Billy Beane's use of 'Moneyball' tactics fails to propel A's

by Tim Mosso | 5/27/05 5:00am

The surprising development of most revolutions is not the overthrow of the old regime, but the speed with which the revolutionaries are discredited. "Moneyball," by Michael Lewis, was hailed upon its publication in 2003 as baseball's revolutionary liberation from big money teams, conventional wisdom and insider orthodoxy. Two years after the fact, "Moneyball" seems destined for irrelevance.

According to "Moneyball," small market baseball teams can beat rich teams if they use statistics to find unrecognized value in baseball players. The team that wins is the team that hires the smartest businessmen, preferably with little or no direct experience as players.

Of all the number-crunching iconoclasts feted by Lewis, Billy Beane , General Manager of the Oakland Athletics, was chosen as the star and hero of the "Moneyball" drama. Of all the weaknesses inherent in Moneyball's theory of the baseball world, the only one that was obvious from initial publication was this contradictory combination of hero worship and scientific method.

Lewis' book truly is hero worship on a Homeric scale, going out of its way to dismiss all of Beane's many shortcomings. Beane flopped as a player, but Lewis insists that he really did have Hall of Fame talent. The author readily accepts Beane's excuses for the A's post-season failures without critical analysis, and Beane's distracting temper tantrums are ignored. Moneyball's dependence on Billy Beane's personal powers leaves the scientific credibility of the book in question.

Reality has not been kind to Billy Beane, the A's, or "Moneyball" since 2002, the year that Lewis chronicles. A first round playoff knockout in 2003 was followed by no post-season play in 2004. 2005 is looking like the year that baseball's traditionalists enjoy their long-awaited revenge. Moneyball's countless anecdotes about Beane deriding old-time talent scouts and claiming laptops win ballgames always left a greater impression of arrogance than of brilliance.

The Oakland A's are in last place in the AL West division, laptops and all. This past winter, Beane traded his two ace pitchers, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, in return for surprisingly unremarkable young players. The 2005 season was to be seen as the turning point that would either prove Beane's genius for spotting talent or reveal a naked emperor. Call a tailor. Oakland is in a free fall that suggests Beane merely rode his best pitchers to achieve the A's recent successes.

Even more damaging than the current state of the A's is the talent scouting system that Beane touts in Moneyball's many amateur draft anecdotes. The book expresses Beane's contempt for old-fashioned baseball scouts who use eyes and instincts to decide who should be a big leaguer. Beane fired his head of scouting for choosing a high school pitcher named Jeremy Bonderman during the draft. Bonderman, now with Detroit, is 22 years old and among the best pitchers in the American League. Beane passed on Ben Sheets, who "Moneyball" dismisses as a typical hard-throwing kid. Ben Sheets is now a two-time all-star. Bill Beane passesd on Scott Kazmir, now a budding ace for the Devil Rays. This is what happens when a single superman with a spreadsheet insists on overruling an army of veteran talent scouts.

"Moneyball" introduces the reader to Billy Beane's fellow supermen, Paul DePodesta and J.P Ricciardi. Again, history has not been kind. Ricciardi, now GM of the Toronto Blue Jays, presided over one of the most-shocking season-to-season collapses in recent memory. While the 2003 Blue Jays contended for the AL East championship, the 2004 club finished dead last. DePodesta, now GM of the LA Dodgers, is working with a budget roughly twice the size of Oakland's, but his club still tanked in the first round of the 2004 playoffs. Billy Beane once said that he would win the World Series every year if he had a $100 million payroll to buy players. DePodesta has that in Los Angeles, but the results have fallen short of championship caliber.

The 2004 World Series may have been the prelude to the death of "Moneyball." The Boston Red Sox, which many observers wrongly identified as a "Moneyball" team, beat the St. Louis Cardinals in four games. With a centerfielder (Johnny Damon) and a closer (Keith Foulke) that Oakland lost to big market money, Boston won it all. Boston's first baseman, David Ortiz, certainly fit the mold of a hidden-value "Moneyball" player, but the emerging slugger's mammoth bulk was dwarfed only by the $20 million salary of Manny Ramirez, who batted ahead of Ortiz. The Red Sox won their championship with the highest payroll of any World Series winner in history.

"Moneyball" could not live up to its own arrogance. In hindsight, the book seems more like an after-the-fact attempt to explain a particular ball club's brief golden age than an instructive blueprint. The rapid decline of the Oakland A's has called the wisdom of Billy Beane baseball into question. Although some of his analytical tools are certain to survive as scouting aids, it is unlikely that a game played by people will ever be ruled by numbers.

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