Billy Beane (1962- ) is the general manager of baseball's Oakland Athletics and is widely acknowledged as the best "GM" in the game. Despite having one of the lowest payrolls in the Major Leagues year after year, and consistently losing his best players to other, more wealthy teams, Beane has guided the A's to playoff contention year after year by simply being smarter than his counterparts in other franchises.
In 2002 for example, the A's were coming off two consecutive playoff seasons, but were widely regarded as a fluke. More to the point, that offseason they had just lost there three biggest stars - closer Jason Isringhausen, speedy centerfielder and leadoff man Johnny Damon, and most irreplaceable of all, the 2001 American League MVP, first baseman Jason Giambi, who had signed with the hated New York Yankees - baseball's richest team.
And yet, with a miniscule payroll off $39 million, the A's went on to compile a major league best 103 victories in 2002 - tied with the Yankees who also won 103 games...with a payroll that exceeded $125 million.
The question is how, and why.
Unmasking the "Good Face"
The first lesson Beane had to learn was to mistrust traditional and conventional baseball wisdom, especially as represented by the tradition-bound fraternity of professional baseball scouts. Billy had a very personal schooling in this valuable lesson because he himself was one of the best examples of how scouting can dramatically fail.
Coming out of a well-known ballplayer-producing high school in his native San Diego, Beane was all-everything - the MVP of the baseball team, the quarterback on the football team, and an all-star basketball forward who could dunk with ease. Naturally the baseball scouts loved him - not only was he the holy grail "five-tool player" who could throw, field, hit for average and power and had the most speed some of the scouts had ever seen, but he also had "the body" and "the good face" that scouts loved to project their dreams of greatness upon. Statistics? Who needed statistics when you could see with your own eyes that Beane was destined for greatness?
The Mets were so impressed that they had a heated internal debate over whether to draft Beane or some guy named Darryl Strawberry with the first of their two first round draft picks (they ultimately took Beane with the second pick, 24th overall). Everyone was so sure that Billy would be a superstar, that they convinced him to turn down an acceptance to Stanford University to start playing baseball right out of high school.
But there is more to baseball than what scouts can see or imagine, and Beane was exhibit number one. Despite all his physical gifts, Beane did not have the mental makeup to make it in the major leagues, primarily due to what Beane and those who know him describe as a crippling fear of failure. Meanwhile, other players, such as Beane's one-time minor-league roommate Lenny Dykstra, could make up for vastly inferior physical gifts by having a mental makeup more suitable for the inevitable ups and downs of baseball.
The Jamesian Apprentice
Bouncing around from team to team and up and down from majors to minors as he continued to disappoint, Beane managed to hang on in professional baseball for nine years. Even when his past statistics gave no reason to expect any future turnaround, all it took was a scout to see Billy ripping the ball in batting practice or gunning down a runner at the plate for another team to give him a shot. That was the problem with the way ball clubs evaluated (and many still evaluate) talent - it was all based on the subjective opinions of scouts. Finally at age 27, with his marriage on the rocks and his batting average sitting at .241, Billy pulled the plug that major league teams couldn't bring themselves to pull, walking into the office of Sandy Alderson (then GM of his team, the Oakland A's) and asking for a job as a scout.
Alderson was quite naturally stunned. Nobody just gave up playing major league baseball like that, and so young, at least not unless they had an injury or some other reason. Billy could give no reason. He just didn't feel like playing anymore. But Alderson figured he had nothing to lose, and gave Beane a job as an advance scout, where he couldn't do much harm, and might even do some good.
Beane proved a quick study, turning himself into a valuable scout, and then a valuable front office paper pusher, and finally, a valuable assistant GM. Meanwhile Alderson, recognizing Beane's potential, took him under his wing and began educating Beane in a radical new philosophy he was testing out on the then rebuilding A's. Perhaps because Alderson himself was not a former player (instead he was a former marine and Harvard-educated lawyer), he was more open to the ideas of non-baseball-playing statheads like Bill James and others.
Fundamentally, James and his kind argued that baseball stats, as developed as they were, were inaccurate and underutilized, and more centrally, were the wrong stats to begin with. Working from these arguments, James and his ilk set out to find better stats, and one of the best ones they found was one that had been around for a long time but was almost entirely ignored - on-base percentage - which they found to be one of the most important indicators of offensive success (measured in runs scored). Consequently, Alderson set about reshaping the entire A's organization along more rational statistically-based lines, emphasizing more salient stats like on-base percentage over traditional metrics such as batting average and RBI.
Billy Bean, "Baseball Genius"
In 1997, Alderson left the A's to become a vice-president of Major League Baseball, and Billy Beane, by now Alderson's right-hand man, suddenly found himself the youngest general manager in the game. Beane had thoroughly absorbed Alderson's philosophy, and continued to apply it to all levels of the A's organization. With money becoming increasingly tight under the A's increasingly frugal ownership group, Beane, by both necessity and inclination, turned to increasingly radical applications of the statistics-based philosophy to steer the A's toward contention. He hired stathead assistants who had never played pro ball, like former Harvard economics student Paul DePodesta (later to become GM of the Dodgers), championed players who scouts thought would never make it because he saw potential in their stats (Barry Zito comes to mind), and held increasingly bizarre drafts in which the A's would spend some of their highest picks on players nobody else even had on their draft lists.
Meanwhile, Beane was developing a reputation as a master of the trade. Time after time, Beane would make trades in which he would seemingly give up too much and get too little only to have the well-regarded players he traded turn into bums and the nobodies he received make valuable contributions. The secret was in statistics, which Beane was ruthlessly loyal to, over the advice of scouts or a host of conventional wisdoms that the new stats had given lie to. The results were astonishing. When Beane took over the A's in 1997, the team finished a lowly 65-97. Just two years later, they contended for and just missed the AL wild card, and from 2000 onward, the A's consistently won around 90 games and reached or just missed the playoffs every year, all of this despite losing major stars at the end of every season due to having one of the smallest payrolls in baseball.
By 2002, Beane was the most sought-after general manager in baseball. He was almost hired away by the Boston Red Sox (who eventually hired Theo Epstein when he turned them down), and almost any team in baseball would have hired him in a minute if they thought they could land him. At least two of his assistants went on to become general managers themselves (J. P. Riccardi of the Blue Jays and DePodesta), and every team was at least dabbling in statistical analysis as a way of judging talent. What Alderson had begun, Beane had spectacularly improved and expanded upon, and between the two of them they revolutionized baseball talent evaluation forever.
Beane's Awe-inspiring Record as General Manager
Year Team Record A's Payroll Yankees Payroll Key Losses from Previous Year
1997 OAK 65-97 4th $12,879,889 $73,389,577
1998 OAK 74-88 4th $18,585,114 $73,963,698 1B Mark McGwire
1999 OAK 87-75 2nd $25,208,858 $91,990,955
2000 OAK 91-70 DIV $31,971,333 $92,538,260 CL Billy Taylor
2001 OAK 102-60 W C $33,810,750 $109,791,893 SP Kevin Appier
2002 OAK 103-59 DIV $39,679,746 $125,928,583 1B Jason Giambi, CF Johnny Damon, CL Jason Isringhausen
2003 OAK 96-66 DIV $50,260,834 $152,749,814 2B Ray Durham, CL Billy Koch
2004 OAK 91-71 2nd $59,425,667 $184,193,950 SS Miguel Tejada, CL Keith Foulke
2005 OAK 88-74 2nd $55,425,762 $208,306,817 SP Tim Hudson, SP Mark Mulder, RF Jermaine Dye
2006 OAK 93-69 DIV $62,322,054 $198,662,180 1B Scott Hatteberg, OF Eric Byrnes
Beane's Disappointing Major League Stats
Year Ag Tm Lg G AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG TB SH SF IBB HBP GDP
1984 22 NYM NL 5 10 0 1 0 0 0 0 0 1 0 2 .100 .100 .100 1 0 0 0 0 0
1985 23 NYM NL 8 8 0 2 1 0 0 1 0 0 0 3 .250 .250 .375 3 0 0 0 0 0
1986 24 MIN AL 80 183 20 39 6 0 3 15 2 3 11 54 .213 .258 .295 54 0 0 0 0 6
1987 25 MIN AL 12 15 1 4 2 0 0 1 0 0 0 6 .267 .267 .400 6 0 0 0 0 0
1988 26 DET AL 6 6 1 1 0 0 0 1 0 0 0 2 .167 .167 .167 1 0 0 0 0 0
1989 27 OAK AL 37 79 8 19 5 0 0 11 3 1 0 13 .241 .238 .304 24 2 1 0 0 2
6 Seasons 148 301 30 66 14 0 3 29 5 5 11 80 .219 .246 .296 89 2 1 0 0 8