On the long list of days that changed the game of baseball, October 17, 1997, might not stand out to many people. It was a milestone, though: That’s when the Oakland A’s hired a 35-year-old busted former outfield prospect named Billy Beane as general manager.
The team has been remarkably successful since, winning six division titles and making seven playoff appearances in the past 17 years. The A’s have managed that sustained excellence despite consistently fielding one of the game’s smallest payrolls, and they’ve done so by constantly staying ahead of the curve when it comes to talent evaluation and roster building. That success, coupled with the popularity of Michael Lewis’s Moneyball, has elevated Beane’s status from successful MLB GM to statistical rock star in both the sports and business worlds.
Of course, Beane has at times received disproportionate credit for the analytical revolution that’s infiltrated baseball and the rest of the sports world. Some teams were already becoming more serious about data-based decision-making when Beane came along, and many more got interested shortly thereafter. People like Rob Neyer and the founders of Baseball Prospectus were already following in the footsteps of Bill James, Pete Palmer, Craig Wright, John Thorn, and others by using objective analysis to write about baseball online. Earl Weaver might not have called himself a stathead when he started managing the Baltimore Orioles back in the late 1960s, but he managed in a way that made clear he understood how precious every out was, and that wasting them on bunting or overly aggressive baserunning was a mistake. Branch Rickey hired a Montreal native named Allan Roth as baseball’s first full-time statistician … all the way back in 1947. Hell, Beane wasn’t even the first A’s GM to run the team with an eye on the numbers; that was predecessor Sandy Alderson, who held the gig for 15 years. What’s more, nine different teams have won the World Series since Oakland hired Beane, including the Marlins twice.1 Beane’s A’s have yet to win it all.
While Beane may not be a superhero, he is a titan in the sport, and on March 15 in Phoenix, I got the chance to pick his brain about the state of his franchise in particular and the game in general. During a wide-ranging, two-hour sit-down with Beane and A’s owner Lew Wolff, the two innovative thinkers talked up the rise of big data in baseball, the importance of having a manager who buys in to what the front office is doing, the value of continuity when running a team, the challenges of ballin’ on a budget, and much more.
The ever-expanding role of analytics in baseball was on full display at the recent MIT Sloan Sports Analytics Conference, when MLB Advanced Media unveiled a new tracking system that sparked a virtual riot in the analytics community. Assuming the system’s information winds up on game broadcasts and in other public domains as promised, we’ll all soon be able to follow everything from the exact trajectory and velocity of a batted ball to the speed and efficiency with which a sprinting outfielder tracks down that ball. SI’s Jay Jaffe’s aptly called the new system “OMGf/x.”
The A’s have built their own proprietary systems over the past few years, enabling them to become early adopters of all kinds of trends, from emphasizing on-base percentage (a strategy famously trumpeted inMoneyball) to making subtler advances, like crafting a lineup full of hitters with fly ball tendencies.2 I asked Beane how advances such as MLBAM’s might affect the A’s, specifically whether the increased dispersion of information-gathering tools would erode Oakland’s competitive advantage in analytics.
Beane’s response: meh.
“This is really still just data,” he said. “And it’s all about what you do with the raw data. In every athletic endeavor, there’s so much data thrown at us right now that, ultimately, it’s the process and what you do with it that matters.”
While Beane talked up the importance of making something useful out of data — “that’s maybe 30 percent of this game” — he put even greater emphasis on implementation, specifically: finding a manager who’s open to new ideas; hiring scouts and number crunchers who can work together instead of against each other; and recruiting quants who know how to explain data in plain English so that the manager and other field personnel can easily put that information into play.
“I think the [manager] position has evolved,” Beane said. “You want to create a true link with what the front office has done over the course of the winter and how those players will be used, and ultimately apply all of that on the field in real time.”
Beane pointed to Oakland manager Bob Melvin’s “unique” background as a former player who knows the game, but also as a former Cal Bear who worked on Wall Street after his playing days concluded.
“He’s the perfect guy for us,” Beane said of Melvin. “One thing about Bob, he does have a very open mind. He’s hungry to learn, as opposed to immediately saying, ‘That’s not how I do it.’ It’s the other way around … Then take Farhan [Zaidi, assistant GM and director of baseball operations], who has a PhD from Berkeley. I mean, their relationship is as close as anyone’s in the organization. The other thing too is that we’ve got a pretty small decision-making group. We don’t make any apologies for that, and we’re pretty ruthless with implementation. Bob plays a very big part in making that happen.”
–Jonah Keri, Grantland.com
Save for the Yankees’ dynasty of the late-1990s, the Wild Card era has demanded too much of defending champions.
Too many rounds, too many innings, too much mental and emotional currency needed to repeat. In fact, if the Red Sox don’t win a second consecutive crown this fall, Major League Baseball will tie its longest drought between back-to-back champs.
The Giants know as well as anybody the pains of trying to repeat, and they have respect for anybody who can endure those pains and still survive, with or without World Series paydirt.
“Look at the Cardinals — World Series [in 2011], NLCS against us and then World Series again? That’s impressive,” Giants catcher Buster Posey said. “It’s a big grind on your pitchers and everybody, really. You finish up the season and you’ve got three months until you’re back at it, not to mention the hoopla that comes with winning the World Series. It’s a challenge, but one you definitely welcome.”
The Giants didn’t welcome the open October calendar that came with finishing below .500 in 2013. But they did at least welcome the rest it provided.
“It was bittersweet,” reliever Jeremy Affeldt said. “We didn’t go to the playoffs, but it gave us a chance to rest, recover and rejuvenate mentally, not just physically.”
How the rested-up Giants fare will go a long way toward determining the outcome of the National League West this season.
Since the introduction of Wild Card berths two decades ago, 40 teams have reached the playoffs a year after finishing with a losing record. It has happened at least once every year except for 2005, and it happened with three teams — the Pirates, Indians and the Red Sox — in 2013.
The Giants seem perhaps the safest bet to be that type of turnaround team in 2014. For what it’s worth, the PECOTA projection system currently pegs San Francisco, which finished 76-86 last season, to go 87-75 and claim the NL’s top Wild Card spot.
The reason for the optimism among the numbers-crunchers and analysts is not that the Giants had a particularly aggressive offseason, relative to their division foes. After all, San Francisco’s primary moves of significance were the additions of Tim Hudson and Michael Morse, each of whom had a tough 2013, because of a freak ankle injury in Hudson’s case and a .651 OPS in Morse’s.
No, the optimism rests in the fact that the Giants essentially took every opportunity to keep their championship-caliber club together — retaining right fielder Hunter Pence, starters Tim Lincecumand Ryan Vogelsong and reliever Javier Lopez — and should, conceivably, be in a better physical position to maximize its potential.
Counting postseason performance, starters Matt Cain (655 1/3), Madison Bumgarner (629 1/3) and Lincecum (618 1/3) all rank among the top 20 in innings pitched over the past three seasons. In that same time period, relievers Santiago Casilla (64), Javier Lopez (61) and Sergio Romo (60) all rank in the top 15 in appearances on no days’ rest.
“Those are command guys, for the most part,” an NL scout said. “They need that sharpness.”
So, yes, the full offseason did, as Affeldt said, have some sweet to offset the bitter, and it gave way to a spring camp in Scottsdale, Ariz., in which the Giants have begun the hunt for another even-year title by getting back to basics.
“It’s been a crisp camp,” Posey said.
Manager Bruce Bochy and his staff have spent the spring harping on fundamentals, because San Francisco looked tired in areas beyond the uncharacteristically pedestrian 4.00 staff ERA (and that was with Bumgarner posting ace-type numbers). Defensively, the Giants rated as league average, at best (per the defensive-runs-saved metric calculated by Baseball Info Solutions). Offensively, they stranded more runners than all but four other teams and they grounded into the eighth-most double plays in the Major Leagues.
“We loosened up on some stuff,” Affeldt said. “Defensively? Eh. Offensively? Eh. Pitching? Eh. Bullpen? Eh — and I was a big part of the ‘eh’ there, because I didn’t do a good job with inherited runners.
“So we’ve been more focused on the PFPs [pitchers' fielding practice], the right things, the little things. We’ve made that a big deal in this camp. That’s just what you have to do.”
Hudson adds depth and veteran savvy to a starting staff that had the third-highest ERA (4.37) in the NL last year. And as MLB.com columnist Tracy Ringolsby recently explained, returns to form by Cain and Lincecum are essential this season.
The Giants, already known to be a loyal organization with remarkably low turnover on the coaching staff, felt it essential to keep this club together.
–Anthony Castrovince, MLB.com
UPDATE: (5:05 p.m. Tuesday evening) — The Raiders agreed to terms on a contract with offensive tackle Donald Penn on Tuesday evening, a pair of NFL sources told CSN Bay Area.
The Raiders still have several holes to fill. ThatRodger Saffold situation hasn’t been forgotten. Jared Veldheer and Lamarr Houston will still be missed.
The Raiders stumbled but didn’t face plant during the first wave of free agency thanks to a series of smart, sensible signings with a common theme. The Raiders are going after winners.
Every new free agent signed save right tackle Austin Howard has been to the playoffs within the last three years. There are six Super Bowl rings and eight NFL championship appearances between them.
That’s vital experience for a team that struggled to close games last season and must learn how to win. Make no mistake — the Raiders have just started down the road to respectability. They must strike gold in this draft, mine depth from free agency’s remnants and secure a veteran quarterback to provide offensive stability sorely lacking last season.
It’s still a vast improvement over last Wednesday’s disastrous team physical that sent Saffold home without a contract. Roughly a week later the Raiders still have $32.299 million in salary cap space with items yet unchecked – the Raiders are still in play for left tackle Donald Penn, and their search for a passer won’t come cheap – but they’re in a better place for signing several key defenders. The list includes defensive lineman Lamarr Woodley and Antonio Smith and cornerback Tarell Brown. Adding veteran receiver James Jones was a coup, and guard Kevin Boothe provides depth.
But Justin Tuck got positive momentum rolling again. The longtime New York Giants defensive end wanted to stay in the Big Apple, but the Raiders’ two-year, $11 million offer drew him West. Tuck decided that, if he was going to take 60.5 sacks arose the continent , he might as well bring some talent with him.
Woodley was an easy sell. They have the same agent and came as a virtual package deal. Smith followed the next day and Brown after that.
“I think it’s a domino effect,” Brown said. “Anytime you bring in guys that have won a lot of games, have played in a lot of big games as well and have had a lot of success in this league, it definitely helps. We can put things in perspective and guide younger guys in the direction of saying, ‘Look, get under my wing and this is how you do it in the NFL to be successful.’ So, bringing those guys in, it’ll definitely help this team out. That includes me as well. We just all have to get on one page and make sure that we all get the common goal, and that’s winning day in and day out.”
–Scott Bair, CSNBayArea.com