It’s good news that “Moneyball” is reminding people that the A’s were a record-setting playoff team before being bought by Lew Wolff and John Fisher. But the idea that Billy Beane was blazing a new trail that others have copied is nonsense.
Beane was simply trying to get the most bang for his buck, which is not exactly a new strategy, in baseball or business. But the interesting thing about the 2002 draft class, which was featured in Michael Lewis’ book, was that it was largely a failure.
With compensation picks, the A’s had seven selections in the first round, but only three are still in the majors now, all with different teams, Nick Swisher (Yankees), Joe Blanton (Phillies) and Mark Teahen (Toronto).
The draft pick who was the prototype for that draft, catcher Jeremy Brown, played four minor league seasons and retired.
Not a lot of production for all that ballyhoo.
Another player who was featured in the book, Scott Hatteberg, is also more of an example of the failure of the Beane style than the successes. The A’s championship teams in the 1988-90 seasons and in 2000 featured power-hitting first basemen. Mark McGwire set a rookie home-run record with 49 in 1988. Jason Giambi had seasons of 33, 43 and 38 home runs before he left for the Yankees. Hatteberg hit 15 in 2002, and the A’s haven’t had a power-hitting first baseman since.
The 2002 A’s were actually built in a very traditional way, around the pitching staff. Mark Mulder and Barry Zito were first-round draft picks, Mulder the second player chosen when he came out. Tim Hudson was only a sixth-round pick because there were questions about his durability. Hudson has had injury problems, including needing Tommy John surgery, but he was very productive for the A’s and has had a good career, with 180 career wins at this point.
Nor is Beane’s baseball philosophy ground-breaking, even for the A’s. Sandy Alderson, his predecessor as Oakland’s GM, was a firm believer in the importance of on-base percentage. Sandy wasn’t a ground-breaker, either.
Baseball men going back as far as Branch Rickey with the Cardinals in the 1930s have believed it was more significant than batting average.
The A’s in the Alderson era were one of the first teams to use the sabremetic principles to evaluate players. Many writers scorn these, mostly because they don’t understand them, but they’re widely used throughout baseball now.
Where, then, have the A’s gone wrong? I don’t have access to their financial books, but I believe they’re simply not spending enough money.
In both the Haas family and Steve Schott/Ken Hofmann ownerships, much money was put into scouting and minor league teams. In both eras, the A’s found and developed outstanding players. They’re not doing that, apparently because the money is not there.
It isn’t being spent on the major league level, either. Wolff and Fisher are content to keep the payroll down and collect revenue-sharing money from other clubs.
It’s a convenient story for the A’s to claim that Beane gave away all his secrets in “Moneyball,” but that’s just an excuse — and it simply isn’t true.
Glenn Dickey has been covering Bay Area sports since 1963 and also writes on www.GlennDickey.com. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.