fb-pixel
Peter Abraham | On baseball

No stats can measure how much Billy Beane, on the cusp of venture with Fenway Sports Group, has changed baseball

Since taking over the Oakland A's in 1997, Billy Beane has left an indelible mark on baseball.
Since taking over the Oakland A's in 1997, Billy Beane has left an indelible mark on baseball.Masterpress/Photographer: Masterpress/Getty

SAN DIEGO — Billy Beane agreed to a pregame interview at Oakland Coliseum a few years back, and we met up in a small office adjacent to the clubhouse.

After I asked my questions, he quizzed me about what steps newspapers were taking to survive in the rapidly changing media landscape and how we used data to guide our coverage choices and boost digital subscriptions.

Beane played a leading role in popularizing the use of analytics in baseball and is genuinely interested in how that was being adapted by businesses outside of sports.

The game had already started by the time we wrapped up. Beane didn’t seem concerned.

Advertisement



So the news that Beane is expected to leave the Athletics as executive vice president of baseball operations to merge his RedBall investment company with Fenway Sports Group shouldn’t necessarily come as a surprise.

At 58, Beane has worlds he wants to explore beyond baseball. In this case, he would direct and almost surely expand Fenway Sports Group’s footprint in European soccer beyond owning English Premier League powerhouse Liverpool.

Beane is already on the board of directors of the Dutch club AZ Alkmaar and is a minority owner of Barnsley FC, a second-tier team in England. Joining FSG would allow him to pursue his interest in soccer with greater financial resources.

Because Fenway Sports Group also owns the Red Sox, Major League Baseball wouldn’t allow Beane to continue with the Athletics. His small ownership stake of the team, reportedly 1 percent, would be sold off.

Beane would leave behind a baseball legacy on par with Branch Rickey’s, given his wide-ranging impact on the game.

Billy Beane has been with the Athletics since 1998.
Billy Beane has been with the Athletics since 1998.AP/Associated Press

Hundreds of front office employees across baseball — thousands if you add in football, basketball, soccer, hockey, and other sports — have jobs that didn’t exist until Beane used analytics to change the way players are evaluated.

Advertisement



He took concepts taught to him by Oakland GM Sandy Alderson and expanded on them in such a way that other teams had no choice but to follow.

Beane changed how we watch and appreciate the game. Even casual fans now understand the value of statistics beyond batting average or a pitcher’s record. The language of analytics is something every broadcaster learns to be fluent in or risk being left behind.

The game is played differently, too. In 1996, the year before Beane was named general manager of the Athletics, the league average for sacrifice bunts was 55. It was 26 this season. On the few occasions when a team plays small ball, it feels like somebody went rogue.

Teams now build rosters and make out lineups armed with research done by employees who in some cases turned down Google and Facebook to pursue a career in baseball.

The preconceived notions and clichés that ruled the game for years were cast aside long ago. With only a few exceptions, every general manager or president of baseball operations is part of a branch that leads back to Beane.

The four teams still alive in the postseason are run by members of the “Moneyball” generation and in some way were inspired by the book, and later the movie, about Beane’s quest to outsmart his better-funded foes.

You could make a case that baseball has become too dependent on data and that managers are only the public face of decisions made on a Slack channel. What’s supposed to be an entertainment product has become a competition of which team is more efficient at avoiding risk. Still, there’s enough unpredictability to make it fun.

Advertisement



The irony is that Beane never conquered the world he created. His only World Series ring is from the 37 games he played as a utility infielder with the 1989 Athletics. None of the Oakland teams he built have advanced beyond the ALCS.

Oakland has earned a division title seven times under Beane and won 90 or more games 10 times. Only five teams have had a better record during his tenure.

\Billy Beane smiles while speaking with the media before a 2019 playoff game.
\Billy Beane smiles while speaking with the media before a 2019 playoff game.Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

But the Athletics never got over the top. Other teams, including the Red Sox, copied their methods and turbocharged the process with higher payrolls. The 2004 Sox were a direct product of that, Theo Epstein working the margins to build a championship team after Beane turned down the job.

Oakland has been held back by its outdated ballpark and limited resources. They even have a smaller analytics department than most teams.

Beane, who isn’t yet commenting on his future, won’t necessarily be finished with baseball. It’s hard to imagine he’ll own a piece of Fenway Sports Group and not offer an opinion from time to time on the affairs of the Red Sox. But this is clearly another chapter, and Beane will leave baseball having changed it like few who came before him.


Peter Abraham can be reached at peter.abraham@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @PeteAbe.