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Billy Beane changed baseball, but he could never conquer the game

Billy Beane changed the face of baseball without winning a World Series.
Billy Beane changed the face of baseball without winning a World Series.
Image: (Getty Images)

While the movie “Moneyball” has become canon for the analytics movement in baseball — or more accurately those looking to trace its spread to basically every other sport — those who have read the book know that Billy Beane didn’t invent them with some intern he ransomed out of Cleveland (and every Cleveland resident should be so lucky).

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Beane worked under Sandy Alderson, who had begun to try and see baseball in a new light, and Alderson created those late ’80s/early ’90s Bash Brother/Eckersley teams that went to three straight World Series. Mark Shapiro in Cleveland (perhaps even more hilariously portrayed by Reed Diamond than Brad Pitt portraying Beane. #DetectiveKellermanForever) was also in the front car of the movement. Hell, Earl Weaver was promoting walks and three-run homers in the ’70s, which is at the heart of all this.

But Beane is the face of it, and with reports yesterday that John Henry is set to buy out his startup Redball Acquisitions Inc., it looks for all the world that Beane is finally going to leave baseball behind.

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It’s hardly the first time Henry and Beane have linked, as the former famously tried to hire the latter as GM upon acquiring the Red Sox (the deal would kill the Expos and give Jeffry Loria the Marlins, effectively opening a gate to hell). Beane turned down the offer to stay closer to his family, which led to the Sox turning to Theo Epstein, who was using all of Beane’s principles anyway, except he had a real checkbook to back it up. Epstein then went on to end both of baseball’s most famous championship droughts in Boston and on the northside of Chicago, which could have been Beane’s accomplishment. Beane’s influence in baseball has been historic, that’s for sure.

Beane has also been turning his eyes away from baseball to soccer for a while. He gave up the GM role after the 2015 season, becoming vice president and a part-owner of the A’s. He’s been focused more and more in getting into European soccer, and has invested in English third division team Barnsley and Dutch Eredivisie team AZ Alkmaar. Redball is a company that looks to make forward-thinking purchases in sports and sports alone, be it teams or equipment companies or data companies and everything in between, so it’s not hard to see Beane eventually running his own soccer team somewhere behind Redball’s newfound money.

Beane won’t be a “Moneyball” pioneer in Europe or in soccer though. Brentford nearly gained promotion to the Premier League last year thanks to an analytics-heavy approach to team-building. Liverpool, owned by Henry, made up the financial gap toward oligarch or government-owned rivals in the Premier League with an analytica; approach in their scouting and transfer dealings. More and more teams across Europe are employing this kind of thinking as the data becomes more complete and diverse.

What Beane will leave behind is exactly what the end of the movie talks about. “He’ll have changed the game.” There will be a lot who scoff at that, because Beane’s A’s never did win a World Series, and in fact only ever appeared in one ALCS where they were promptly clocked by the Detroit Tigers.

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But what Beane used to value became ubiquitous in baseball, and in a couple waves. Now OBP and the value of walks have been commonplace in analyzing and building teams for a couple of decades. When that became the norm, Beane shifted to focusing on defense at the turn of the last decade. That produced three straight playoff teams. So did this current iteration. Beane can look at the Rays catch everything in the playoffs and know that he was on the forefront of that, just as the Royals got to a championship by playing the league’s best defense. It’s not the only way to win, but it seems to be a pretty keen approach for teams that don’t spend among the aristocracy of MLB.

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The problem for Beane is that the A’s cash-strapped ways never allowed him to do everything at once. Sometimes they needed an ace pitcher to take a playoff game by the horns. When they had that, they didn’t have the offense. When they had that the bullpen was lacking. And on and on it went. There’s also his famous line in Michael Lewis’ book, “My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs,” pointing to variance in short series.

Beane and the A’s were done in by small moments too that no analytic can ever cure. Maybe if Jeremy Giambi remembers how to slide in 2001. Maybe if Coco Crisp catches that ball in 2012. Maybe if Ryan Cook doesn’t implode in the 8th inning in 2013. Maybe if Geovany Soto doesn’t get hurt in the very first inning of the wildcard game in 2014, the Royals can’t run wild on Jon Lester and Derek Norris. But baseball is built on maybes. And playoff baseball doesn’t provide the sample size large enough to overcome disastrous moments with the correct/advanced approach. Those things doom you.

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Beane was hardly a perfect GM, either. His drafting record was actually pretty poor. On the current squad, only Matt Chapman and Matt Olson are A’s draftees. The mid-2010s team that kept getting domed by the Tigers only featured Sonny Gray as an A’s pick who went on to stardom. Beane’s and the A’s front office’s real skill was scouting other organizations’ systems and getting the best out of trades for minor leaguers and reclamation projects.

Still, Beane and his front office created four different batches of A’s playoff teams this century, with minimal payroll. The ways he did it were copied throughout baseball, to the point that bunting, stealing, and the idea of moving runners over isn’t just an afterthought, but actively scoffed at by a majority of the baseball public.

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The movie version of Beane told Jonah Hill that they had to win the World Series to change the game. Turns out it didn’t work out that way at all.

Have you ever looked at a dollar bill, man?

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