When things did not go well for Billy on the playing field, a wall came down between him and his talent, and he didn’t know any other way to get through the wall than to try to smash a hole in it. It wasn't merely that he didn’t like to fail; it was as if he didn’t know how to fail.
The scouts never considered this. By the end of Billy’s senior year the only question they had about Billy was: Can I get him?
There was, for starters, the tendency of everyone who actually played the game to generalize wildly from his own experience. People always thought their own experience was typical when it wasn't. There was also a tendency to be overly influenced by a guy's most recent performance: what he did last was not necessarily what he would do next. Thirdly—but not lastly—there was the bias toward what people saw with their own eyes, or thought they had seen. The human mind played tricks on itself when it relied exclusively on what it saw, and every trick it played was a financial opportunity for someone who saw through the illusion to the reality. There was a lot you couldn't see when you watched a baseball game.
There was no avoiding just how important the 2002 amateur draft was for the future of the Oakland A’s. The Oakland A’s survived by finding cheap labor. The treatment of amateur players is the most glaring of the many violations of free market principles in Major League Baseball. A team that drafts and signs a player holds the rights to his first seven years in the minor leagues and his first six in the majors.
"He's the only player in the history of the SEC with three hundred hits and two hundred walks," says Paul, looking up from his computer.
It's what he doesn't say that is interesting … He doesn't explain why walks are important. He doesn't explain that he has gone back and studied which amateur hitters made it to the big leagues, and which did not, and why. He doesn't explain that the important traits in a baseball player were not all equally important. That foot speed, fielding ability, even raw power tended to be dramatically overpriced. That the ability to control the strike zone was the greatest indicator of future success. That the number of walks a hitter drew was the best indicator of whether he understood how to control the strike zone.
"Baseball organizations don't understand that with a certain kind of highly talented player who has trouble with failure, they need to suck it up and let the kid develop," Dorfman said. "You don’t push him along too fast. Take it slow, so his failure is not public exposure and humiliation. Teach him perspective—that baseball matters but it doesn't matter too much. Teach him that what matters isn't whether I just struck out. What matters is that I behave impeccably when I compete. The guy believes in his talent. What he doesn't believe in is himself. He sees himself exclusively in his statistics. If his stats are bad, he has zero self-worth. He's never developed a coping mechanism because he's never had anything to cope with."
Since the late 1970s the A’s had been owned by Walter A. Haas, Jr., who was, by instinct, more of a philanthropist than a businessman. Haas viewed professional baseball ownership as a kind of public trust and spent money on it accordingly. In 1991, the Oakland A’s actually had the highest payroll in all of baseball. Haas was willing to lose millions to field a competitive team that would do Oakland proud, and he did. The A’s had gone to the World Series three straight seasons from 1988 to 1990.
Deferring to success became an untenable strategy in 1995.
The statistics were not merely inadequate; they lied. And the lies they told led the people who ran major league baseball teams to misjudge their players, and mismanage their games. James later reduced his complaint to a sentence: fielding statistics made sense only as numbers, not as language. Language, not numbers, is what interested him. Words, and the meaning they were designed to convey. "When the numbers acquire the significance of language," he later wrote, "they acquire the power to do all of the things which language can do: to become fiction and drama and poetry.”
By the early 1990s it was clear that "sabermetrics,” the search for new baseball knowledge, was an activity that would take place mainly outside of baseball. You could count on one hand the number of "sabermetricians" inside of baseball, and none of them appears to have had much effect. After a while they seemed more like fans who second-guessed the general manager than advisers who influenced decisions. They were forever waving printouts to show how foolish the GM had been not to have taken their advice.
Jeremy Brown, owner of the University of Alabama offensive record books as a catcher, had been so perfectly conditioned by the conventional scouting wisdom that he refused to believe that any major league baseball team could think highly of him.
A revaluation in the stock market has consequences for companies and for money managers. The pieces of paper don't particularly care what you think of their intrinsic value. A revaluation in the market for baseball players resonates in the lives of young men. It was as if a signal had radiated out from the Oakland A’s draft room and sought, laserlike, those guys who for their whole career had seen their accomplishments understood with an asterisk. The footnote at the bottom of the page said, "He’ll never go anywhere because he doesn't look like a big league ballplayer."
Volcker was also the only commissioner with a financial background. To the growing annoyance of the others, he kept asking two provocative questions:
1. If poor teams were in such dire financial condition, why did rich guys keep paying higher prices to buy them?
2. If poor teams had no hope, how did the Oakland As, with the second lowest payroll in all of baseball, win so many games?
The system then carved up what happened in every baseball play into countless tiny, meaningful fragments. Derivatives. "There are all sorts of things that happen in the context of a baseball play," said Armbruster, "that just never got recorded."
The A’s front office realized right away, of course, that they couldn't replace Jason Giambi with another first baseman just like him. There wasn't another first baseman just like him and if there were they couldn't have afforded him and in any case that’s not how they thought about the holes they had to fill. The important thing is not to recreate the individual," Billy Beane would later say. "The important thing is to recreate the aggregate.”
Justice walked a lot. Just a few years ago Justice's ability to wait for pitches he could drive—to not get himself out by swinging at a pitcher's pitch
–had enabled him to hit lots of home runs, too. Much of his power was now gone. His new Oakland teammates witnessed his dissipation up close. After he'd hit a long fly ball, Justice would return to the A’s dugout and say, matter of factly, "That used to be out." There was something morbid about it, like watching a death, play-by-play.
The A’s front office didn't care. They sought only to milk the last few ounces of superior on-base percentage out of David Justice before he expired.
Billy Beane wanted him to hit. Hatteberg told his agent to cut a deal with Oakland: one year with a club option for a second with a base salary of $950,000 plus a few incentive clauses. The moment he signed it, a few days after Christmas, he had a call from Billy Beane, who said how pleased he was to have him in the lineup.
And, oh yes, he'd be playing first base.
By late l996 he was in the big leagues for good. Once he arrived however, he faced another challenge: the idiocy of the Boston Red Sox. His cultivated approach to hitting—his thoughtfulness, his patience, his need for his decisions to be informed rather than reckless—was regarded by the Boston Red Sox as a deficiency. The Red Sox encouraged their players' mystical streaks. They brought into the clubhouse a parade of shrinks and motivational speakers to teach the players to harness their aggression. Be men!
The moment he hangs up he calls Mark Shapiro, current owner of Ricardo Rincon, and tells him that he has the impression that the market for Rincon is softening. Whoever the other bidder is, he says, Shapiro ought to make sure his offer is firm.
In his youth he might have mouthed off. He would certainly have borne a grudge. But he was no longer young; the numbness had long since set in. He thought of himself the way the market thought of him, as an asset to be bought and sold. He'd long ago forgotten whatever it was he was meant to feel.
The White Sox GM … told Chad that his pitches weren’t moving like they used to move. He was sending Chad down to Triple-A. Chad didn’t have the nerve to say what he thought but he thought it all the same: My ball doesn't move? But all I have is movement! When he got to Triple-A, a coach assured him that his ball moved as it always had, and that the GM just needed something to tell him other than the truth, that the White Sox front office viewed him as a "Triple-A guy."
At length, he penned an article revealing his findings for baseballprospectus.com. Its conclusion: "There is little if any difference among major league pitchers in their ability to prevent hits on balls hit into the field of play.”
This was the character whose behavior was consistent with the way he said he wanted to run his baseball team: rationally. Scientifically. This was the "objective" Billy Beane, the general manager who was certain that "you don't change guys; they are who they are." Who will describe his job as "a soap box derby. You build the car in the beginning of the year and after that all you do is push it down the hill." To this Billy Beane's way of thinking there was no point in meddling with the science experiment … But there is another, less objective Billy Beane … And he allows me to see that the science experiment is messier than the chief scientist usually is willing to admit.
Coaches, players, reporters: everyone at once starts to worry that the Oakland A’s don't bunt or run. Especially run. Billy Beane's total lack of interest in the stolen base—which has served the team so well for the previous 162 games—is regarded, in the postseason, as sheer folly. Even people who don't run very fast start saying that "you need to make things happen" in the postseason. Take the action to your opponent. "The atavistic need to run," Billy Beane calls it.
"I made one decision based on money in my life—when I signed with the Mets rather than go to Stanford—and I promised I'd never do it again." After that, Billy confined himself to the usual blather about personal reasons. None of what he said was terribly rational or "objective"—but then, neither was he. Within a week, he was back to scheming how to get the Oakland A’s back to the playoffs, and Paul DePodesta was back to being on his side.
Everybody's laughing at him again. But their laughter has a different tone. It's not the sniggering laughter of the people who made fun of his body. It's something else. He looks out into the gap in left center field. The outfielders are just standing there: they've stopped chasing the ball. The ball's gone. The triple of Jeremy Brown's imagination, in reality, is a home run.