Moneyball: How Big Data & Analytics Turned The Oakland A’s Into The Best Team In Baseball

Billy Beane played six seasons in Major League Baseball (MLB) from 1984-1989.

In total he played for four different teams, finishing at the Oakland Athletics.

After his playing career, Beane stayed with the Athletics and worked his way up from a club scout to Assistant GM.

And then on October 17th 1997, Beane was promoted to General Manager.

He inherited a team that finished the previous season with the worst record in Major League Baseball at 65-97.

The team was also financially limited and had one of the lowest budgets in the league for player salaries.

But during his first year in charge, the Oakland A’s improved and finished the 1998 season with a 74-88 record.

In 1999 the Oakland A’s improved to 87-75.

In 2000 they improved further to 91-70.

And in 2001 the Oakland A’s again improved, this time finishing with a 102-60 record.

But before the 2002 season started, three of Oakland’s top players signed with bigger teams in the MLB.

Oakland didn’t have the financial strength to replace them with high-priced superstars.

So what did Billy Beane do?

Well, he turned to one of his colleagues by the name of Paul DePodesta.

DePodesta had joined the A’s in 1999 as a scout.

He was also an economics graduate from Harvard who’d played baseball and football there.

Both Beane and DePodesta were proponents of Sabermetrics; the statistical analysis of baseball data to objectively evaluate performance.

This had been one of the drivers behind their success over the previous four seasons.

Together they’d been mining through big data to really understand how baseball games were won.

Their analysis found that widely valued metrics didn’t have such a strong influence in determining the outcome of a game.

In fact, it were the often disregarded metrics that had the strongest correlation with winning.

Metrics such as on-base percentage and slugging.

But since the market was valuing more traditional metrics, Beane realised that players who ranked high in these statistics would be undervalued.

After running their statistical analyses, Beane and DePodesta listed a group of players they wanted to bring to the Oakland Athletics.

On paper it looked like a strange set of choices.

There was reluctance across the organisation about signing these players.

But it didn’t matter whether they looked good on paper, because on a database, they looked great.

However, the new recruits combined with the remaining talented players on the A’s roster got off to a slow start.

After 46 games, the A’s had a record of 20-26.

But then things started to turn and the Sabermetrics magic started to work.

By August 13th the Oakland A’s had improved their record to 68-51.

Later that day they beat the Toronto Blue Jays 5-4, which signified the beginning of a record-breaking run.

The American League record for most consecutive victories stood at 19.

It was set during the 1947 season by the New York Yankees.

By September 2nd Oakland had matched that record.

And then two days later they became the first team in AL history to win 20 games in a row.

Their record had now jumped to 88-51.

 

The 2002 Oakland Athletics A's celebrate the 20 game win streak which was an American League record.
The 2002 Oakland A’s celebrate their 20th consecutive win.

Although the A’s would never win a World Series under GM Billy Beane, he revolutionised the game through his data-driven approach to leadership.

Data and analysis were well established elements of baseball at this point, but what set Beane apart was his boldness to go against existing beliefs and convention and make decisions based purely on statistical analysis.

He faced reluctance and criticism, but he stayed true to his data and turned the Oakland Athletics into the best team in baseball.

Their 2002 record of 103-59 was joint best in Major League Baseball.

This was achieved with a team salary of $40 million.

And who were the other team?

The New York Yankees, of course.

They had the highest team salary in all of Major League Baseball.

It was $120 million.

So don’t neglect your data.

It’s probably more valuable than you think.

Here’s the moment the Oakland A’s won their 20th consecutive game:

 

Header image via May Wong.

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