Moneyball, starring Brad Pitt, Philip Seymour Hoffman and Jonah Hill, hits theaters this coming Friday. It’s the adaptation of Michael Lewis’ book of the same name, published in 2003. The subject of both the film and the book is Billy Beane, General Manager of Major League Baseball’s Oakland Athletics. The book tells the tale of how Beane’s A’s managed to compete at a very high level, year in and year out, against teams that had considerably larger budgets. Specifically, Lewis pointed to Beane’s ability to find undervalued commodities on the baseball market to maximize the value of his roster. What goes unsaid is that Beane was not the first- and certainly will not be the last- to find a way to maximize his roster with undervalued commodities. Here are some examples of other teams from baseball history who, despite mirroring Beane’s accomplishments, will never have a movie made about them.
Branch Rickey creates the modern farm system for the St. Louis Cardinals
Beane would have had nothing on Rickey when it came to finding inexpensive, effective ways to upgrade a Major League roster. Prior to Rickey, minor league teams were unaffiliated with Major League clubs. Minor league teams would auction off their players to the highest bidding Major League team. Rickey knew that this was no way to build a cost-effective, winning organization. Thanks to his recommendation, the Cardinals purchased stakes in multiple minor league teams in the early 1920’s. They used these teams to house the amateurs they signed.
Buoyed by Rickey’s bumper crop, the Cardinals won their first World Series in 1926. They also won the World Series in 1931, and again in 1934 with the fabled Gashouse Gang. The 1942 squad won the World Series during Rickey’s final season in his first run in St. Louis. Along the way, his farm system produced six Hall of Famers- Jim Bottomley, Enos Slaughter, Stan Musial, Joe Medwick, Dizzy Dean, Johnny Mize- and several other All-Stars.
The Toronto Blue Jays’ use of Latin American scouting and Dominican academies in the 1980’s
2011 Hall of Fame inductee Pat Gillick was the Toronto Blue Jays’ first ever General Manager. The franchise first took the field in 1977 and was completely overmatched. Starting an organization from scratch is not easy. But Gillick realized that having a consistent, steady stream of young cost-controlled talent would make the franchise viable for a long time. With the help of scout Epy Guerrero, the Jays focused their efforts on a Dominican baseball academy that would train very young players. It gave the Jays an advantage in signing the most talented products. Furthermore, because of the work of Guerrero, the Jays’ reach extended all over Latin America.
It took several years to bear fruit but it paid off in buckets from the mid 1980’s until their two World Series championships in 1992 and 1993. When Dominican product George Bell became available in the Rule 5 draft in 1980, the Jays’ familiarity with him led them to pounce. He went on to win an MVP award in 1987 and was the anchor in the outfield during their successful run. The anchor in the infield was Tony Fernandez at shortstop. Fernandez won four Gold Glove awards and went to three All-Star games as a Blue Jay. When discussing players with the Dodgers in 1987, Gillick asked for a Dominican pitcher named Juan Guzman- again, a player they were familiar with. Guzman was a vital cog on the Jays’ back-to-back World Series winners in 1992 and 1993. Manny Lee and Nelson Liriano, both players the Jays knew about, helped form a young, inexpensive platoon at second base on a perennial contender for the A.L. East title. Junior Felix gave the organization two good years in 1989 and 1990 before the Jays cashed in on his talent by trading him to the Angels for Devon White. White was the leadoff hitter for the back-to-back World Series teams.
Branch Rickey signs Negro League players, breaking baseball’s color barrier
It’s worth noting that this story has had several movies. All of them deservedly focus on the civil rights angle. Having said that, at least part of Rickey’s motivation was to acquire some of the best talent in all of baseball for rock-bottom prices. Those type of acquisitions are the foundation for long, successful runs throughout baseball history. It’s imperative to point out that Rickey no doubt felt an ethical obligation to sign Robinson to break the color barrier. But it would be short-sighted to assume that there wasn’t something in it for Rickey and the Dodgers as well. In Robinson, he had a player who made the Hall of Fame on the basis of his on-field production.
Once the gate was opened by Robinson, Rickey began piling up cheap production from the Negro League at unprecedented rates. Roy Campanella debuted in 1948, and would later follow Robinson into the Hall of Fame. Don Newcombe made his own debut in 1949. He was selected to four All-Star teams, won an MVP award, and earned a Cy Young Award as a Dodger. Rickey’s African American trio was the backbone for a team that won six National League pennants and one World Series over ten years.
Correcting the mistake by the lake: The Cleveland Indians, 1995-2007
From 1960 until 1991, when John Hart took over baseball operations, the Indians had been known as “The Mistake by the Lake”. They were woeful. They had just seven seasons in which they won more than half of their games over that time span, and never seriously contended for a playoff berth. Then Hart came along, ushering in a banner era for the franchise. Their 13-year run was bolstered by a flood of sabermetrically-inclined youngsters in their front office. Paul DePodesta, Beane’s top lieutenant in Moneyball, got his first job in baseball with the Indians in 1996. Josh Byrnes worked for the Indians from 1994 to 1998, eventually rising to Director of Scouting in 1998. Byrnes’ sabermetric caché includes working as Assistant G.M. of the Boston Red Sox under Theo Epstein, one of the game’s largest proponents of sabermetrics. And Mark Shapiro, another major sabermetric proponent, started with the Tribe in 1991 before rising to G.M. in 2001. With a trio like that, it’s clear that the Indians in the 1990’s were devoted to finding ways to draft, develop, and acquire undervalued talent. In 2000, the team developed proprietary computer software called “Diamondview” which helped them compile large quantities of information about both professional and amateur players all over the country. It was revolutionary and it helped them extend their run into the 21st century.
Another way the Indians found to maximize their value was to “buy out” the arbitration years of their talented youngsters. Players in their fourth, fifth, and sixth years may opt to go to arbitration. An impartial judge must choose between the salary the player wants and the salary the team would like to pay them. It is an either/or scenario. The judge does not have the freedom to choose a salary other than those submitted by the player and the team. It can be very costly for MLB teams who happen to have lots of young, talented players. It has the potential to wreak havoc with their off-season budgets. John Hart realized this, and also realized that he could buy out these arbitration years by signing these players to extensions before they hit arbitration. It enables the team to know exactly how much money they’re going to owe their players in advance, and it gives the players security against injury or poor performance. A lot of the time, it also gives the team premium talent for less money than they’d otherwise have to pay, especially since it frequently includes one or two years into their first chance at the open market in free agency. Everyone wins. Hart was especially effective employing this strategy, keeping the core of a perennial World Series contender in place throughout much of the 1990’s.
Walt Jocketty, the 1998-2006 St. Louis Cardinals, and the “Hometown Discount”
St. Louis is one of the smallest markets in Major League Baseball. However, thanks to a rich history and a strong radio signal in the game’s earlier days, the Cardinals also have one of the largest fan-bases. Their fans have a reputation as some of the most devoted, loyal fans in the game. This is so much so that the team and national media has been known to employ the nauseating slogan “the best baseball fans in America” (understand that I call it nauseating, and I am one of those very loyal and devoted fans of the St. Louis Cardinals). The Cardinals’ General Manager from 1995 until 2006, Walt Jocketty, used the fans’ reputation to his advantage. It all started with the 1997 trade deadline acquisition of free agent-to-be Mark McGwire. After the trade, McGwire took a run at the Major League homerun record. The fans, naturally, were rabid in their support of McGwire. Impressed by their support, McGwire signed an extension to stay in St. Louis before he hit the open market. And he took a contract that was smaller than what he would have gotten as a free agent. He gave the Cardinals a “hometown discount”. Jocketty’s strategy of introducing a premium player to the baseball-mad city in the hopes that they would sign for less money paid off.
The next year, McGwire topped the homerun record and the Cardinals’ fans were all over the national media. Their rabid support became even more prominent among journalists and players on other teams. Within a matter of years, Jocketty had built a perennial World Series contender, and the core revolved around players who had taken less money to play in front of the so-called “best baseball fans in America”. Scott Rolen, Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, and Jason Isringhausen had all taken less money on free agent contracts or contract extensions than they would have attained on the open market. By saving money on the stars on his roster, Jocketty had given himself the financial wiggle room to spackle in higher quality (and more expensive players) in the middle and back end of his roster. It all added up to five playoff appearances in six years, two National League pennants, and a World Series title.