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Prophet Wanted -- Inquire Within

Publication Date: December 18, 2001

The Times, They Are A-changing

There's an old story, probably apocryphal, about the high school student who grumbled, "I don't see why Shakespeare's so great. All he did was write down a bunch of famous quotations and stories everybody knew." Similarly, watching Citizen Kane with modern eyes is still a rewarding treat, but it's hard to ignore that every scene has been quoted in some form or another dozens of times since it first came out. Listening to The Clash's debut album nowadays gives me the feeling that I'm listening to something I've heard too many times before. It's a great album, still, but every thing that was new or unique on it has been copied so many times since then that it just doesn't sound fresh. In all three of these cases, I'm not really old enough to have memories of the dreck that surrounded the release of the material for comparison purposes, so all I'm left with is art that feels like lots of other good stuff, most of it not nearly as good, which drags down the enjoyment of the original, and some of it even better, which makes me see things that could have been done better in the original.

There's a revolution going on in Major League Baseball right now. It's easy to miss, since the clowns in charge are so busy trying to keep from paying the producers market rates for what they produce (Pop quiz: Who made more money this year, Alex Rodriguez or Kelsey Grammer? In what year in the 132 year history of professional baseball was the gap between the highest and lowest winning percentage the smallest?) that they've effectively managed to make it difficult to pay attention to anything happening that actually involves baseball, but the Oakland A's have developed the first truly modern baseball organization. Despite playing with one of the lowest payrolls in the game -- and that's a choice, not a necessity -- the A's have steadily improved over the last few years and won 102 games this year while positioning themselves as a reasonable favorite to put together a long run of playoff appearances.

What makes the A's the first modern organization, though, is not that they're winning -- somebody's got to do that every year, after all -- but the approach that they're taking to building the team and training their players. They are, in essence, the first team built on the knowledge that's been gained over the last twenty years in baseball research circles about what actually wins games. There are three prongs to their approach. The first involves the notion of player cost relative to value, and that really doesn't translate to the college game, so we'll skip over it here.

The second piece, though, is the central fact of baseball life -- the most important thing any player can do is get on base as often as possible. We build these structures around teams, and, for the people in these structures to justify their existence, we try to make the game complicated. It's not, really. You have twenty-seven outs. The longer you take to use them, the better chance you have to win. What the A's have done is make it clear to everyone at all levels up and down the minor league chain and in the big leagues is that the way to make progress in the organization is to get on base, as often as possible. Don't worry about moving the runner along on the hit-and-run, don't overextend your hitting zone just to raise your batting average another ten points, don't swing for the fences every time up; just get on base as often as possible.

Secondly, the A's don't manage their pitchers according to what the manager feels like on any given day. They have plans for usage for everyone on the staff, with enough flexibility built in to reward success, and they stick to those plans. They seldom overuse starters, not because they're worried about injury, but because they know that non-overused starters perform better in the second half of the season. They select pitchers according to their success rates rather than according to how they look, relying heavily on college pitchers in recent years with great success.

The A's didn't invent any of this stuff, of course. Just like you can spot the roots of The Clash from Bob Marley to the Velvet Underground to the Sex Pistols, you can trace the ideas that the A's are using now to Branch Rickey and to the Astro's pitching staff of the last few years. In thirty years, though, the A's are the ones that fans will be sitting around going, "What's the big deal about the turn-of-the-century A's anyway? All they did was the same things that all winning teams do."

The revolution has definitely begun. The Mariners, using a lot of the same notions of OBP and pitching staff management, ran the table on the league this year. Two or three members of the A's front office have been given higher positions in other organizations this off-season, including at least one general manager spot. Not everyone will follow along, of course, but the face of the game will change for the better over the next few years.

So, When's He Going to Talk about College, Anyway?

What I'm looking for now is for the first signs that the lessons are getting through to a college coaching staff. Sooner or later, someone is going to change the game. To some extent, Skip Bertman did it with a different plan -- Hey, these are aluminum! We can hit a long way with these! -- but the rules have changed to make gorilla ball less enticing as a long-term plan, and Bertman's pitching management left something to be desired. The first coach to put together a plan for managing a full pitching staff combined with a development plan for building on-base machines out of their hitters will change the college game forever, and I'm looking forward to seeing who it is. The scary thing about it is that, in the current offensive environment, a team that was actually focused on OBP could potentially average almost fifteen runs a game, which would stretch the very nature of the game a bit (how do you plan a weekend pitching schedule against a team like that?).

To some extent, these lessons should be easier to teach in college. One of the things that has helped the A's so much is that the on-base lessons start in the low minor leagues. That's because it's a whole lot easier to teach strike zone judgment to a 20-year-old than to a 30-year-old. College players, by definition, are there to learn. It's also true that organization turnover essentially happens every 3-4 years. The A's reformation actually started in the mid-90's under Sandy Alderson, but it took a few years because of the time needed to get everyone in the organization from top to bottom on board.

I've never coached baseball at any level, and the kids in the two sports I have coached are a lot more concerned with their next third grade math test than with any serious development. The good news, though, is that I'm not the one who's advice you'd be taking here -- you'd be learning from some very wise men running from Branch Rickey to Larry Dierker to Billy Beane. Who's going to be the one who changes the game?

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