The 2012 Athletics Are A Great Story That Has Nothing To Do With Moneyball

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Going to Michael Lewis for a quote about the 2012 Oakland Athletics because he wrote Moneyball as the author does in this NY Times article is like going to Stephen King for a quote on time travel and the Kennedy assassination because he wrote a novel about time travel and the Kennedy assassination. Lewis’s book was technically non-fiction and King’s is decidedly fiction, but the “facts” in Lewis’s book were designed to take everything Billy Beane was doing to take advantage of market inefficiencies and magnify them into an infallibility and new template that only a fool wouldn’t follow.

Lewis had an end in mind and crafted his story about the 2002 Athletics and baseball sabermetrics to meet that end. It’s not journalism, it’s creative non-fiction. Beane went along with it, became famous, and very rich. None of that validates the genesis of the puffery.

The intervening years from Moneyball’s publication to today were not kind to Beane or to the story…until 2012. The movie’s success notwithstanding, it was rife with inaccuracies, omissions, and outright fabrications such as:

  • Art Howe’s casual dismissal of Beane’s demands as if it was Howe who was in charge and not Beane
  • The portrayal of Jeremy Brown not as a chunky catcher, but an individual so close to morbidly obese that he needed to visit Richard Simmons, pronto
  • The failure to mention the three pitchers Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito
  • That Scott Hatteberg’s playing time was a point of contention and Beane traded Carlos Pena to force Howe’s hand to play Hatteberg—Hatteberg was still learning first base and wasn’t playing defense, but he was in the lineup almost every day as the DH from day one

There are other examples and it wasn’t a mistake. The book was absurd, the movie was exponentially absurd, and there are still people who refuse to look at the facts before replacing the genius hat on Beane’s head as “proof” of the veracity of Lewis’s tale.

This 2012 version of the Athletics is Beane’s rebuild/retool number five (by my count) since 2003. The Moneyball club was blown apart and quickly returned to contention by 2006 when they lost in the ALCS. That team too was ripped to shreds and the A’s traded for youngsters, signed veterans, traded veterans, signed veterans, traded for youngsters and finished far out of the money in the American League from 2007-2011.

Then they cleared out the house again and are now in the playoffs. It has no connection with Moneyball nor the concept of Beane finding undervalued talent. It has to do with the young players succeeding, as the article linked above says, and winning “in a hurry”.

Let’s look at the facts and assertions from the book/movie followed by the truth:

The A’s, under Beane, were “card-counters” in the draft

The only players on this Athletics’ team that were acquired via the draft and have helped the club are Jemile Weeks, Cliff Pennington, Sean Doolittle (drafted as a first baseman and converted to the mound), Dan Straily, and A.J. Griffin. The A’s drafts since Moneyball have been mediocre at best and terrible at worst, so bad that Grady Fuson—along with Howe, one of the old-school “villains” in Moneyball—was brought back to the organization as special assistant to the GM.

The hidden truth about the draft is that the boss of the organization probably pays attention to the first 8-10 rounds at most. After that, it’s the scouts and cross-checkers who make the decisions and any player taken past the 10th round who becomes a success is a matter of being lucky with late development, a position switch, a quirky pitch, or some other unquantifiable factor. Beane’s “new age” picks like Brown, Steve Stanley, and Ben Fritz, didn’t make it. The conventional selections Nick Swisher and Joe Blanton did make it, were paid normal bonuses of over $1 million, in line with what other players drafted in their slot area received. Brown received $350,000 as the 35th pick in the first round and his signing was contingent on accepting it.

Beane “fleeced” other clubs in trades

In retrospect, he took advantage of the Red Sox desperation to have a “proven” closer, Andrew Bailey, to replace the departed Jonathan Papelbon. Bailey got hurt and, last night, showed why it wasn’t his injury that ruined the Red Sox season. He’s not particularly good. Josh Reddick has 32 homers—power and inexpensive youthful exuberance the Red Sox could have used in 2012.

The other deals he made last winter? They were of mutual benefit. The A’s were looking to restart their rebuild and slash salary waiting out the decision on whether they’re going to get permission to build a new park in San Jose. They sent their erstwhile ace Trevor Cahill to the Diamondbacks for a large package of young talent with Collin Cowgill, Ryan Cook, and Jarrod Parker. They also traded Gio Gonzalez to the Nationals for even more young talent including Tommy Milone and Derek Norris. The Diamondbacks got 200 innings and good work (that hasn’t shown up in his 13-12 record) from Cahill and are also-rans; the Nationals got brilliance from Gonzalez and won their division. The A’s slashed payroll and their young players, as the article says, developed rapidly.

Sometimes it works as it did with this series of trades, sometimes it doesn’t as with the failed return on the Hudson trade to the Braves in 2004.

They found undervalued talent

Yes. We know that Moneyball wasn’t strictly about on-base percentage. It was about “undervalued talent” and opportunity due to holes in the market. That argument has come and gone. Was Yoenis Cespedes “undervalued”? He was paid like a free agent and joined the A’s because they offered the most money and the longest contract. He was a supremely gifted risk whose raw skills have helped the A’s greatly and bode well for a bright future. The other signings/trades—Jonny Gomes, Bartolo Colon, Seth Smith, Brandon Inge, Brandon Moss—were prayerful maneuvers based on what was available for money the A’s could afford. They contributed to this club on and off the field.

Grant Balfour was signed before 2011 because the A’s again thought they were ready to contend and all they needed was to bolster the bullpen. They’d also signed Brian Fuentes to close. Fuentes was an expensive disaster whom they released earlier this year; Balfour was inconsistent, lost his closer’s job, wanted to be traded, regained the job, and is pitching well.

The manager is an irrelevant figurehead

Howe was slandered in Moneyball the book as an incompetent buffoon along for the ride and slaughtered in the movie as an arrogant, insubordinate jerk. What’s ironic is that the manager hired at mid-season 2011, Bob Melvin, is essentially the same personality as Howe!!! An experienced manager who’d had success in his past, Melvin replaced the overmatched Bob Geren, who just so happened to be one of Beane’s closest friends and was fired, according to Beane, not because of poor results, managing and communication skills, but because speculation about his job security had become a distraction.

Melvin and Howe share the common trait of a laid back, easygoing personality that won’t scare young players into making mistakes. Melvin’s calm demeanor and solid skills of handling players and game situations was exactly what the A’s needed and precisely what Moneyball said was meaningless.

The 2012 Athletics are a great story; Moneyball was an interesting story, but they only intersect when Beane’s “genius” from the book and movie melds with this season’s confluence of events and produces another convenient storyline that, in fact, has nothing at all to do with reality.

The A’s are going to the playoffs and might win the division over the Rangers and Angels, two teams that spent a combined $170 million more in player salaries than the A’s did. It’s a terrific life-lesson that it’s not always about money, but it has zero to do with Moneyball and Michael Lewis is an unwanted interloper as the Beane chronicler since he knows nothing about baseball and is a callous opportunist who took advantage of a situation for his own benefit.

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From the People Who Brought You Michael Ynoa…

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Michael Ynoa is a right-handed pitcher from the Dominican Republic who signed with the Athletics for a then-A’s record signing bonus of $4.25 million signing bonus in June of 2008.

He’s now 20-years-old and has thrown 9 professional innings in almost four years.

Ynoa had Tommy John surgery and is expected to pitch this season in the minors.

When he signed, his name was spelled Inoa; now it’s Ynoa. Whether there’s a Fausto Carmona/Roberto Hernandez Heredia story and we’ll discover that he’s actually 43 in the future is unknown.

But back then, Billy Beane wasn’t criticized for the signing; he wasn’t criticized after Ynoa got hurt; and people have forgotten about the risk he took by making an investment in such a question mark while having little money to spend.

The only difference between then and now is that Beane’s status as untouchable and protected from the righteous indignation that other GMs are subject to has become more pronounced and gotten exponentially worse.

I’m not getting into saying the signing of Yoenis Cespedes is a good deal or a bad deal; that Billy Beane is betraying the tenets of Moneyball upon which his built his status as the Teflon GM; or questioning if the newest member of the Oakland Athletics, Cespedes, is going to be worth the 4-year, $36 million contract he’s reported to have agreed to.

That’s not what this is about.

It’s about Beane’s judgment being cast as unassailable because of a book, a movie and perception that he can do no wrong in spite of having done almost nothing but wrong since his last playoff team in 2006.

How is it possible to credit a man who is clearly just flinging things at the wall with no definable strategy? A man who’s hoping to get a new ballpark for his team and then have money to spend to attract players to come to his ballclub?

Does it make sense to trade the young pitchers Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey who weren’t making a ton of money and were part of the one strength the Athletics had—on the mound—for packages of young players and then turn around and use the money that the team was supposed to be saving on Cespedes? To keep Coco Crisp? To trade for Seth Smith? To sign Jonny Gomes and Bartolo Colon?

Anything can be justified by anyone if they’re sufficiently motivated, but how do you take seriously those who refuse to criticize someone for reasons that have nothing to do with the job he’s done, but because it conveniences them to shield someone like Beane from criticism because there’s a clear investment in the concept of him being what his fictional account says he is?

Ask yourself this: if these deals were made by Omar Minaya, Dayton Moore, Bill Bavasi, Tony Reagins, Ed Wade or even Ruben Amaro Jr.—any GM who’s invited ridicule for the money spent and trades made in recent years without a plan that is palatable to the outsider “experts” that judge baseball from the safety of their armchairs and newsrooms—what would be said?

Would this be called another brilliant maneuver or would it add another layer to the reasons they should be replaced?

Cespedes might make it. He might not. Judging from the clips I’ve seen of him, he’s an intriguing talent.

But there have been many intriguing talents who’ve been pursued due to the free agent status of Japanese, Cuban, Venezuelan and other countries for players not trapped in the MLB draft. Many of these players failed miserably.

The Yankees, Red Sox and even the Marlins could afford to sign Cespedes and have him be a bust. The Yankees and Red Sox because they have the money; the Marlins because of the Cuban population in Miami would come to the games—for awhile—because they signed a young, Cuban player with multiple talents.

Can the A’s afford it if he’s a bust?

If he is, will we see more excuses as to why it’s not Beane’s fault and he’s still “smarter than the average bear”?

And if so, will you still believe it?

How long are young going to allow yourself to be treated as a fool?

How long?

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Giants/A’s—Same Area, Different Universe

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The Athletics problems are not going to be solved by the planned new ballpark in San Jose because the supposed “last hurdle” is a one that the Giants are not going to remove.

After reading this piece from Ken Rosenthal, I’m left wondering why there’s such ill-will at the Giants choosing to protect themeslves by refusing to give up their territorial rights to San Jose and allowing the Athletics to build a new ballpark.

Why should they?

These quotes from Rosenthal struck me:

The Giants, who draw a significant part of their fan and corporate bases from the counties south of San Francisco, remain adamantly opposed to relinquishing their territorial rights to San Jose and the South Bay region.

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The Giants, projecting a payroll of about $130 million next season, will need to draw at least 3.2 million to break even, one source said. The team, which drew nearly 3.4 million last season coming off its first World Series title, cannot afford much slippage.

If their profit margin is so narrow and they have a large payroll directly as a result of their success in recent years, they’re faced with the prospect of taking the chance of surrendering a significant portion of their game attendees and giving them to the Athletics. That doesn’t necessarily mean that people are going to root for the Athletics if they move to San Jose—some would—but if they’re Giants fans, they’ll remain Giants fans; despite that, a closer park would provide an option for those who might have gone to AT&T Park to watch the Giants to go to the nearer venue to watch a baseball game, any baseball game. Even the A’s.

Because the Giants have become a star-laden team with a budget, they’re going to have an even smaller window to remain competitive and financially stable. Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain are both going to make substantial sums in the coming years as they head for free agency and if the Giants want to keep them, they’ll have to pay them. They’re still on the hook for Aaron Rowand and Barry Zito; Rowand’s been released, Zito has been atrocious and injured.

The difference between the Giants and A’s is that the Giants have fans that will come to the ballpark to watch the team whether they’re good or not and the A’s don’t. That star power of Lincecum and Cain now and Barry Bonds 5 years ago washes away the pain of a non-contending team.

Who do the A’s currently have that fans are going to want to go to the park to watch? They can’t blame fiscal difficulties for a series of horrible drafts and bad trades.

Charlie Finley put together one of the best teams in the history of the sport from 1972-1974 as they won three straight World Series. They never drew well.

Apart from the late 1980s-early 1990s when they were a star-studded, highly-paid club managed by Tony LaRussa and with recognizable personalities Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire, they were never in the top-tier attractions in baseball. You can blame the miserable ballpark, but it’s questionable how much a new park would fix matters for them now. If the fans weren’t enthused enough to spur them to finish any higher than 6th in attendance from 2000-2006 when the team was consistently good and run by a supposed “genius” who was becoming a worldwide celebrity, Billy Beane, what difference is a new park going to make?

Fans would apparently prefer to go to the movies to watch Brad Pitt play a fictional genius—as was the portrayal in the movie Moneyball—instead of the on-field train crash that the real Beane built in 2011.

Propaganda-crafted fame aside, fans are not going to go to the ballpark to watch a GM do his GMing, so the Beane lust is essentially meaningless.

We’re going to get a gauge on how a new ballpark influences a baseball-disinterested population in Miami in 2012 with the Marlins. What’s going to make the judgment clearer is that the Marlins are intent on spending money to put a better product on the field in an effort to legitimize the franchise and justify the new park. The spending spree has been tried before with the organization and the Marlins won a World Series in 1997 after buying a load of star players, but when there wasn’t any immediate off-field rise in attendance or attention as anything more than a passing fancy for fair weather and “be here to be seen” fans; after 1997, then-owner Wayne Huizenga ordered a dismantling of the team and sold it.

Another championship under Jeffrey Loria in 2003 didn’t yield a drastic increase in attendance and then that team was torn apart.

Despite the amenities and non-baseball distractions inherent with a new park, a segment of fans might’ve been avoiding the Marlins games because of the constant threat of rain and a football stadium or because they’re not interested in baseball. Owners really don’t care why people are coming to the park as long as they purchase tickets, pay for parking, buy food and souvenirs; but if they’re not into baseball then they’re not into baseball and the new ballpark novelty wears off rapidly if the team isn’t winning. The Mets are proving that now and the Mets have a larger reservoir of hard core fans than the A’s do.

They don’t like baseball in Oakland.

Don’t think that an influx in money from a new park would guarantee a marked improvement in the on-field product either. Beane hasn’t distinguished himself in putting a club together since the rest of baseball caught onto what he was doing; the sentiment about Oakland that was expressed by C.J. Wilson—amid much vitriol—during the past season is shared in a less overt fashion amongst the players. They’ll only join the A’s if they have no other choice. Beane was once able to take advantage of that with former stars like Frank Thomas who needed the A’s to rejuvenate his career; the A’s could offer him a place to play everyday on an incentive-laden deal and hope to hit lightning. Many times they did. Now other teams are thinking the same way and with that revelation, Beane’s “genius” disappeared.

At least Florida is a year-round home for many players and has the absence of a state income tax to make it a sound personal choice. What attraction is there to go to the Athletics and Oakland?

There are none.

There are other venues that could support a team, so why is there this desperation to stay in Oakland where they can’t get a new park and the fans don’t care?

Either eliminate the team or move it to a place that won’t infringe on a healthy club. The casual fans in Oakland didn’t appreciate them when they were good and they’re definitely not invested in them now that they’re bad and not getting better anytime soon.

You can’t help those who don’t help themselves and if they lose their franchise, it’s because they never bolstered it to begin with.

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It’s Not Your Business

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For all the criticism he received for saying it, Jeff Wilpon was right when he said it wasn’t anyone’s business whom the Mets were considering—if there are indeed investors—to buy into the club. If they were a publicly traded company or a public trust, then yes, it would be the business of outsiders as to who’s trying to buy in. But they’re not.

Fans and media members are under the mistaken impression that they have a right to know.

They don’t have a right to know.

There’s a misplaced belief that because a fan is a fan of a team, they have a direct say in how that team is run. And they don’t. A baseball team is not a public endeavor; you, as a customer, have a say in one way and one way only: don’t purchase tickets; don’t watch the games; don’t indulge in the product and the problems you’re complaining about will solve themselves naturally.

This is a America; this means you’re free to purchase or not to purchase.

It’s that simple.

We’ve become a society of busybodies (or yentas; or whatever your individual ethnicity uses for slang to describe someone who’s into everyone else’s affairs in an unwanted manner).

What makes it worse is that the tiniest whisper from anywhere—regardless of where it’s from—becomes the basis for uninformed speculation disguised as fact.

Any tiny little bit of information—from what Jose Reyes ate while being courted by the Marlins; to the McCourts lavish and silly spending habits; to Dale Sveum not getting a second interview with the Cubs—are grounds for discussion.

I certainly don’t like people interfering in my affairs especially when it’s of absolutely no concern to them, nor do they have a right to be discussing it as if it is; as if they have some inside knowledge from a game of telephone that may or may not be accurate.

This is evident everywhere and it’s part of the reason I openly wonder how smart Billy Beane actually is. If he were a true “genius” as is suggested in Moneyball, he wouldn’t have to put on this pretentious “geniusy” air when he makes a decision like firing his managers. Ken Macha was fired after leading the A’s to the ALCS; they were swept and Beane fired him for “lack of communication”; Bob Geren (Beane’s “best friend”) was fired earlier this year because the Athletics were terrible and Geren was running the club in a haphazard and disagreeable way to the tastes of his veterans; Beane presented a case study in blaming others by referencing the constant media scrutiny and speculation about Geren’s job as the main reasons why he was fired. It couldn’t be that Beane himself might have been somehow responsible for what was going on, now could it?

What’s wrong with saying he fired them because he felt like it; or that he needed to make a change; or for whatever?

The appellation of “genius” for Beane might be better-described as a clever and gutsy opportunist who, out of necessity, altered the way he approached the running of his team, was successful for awhile, and when his techniques became publicly known, his success disappeared along with his “genius”.

Perception has become reality. So Sveum’s not getting a second interview with the Cubs but is a finalist for the Red Sox job; if you were interviewing for a job, would you like the fact that you were bypassed for a second interview broadcast for all to hear as if it means something? Maybe someone from the Red Sox whispered to the Cubs that Sveum’s going to get their managerial job and it made no sense to do another interview; maybe the Cubs didn’t like Sveum’s tie; or maybe they wanted to hire someone else.

The “why” is irrelevant; the fact that it’s not anyone else’s concern is the point.

Sports “reporting” has turned into a never-ending gossip column; but the most interesting gossip columns are about sex, drugs and drama.

This stuff isn’t interesting and, for the most part, it’s not even accurate.

Gossip rarely is.

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