The Stat-Head Revolution

Geeks Infiltrate Baseball's Front Offices; Conventional Wisdom Flees


Considering that as a journeyman outfielder he managed just 11 walks in his entire career, Billy Beane is an unlikely hero to be leading the sabermetric charge into front offices. But as Oakland's general manager, his focus on players who can walk and hit homers—high-OPS players, in other words—has unexpectedly transformed a low-payroll team into a perennial pennant contender. Beane's acquisition of rookie OPS machine Carlos Pena from the Rangers, heralded by BP's Chris Kahrl as "an indictable offense in several states," has only cemented his reputation.

Neyer says flatly: "Billy Beane is clearly the best baseball executive there is out there right now, if not the best ever. To me, in 50 years he's going to rank up there with Branch Rickey."

Beane and fellow OBP freak Brian Cashman, whose player-acquisition skills go largely unnoticed amid the outwash of Steinbrennerian cash, have recently been joined by new blood: Last winter, Toronto hired Beane's assistant J.P. Ricciardi as its new GM, and Ricciardi promptly conducted a Beanesque overhaul of the club. (He also hired Law.) Meanwhile, San Diego's Kevin Towers, a close friend of Beane's, has rededicated himself to OPS. The Jays and Padres, stockpiled with young talent, are every stat-savvy observer's pick as the next dynasties of the aughts.

Which leaves the question: Why now? All four of the new-era GMs are young enough to have read James in college, or to hang out with those who did. But Beane's breakthrough in Oakland is likely most important. "And when you succeed with the kind of budgets that Beane or the Padres had, teams are going to want that," says Sheehan. Already, Oakland assistant GM Paul DePodesta and San Diego's Theo Epstein are rumored to be the next in line.

This is assuming, of course, that baseball's usual predilection for tradition-bound backlash doesn't kick in first. Beane and Ricciardi were savaged by local sportswriters for last winter's moves, which largely exchanged "veteran leadership" for unproven talent with great stat projections, à la Pena and Blue Jay third baseman Eric Hinske. If the fab four's teams falter, the pendulum could swing back to old warhorses in a hurry. "The reason most GMs have gotten to the point they are is they're very good at espousing old baseball wisdom," says Neyer. Or as McCracken puts it more bluntly: "A guy is not gonna lose his job in a heartbeat going with the conventional wisdom."

Moreover, notes Sheehan, everyone involved in baseball—execs, players, and fans—retains a strong desire to link "character" with on-field success, against all statistical evidence to the contrary. The myth of a baseball meritocracy, in which good guys win and bad guys finish last, is a strong one, and it may be a while before baseball is ready to accept the notion that Mark Grace and Bob Brenly wear rings today more because of circumstance than innate worthiness.

"One of my pet peeves is because the breaks fell a certain way, these people are called heroes with great character and these other people are called chokers with bad chemistry," says Sheehan. "Maybe in 300 years we'll have advanced to the point where we don't need to think of guys with really great fast-twitch muscles as having great character."

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