The Oakland A’s approach the 2002 playoffs. In their penultimate game of the regular season, they face the Texas Rangers. Billy Beane and his staff discuss how they’re going to have to lose Ray Durham next year—after a great season with the A’s, he’s become too popular, meaning that Billy won’t be able to save any money by keeping him around. During the 2002 season, Durham’s coaches have forced him to stop trying to steal so many bases—his greatest asset, they recognize, is that he can almost always get on base, not that he can steal bases. In three weeks or so, however, Durham will become a “free agent,” meaning that he’ll be able to command millions of dollars from a much wealthier team.
In Chapter Twelve, Lewis brings the book to an anticlimactic conclusion. Even though the A’s have assembled an incredible team, they’re still not rich enough to keep their star players for more than a few seasons: once the word is out that their players are secretly great, the players can start to demand massive salaries. Assembling a team for Oakland is a constant process for Billy Beane, one for which there is no finish line. The more Billy succeeds in assembling a good team, the harder he’ll have to try to replace it next year.
The regular season ends and the A’s have own their division and made the playoffs. Two important things happen. First, Art Howe holds a meeting with the press in which he criticizes Billy for not giving him a long-term contract. Second, fans, GMs, managers, coaches, and players begin to wonder if Billy’s success has been mostly luck. They criticize the A’s for playing cautiously and not stealing more bases. Such criticisms, Lewis argues, are absurd—the A’s record in 2002 is anything but luck. They’ve gone 103-59, on a payroll of 41 million, ahead of far richer franchises. Baseball celebrities tell the press that Oakland’s success is a fluke. The famous former second baseman, Joe Morgan, claims, illogically, that the A’s hitters need to “manufacture runs” by stealing bases and bunting, instead of waiting for a home run to send them all home. Unbeknownst to Morgan, while he was giving this lecture, the Oakland A’s were “walking and swatting their way to a win” against the Minnesota Twins in the playoffs.
Art Howe has no particular loyalty to Billy Beane: his priority is getting the most lucrative contract for himself. The aftermath of the A’s record-setting year in 2002 illustrates the conservatism of baseball. The conventional wisdom that big teams win because they buy the best players proves so strong that, even after the A’s prove the conventional wisdom wildly incorrect, the entire baseball establishment comes together to claim, illogically, that the A’s have been lucky. Michael Lewis conveys the foolishness of such a claim by juxtaposing Morgan’s criticisms of the A’s with the A’s success against the Minnesota Twins—Morgan can talk all he wants, but the A’s record speaks for itself.
The A’s and Twins each win two of the first four games of their playoff series. Then the Twins win the deciding fifth game, and the A’s are out of the playoffs. Baseball professionals treat their loss as proof that their strategy didn’t work in the long-run. But the A’s didn’t lose because they failed to “manufacture runs.” Indeed, they scored more runs in their playoff games than they did in their regular season games. The problem with the playoff system in baseball, Michael Lewis argues, is that it’s a “crapshoot.” Statistically, in a five-game playoff, the worst team in baseball will defeat the best team about fifteen percent of the time.
The anticlimactic ending to the A’s 2002 season—and the book itself—is that the A’s lose against the Minnesota Twins, a far worse team. However, the A’s don’t lose for the shallow reasons that Joe Morgan lists; they lose because, although sabermetrics can predict the overall outcome of a season, it can’t predict the outcome of individual games. There is always a strong element of uncertainty in baseball.
Billy said, “My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs. My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is fucking luck.” In spite of his seeming indifference, Billy was clearly upset by his team’s loss to the obviously inferior Twins. Then, he had the idea to trade Art Howe to another team; in the end, Art signed a two million-dollar contract with the Mets, and Billy promoted his bench coach, Ken Macha, to manage the A’s. Afterwards, Billy realized that, of all the people involved with the A’s, he was the most undervalued. He decided to trade himself.
Billy’s reaction to the A’s defeat in the playoffs exemplifies his conflicted attitude toward baseball. Clearly, he’s emotionally invested in his team’s success, even if he pretends to be indifferent. These two sides of Billy’s character come into play when he makes the decision to “trade himself” to the Red Sox—a decision that, it would seem, is purely economic.
After the 2002 season, Billy Beane agreed to manage the Red Sox for 12.5 million dollars over five years—the highest sum ever for a GM. Paul DePodesta was set to become the next GM for the A’s. As part of the trade for Billy becoming the new GM of the Red Sox, the A’s would acquire Kevin Youkilis, the same player that Billy had convinced Omar Minaya to acquire early in 2002.
The book begins and ends with Billy making what, on paper, seem to be perfect deals: first, signing with the Mets, now, signing with the Red Sox as a GM. Note the irony: just as Billy Beane is leaving the Oakland A’s, the A’s finally get Kevin Youkilis, Billy’s favorite player.
Reporters everywhere talked about how Billy Beane was going to become the highest-paid GM in history. Then, suddenly, Billy called the Red Sox and told them he couldn’t be their GM. He told them that he’d already made one decision based purely on money—signing with the Mets—and he’d never make that mistake again. Billy gives many reasons for turning down the Red Sox, and none are “terribly rational or ‘objective.’” Back with the A’s, working alongside Paul, Billy had a new problem: he wanted to prove to the world of baseball that his sabermetric approach worked, and in order to do so, he had to win a World Series. However, Michael Lewis disagrees—Billy had already changed baseball forever.
Notice that Michael Lewis never explains why, exactly, Billy turns down the Red Sox GM position, other than because he’s afraid of accepting a job purely for the money. Thus, it’s unclear if Billy is motivated by his friendship with Paul, his love for the A’s, his loyalty to his colleagues, or his distaste for rich franchises. But far more important than the specific reason for Billy’s decision is the fact that he’s making an irrational, un-economical decision. Even though Billy is credited with monetizing the game of baseball with a never before seen level of efficiency, Billy himself seems not to base his own personal decisions on economics.