The 2002 Oakland Athletics, pegged by baseball insiders as a mediocre club at the outset of the season, expose much of the sport’s conventional wisdom as flawed when they post a 102-60 regular season. They do this with a roster composed of players who have largely been overlooked by the insiders—pitchers with unusual pitching technique, fielders who are overweight or can’t run quickly, and hitters who struggle to hit home runs. In short, the 2002 Oakland A’s are a team of players who don’t look like players at all.
Baseball’s old guard—a consortium of coaches, scouts, general managers, owners, former players, and sports journalists—have rigid conceptions of what a good player is and how teams are supposed to win games. But the success of the 2002 Oakland A’s proves that much of this conventional wisdom, propagated by baseball’s traditional gatekeepers, is hopelessly wrong.
Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game is the story of this team and how an iconoclastic, convention-defying general manager named Billy Beane manages to turn the baseball world on its head and call into question everything that everyone thought they knew about the game.
Let’s start back in 1980. Billy Beane is an extraordinarily talented high school baseball player—immensely talented and fiercely competitive, he is an all-around natural athlete. His rapid ascent to the major leagues seems all but assured.
But Billy also has dreams of going to Stanford University (where he had been admitted) and getting a world-class education, dreams that will be closed to him if he decides to go to the majors. He is, in fact, highly ambivalent about embarking on a career as a professional baseball player.
Nevertheless, he is drafted in the first round by the New York Mets in 1980 as one of their top prospects, signing with the club for a $125,000 bonus before being assigned to one of their minor league affiliates. He sacrifices his dream of studying at Stanford, which promptly rescinds his offer of admission once he decides to go pro instead of playing for the university’s baseball program.
Once he becomes a professional player (albeit in the minor leagues), he begins to crack under the enormous expectations that have been placed upon him and is emotionally unable to cope with failure on the field. Although endowed with natural athletic ability and a keen understanding of baseball, he is unwilling to be patient with the game and is paralyzed by his fear of failure: a failure which he had been told throughout his young career he would never experience due to his talent.
Billy has a middling MLB career throughout the 1980s, in the course of which he is traded from the Mets to the Minnesota Twins to the Detroit Tigers, and finally, to the Oakland A’s. In 1990, he accepts his status as a draft bust, retiring as a player that spring. After walking off the field, he takes a job with the team’s front office, in the lowly position of an advance scout, a shocking move for a former blue-chip baseball prospect.
As a scout, and eventually as GM, Billy will butt heads with the men who make up the scouting department. Scouting is the stronghold of baseball conventional wisdom, of men who believe that they can predict a player’s future success in the majors simply by observing with their own eyes how well they can hit a ball, throw a pitch, or steal a base, even if they only see that player play a handful of times. To Billy, these are the same men whose preference for subjective wishful thinking over objective analysis had raised his expectations, waved away his obvious psychological flaws, and set him on a path to failure.
As a scout, Billy is determined to never repeat their mistakes. He learns from both their failure and his own. He looks for players whose statistical performances indicate a likelihood of success in the major leagues. He is determined to never draft the next Billy Beane.
In 1995, as Billy Beane is working his way up the ranks of the Oakland organization, the new owners of the A’s demand that the team drastically reduce payroll. The team must now economize, making sure that every dollar spent on players contributes to on-field success.
This occurs during an era of skyrocketing player salaries, driven by the rise of free agency, which profoundly changes the economics of professional baseball. Rich teams like the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox are able to spend unlimited sums in order to acquire the biggest stars on the free agent market. But relatively poor teams like the A’s are forced to take a new approach to player acquisition, looking for players who are undervalued by the market and can be gotten on the cheap.
At this time, many of baseball’s most widely used statistics to evaluate baseball players are coming under fire. These critics (including the A’s general manager as well as a baseball writer named Bill James) note, for example, that team batting average is overrated because it overlooks the importance of walks to a team’s total offensive output. Likewise, James criticizes the RBI as a product of luck: a batter must have the good fortune to be at bat when other players are already on base to be able to bring them home with a hit. It is a matter of luck to even have the opportunity to score an RBI.
James contrasts this with statistical measures that had been overlooked by professional baseball. On-base percentage, he argues, has a better correlation with run production than batting average, because it accounts for all the ways a player can get on base and contribute offense—: including walks.
Despite this, players with high batting averages and low error counts are highly valued, while players with lots of walks and a high on-base percentage (but who aren’t flashy sluggers with high batting averages) are deeply undervalued. Yet teams continue making poor (and...
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Anyone involved in playing professional baseball or managing a professional team cannot escape the weight of the sport’s history. As America’s national pastime, it’s been played in the United States since before the Civil War. And this long and storied tradition has created a century and a half’s worth of conventional wisdom about best practices and how the game ought to be played.
Baseball’s old guard—a consortium of coaches, scouts, general managers, owners, former players, and sports journalists—have rigid conceptions of what makes a good player and how teams win games. But the central insight of Moneyball is that much of this conventional wisdom, propagated by baseball’s traditional gatekeepers, is hopelessly wrong.
The 2002 Oakland Athletics, pegged by baseball insiders as a mediocre club at the outset of the season, exposed much of the sport’s conventional wisdom to be bunk when they posted a 102-60 regular season. They did this with a...
We start our story in 1980. Billy Beane is an extraordinarily accomplished baseball player in high school. In the late 1970s, he is a star outfielder for his high school team in southern California. Professional scouts travel from all over the country to see him play. To the naked eye, Beane is the living embodiment of everything that ought to predict future success in Major League Baseball.
He is immensely talented, fiercely competitive, and an all-around natural athlete. With his All-American good looks, he is the very model of a major league All-Star. Ahead of the 1980 Major League Baseball Amateur Draft, he is one of the most highly touted (and coveted) young prospects. His rapid ascent to the major seems all but assured.
The only person who is ambiguous about Billy Beane’s future as a professional baseball player is Billy Beane himself. Although he is sure to be drafted in the first round and signed to a major league contract, Billy isn’t sure that he wants to devote his adult life to playing baseball. For the scouts who compete for the opportunity to draft Billy, this should be the first sign that the high school star might not live up to the enormous...
Billy Beane enters the front office at a true inflection point for the Oakland A’s and for baseball as a whole. Much of what was thought to be sacrosanct about the game is being questioned. The traditional ideas about what makes a winning team are being challenged and proven wrong.
In 1995, as Billy is working his way up the ranks of the front office, the Oakland A’s are sold to real estate developers Steve Schott and Ken Hofmann. This signals a shift in how the entire organization will come to think about acquiring and managing players. The previous owner had been willing to spend as much as needed to field a competitive team, seeing ownership of a major league team as more of an act of civic duty than a profit-yielding investment. In fact, the 1991 A’s had the highest team payroll in all of baseball.
But the new owners adopt a very different approach. For them, owning the A’s is an investment—one that they expect to pay off. Their new mantra is to reduce costs as much as possible, and that means cutting team payroll to the bone. Gone are the days of free spending. The team must now economize, making sure that every dollar spent on players demonstrably contributes to...
Think about how doing things the way they’ve always been done can lead to poor results.
Have you ever been part of an organization whose accepted way of doing things was inefficient or broken? Describe the situation in a few sentences.
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By 1997, Billy Beane is the general manager of the Oakland A’s. Inspired to read James by former Oakland GM Sandy Alderson, Billy is determined to use James’s insights to build a winning A’s team. Moreover, sabermetrics will allow him to build a successful team on the cheap, as they offer a guide on how to identify undervalued players. The rest of the league can keep their marquee home run hitters and base stealers; Billy wants the guys who know how to get on base.
Billy has good reasons for defying baseball’s conventional wisdom. He had been the victim of wrongheaded ideas about what makes a successful baseball player. Scouts saw him make flashy plays during his high school playing days and then rushed him into a professional playing career that he never really wanted. He had failed partly due to his own insecurities and mental hang-ups, but also because he had been wrongly labelled a star.
Now, as GM, Billy is determined never to make the same mistakes that had been made with him. He will draft and sign players whose performances—measured by data over the long term, not the starry-eyed reports of scouts based on a handful of games—indicate that they are built for...
The 2002 draft is a key moment for the Oakland A’s, giving them the opportunity to replenish a 2001 roster than had been depleted through trades and free agent poachings from other teams. During the offseason, the team loses stars like Jason Isringhausen, Johnny Damon, and Jason Giambi. But we should explore why they left the team in the first place. For the answer to this also lies in Billy and Paul’s data-driven, sabermetric approach to running the team.
As a cash-strapped club, the Oakland A’s simply can’t afford to go out on the free agent market and throw money at the available stars. Payroll cannot exceed $40 million. On a 25-man roster, this means an average salary of around $1.5 million per player—far below the league average of $2.3 million. Thus, the A’s must acquire inexpensive players through the draft and then trade them once their entry level contracts expire and they become too expensive to retain.
This is what happened with the players from the previous season, all of whom the A’s had no longer been able to afford on their meager budget. And this is what makes the 2002 draft so critical: they are counting on the newcomers to fill in these...
Examine your attributes or qualities that might go unnoticed by others.
What are some of your best attributes, skills, or qualities that you believe are relatively unnoticed or undervalued? Describe them briefly.
Despite Billy’s savvy moves, the 2002 Oakland A’s get off to a rocky start. By mid-May, they are on a losing streak and are six games below .500. Clearly, they are not on pace to meet DePodesta’s 95-win benchmark for a postseason appearance.
The trade deadline looms ahead on July 31. After this date, teams cannot conduct trades until the end of the season. The trade deadline is a moment of reckoning for every team in the major leagues, when they must take stock and determine whether they are still in contention for the playoffs or whether they should begin planning for next season. Teams that are doing well might decide to be aggressive at the deadline and give up future assets to acquire star players. Teams that are out of contention, meanwhile, will offload expensive stars in exchange for younger and cheaper prospects.
Billy always excels at the trade deadline. Since 1999, the A’s have always performed remarkably better in the second half of the season, after the deadline, than in the first half. The reason for this is Billy’s shrewdness as a GM and his keen understanding of what his team needs—not to mention the foolishness and shortsightedness of his rival GMs, whose...
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The A’s are reborn after Billy’s wheeling and dealing at the trade deadline. A mediocre third-place team at the end of July, by September, they are in first place in the AL West, going on a 19-game winning streak. On September 4, 2002, they have the opportunity to earn their 20th straight win, an American League record at the time.
That night, the largest crowd ever for an Oakland regular season game gathers at Network Associates Coliseum to watch the A’s try to make history against the hapless Kansas City Royals. The team’s success is a testament to Beane and DePodesta’s strategy of finding player value where other teams see none, and putting their resources into on-base percentage rather than flashy home run hitters. They are a Bill James-inspired team: and the results are showing on the field.
Billy has no intention of watching the game that night, as is his standard practice. Like with the Jason Giambi homecoming game, there is no point in getting emotionally invested in the outcome of a single match. A baseball GM assembles a team for the long haul of a 162-game season. Worrying about one game, no matter its symbolic importance,...
Think about the main lessons from Moneyball.
Why do you think that baseball traditionalists were so opposed to the way in which Billy Beane ran the Oakland A’s?