In the 1980s, there was a tremendously talented high school baseball player named Billy Beane. Talent scouts from professional baseball teams would come to watch Billy’s high school games and they told him that soon he’d be a world-class player. When Billy graduated, he was offered a contract with the Mets; after some uncertainty, he signed.
But after Billy became a player for the Mets, he seemed to lose his talent. Overshadowed by his teammates, Billy became easily rattled. He lacked the focus necessary to succeed in pro baseball. Fed up with playing, Billy became a talent scout for the Oakland A’s and he eventually rose to become the general manager of the team. As general manager, Billy used a mathematical strategy for drafting and acquiring players, which would revolutionize the sport. Before 2002, the Oakland A’s, and some other teams, had used a limited mathematical approach to team management—however, 2002 marked the year when the Oakland A’s used the mathematical approach to a degree almost never seen before.
Around the same time that Billy was playing for the Mets, the baseball world was going through a series of changes. Baseball teams were becoming highly profitable, so that certain successful teams, such as the New York Yankees, had so much money that they could draft the most expensive and, often, the most talented players. At the same time, the 1980s marked the dawn of the sabermetrics era. A baseball fan named Bill James pioneered the idea that traditional sports statistics, such as batting averages, didn’t measure what they were supposed to measure, and instead painted an inaccurate picture of the sport. James argued that by studying statistical information closely, general managers could assemble a team of athletes who, contrary to traditional measures, would play a steady, consistent, disciplined game, and ultimately perform better than flashier, more obviously gifted ballplayers. In spite of James’s brilliance, his ideas didn’t really catch on with major league franchises, partly because baseball is a traditionalist sport, partly because of the anti-intellectual bias in baseball, and partly because coaches and managers didn’t want outsiders interfering with their actions.
As general of the Oakland A’s, one of the poorest teams in Major League Baseball, Billy Beane was unusual in that he’d seen first-hand why traditional recruitment strategies didn’t work. Billy himself had been a top prospect for the Mets, but he hadn’t lived up to his promise. In 2002, Billy made the decision to reform the player acquisition process. Instead of doing what most general managers do—listening to their team of talent scouts—Billy worked closely with his assistant, a statistics-minded man named Paul DePodesta. Paul argued that most baseball scouts were biased in favor of what they could see with their own eyes. He further argued that, by analyzing statistics about a player’s walks, on-base average (i.e., probability of getting on base, and not making an out, in any given at-bat), and other obscure information, general managers could acquire talented players whom other franchises didn’t think were worth anything. In so doing, Paul realized, the Oakland A’s could assemble one of the best teams in the league for much less money.
In 2002, Billy alienated his talent scouts by hiring a group of players whom other teams had largely ignored. One such player was Jeremy Brown, a heavy slow-moving fielder with an impressive on-base average. Billy and Paul supported drafting Jeremy, along with other unglamorous ballplayers whom the scouts had dismissed. In all, the Oakland A’s were able to draft more than a dozen of their top picks for the year—unheard of in Major League Baseball.
Billy applies sabermetrics to many different aspects of baseball management, not just the draft. Throughout the first half of the 2002 season, during which the Oakland A’s don’t do particularly well, he tries to “recreate” Jason Giambi, a talented player whom he was forced to let go after the 2001 season because the A’s could no longer afford him. Instead of trying to find another player with Giambi’s abilities, Billy focuses on “recreating the aggregate”—in other words, finding multiple players who, when put together, can match Giambi’s statistics as a baseman and a hitter. Billy uses techniques that Paul DePodesta has borrowed from the world of Wall Street, in effect treating Giambi as a set of statistics that can be matched with a bundle of “derivatives” taken from other players. One of the players Billy acquires to replace Giambi, an older player named David Justice, isn’t much of a hitter any longer, but he’s excellent at getting walks—therefore, he contributes to his team’s victory, albeit in a fairly unglamorous way.
Another player that Billy has acquired for the 2002 season is Scott Hatteberg. Hatteberg was already in the twilight of his career before he came to the Oakland A’s, and a bad accident had left him with almost no strength in his right arm. Nevertheless, Billy hires him because of his high on-base percentage and consistent hitting, playing him as a first baseman in order to get him at-bats.
Throughout the 2002 season, Billy continues trading players to other teams in the hopes of maximizing his own team’s success. He cleverly negotiates with multiple general managers of other franchises to acquire a talented player named Ricardo Rincon. To pay for Rincon, Beane pushes a veteran player, Mike Magnante, out of the big-league team for good—a piece of news that Magnante takes with quiet, weary acceptance.
Another important player whom the A’s have acquired for the 2002 season is the pitcher Chad Bradford. Bradford has had some ups and downs as a player, but Billy acquires him because he recognizes that Chad is a smart pitcher with good endurance. Chad is a textbook example of the A’s new approach to winning baseball: he looks nothing like a pro athlete, and he’s not particularly hard-throwing as a pitcher, but he has a wild, unconventional delivery that induces batters to hit mostly ground balls. This is an advantage because, statistically speaking, grounders are less likely to result in doubles, triples, or home runs.
In the second half of the 2002 season, the A’s win twenty straight games, a league record. They qualify for the playoffs, but lose against a far inferior team, the Minnesota Twins. Nevertheless, Billy and Paul have proven that general managers can use sabermetrics and economic thinking to create a powerful team. Other general managers, managers, and coaches come together and claim that Billy and Paul’s success is a fluke. However, Billy is offered a contract to manage the Boston Red Sox—the highest-paying contract in baseball history—which suggests that the Major League Baseball world recognizes his talents. After much thought, Billy turns down the contract, claiming that, as a high school player, he made a big mistake by signing with the Mets, and he will never again make a decision that’s just about money. He remains general manager of the Oakland A’s with Paul at his side.
In the Epilogue, Jeremy Brown, playing in a big-league training camp, hits a home run without realizing it—perhaps symbolizing the Oakland A’s unlikely path to victory.