span:

Oakland’s batters have fared slightly better when we consider their overall performance, with an average ranking of 8.1 in position-player WAR since 2003 thanks to fielding and base-running. (Defense was actually detailed as a source of inefficiency Beane chased immediately after “Moneyball,” since the market had caught up on OBP.) Athletics batters finished No. 1 in the AL in WAR in 2018, thanks to an exceptionally deep stable of well-rounded players who were talented both at the plate and in the field — as personified by modern A’s stars Matt Chapman and Marcus Semien. The idea of Beane’s lineups sacrificing speed and glovework on the altar of on-base percentage may have been true at first, but it wasn’t really the case for the majority of his tenure as Oakland GM.

Likewise, the OBP-centric narrative of “Moneyball” obscured just how great Beane was at drafting, developing or otherwise uncovering great pitchers. Early on, the A’s were far more driven by high-quality pitching than you might have known from reading Lewis’s book: From 2000 to 2003, Oakland had the third-most pitching WAR in MLB (compared with the ninth-most WAR from its position players). Those A’s were led by three of the 13 best pitchers in baseball according to WAR — Tim Hudson (fifth), Barry Zito (ninth) and Mark Mulder (13th) — a trio of aces who were mentioned a grand total of 32 times3 in “Moneyball.” (For comparison’s sake, Scott Hatteberg, who was worth only 7 percent as many WAR as the Zito-Hudson-Mulder trio, was mentioned 121 times.) Though later playoff-bound A’s teams featured more hitting star power — led by the likes of Semien, Chapman, Matt Olson, Josh Donaldson and Josh Reddick — Beane still managed to cobble together MLB’s sixth-best pitching staff by WAR from 2012 to 2020 (compared with its eighth-best corps of position players).

That so few A’s hurlers were big names during this period, with the possible exception of Sonny Gray, speaks to Beane’s knack for constantly cycling through pitching talent before it became too expensive for Oakland to retain. Weighted by WAR, the average ex-A’s pitcher since 1998 spent just 4.3 seasons with the club, easily the fewest for any team’s pitchers over that span:

Nobody cycled through pitchers like Billy Beane

For all players who departed a franchise, average length of tenure with the club and age in season of departure, weighted by wins above replacement (WAR) with the club, 1998-2020

Departed Batters Departed Pitchers
Team Avg. Tenure Avg. Age at Departure Team Avg. Tenure Avg. Age at Departure
Padres 4.7 31.1 Athletics 4.3 30.1
Rays 5.6 30.2 Royals 4.7 29.9
Brewers 5.7 30.8 Pirates 4.7 29.5
Dodgers 5.7 31.9 Rays 4.8 28.9
Tigers 5.8 31.4 Mets 4.9 33.2
D-backs 5.8 31.6 Brewers 5.0 30.5
Athletics 5.9 31.3 Marlins 5.0 28.6
Marlins 5.9 28.4 Dodgers 5.0 32.4
Cubs 6.3 32.5 D-backs 5.2 33.5
Cardinals 6.3 31.6 Cardinals 5.2 31.8
Blue Jays 6.5 31.5 Rockies 5.4 30.7
Reds 6.7 30.9 Rangers 5.5 31.3
Rangers 7.0 32.8 Nationals 5.6 30.0
Royals 7.0 30.7 Phillies 5.8 31.8
Mets 7.1 32.7 Padres 6.0 32.1
Pirates 7.2 31.0 Orioles 6.0 30.4
White Sox 7.2 31.9 Astros 6.0 31.9
Indians 7.4 32.1 Blue Jays 6.1 31.2
Mariners 7.4 34.4 Reds 6.1 31.3
Angels 7.6 31.5 Cubs 6.2 32.0
Orioles 7.6 32.8 Red Sox 6.2 32.8
Nationals 7.8 30.2 Indians 6.4 30.5
Red Sox 7.8 32.9 White Sox 6.5 30.7
Giants 7.8 35.0 Angels 6.6 31.4
Twins 8.3 32.0 Tigers 6.7 31.1
Astros 8.4 32.9 Twins 7.0 31.3
Braves 8.8 32.4 Giants 7.1 31.4
Phillies 9.2 33.2 Mariners 7.2 32.5
Yankees 9.7 35.7 Braves 7.7 33.0
Rockies 9.8 34.3 Yankees 8.0 36.2

Sources: Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs

The constant churn included trading Rich Harden4 and Gio Gonzalez when they were 26; Mulder, Gray, Dan Haren, Joe Blanton and Andrew Bailey when they were 27, and Hudson when he was 29. Those deals yielded Donaldson, Reddick and other important members of future A’s squads, in addition to planting the seeds for even more wheeling and dealing down the line. According to MLB.com’s Andrew Simon, Beane’s A’s have made more total trades than any other club since 1998 — a tally of nearly 300 going into the 2020 season.

Not all of them made Beane look like a visionary genius. Most infamously, he shipped Donaldson to the Toronto Blue Jays for Brett Lawrie and Kendall Graveman; Donaldson went on to win an MVP, while Graveman proved to merely be a serviceable (yet oft-injured) pitcher, and Lawrie was out of baseball within three years. But the frequent trades mostly helped Beane achieve his goal of keeping the A’s competitive despite bargain-priced rosters. As my colleague Ben Morris wrote years ago, the advantage Beane’s shrewd deal-making brought to Oakland year after year was worth far more than any one star player could have provided the franchise.

And yet, postseason success eluded Beane and the A’s. Based on a logistic regression using each team’s pre-playoff Elo ratings (including 2020),5 we would have expected Oakland to win 1.4 World Series since 1998 in their 11 playoff appearances. Instead, it won zero — a shortfall that ranks as the worst in baseball during Beane’s time as GM:

Beane’s A’s always fell short in the playoffs

Differential between actual championships and expected (based on pre-playoff Elo ratings) for MLB teams, 1998-2020

Championships
Team Playoff Appearances Expected Actual* Diff.
Athletics 11 1.42 0.00 -1.42
Braves 14 1.60 0.28 -1.32
Dodgers 12 1.32 0.28 -1.04
Indians 9 0.93 0.00 -0.93
Twins 9 0.86 0.00 -0.86
Rangers 7 0.70 0.00 -0.70
Mets 5 0.55 0.00 -0.55
Tigers 5 0.49 0.00 -0.49
Brewers 5 0.38 0.00 -0.38
Rockies 4 0.35 0.00 -0.35
Reds 4 0.31 0.00 -0.31
Mariners 2 0.31 0.00 -0.31
Pirates 3 0.30 0.00 -0.30
Padres 4 0.30 0.00 -0.30
Orioles 3 0.30 0.00 -0.30
Blue Jays 3 0.28 0.00 -0.28
Rays 6 0.67 0.42 -0.25
Astros 10 1.21 1.02 -0.19
Angels 7 0.92 1.00 +0.08
Cubs 9 0.88 1.00 +0.12
Phillies 5 0.66 1.00 +0.34
Diamondbacks 6 0.60 1.00 +0.40
Nationals 5 0.52 1.00 +0.48
Cardinals 14 1.51 2.00 +0.49
White Sox 4 0.37 1.00 +0.63
Royals 2 0.18 1.00 +0.82
Marlins 2 0.13 1.00 +0.87
Yankees 19 2.51 4.00 +1.49
Giants 7 0.82 3.00 +2.18
Red Sox 12 1.62 4.00 +2.38

*Includes 2020, using FiveThirtyEight’s current World Series odds to measure championships for active teams.

Source: Retrosheet

But why did it happen? There’s plenty of blame to go around. Compared with their regular-season stats, A’s postseason pitchers put up an ERA 21 percent higher (3.98 versus 3.30) than we’d expect, with a fielding-independent pitching 13 percent higher (4.16 versus 3.67) and a WHIP 8 percent higher. At the plate, Oakland’s OPS was 8 percent lower (.711 versus .775) than we would expect from regular-season statistics, with a batting average 9 percent lower (.237 versus .259). And ironically, the largest percent decline for A’s hitters came in the category of on-base percentage, in which they dipped by 11 percent (.305 versus .341) in the playoffs. So Oakland’s core formula tended to fail when October rolled around — though it’s important to note that we still don’t really know what the right formula actually is for postseason success (relative to the regular season). All we can say is this: Whatever does cause teams to outperform expectations in the playoffs, Beane was never able to discover it, for all of his trying over more than two decades in Oakland.

However, the Athletics’ inability to win in the playoffs is but a small part of Beane’s overall legacy within the game. Other teams that followed his lead did find success in the playoffs — most notably the Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, Houston Astros, St. Louis Cardinals … and maybe even the Rays this season. And because of Beane’s influence, the entire way the game is played has changed over the past 20 years. To that point, Beane has acknowledged it was becoming more and more difficult to find an edge through analytics with the passing of time. “Teams are valuing the same things,” he told The Washington Post in 2018. “The big teams are run very wisely now. … There are really smart guys who have capital. There’s no soft spots. They’re smart guys, and they’re surrounded by smart guys. It’s a very intelligent industry right now.”

Maybe that realization played a role in Beane’s impending career change. After spending decades chasing inefficiencies, there are fewer to be found than ever before. But whatever the reason for it, Beane’s departure from the A’s marks the end of an era that drastically transformed baseball — and sports in general — forever.

Footnotes

  1. A lesson baseball learned the hard way with the 1899 Cleveland Spiders.

  2. Using our JEFFBAGWELL metric to blend WAR from Baseball-Reference.com and FanGraphs, for which you can download data every day this season.

  3. That would be: Zito (19), Hudson (10) and Mulder (3).

  4. Harden was dealt in 2008 but later returned to the A’s as a free agent in 2011.

  5. Using FiveThirtyEight’s prediction model to measure championships for still-active playoff teams.

Neil Paine is a senior writer for FiveThirtyEight.

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