Billy Bean: Changing The Game

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The Oakland A's Success with Little Funds

The article, ‘Billy Bean: Changing the Game’ tells the story of how Billy Bean was able to manage the Oakland A’s with little funds successfully. With the second-lowest payroll budget in major league baseball of $ 331,000 per win in 2001, the Oakland A’s managed an incredible 102 wins, as compared to 73 wins for the Texas Rangers, a team with one of the highest per win payrolls in the major league baseball at the time. The team continued with a series of good runs, confirming to skeptics that I need they had found a good formula to achieve success even with little funds. For example, between 2000 and 2003, the Oakland A’s averaged 98 wins per year, making it to the playoffs in each year. So what was the reason behind Oakland A’s seamless success?

Adopting Sabermetrics for Player Evaluation

Billy Bean’s success was due to the methods he adopted for evaluating players. While other managers and teams relied on the old process of scouting, he adopted a new and unproven method known as sabermetrics, which primarily relied on the sophisticated statistical methodology to evaluate players. The technique challenged the old conventional ways of selecting players for major league baseball team. The brain behind sabermetrics was Bill James, a baseball writer in the 1980s. Although Bill James first publication on sabermetrics was in 1979, a few people paid close attention to his work, with the majority of baseball organizations ignoring the idea that statistics could help in evaluating a baseball player. It was Sandy Alderson, the then General Manager of Oakland A’s that introduced the concept of sabermetrics to the Oakland A’s organization, in which Billy Bean was then the assistant general manager. Together with Billy Bean, Sandy Alderson would perfect Bill James ideas of a systematic approach to studying the game of baseball.

The Challenge to Traditional Evaluation Methods

Sabermetrics challenged the old ways of evaluating baseball players in some ways. In his argument, James noted that the game had a lot of statistics that were inadequate for assessing a player’s performance, such as fielding statistics, which did not provide a comprehensive measure of a player’s ability to play defense. Apart from the issue of statistics, James also argued that the old method of using the naked eye to evaluate baseball players and games was entirely inadequate in learning what is necessary to evaluate a player. Through regression techniques, he came up with mathematical formulas to help predict the number of runs a team would score, basing his prediction on some measures such as base running and hitting proficiency.

Immediate Success with Regression Techniques

By applying regression, Oakland A’s realized immediate success. For example, Billy adopted the on-base percentage in measuring a hitter’s proficiency, which factored in other variables such as the number of times a hitter earned a walk. The on-base percentage proved successful than the batting average used at the time by other baseball organizations. For example, using on-base percentage, Billy Bean recruited Jason Giambi, who was undervalued by other clubs at the time. In 2000, he was America’s League Most Valuable Player, beating other players ranked higher than him by other organizations. Billy Bean had proven the baseball community wrong. After his departure, Billy would use the same approach in signing Scott Hatteberg, by then considered by many as a mediocre player due to their evaluation as .277 hitter with modest power. However, the other teams did not factor in the number of times Hatterberg earned a walk. With this hidden advantage, Hatterberg was able to contribute to the team's overall runs and cover up the absence of Giambi.

Redefining Recruitment Techniques

Another reason for Bean’s success was his recruiting technique. Billy Bean did not believe in the old technique of scouting. Scouts relied on tools that young players possessed. The tools included hitting for average, hitting for power, running speed, arm strength, and fielding ability. However, Billy, together with his coaching staff believed that the use of a naked eye was inadequate, because of three reasons. First, there was the tendency by scouts who had played the game to generalize a player's potential from their own experience. Second, the technique made it easy for scouts to be influenced by a player's most recent performance. Lastly, there was the bias towards what the scouts saw, or thought they saw, as the mind could play tricks on the scouts, thereby clouding their judgment.

Through statistics, Billy Bean, together with DePodesta, came up with new approaches to recruiting. For example, they concentrated on the underrated aspects of a player, rather than the overrated elements. At the time, scouts highly valued defense and speed, ignoring other aspects such as on-base percentage. The duo also concentrated on college players rather than high school players. In their case, they argued that unlike high school players, college players had played a lot of games against better competition, thereby giving them better statistics as compared to high school players. All that mattered was the player's ability to get on base frequently, get extra base hits, and be able to produce runs or the team at the end of it all.

October 24, 2023
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