Celebrating Billy Beane and the Oakland front office

Leon Halip

Another year, another division championship for the Oakland Athletics, which begs the question -- is Billy Beane the top general manager in baseball?

For the second consecutive season, the Oakland Athletics can call themselves champions of the American League West. Despite their division title last season, most analysts and fans incorrectly predicted that the team would regress and that Texas would be the better club in 2013, but that was not the case. With winning comes some deserved praise for everyone involved, including the man who assembled the roster. Last night before the champagne could even dry in Oakland's, home clubhouse, ESPN's Dave Schoenfield proclaimed A's GM Billy Beane the top general manager in the game:

With apologies to Andrew Friedman in Tampa Bay or John Mozeliak in St. Louis or Neal Huntington in Pittsburgh or Ruben Amaro Jr. in Philadelphia (just kidding, Phillies fans!), if I win $750 million in the lottery and purchase a major league franchise, Billy Beane is the guy I'd hire to run my franchise.

Naturally, any ranking of general managers should be taken with a grain of salt, but I actually think that Schoenfield is on to something here. Now he is choosing to (somewhat deservedly) give almost all credit to Beane, but certainly his entire front office, namely Assistant GM, David Forst, Scouting Director, Eric Kubota, and Director of Baseball Operations, Farhan Zahidi, all of whom have been with him for at least the last nine years, has played a large role in the success of the organization. Year in and year out this team is a contender, a feat that arguably does make Beane the top executive across the league.

In fact, since Beane took over as general manager in 1997, his teams have won six division titles, played in the postseason seven times and they have a winning percentage of .531. Over that time frame, only four teams have appeared in the postseason more frequently than A's -- the Yankees, Braves, Cardinals, and Red Sox -- a point in Beane's favor.

More importantly, however, is that the team has been successful with one of the lowest payrolls in the big leagues. Below you can see Oakland's yearly record along with its opening day payroll and how that figure ranked across all 30 major league teams.

Year W W-L% Division Champ Playoffs Opening Day Payroll Rank
2013 93** 0.596 Yes Yes 68,577,000 26
2012 94 0.580 Yes Yes 55,372,500 29
2011 74 0.457 No No 66,536,500 21
2010 81 0.500 No No 51,654,900 28
2009 75 0.463 No No 62,310,000 26
2008 75 0.466 No No 47,967,126 28
2007 76 0.469 No No 79,366,940 17
2006 93 0.574 Yes Yes 62,243,079 21
2005 88 0.543 No No 55,869,262 21
2004 91 0.562 No No 59,825,167 16
2003 96 0.593 Yes Yes 50,260,834 23
2002 103 0.636 Yes Yes 39,679,746 28
2001 102 0.630 No Yes 33,810,750 29
2000 91 0.565 Yes Yes 31,971,333 25
1999 87 0.537 No No 24,175,333 25
1998 74 0.457 No No 22,463,500 25
1997 65 0.401 No No 12,879,889 28*

** As of 9/23/13

* Only 28 teams in MLB this year

Every year since he has taken the helm, Beane's A's have ranked in the bottom half of the league in opening day payroll, and they only have climbed into the top-20 twice. Surprisingly, both years that the team was in the top-20, they failed to reach the postseason. Taking a step back, we noted that only four teams (Boston, New York, St. Louis, and Atlanta) have reached the playoffs more times than the A's over the last 17 years. Those same four teams have also managed to outspend Oakland by an average of more than a billion dollars ($1.06 billion) during Beane's tenure, with the Cardinals the next most frugal of the teams. Below you can see the figures:

Team Total Opening Day Payroll (1997-2013)
Oakland Athletics 824,963,859
St. Louis Cardinals 1,392,658,329
Atlanta Braves 1,455,050,108
Boston Red Sox 2,003,905,755
New York Yankees 2,695,796,476

The difference is somewhat staggering, and it represents yet another point in Beane's favor. But then again, for many years Minnesota had turned itself into a contender despite tiny payrolls, and more recently Tampa Bay and Pittsburgh are contending franchises without hefty salary numbers. Schoenfield is quick to point out an important distinction, however:

The A's aren't built around expensive free agents, we know that. But they aren't built around a stockpile of high first-round picks either. There is no David Price or Evan Longoria on the Oakland roster, no Andrew McCutchen, Pedro Alvarez or Gerrit Cole. The only homegrown first-round pick to make a signifcant contribution this season is Sunday's starter, Sonny Gray, the team's first-round pick out of Vanderbilt in 2011.

But even Gray was just the 18th overall pick of the first round, low enough that you're well past sure thing territory. Even in the post-Moneyball era, the A's never sank to rock bottom the Rays or Pirates had to; their worst record under Beane was the 74-88 mark in 2011. The only top-10 pick the franchise has had since drafting Mulder and Zito in 1998 and 1999 was Michael Choice, 10th overall in 2010.

It's true, Oakland has not had the luxury of rebuilding with star talent from the top of the draft, a feat that makes the teams of 2012 and 2013 all the more impressive. The 2013 team has been assembled with shrewd calculated moves, rather than with big free agent contracts or high draft picks. Look around the roster and you'll see players acquired in every way imaginable. Dan Straily and A.J. Griffin are pitchers that Oakland drafted after the 10th round of the amateur draft that now make up two fifths of their rotation. Brandon Moss was signed as a minor league free agent prior to last season and now has hit more than 20 homers for the second straight year. Nate Freiman was picked up off of waivers from the Astros, and has posted a 102 wRC+ as part of a first base platoon. The bullpen, minus Grant Balfour, is basically a group of players that other teams didn't want anymore. And bonafide MVP candidate Josh Donaldson was a throw in to a Rich Harden deal that Cubs experts maintained that they won for quite some time.

More than likely for the rest of his career, Beane, and really the entire Athletics' front office will be linked to Moneyball, both the book and the movie. Fair or unfair, any GM that is portrayed by Brad Pitt will have some extra attention come his way, but unfortunately I think that what it has really done is take the focus off what a remarkable job this front office in Oakland is doing. Moneyball and the organizational philosophy of the A's has been somewhat misconstrued over the years, but what it simply boils down to is that the A's continue to find players that are undervalued by the market and they use that to win games. At this year's Sloan Analytics Conference, I was very impressed to hear Farhan Zaidi talk about Beane and the A's. He said that it's somewhat cocky to call anything they do a "competitive advantage" because that implies that they are smarter than the other 29 clubs. Instead, they are looking for some sort of "competitive differentiation" because they can't expect to do things the same as the larger market teams and be successful. So they have turned to platoons, and what they call building the roster from the bottom, and to this point they have been able to win a lot of games with these tactics. Soon, though, the market will adapt and they will need to find another undervalued asset to maintain their winning ways.

Is Billy Beane the best general manager in baseball? There are many worthy candidates for that distinction and we probably don't have nearly enough information to begin to realistically answer that question. But if I had to bet an organization and its GM to find the next market inefficiency in baseball, I would gladly bet on the braintrust in Oakland.

. . .

All stats courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Reference. Salary information from the Associated press.

Andrew Ball is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and Fake Teams.

You can follow him on twitter @Andrew_Ball.

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