Billy Beane's grand experiment

After the GM's big trade deadline, only one thing matters: Will it all work in October?

Originally Published: September 4, 2014
By Tim Keown | ESPN The Magazine

Oakland Athletics, Jon Lester, Scott Kazmir, Sonny Gray, Jason Hammel, Jeff SamardzijaPatrik GiardinoOakland's rotation, from left: Jon Lester, Scott Kazmir, Sonny Gray, Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija

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THE OAKLAND ATHLETICS, baseball's best team for the majority of the summer, are not simply a group of men playing a game. They're a collection of market inefficiencies, a 25-man stew of humanity unwittingly acting out a precise alchemy calibrated by an increasingly reclusive boss. They're an experiment, brought to this place at this time to test the limits of small-market, big-brain baseball.

Three catchers! An ever-changing starting rotation! A relatively anonymous outfielder for every situation! What does it all mean? Everything the A's do is imbued with layers of wonder and cynicism and intrigue.

Twelve years after the Moneyball season of 2002, any move GM Billy Beane makes is viewed through a kaleidoscopic haze of fiction and fact. His life can sometimes feel as if it's based on a true story. Perhaps that's why Beane, the object of so many conspiratorial whisperings, has largely retreated from public view. He turns down most interview requests and often escapes, in season, to his home on Oregon's Deschutes River, where he seeks Walden-like solitude, a hermit with a fly rod.

In mid-August, less than two weeks after the trade deadline, after he'd finished his biggest job of the year -- his third major reconstructive surgery on the starting rotation in six months -- Beane went fishing as his team went to Kansas City and Atlanta. Would he be attached to the television, or at least his mobile phone, checking on every pitch?

"Heavens no," he says. "I haven't done that for years. I really don't want to gyrate through every pitch over 162 games when those individual games may have nothing to do with what happens in the end. I don't want to make decisions based on micro-events; that goes against what we try to do here. I try to remove myself and hopefully make rational decisions. We don't take the small sample size. Do you think Warren Buffett sits around and watches Berkshire Hathaway stock every day?"

By necessity, Beane's ways are increasingly cryptic. Gone are the easy days of getting over on the Luddites with on-base percentage and fat catchers. Now anyone with opposable thumbs and a data plan has access to every statistic and pseudo-statistic, making it more difficult to identify and exploit an undervalued skill.

But loopholes remain. After missing the playoffs for five straight seasons from 2007 to 2011, partly because of injuries, Beane made a concerted effort to load Oakland's roster with versatility and depth -- preferably at low cost. The philosophy is typified by the catching trio of John Jaso, Stephen Vogt and All-Star Derek Norris, all of whom can find themselves occupying different spots -- first base, outfield, DH -- on Bob Melvin's lineup card.

Depth at catcher is relatively easy, as the A's demonstrated in acquiring Geovany Soto from Texas in late August after Jaso suffered a concussion. Depth in the outfield is even easier. Depth in the infield -- where you can pile up the Eric Sogards and Andy Parrinos and Nick Puntos at bargain prices -- might be easiest.

But depth in the starting rotation, where health and performance are as unpredictable as a knuckleball in a hurricane, is a different matter altogether. Rotation depth is more than an accessory; it's a key to success in the postseason, which is why Beane fixed his late-summer attention on ensuring he had four guys who can lock down a five- or seven-game series.

He insists this year's approach is the same as ever: Put together the best team to withstand the glacial rigors of a 162-game season and then hope for the best in the postseason crapshoot.

Which raises a question: If everything's the same, why does it feel so different?

Back in 2002, in a particularly despondent moment, Beane famously told Moneyball author Michael Lewis, "My shit doesn't work in the playoffs."

Maybe when you're the most famous decision maker in the game, there comes a time when you make the most important decision of all:

You try new shit.


THE CHALLENGE BEGAN on March 13 in Phoenix when the A's discovered that Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin -- 40 percent of their starting rotation -- were dealing with serious elbow injuries. Both would be ticketed for Tommy John surgery. (Typical A's: ahead of every trend.) "I remember it clearly," Beane says. "A Thursday night. That was a dark one."

The plan was already in place. "We start spring training with the idea of having eight or even nine guys ready to start a big league game," says assistant GM Farhan Zaidi. "We felt bad for those two, but we felt we could handle it." Jesse Chavez and Tommy Milone -- with a side of Drew Pomeranz, Dan Straily and Brad Mills -- joined Sonny Gray and the newly resurrected Scott Kazmir as Oakland's starters. On July 4, the team's rotation actually had the best ERA in the American League.

That day -- Independence Day -- is significant. It's the day Beane traded his No. 1 prospect, shortstop Addison Russell, to the Cubs for starters Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel.

[+] EnlargeOakland Athletics, Jeff Samardzija
Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty ImagesBeane has given Samardzija, who's pitched one playoff inning, another shot at a pennant race.

"If you would have told me on that Thursday night in March that we'd end up with the best rotation in the league in the middle of the season, I would have called you crazy," Beane says. "But one of the things I try to determine as a general manager is not where we are but where we're headed. We were running a little on fumes, and I was concerned about where we were going."

Chavez was nearing 130 innings after never having thrown even 70 in a season. Pomeranz reacted to a bad outing by punching a chair and breaking a hand. Milone's success -- he was 6-0 over a 10-start stretch in May and June -- was viewed with suspicion.

Beane's pre-emptive Independence Day strike turned the whispers into a full-throated roar.

Billy's going for it.

And he wasn't finished. At the trade deadline, Beane dealt slugging left fielder Yoenis Cespedes to Boston for free-agent-to-be Jon Lester, the type of undisputed No. 1, elimination-game starter who can reduce the impact of random events in a short series or one-game playoff. This wasn't a crafty, under-the-radar move to acquire a right-handed-hitting platoon outfielder whose splits show irrational success against lefty pitching. This wasn't a move understood only by the baseball literati who crunch numbers in the deep caves of the Internet. This was a front-and-center move, the kind made by big-market teams that would rather double down on today than think about tomorrow.

"It seems like the team you never hear about always ends up making the big trade," Lester says. "Every 10 minutes you get an update on the Dodgers looking at this person and St. Louis looking at this person, and all of a sudden you're going to Oakland."

It was hard to see the small-market shackles. What did it all mean? Had Beane abandoned his principles? "Everybody says, 'We found a new inefficiency,'" he says, laughing. "Yeah, we've found a new inefficiency: Trade your cleanup hitter in the middle of a pennant race."

The quip is vintage Beane, whose disarming personality allows him to naturally embrace his role as the Moneyball Maverick while simultaneously distancing himself from it. Hey, the reputation made me do it. Intentionally or not, Beane has placed himself in a spot where the bright lights of success or failure all angle toward him, and he seems exceedingly comfortable with that setup.

"I remember when I was playing, 5 or 6 percent of the players weren't playing the same game," Beane says. "Jon Lester is one of those 5 percent players, and even though pitching was a strength, we always see it as a zero-sum game. We didn't do this with the playoffs in mind, because the guys we're fighting [the Angels] are really good. But if we're fortunate enough to win the division and get to the playoffs, this guy -- with his playoff résumé -- is something to look at."

Beane's fear of the Angels is justified -- "They have the best player who has ever walked on the planet" is how he describes Mike Trout. Still, it's hard to escape the notion that Lester was acquired for more than a late-September push to either hold off or overtake a division rival. After all, the regular season hasn't been the problem. Over the past three seasons, the A's have the best record in baseball.

The postseason, though, that's a far different story. The postseason is when Beane's detractors get to polish their cynicism over the razor strop as they cackle and wheeze and raise a glass to the old-school scouts who judge a player by his handshake and the cut of his jib.

The postseason, in the jaundiced glow of the O.co Coliseum, is where the mythical powers go to die. Since 2000, the A's have lost seven of eight playoff series, winning only the ALDS in 2006 against the Twins. Oakland lost in five games to the Tigers in the ALDS in each of the past two seasons, both times falling to Justin Verlander in series-ending shutouts.

The trade for Lester looked like an attempt to close the last remaining loophole, to fortify against the haphazard and wholly unpredictable events of a short series. The acquisition of a No. 1 starter -- "a very rare event," Beane says -- means you're adding to the front and subtracting from the back. It turns the replacement-player theory on its head. It's new shit if there ever was.

After the Cubs trade, Verlander said it was all about beating the Tigers. When Lester came, you know what everybody else said:

Billy's all-in.

All-in.


THE GAME HAS always seemed like a personal challenge to Beane, a quest to find his furthermost boundary, test it, push against it and then pass right over it into whatever lies beyond. There's freedom in that, freedom that comes with being the only general manager in the major leagues known to own a small piece of his team (4 percent). But that freedom comes wrapped in a shrugging acceptance that any result -- a World Series win or one more postseason disappointment -- is a byproduct of the process, just the result of an experiment born of scientific curiosity.

"Assume we do nothing," Beane says. "Internally we could have sort of hidden the fact that we were concerned about where we were going. The default position of standing pat would have led to very little criticism. We could have used all the right clichés: We're not going to mess with a good thing. The new players wouldn't have meshed with our personalities. We didn't do that. That leads to greater criticism, but so be it."

[+] EnlargeOakland Athletics, Jon Lester
Charlie Riedel/AP ImagesLester was Beane's prize acquisition, though is likely gone after the season.

And the two pitchers who will be called upon to push Beane and the A's beyond their established boundaries -- i.e., the division series -- couldn't be more different. There's Samardzija, tall and rangy, at 6-foot-5 the architect's blueprint for a pitcher, a former All-America wide receiver at Notre Dame walking around the clubhouse with a torch lighter and a pack of smokes in the back pocket of his game pants, curtains of dark hair descending beneath his cap, a misdemeanor mustache-and-goatee combo bracketing a persistent smile.

Then there's Lester, shelf-browed and serious, shoulders as wide as the pitcher's mound, more hair on his face than on his head, a sense of duty emanating from him like a smell. He works hitters decisively, never a doubt in his mind, like a cabbie knifing through traffic.

The two had a conversation at the All-Star Game in Minnesota, a week after Samardzija had been acquired and while Lester's name was circulating through trade talks like junk mail. Samardzija told Lester that Oakland was a surprise destination for him; none of the incessant rumors had linked the Cubs ace to the A's. And then at 7 a.m. on July 31, with the A's 25 games over .500 and 2½ games ahead of the Angels in the AL West, Samardzija was awakened by a call from Lester. He recognized the surprise in Lester's voice. "Looks like I'm coming to you guys," Lester said.

"That's cool," Samardzija told him. "You'll like it here. Everyone plays for right now."


BEANE IS ROLLING.

"Every time I make a move here, given our marketplace, it's seen as risky and bold," he says. "And depending on how you view bold, it could be seen as foolish. When I signed Ben Sheets for $10 million in 2010, everybody said, 'Oh, they're all-in.'

"Here's the way it works: Just assume that every move we make in the front office means we're all-in. We can't afford a five-year plan, so every move means we're trying to win every game we possibly can. All-in -- I never liked that term. For one thing, I don't have that many chips to throw into the middle of the table."

The words don't arrive in anger or disgust. Beane speaks with acidic humor and practiced self-deprecation, like a man who long ago stopped fighting the public perception that he is either: A) a baseball Copernicus, plotting coordinates on a grid no one else can see; or B) an overhyped comic-book figure whose reputation was invented by a Hollywood screenwriter.

It's a tricky space. Beane has created a self-contained ecosystem, one in which he can distance himself from the Moneyball mystique while still commanding speaking fees up to $50,000 for discussing it. At once, baseball's transcendent GM is not afraid to admit a mistake -- he reacquired outfielder Sam Fuld, released shortly after Opening Day, in a deadline deal that sent Milone, he of the six-game winning streak, to the Twins -- and claims the idea of winning a World Series is neither a compulsion nor a quest for validation. That contention sounds like boilerplate talk from someone who knows the pain of dashed expectations and understands the value of the hedged bet.

As if to bring Beane's worst nightmare into the light of day, Oakland's shot diminished in the aftermath of the Samardzija and Lester deals. The A's lost six of seven on that mid-August KC-Atlanta swing and eight of 10 overall before taking two of three from the Angels. Coincidentally or not, the offense that had produced MLB's best run differential became a sputtering mess without Cespedes, averaging less than four runs per game over a 19-game span after the trade deadline.

Meanwhile, Hammel (8-5, 2.98 ERA, 1.02 WHIP in Chicago) was so ineffective for Oakland (1-5, 6.75, 1.87 in his first seven starts) that he was skipped over in the rotation and stands a good chance of being replaced by the healed and chastened Pomeranz. All of it -- the unpredictability of new acquisitions, the sudden offensive funk -- underscored the eternal frustration of the baseball exec: You can control only the process, not the results.

"Billy always says we don't have a five-year plan -- and we don't," assistant GM Zaidi says. "But someone told me, 'It looks like you're on a one-year plan.' I said, 'Well, I don't think we're managing this team as if we're expecting the apocalypse to happen this offseason.'"

His laugh is open and honest, but could the apocalypse metaphor -- in a figurative sense -- be accidentally perfect?

Can this new version of Beane's A's, heavy on front-line pitching and expectations, accomplish what so many others couldn't? Can the man wrapped in myth break free of the one that has proved most durable?

All-in, it seems, is the ultimate zero-sum game.

Tim Keown | email

Senior writer, ESPN.com

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