Two years ago when it was released and revolutionized the way many readers thought about the small-market game, Michael Lewis’ “Moneyball” was baseball gospel, and Oakland A’s general manager Billy Beane its high priest.
Today, Lewis, who just released a high school baseball memoir, could pen a follow-up to his smash hit. He could call it “Crummyball.”
Prior to last night’s 6-4 win over the Red Sox, the 2005 A’s had lost eight straight games, landing them in the basement of the American League West. They are 13th in the league in both runs scored (140) and batting average (.237). They have hit just 22 home runs, 32 less than league leader Texas. They’re slugging just .341 as a team and have a pathetic OPS of only .652. And Moneyball be damned, they are just 11th in the American League in on-base percentage with a .312 mark.
This was supposed to be the A’s year to go away anyway. After four straight trips to the playoffs (2000-2003) on a shoestring budget and last year’s second-place finish, just a game behind the Anaheim Angels, Beane made drastic changes to his club, dealing staff ace Tim Hudson to Atlanta and lefty Mark Mulder to St. Louis, both with hefty raises due. He acquired Pittsburgh’s Jason Kendall, and let Jermaine Dye walk. The changes led many to write the A’s off in 2005, while others still held a flicker of hope in a pitching staff that boasted Barry Zito and Rich Harden.
Well, now we know better. Hudson is 4-2 with a 3.18 ERA for the Braves. Mulder is 5-1 with the Cardinals. Lefty pitcher Mark Redman, involved in the Kendall deal, is among the top 10 ERA leaders in the National League. Arthur Rhodes, also involved in the Pittsburgh deal, then traded to Cleveland, is 2-1 for the Tribe with a 0.98 ERA and seven holds.
That not just called backfiring on Beane. We’re talking cartoon, ACME, charred mug explosion here.
Beane decided to pay Eric Chavez instead of Miguel Tejada, a player he described as “Mr. Swing at Everything. ” Chavez is hitting .205 with two home runs and 11 runs batted in, making $8.5 million as the A’s second-highest paid player (Kendall is first at $10.6 and is batting .218). Tejada, meanwhile, making $10.8 this season with the Orioles, is hitting .333 with 10 home runs, 38 runs batted in, and a .372 on base percentage. Only Bobby Kielty on Oakland has a higher OBP than “Mr. Swing at Everything.”
Beane decided to keep Zito rather than Mulder or Hudson, who is undeniably the most dominating pitcher of the three. The A’s lefty has one win to his credit, and Harden is headed to the disabled list with a muscle strain in his stomach. Danny Haren, acquired in the Mulder deal, is 1-5. Joe Blanton is 0-4.
The A’s have started slowly in the past, only to ratchet it up in the second half of the season, but things were simply never this dire. A dynasty of sorts has been dismantled out of monetary necessity, but instead of making the moves best for his ballclub, Beane has created a team more out of his ego than his baseball genius. Signing Chavez instead of Tejada looked suspicious at the time. It looks just plain ignorant now. It’s one thing to have patience at the plate. It’s another thing entirely to be one of the top 10 players in the game. That’s the difference between Chavez and Tejada, and the difference between .205 and .333.
Look, I love Barry Zito, but to say you are going to build a staff around him instead of Hudson is just plain imprudent. Zito has never come close to repeating his Cy Young season of 2002, while Tim Hudson might be the best pitcher in the NL outside of the old (Roger Clemens, 42) and the young (Dontrelle Willis, 23) of the league.
So they are 15-23, and for what it is worth, so far Beane is taking the blame according to Oakland Tribune columnist Monte Poole: “The team’s philosophies flow from him. He sets policies. All GMs select personnel, but Beane also dictates direction. Practically everything the manager and the coaches do, they do at his direction. It’s Billy’s program, and the players know it.”
That doesn’t mean sweeping changes aren’t in the immediate future for this franchise. Ken Macha could still be gone. Zito could be dealt after two years of rumors (pair him with Dave Wallace and see what you get). The A’s already called the Red Sox about old friend Scott Hatteberg, one of the stars of Lewis’ account, and a Beane favorite. They declined. Soon, Kendall, Mark Kotsay, and Erubiel Durazo might all be on the block.
“Just take a look, you 29 other teams, and tell us who you like,” writes the Tribune’s Carl Steward. “Admittedly, though, that’s a pretty difficult task right now, particularly if there’s a bat in their hands.”
The A’s had a nice run, and are sticking to their club philosophy. But if this season will prove more than anything it’s that intelligent baseball decisions still need to be made, something Beane failed to succeed at. We often forget how close this guy came to running the Red Sox, if not for an 11th hour decision to remain on the west coast. Where would the Red Sox be right now? One thing’s for sure, Jason Varitek would be behind the plate for the Sox with AL’s best pitching staff. In Chicago. One of Beane’s first lines of duty in Boston would have been to deal Varitek to the White Sox for Mark Johnson, we learned in the final pages of “Moneyball.”
Today, he’s the captain of the World Series champs, and is constantly credited with being the reason why the Red Sox’ pitching staff is as strong as it is. Beane would have traded a guy like that because he doesn’t take Ball Four enough.
Which only goes to disprove at least one aspect of Moneyball. The player does matter. Imagine that. The individual’s character, leadership, and attitude all go into creating the player, aspects that Bill James fails to take into account when making a player evaluation. It’s more than a puzzle, more than a roto-league team.
The A’s got by all those years because they had the right players within the system. Now all those right players are tearing up the league. For everybody else.