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A two-hour sit-down with Oakland’s Billy Beane and Lew Wolff sheds light on the rise of big data, the value of continuity, the challenge of ballin’ on a budget, and much more

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.

(Click here for all of Grantland’s 2014 MLB preview coverage.)

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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 in Moneyball) 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.”

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While Moneyball the book and especially Moneyball the movie pumped up certain aspects of the A’s success while downplaying certain others (Messieurs Zito, Mulder, Hudson, Tejada, and Chavez would surely like a word), they perfectly pegged Beane’s distrust of industry insiders. While acknowledging that Melvin’s playing experience helped his candidacy for the manager job, Beane admitted to still harping on the value of outsiders’ perspectives when hiring people for other positions.

“I don’t want a lot of guys like me who played the game,” Beane said. “Quite frankly, I want blank canvases, I want people to come in with new ideas. I don’t want the biases of their own experiences to be a part of their decision-making process. Listen, our whole staff — [assistant GM] David [Forst] played at Harvard, but that doesn’t count because it’s Harvard — didn’t really play. The bottom line is that any business should be a meritocracy. The best and brightest. Period. This game is now evolving into that.”

Beane credited Michael Lewis for helping to spark that shift.

“That’s the best thing about the book and what it became,” Beane said. “I just talked to a young lady, a freshman at Santa Barbara. She’s taking a course, and Moneyball’s one of the required readings. This young lady could dream of one day becoming a general manager. That would have been much harder to imagine 15 years ago.”

One of those outsiders could be in the dugout before long, Beane said. Given the challenge of watching for subtle physical cues such as pitcher fatigue while also cycling through the many possible strategies and outcomes during the course of a game, managers and bench coaches would seemingly benefit greatly from employing a new aide.

“There will be an IT coach at some point” in the dugout, crunching numbers in real time and sitting right next to the manager, Beane said. The A’s have yet to actually create such a position for very practical reasons. “It would be an extra coach, and [MLB] is pretty strict — we aren’t even allowed walkie-talkies,” Beane said about league restrictions on how many coaches a team can have, and what kind of contact they can have with the outside world during games. “But I believe at some point this will happen. There’s too much data that’s available not to want to use it.”

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Beane and Wolff echoed numerous similar sentiments throughout the conversation, including stating that they both think the best front-office people below the GM level are woefully underpaid. In their minds, paying top dollar for that kind of talent can be an effective and cheaper way of adding wins than, say, signing free agents. Both men often keep tabs on business news, and Beane in particular frequently speaks in financial terms. He can’t talk for five minutes without ranting about how “everything is a hedge on risk.”

Nowhere is the risk greater than in building a pitching staff. When we spoke three days ago, news had already broken that Braves starters Kris Medlen and Brandon Beachy would likely miss the whole season due to injuries. In the 72 hours since, Diamondbacks no. 1 starter Patrick Corbin was diagnosed with a partial UCL tear. And hitting closest to home was Monday’s report that A’s right-hander Jarrod Parker would need Tommy John surgery for the second time.

The Parker blow came on top of the news that fellow A’s starter A.J. Griffin would miss the start of the season due to elbow tendinitis, while free-agent acquisition Scott Kazmir was scratched from his Monday start due to triceps stiffness. Forst called Kazmir’s condition minor, but given the rash of recent pitching injuries, it’s hard to feel confident. The A’s relied heavily on power and pitching in winning consecutive AL West titles in 2012 and 2013. They were already going to lean on young arms like Sonny Gray and Dan Straily this year, and now they’ll likely have to squeeze production out of Tommy Milone and other fill-ins as they seek to defend their crown.

“This is a game of attrition,” Beane said, before Parker’s injury. “Trying to build a team over the course of the winter to put on the field is really just half the job. Because if your best players go down, it’s not so much him going down as who you replace him with which ultimately might have the biggest impact on how you end up finishing. So you want to have both a belt and suspenders for support.”

Beane cited Oakland’s run of eight consecutive first- or second-place finishes (1999 to 2006), a health-aided stretch that ended as soon as that injury luck ran out. “I don’t have a secret formula for that, and I don’t know who does,” Beane said. “You’re never going to correct it, at least with the information we have now. So you have to ask, ‘How do we minimize the damage, and build in some insurance policies along the way?’”

The Red Sox, a very rich and very smart team, have started to pick up on the advantages of thinking like their nimble, aggressive, small-revenue rivals. In a weird way, though, the A’s relative poverty gives them an edge over the big guys, even when those big guys start trying to attain that same top-to-bottom roster strength. No matter how fervently teams might insist that talent wins out above all, it’s not that easy to bench or platoon a $20 million–a-year player who’s hitting .192. Since the A’s pay far fewer of their guys big bucks, that’s not a problem they encounter. When the time comes to recruit the versatile players who can most effectively bolster a bench, Oakland can promise more playing time than many richer teams. Beane echoed this sentiment when discussing Nick Punto, a player who can be the right-handed-hitting half of a platoon with Eric Sogard at second base, while also serving as a possible late-game defensive replacement for offense-first shortstop Jed Lowrie. Because the A’s don’t have a high-priced superstar like Dustin Pedroia or Robinson Cano holding down second base, Punto knew he’d be able to see meaningful playing time when he chose the A’s.

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As successful as the A’s have been this century, they’re still trying to win an unfair game. Competing against richer AL West teams like the Angels and Rangers was tough enough, but the expanded wild-card race now makes wealthy clubs like the Yankees and Red Sox Oakland’s foes as well. Beane said he likes the new rules governing the draft and international amateur markets, which force teams to adhere to spending caps or risk paying harsh penalties, since “the best place to start in this business is having the most capital,” and the A’s obviously don’t.

As for proposed changes to level the playing field, Beane pointed to one possibility he admitted was self-serving, and also something of a pipe dream.

“I ultimately think what replaces the draft should be based on revenue, and that you shouldn’t be rewarded for poor performance,” Beane said. “If you think about it, the draft is the only time that a team like Tampa, Pittsburgh, Kansas City, or us, the draft is the only time these teams have access to the really star-caliber players. Because the industry is much better now at selecting the star players. They come at the top of the draft. We win the division, but it would be nice to still be in the top 10, to draft where the Lincecums come, and the Poseys come.”

Meanwhile, the widening gap in local revenue between the have and have-not teams seems likely to anger most low-revenue franchises enough to make the next round of collective bargaining agreement negotiations contentious, and maybe even threaten the sport’s two consecutive decades without a labor stoppage. When asked about the possibility of labor unrest, Wolff, a real estate magnate adept at going to considerable lengths to avoid conflict, said the status quo isn’t all bad. “I like the fact that we’ve had labor peace for so long,” Wolff said, “and I’d like to see that continue.”

Of course, the conditions at O.co Coliseum make the A’s status quo far from perfect. The 48-year-old facility is the only stadium currently used by an MLB club that also houses a team from one of the other big four U.S. team sports. It’s outdated in many ways, from scoreboards, to luxury boxes, to location, to basic infrastructure needs like a proper plumbing system.

Still, Wolff said he’s eager to sign a new lease to remain at the coliseum. The A’s are in the first year of a two-year deal, and Wolff and team ownership have proposed a new 10-year lease that would kick in when the current agreement expires after the 2015 season.3

After all, Wolff, like Beane, appreciates the value of continuity. So for now, the A’s will lean on one of the tightest owner-GM bonds in the game in the hopes of keeping the good times rolling. Beane and Wolff talk every day about the state of the team, but also to exchange pleasantries while Wolff grabs a haircut or Beane goes for a drive. Both men credit that relationship, and the steadiness that Beane’s 17 years in the GM’s chair bring, with helping the A’s remain near the top of the league all these years … despite tiny payrolls and literal rivers of shit in the dugout.

“Baseball, business, these are games of cycles,” said Beane. “What you want is to minimize the down cycles. Some days you’re smart and some days you’re dumb. When you’re wrong, don’t let that freeze you. Keep going and continue to make what you think are the right decisions, even if they are tough decisions.”

Jared Book and Blake Murphy provided transcription assistance for this article.

Filed Under: MLB, MLB Preview, Oakland Athletics, Billy Beane, Lew Wolff, Moneyball, AL West, Jonah Keri

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Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

Archive @ jonahkeri

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