Tuesday, May 27, 2014

A Look At Billy Beane's Turnaround

I've been thinking about a piece on the A's for a bit.  Billy Beane has built a very interesting ballclub up in the past couple of years.  This came out today, a BP piece entitled "Rebuilding the Right Way".  The piece is a bit of the usual thing with Beane and stats guys, fawning, and it outlines his wheeler-dealer ways.  I don't see much good or bad in those trades, and they haven't really had a big effect yet.  Beane has been trolling around in all sorts of pools to get his gang of renegades.  Its actually a much more interesting crew of players than the moneyball days, which was mainly a core of high draft picks supplemented by role players made famous by Michael Lewis.

That moneyball core group had a nice run from 1999 to 2006.  They had 4 straight ALDS losses from 2000-2003, good teams that couldn't quite get the AL West flag in 2004-5 and then a 2006 where they got through the Twins in the division but got stomped by the Tigers in the ALCS 4 games to zero.  The breakup of the Big 3 came about as follows: letting Barry Zito walk after 2006 to sign with the Giants (Sean Doolittle and Grant Desme were the compensation draft picks for the morbidly curious).  Hudson was shipped December 2004 for Juan Cruz, Dan Meyer and Charles Thomas.  Mulder was shipped December 2004 for Daric Barton, Kiko Calero and Dan Haren.  The churn of major league assets for "pieces" didn't appear to be effective in these cases.  But there was a slow, slow burn that has come around in a big way for Trader Billy.  More on that in a minute.

Was the 2006 team a surprise in a way?  The hitting was led by Jason Kendall, Nick Swisher, Frank Thomas and Eric Chavez.  The pitching success was Zito and Haren.  The next five years would become Beane's wilderness, as he fielded 75 win teams again and again with one blip on the radar.  So what changed in 2012?  And how was it sustained in 2013?  And how are they the best team in baseball currently?  I'm going to go a bit different than BP on this one.  Beane has pulled off a few great moves, but it hasn't necessarily been about trading the farm off.

Here are his moves by year, ranked by importance starting with the 2012 season:
#1.  December 28, 2011 Beane trades a "proven closer" to a newly minted GM Ben Cherington of the Boston Red Sox for a perceived 4th OF.  The full deal was Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney for Raul Alcantara, Miles Head and outfielder Josh Reddick.  Reddick has been huge for the A's, when healthy, playing a great defensive RF, he slashed 242/305/483 hitting 32 HRs.  He didn't miss oft-injured Bailey, who indeed... got injured.

#2  February 13, 2012 Beane shocks the baseball world by signing Yoenis Cespedes.  Nobody expected the cash strapped A's to step up, but they did with a less years deal where he'll hit FA sooner.  4Y/25.5MM and he put up 292/356/505 with 23 HRs and 16/20 SBs.  Cespedes isn't stellar in LF, but that's a position that can get punted some for offense.

#3 December 9, 2011 Beane trade heists Kevin Towers, taking a shot at injury risk Jarrod Parker (along with Ryan Cook and Collin Cowgill) for Trevor Cahill, Craig Bleslow and cashish.  Parker anchored the rotation, and Cook anchored the pen. 6.5 WARs between the two lads, they ate up 250 innings on the cheap. 

#4 January 24, 2012 Beane signs beefy 39 year old Bartolo Colon to a $2MM contract.  Usually going after old vets is scorned by the stats crowd, but it can be fertile ground if you can get the risks lined up correctly (being able to cut bait quickly and easily on a 1-year contract helps a ton).  Colon ate innings, not quite to Parkers 69% Quality Start percentage, but half his games were QS, and as a 5th starter type that is big value.

#5 January 5, 2012 Beane re-ups Coco Crisp.  It was one of the longest commitments Beane has made to a player, and it has turned out quite well for him so far.  All told, Crisp has been a 3-4 WAR a season player in an A's uni, anchoring CF with great defense and providing speed and fiery leadership to boot.  52 HRs, 150 SBs to 22 CSs, Crisp's 35-36 years are already in the bank, whatever Beane gets from him is playing with house money.

#6 December 1, 2011 Beane signs a minor league free agent by the name of Brandon Moss who had a total of 33 PAs over the past two prior seasons.  He also signed up a 32 year old Rays cast off Grant Balfour.  These two provide core role player support, solid 2-3 WAR players.

No GM can get through the year without something blowing up: for Beane in 2012 it was mainly Brian Fuentes not performing. 

2013 The A's get a new division mate, the lowly Houston Astros, and beat up on them better than any other team in the AL West.  Beane has to reinforce success now.  Here's the highlights: 

#1.  The emergence of Josh Donaldson.  Huge, huge win for Trader Billy, who is to say the least extremely hyperactive on that front, and has taken his bad beats.  Not many analysts were on the lad, but he did have his admirers.  Donaldson put up a 8 WAR season, slashing 301/384/499 with 24 HRs and good defense.  Donaldson was one of 4 players in the Rich Harden trade.

#2 Re-upped beefy 40 year old Bartolo Colon to a $3MM contract, coming off a PED suspension.  Colon responded by eating 190 innings, with him and Parker both delivering 23 Quality Starts, a 77% clip for Colon in 30 starts, a 71% for Parker with 32 starts.

#3 Rode his 2012 moves, getting reduced WAR scores from all, but still positive: Parker/Cook good for 3.2 WAR, Reddick/Cespedes good for 3.8.

#4 Trusted his development system, as AJ Griffin eats up 200 Innings, and Sonny Grey comes on the scene in limited action.

#5 The aggressive use of platooning takes over some key positions.  Jaso/Norris do a good job of providing offense at the catcher position, and the OF is rotated some to deal with an injury to Reddick.  2B is held steady by Eric Sogard and a mid-season acquisition of Alberto Callaspo.

#6 February 4, 2013 trades for Jed Lowrie, who manages to stay healthy for the first time in his career, puts up good numbers.  154 games played, slash of 290/344/446 from shortstop.  That's good for a 2.3 WAR score, with his dWAR taking a hit that might be a tad unfair.  Lowrie was a big part of the success, and he cost Beane Chris Carter, Brad Peacock and Max Stassi, netting Fernando Rodriguez as well. 

The bad beats are Chris Young and Brett Anderson.  Young's option is declined, and Anderson is traded to the Rockies for Drew Pomeranz and Chris Jensen.

So what's going well in 2014

#1  Donaldson again.  Hammering out a 3.9 WAR currently with a slash of 276/370/523 and 12 HRs.

#2  A running mate has emerged in Brandon Moss, who has shrugged off his platoon label against lefties, WAR of 2.2, slash of 289/377/584 and 12 HRs.

#3 Sonny Grey has been an ace, sporting a low WHIP and ERA, gobbling up innings.

#4  Beane raised the bar on FA signings, chased Tim Hudson and got his guy on the 2nd pass, Scott Kazmir has been a great running mate to Grey so far.  Lower WHIP than Grey, the A's have been good about keeping opportunities to a minimum.

#5 While Parker and AJ Griffin are out with TJ surgeries, the A's haven't missed a beat between Tommy Millone and Jesse Chavez.  Drew Pomeranz may turn out to be another steal.

#6  So far Craig Gentry has the edge on that other light hitting defensive whiz Peter Bourjos on the Cards.  Gentry has spelled Crisp in CF.

What's gone wrong?  Well, the Jim Johnson trade raised eyebrows, and Beane has 10MM tied up in the closer who isn't closing.  If Beane has an achilles heel, I'm going with building a bullpen.

Summary: Beane has received major impact from a variety of sources: IFA (Cespedes), injury risk trades (Lowrie, Parker), old scrapheap signings (Colon), injury risk signings (Kazmir), having the farm pan out (Grey, Griffin), having an old trade pan out (Donaldson), young scrapheap signings (Moss), trade targeting undervalued assets (Reddick, Gentry) and finally trusting that he had something good already with Crisp, getting the re-up.  His moves in the 2011-12 offseason were daring, and he hit on nearly all of them.  While there was definitely some savvy trading going on, you can't always see the results of that for a while.  The bulk of the A's success is in navigating the Free Agent market successfully.

While Oakland gets panned for their system in the rankings order, I think they are sitting pretty.  Addison Russell is a great prospect to headline, they have several sleeper pitchers.  I liked their pickups of hitters such as Max Muncy, Chad Pinder and Ryon Healy.  Its hard for fans to get used ot the churn that Trader Billy constantly produces, but there might be a couple more guys sticking in the near future.

Beane has built a good outfield, especially on the defensive side.  His platoon catching tandem gives him a positional scarcity advantage.  Hitting on Donaldson gives him a budding star.  As does mining the reclamation project with Moss.  The middle infield may need some work, especially if the fragile Lowrie goes down.  The other area of weakness is that pen.  The starting pitching the A's bring to the table is very exciting.  They have some serious depth to take the kick in the teeth of not one but two TJ surgeries.

Beane should be congratulated for going out and competing.  He's got a good squad, and the A's are well positioned.  The Rangers have been fading over the past couple of years and are injury plagued; the Angels invested in hitting to the detriment of pitching; the Mariners should have fired their GM for lying about his resume, but continue to plod on; and the Astros continue to proudly tank with a crew of stats nerds at the helm now.  Good time to be an A's fan, and Beane came out of the wilderness with a bang back in 2012.  He should be built to continue that success for some time.


  1. Beane has done a great job of rebuilding the A's and leapfrogging the Angels and Rangers, who both looked like they would be the big dawg in da AL West house for a while, but both have stumbled significantly. They have won the division two seasons in a row and look ready to take it again, though the Angels are nipping on their heels.

    Still, the butt kissing from that BP article is AMAZING! Why weren't there articles like that for the Giants? Especially after doing it twice, what winning two championships is not rebuilding the right way? In fact, BP published a very snarky article after the second trophy.

    For a saber site, I'm shocked that they would note that the 2004 Cards were the last team to lead in the two stats, without looking into what other double leaders do, or if there any other. The author's implication is that they are World Series bound, but one instance does not a correlation make.

    1. Denial is a big river in Egypt! Like the wannabe draft guru who's buttons I pushed, the bias that is shown towards certain teams is pretty hilarious. Will it end anytime soon?

      I think watching inter-division play is very important with the A's, and I think they have some big advantages with regards to that part of the game. They are built to defend in the 3 Western parks, and slug it out in Texas. I think Beane's sell off of pitchers that don't quite please him is a very interesting move. Cahill and Anderson were pretty well thought of, but they have some shakiness in performance with their underlying stats. It's early in the game on the trade judgement, but he's looking good on that. Mainly he went out and embraced FAs of all types... like the Giants do as well.

    2. And he can steal 'em often enough that you have to wonder what other teams are thinking: I couldn't believe that they got Reddick, I really liked him too, not sure why the Red Sox didn't see his value. And the Cubs giving up Donaldson, wow, that's Beane's Kent or Schmidt deal right there. Was that an Epstein trade or was that the straw that broke the camel's back and led to Epstein coming in?

      No, it won't end anytime soon. Apparently the A's have been throwing some business their way, I mean, they got that quote from Billy that they put on all their books, so like any good consulting business, they are going to suck up to the teams who are throwing them business, there are only 30 teams who can be customers, can't piss off the ones who actually use them sometimes.

      And I would note that Billy still don't get it, teams with dominating pitching staffs - that is, strikeout centric - are the ones who tend to go deep into the playoffs. Even with their success the past couple of seasons, and still this season, their K/9 is still riding below the average for the AL, and thus they are still not maximizing their playoff opportunities. So I expect his record of not getting past the first round will continue.

      And I was amazed but the Giants are low in K/9 too. They need to start bumping up the dominance.

  2. It's amazing that all of Beane's idolizers refuse to acknowledge that the trading of Gio Gonzalez probably cost the A's two World Series appearances so far. It's as if Gio never existed. We love Beane here in Oakland but how nice would it have been to have Gio at the top of the rotation the last two play-offs. This trade was a disaster.

    1. Exactly, Gio is the type of pitcher you want heading your rotation in the playoffs, big strike thrower!

    2. Gio Gonzo is a seriously underrated pitcher. Thanks for pointing this out, he does bring the A's Derek Norris, Brad Peacock, Tommy Milone and AJ Cole, who has been turned into the other half of the catcher platoon John Jaso. And Peacock was part of the Lowrie deal.

      Among the stellar moves of the 2011-12 offseason, there is definitely a case that Gio would have much more impact than the catching platoon. There is the issue of his contract, which is an annual and much publicized problem. I should have put something in, but I was concentrating on the positives on the roster for the year. Thanks for the comment!