Billy Beane is a lucky man. He’s not only had Brad Pitt play him in a movie, but it was also a very flattering movie — one in which Beane emerges as a swashbuckling general manager who was ahead of his time and was only unsuccessful because he chose to be.
Moneyball ends with Beane turning down a job with the Red Sox to follow his heart and stay home, building good — but never ultimately successful — teams with the Oakland A’s. He’s replicated the success seen in the film at varying levels in Oakland since, including this season and last, when he patched together teams that looked merely decent on paper and instead won the American League West both times out. (The A’s, at 96-66 this season, ended the year with the second-best record in Major League Baseball, one off the leader.)
Beane has the luxury of having only a $60 million-ish payroll each year and then watching it overperform. As the closing scenes in Moneyball show, he could have come to Boston and played with about three times as much money — but he would have also had to dish out about three times as much success. Expectations would have dictated not only postseason appearances, but also World Series titles. And “moneyball,” like money, only goes so far.
In Oakland, Beane instead gets to bemoan that, no matter how cleverly he pulls together his carefully curated roster, he’s most likely always going to get eaten by a bigger fish. Nowhere can this be seen more than Sports Illustrated’s recent playoff preview. Hidden behind the folds of a Kate Upton cover is a piece from Tom Verducci wherein Beane is quoted liberally, his emphasis always the same: The postseason is a complete crapshoot. For as well as any general manager can build his team, in the playoffs, all bets are off, and it’s time to “just enjoy the show.”
Beane is right, of course. In the postseason, especially in the wild-card era, the “hot” teams have quickly changed the complexion of once-staid baseball. The game played in October and November now is nothing like the version of old, when two pennant winners would ride soot-filled trains back and forth after merely winning the regular season. In modern baseball, whichever team can go on a tear and get its pieces lined up well has a good chance to win it all, no matter how it did in the regular season, the past few years being the best examples.
But Beane’s observation also points to how baseball’s postseason works against good, solid general managing. (Disclosure: I think Billy Beane has done a fine job, and it shouldn’t take anything from him that he has stuck with the A’s instead of going to a big-money team.)
The way the postseason works now, any team that is built deep and wide can have its whole season unraveled in one bad playoff series by a team that has just a few key players. A team with one really good starter can suddenly be even with a team with five decent starters, if it’s down to a one-game wild-card playoff or a short series. Teams that platoon heavily and depend on cycling players suddenly have to decide who to play in a short series, hoping that the right players are hot at the right time. The steady stamina of a solid club can be felled by another team pulling the right punches at the decisive moments. Postseason baseball just doesn’t favor good teams anymore.
No team is more in peril of this than the Red Sox, who could have easily fulfilled such a narrative against the Tampa Bay Rays. The Red Sox spent the whole season depending on their entire team, including the creative deploying of players such as Jonny Gomes and Mike Carp as well as a deep and versatile pitching staff. In a five-game shootout, though, the solid pitching from a few of the Rays’ big guns could have nullified Boston’s pitching group (which was better set up for a long season than for three fiery starts), and the batting options the Red Sox have to offer could have been canceled out by manager John Farrell just not happening to have the right player in the right spot at the right moment (which almost happened in the Stephen Drew-Xander Bogaerts situation). The Red Sox’ talent, while on par with other teams, is arguably spread across its roster more evenly than any other teams’.
Boston, however, was able to take advantage of a tired Rays team — and a horrible outing from David Price — to beat the odds and take the division series. (There’s also proof that this Red Sox squad isn’t just a bunch of well-gathered pieces, Moneyball-style, but rather is loaded with talent that is properly spread and used.)
Beane’s A’s will try to do as the Red Sox did Thursday night as their own deep and wide squad goes up against a Detroit Tigers club that also leans heavily on a few key bats and pitchers.
If they succeed, baseball could be in for a real treat in the American League Championship Series. After many postseasons when the “hot” teams flamed past teams that were, in essence, better built teams, the ALCS could feature two clubs that were built with the creative hunting of talent and character — teams stocked with players who fit their teams’ ethos and weren’t just reeled in on top dollar. Forget Moneyball — an entire class of thinking of how to build baseball teams could converge in the ALCS, with the general manager who has long played at one end of the spectrum (Beane) going against one who has methodically worked sense into the franchise at the other end (Ben Cherington).
Such an opportunity, however, requires the Oakland A’s to finish the job against the Detroit Tigers. And for those who aren’t sure what happened after Moneyball, the A’s have made it past the division series just once in Beane’s tenure. In that year, it was a sweep in the championship series of Beane’s hand-picked team.
Billy Beane is a lucky man. But sometimes $60 million isn’t enough to get him a series against the team that plays his game just as well, but with a little more talent.