If you’re a diehard baseball fan like our writers and myself, you’ve probably seen the 2011 film “Moneyball”. It takes a deep dive into the analytics aspect brought upon Major League Baseball by Athletics GM Billy Beane, and Assistant GM Peter Brand. Brad Pitt (Beane) and Jonah Hill (Brand) portrayed the lives of the two men at the helm of an exotic rebuild, to a tee. You probably remember Beane pushing to start Scott Hatteberg, a dead armed catcher, over All-Star rookie Carlos Pena. Or the team making moves for left-handed relievers and depth-level outfielders. You probably even learned a little about Bill James, who wrote a book on analytics and baseball, and how to build the perfect team, at bargain prices. I took a deep dive into the magical but somewhat sought upon 2002 Oakland Athletics season, and using baseball statistics and reference websites (Baseball Reference, FanGraphs), I was able to break down the stars of the show, and the unsung heroes.
What spurred a change in the system?
It’s hard to put the situation into perspective. It isn’t like the A’s were plagued before the 2001-2002 offseason. They had gone 102-60 the year before, good for second in the West, and ironically enough, won the division the year prior at the turn of the century, with a 91-71 clip. The main reason for the change of heart in how to run a ball club, was payroll. The 2001 A’s season ended abruptly in the ALDS to the New York Yankees. Beane, before even hiring Peter Brand, came to the realization and the unfair truth, that the A’s would have to build their team on their own budget. They watched their season get swept away by a team whose payroll was over 3 times the amount of their own. The Yankees would go on to lose the World Series in 7 games, while Billy Beane went to work on adjusting the team accordingly. The two weren’t far off, even with almost 90 million dollars more on the books, the Athletics and Yankees finished at an almost equal spot. Most say the 2001 season, in how close the A’s were with such a small payroll, played a large part in the decisions of Billy Beane during the 2001 offseason.
A quick synopsis of Bill James and baseball analytics
During “Moneyball”, a man by the name of Bill James was brought up quite a few times. He was a security guard at a meat distribution center, but what played a role in the painful rebuild of the Oakland Athletics, was that James was enamored with analytics. He wasn’t said to be a huge baseball fan, or sports fan for that matter, but he believed he had written a new baseball bible. A series of equations and theories on how to build a pro ball club from the ground up. Right off the bat, James was ostracized by media and baseball’s higher-ups. An outsider, with no real baseball knowledge, writing about a concept that nobody in Major League Baseball would accept. That was how he was initially seen, and they were right in thinking his ideas would be frowned upon.
How it all came together
Billy Beane, after going over his roster and figuring out the best way to go about the offseason, ended up hiring Peter Brand, an economics major from Yale, who began his career in the player scouting department of the Cleveland Indians. Brand was the man that brought the Bill James method of baseball to Oakland. He was the brains behind an operation that was snubbed and frowned upon by the rest of Major League Baseball. Using equations for amount of runs needed to score to win each game, and how many games are needed to make the playoffs, the two assembled a team of Bad News Bears’ and wannabe benchwarmers that didn’t crack it for other teams, or ones whose career was on its last life.
How it played out
Beane and Brand were seen as fools from the first moves they made, but they didn’t care. It threatened both of their jobs, but they both believed in the system. The team had lost three key players on it’s 2001 eventual playoff bound roster: Jason Giambi, Jason Isringhausen, and Johnny Damon. They used mathematics to put together a roster that almost matched the payroll from the year before, but could still compete. From “should have retired” veterans to Indy League journeymen who were never given a chance, the 2002 team was taking shape, and the baseball world watched in shock and awe. The most notable addition to the team, was David Justice. The former Yankee playoff hero, was acquired by the team in the winter of 2001, via a trade with the New York Mets. This was really the focal point of the 2002 Athletics. They found players they could afford, that, according to Bill James’ equations, could help them win. Submariner Chad Bradford, (sort of) first baseman Scott Hatteberg, and reliever Billy Koch were the core of the “one mans trash is another mans treasure” philosophy being brought into Oakland. Billy Koch had a career 4.10 ERA before being acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays, yet appeared in a career high 84 games in 2002 and put up a sub 3.2 ERA. Reliever Chad Bradford, who Peter Brand vouched incredibly for, had arguably the best year of his career, posting a 3.11 ERA, and a career best 1.155 WHIP. Scott Hatteberg, who finished with an average of .240 or lower 3 of the previous 4 seasons, hit .280, and, surprise, it was a career high. He also delivered a clutch walk-off home run to break the 19 game win streak record, previously held by the 1947 New York Yankees, which was the truly magical moment to this magical season. The team was written off for the moves it made from the front office to the field. Billy Beane and Peter Brand made questionable decisions throughout the 2002 campaign, decisions that would shock the baseball world today, just as they did at the time. I wrote about the underdog mentality of the 2018 Oakland A’s in my first ever article, but the 2002 Athletics, that was the true underdog story. They went on to win 103 games, and made a second straight appearance in the American League Division Series, only to fall short to the Minnesota Twins, thus ending their ilustrious season.
There’s an answer to why, even after a 103 win season, the team was still opposed by the league. It was that the media is never happy. Media in sports in general is always looking for a person to blame, it is how they make their money. Writers criticize the way a team is ran, handled, and used, whether it is the right take or not. The A’s finished in first or second place each of the next 4 years, still using the method that got them to their second highest win total in existence, behind the 1988 team (104 wins). Billy Beane, after weighing multiple offers from other teams, chose to stay with the team, and is still in the organization to this day, as Vice President of Baseball Operations and minority owner.
Though nobody in baseball today uses the method of winning that the 2002 Athletics did, many teams, like the A’s themselves, have found their winning ways, using homegrown talent and low payrolls, and teams like the Yankees and Red Sox are still at the top of the pack in that category. The story of the 2002 A’s ties into my fanboy persona when it comes to this Athletics team. It represents a large part in why I became a writer and chose to cover them. The way they’ve done business since the turn of the century has been unique, and after a slight snag of mediocrity, it seems to be working pretty well again.
Featured Photo: The Mercury News