If there is one face associated with the transformation of baseball into an experimental laboratory for data analytics, that person is Billy Beane.
The former general manager of the Oakland Athletics and now vice president of baseball operations, Beane proved a trailblazer in the use of data mining to find undervalued players in baseball. That gave him the ability to field teams that could compete against clubs spending two or three times the money on players.
Many point to the fact that the team never won a World Series as a failure on Beane’s part. On the other hand, there have been major accomplishments under Beane’s watch the past 18 years:
- The A’s have compiled a .533 winning percentage, the fourth-best in the American League and the sixth-best in all of baseball.
- The A’s have won six American League West division titles
- The team has made the playoffs eight times under Beane – fourth best in all of baseball
- The team has won 90 or more games in eight of the last 16 seasons
Bear in mind, all of this happened with the A’s ranking at or near the bottom in terms of payroll.
Billy Beane and His Playing Career
Beane grew up in San Diego, where he attended the University of California – San Diego and studied economics. He also played baseball, and ended up drafted by the New York Mets in the first round in 1980.
In 1985, after struggling with the Mets, he was traded to the Minnesota Twins. He played for the Twins, Detroit Tigers and the A’s between then and 1990, much of it in the minor leagues. Beane never fulfilled the promise that seemed evident in his college-playing days.
He quit playing in 1990 and became a scout for the A’s, eventually working his way up through the organization until becoming general manager in 1997. He spent many of those years working for Sandy Alderson, an early pioneer of analytics.
The idea of using data to evaluate players fascinated Beane, and he pushed into the area even further in 2002, the year after the team lost star players Jason Giambi, Johnny Damon and Jason Isringhausen to free agency.
The Moneyball Era
As depicted in the book by Michael Lewis and movie starring Brad Pitt, “Moneyball” took off in Oakland when Beane committed to looking for ways of fielding a successful team while spending a fraction of what other teams spent.
Part of this included hiring statistician Paul DePodesta and a number of other data analysts.
In this way, his approach differs from other well-known data-friendly teams such as the Boston Red Sox and Chicago Cubs. While they also are driven by data, they have the cash to spend on players, giving them resources unavailable to the A’s.
But as the records mentioned above show, that hasn’t kept the A’s from a lot of success. Even as other teams dove into analytics and caught up to much of what the A’s were doing, the team still won back-to-back division championships in 2012 and 2013.
Beane also has received many accolades. He was named Major League Baseball Executive of the Year twice and The Sporting News executive of the year twice, among many other accolades.
Beane remains popular in Oakland for the success of the teams. But even for those who are not A’s fans, he is great example in a number of areas. His perseverance after a failed baseball career, his revolutionary approach to building a club and his determination for the A’s to stay successful despite having the odds stacked against them.