In July 2002, Oakland general manager Billy Beane thought he was on the verge of one of his trademark lopsided deals.
It wouldn't yield a big-name star because small-market Oakland never has the resources to pay one of those guys. It wouldn't even add an undervalued role player, the kind that annually fuel the A's late-season playoff push.
But the A's would acquire Kevin Youkilis. Yes, Kevin Youkilis, then an obscure 23-year-old Red Sox farmhand who was slow and couldn't hit for power and whom Beane himself considered fat.
But Youkilis was an on-base percentage fiend. His .462 clip was then the second best in all of baseball, trailing only Barry Bonds. (This season he posted a ridiculous .483 OBP in the minors and got on base in a record-tying 70 consecutive games.)
"The Greek god of walks," Beane called him and if there is one thing sabermetrics – the mathematical analysis of baseball of which Beane is the most famous devotee – values, it is OBP.
So Beane tried to sneak his way into a three-way deal where the A's would steal Youkilis, whom Beane (and few others) believed would be a major star someday.
But it never went down.
Theo Epstein, a then-obscure part of the Red Sox organization himself who just months before had become a valued front-office voice, blocked the deal.
"Three months earlier," Epstein would say in Moneyball, Michael Lewis' fascinating best seller starring Beane and the new wave of thinking he has championed, "and Billy would have had him."
It was just the kind of development that must both flatter and frustrate Beane. The new system of baseball management the former major leaguer has fought to implement against stubborn, entrenched thinking was finally gaining acceptance, yet costing him prospects.
That big-market Boston was willing to listen to Epstein, then a 28-year-old assistant general manager who had never played the game but knew how to run a spreadsheet and considered Beane a mentor, was revolutionary.
On Wednesday, the A's and Sox begin what is the first postseason series between clubs that believe in the game's revolutionary new way of thinking.
Beane runs the A's. Epstein, 29, now runs the Red Sox, named GM last year after Beane turned the job down.
He then recommended Epstein, who for years had been calling him and asking how he managed to keep the small-market, low-payroll A's winning, making the postseason now four straight years, despite annually losing his best players to free agency.
The how runs against every conventional wisdom in baseball, hammers at every truth you were ever told and mocks everything the announcers on TV still say.
It is derived not from old scouts and old coaches, but from statistician and Baseball Abstract author Bill James, now a Boston consultant, who for 30 years has been arguing that old scouts and old coaches don't know squat.
With sabermetrics, things aren't what you think.
Batting average? It is deceptive, Beane says. Stolen bases? Too risky. Hit-and-run? A managerial gimmick. Fireball closers? A media creation. Defense? Highly overrated. The physical appearance of players? "We aren't selling jeans," he likes to quip.
Confused? So is baseball.
Sabermetrics has concluded the two most important offensive statistics are on-base percentage and slugging percentage. And Beane believes on-base percentage is three times more important than slugging.
Most other stats – average, RBI, stolen bases – are basically window dressing. The key to the game, sabermetricians reason, is to avoid outs, because you have just 27 precious ones. The less often you make outs, the more runs you will score and the more games you will win.
When it comes to pitching, the only stats that matter are strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed. That's all a pitcher can control. Just about everything else – from ERA to fastball velocity – is either subjective or irrelevant. Once a ball is put in play, they argue, whether it is a hit or an out is based on luck.
Well, Boston has statistically the most potent offense ever, one that eclipsed the slugging percentage of the 1927 Yankees. Oakland, behind starters Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson, has a stud young staff, not to mention three of the last four AL West titles.
There is still plenty of resistance. Some media criticize the lack of "manufactured" runs. Other execs mock Beane's arrogance and his bizarre draft picks.
But the numbers speak for themselves. This isn't just the present, but the future of the game – Beane in Oakland, protege J.P. Ricciardi in charge in Toronto, Epstein the man in Boston. There will be more.
The ALDS is the first sabermetric series in baseball history. It's proof of a movement gaining steam – a stunning development for a sport that loves history and loathes change.
That should make pioneer Billy Beane proud. And a bit concerned.
Stealing a Kevin Youkilis gets tougher by the day.
- Kevin Youkilis
- Billy Beane
- Theo Epstein