The Oakland Athletics have the second-best record in baseball, have been in first place in the American League West for all but four days since April 12, and are chasing their third straight division title.
Yet, some hardcore baseball fans would have a better chance at naming the three Kardashian sisters than naming three players from the A’s everyday lineup.
In Oakland, where the A’s meet the Angels on Friday in the opener of a three-game series for the division lead, the celebrity isn’t on the field. It’s in a front office led by Billy Beane, founder of the “Moneyball” movement.
Beane not only is the longest-serving general manager in the American League, he’s also the only baseball executive who’s ever been played by Brad Pitt in an Oscar-nominated film.
In Beane’s 16 seasons, the A’s have had 16 different opening-day lineups, a commitment to exodus that has left fans cheering more for the uniform than any particular man wearing it. But while players have come and gone, the top dozen members of the front office — from owner Lewis Wolff to Pamela Pitts, the director of baseball administration — have been with the team an average of 22 years.
David Forst, who turned down opportunities to interview for general manager jobs in San Diego and Seattle, said there is a very good reason the A’s have been able to keep the front office together. “We are competitive, we do love baseball. But there are other things that bond us and sort of fill in the gaps rather than just sitting around talking about how we’re going to line up our rotation over the next five days.”
The Norman Conquest, economics and sociology, for example.
Forst graduated cum laude from Harvard with a degree in sociology; scouting director Dan Feinstein has a degree in medieval European history from UC Davis; and special assistant Chris Pittaro was a finance major who graduated summa cum laude from Rider College. And then there is assistant general manager Farhan Zaidi (pronounced ZY-dee), who studied economics at MIT before earning a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley.
“It cultivates a lot of debate in our office,” Zaidi said. “Just having diverse educational backgrounds and having people that aren’t necessarily guys who have spent their whole careers in the industry, it can lead to a little bit more debate than you have in the typical front office.
“Coming from economics and sort of my background in academia, I’ve developed a little bit of a contrarian nature. As a group we are less prone to just let assumptions stand and let opinions go unopposed.”
With the average annual big league salary approaching $4 million, decisions based on poor assumptions or unchallenged opinions can cripple a revenue-challenged team such as Oakland. That was a big reason for the A’s front office adopting the detailed analytics that led to “Moneyball” in the first place.
“They’re dealing with millions of dollars of assets, right?” said Wolff, whose $83-million player payroll is a club record, and also the sixth-smallest in baseball this season. “Paying somebody who’s handling a payroll for you of close to $90 million a year, it’s very important to have the right people there.”
In Oakland much of the data processing is handled by Zaidi, a studious-looking 37-year-old Pakistani with black-rimmed glasses and a receding hairline.
The son of a British-educated engineer, Zaidi was born in Canada and grew up in the Philippines, where he was a free-swinging first baseman in a Manila Little League.
“I would not have been a fan of on-base percentage,” he joked.
Zaidi developed an affinity for the nerdier side of the game, and in grade school stumbled across a copy of the “Bill James Baseball Abstract” in a bookstore.
“I bought that book each year and I basically carried it around with me everywhere,” Zaidi recalled. “Then I think the bookstore realized there was only one customer for the book and they stopped carrying it.”
James’ work introduced new formulas for evaluating players’ performances. For Zaidi, it was like a Rosetta Stone, translating complex hieroglyphics into simple concepts.
Nearly three decades later, he still uses many of those concepts to analyze players ahead of the draft and before trades. He also travels with the A’s, helping the coaching staff break down scouting reports before each series.
One important thing all that studying taught him was that no one has figured out the game of baseball.
“Whether you’re an analyst or whether you’re a player-development instructor or whether you’re a coach on the big league staff, there’s no one vantage point that will lead you to every answer,” he said. “So again, it comes back to the fact that it’s a collaborative process.
“When you get to that place where everybody appreciates and knows that they don’t have all the answers, that there’s really a true exchange of information and it’s not just going one way, that’s sort of an atmosphere we’ve been able to cultivate. And I think that’s part of the reason we’ve been successful.”
Beane, who is surely the only baseball general manager who is also the face of his team, declined to be interviewed for this article. So did Zaidi and Forst at first.
The hesitance is in part because of the fallout after “Moneyball,” which made the A’s look smug and cocky, according to some critics. As a result, Beane and his lieutenants have shied away from the spotlight. And when they do speak publicly, they are unfailingly humble.
“Ultimately, we try to be right more often than we’re wrong,” Forst said of the team’s decision-making process. “It’s not an exact science. You’re dealing with people who are volatile both on and off the field.
“A lot of those things have worked out in the last few years. [But] to be totally honest, we had a stretch there from 2007 to 2011 where things didn’t work out as often.”
That stretch was the A’s’ longest without a playoff berth under Beane. And it ended with the team making major moves before the 2012 season, Bob Melvin’s first full campaign as manager: Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes was signed for $36 million — a move championed by Zaidi — and the A’s traded All-Star pitchers Gio Gonzalez, Andrew Bailey and Trevor Cahill.
At the time, skeptics said the A’s were taking a wrecking ball to their roster. It might have looked that way at the time, but consider this: Bailey hasn’t pitched in more than a year after undergoing shoulder surgery, and Gonzalez and Cahill are a combined 9-17 this season. Meantime, of the 10 players the A’s got back in those deals, two are every-day starters, one opened the season in the A’s rotation and another has made more than 40 appearances out of the bullpen.
Not every trade goes so well, though. Last month, the A’s sent Cespedes to Boston for Red Sox left-hander Jon Lester and outfielder Jonny Gomes.
Lester is the type of top-of-the-rotation ace the A’s had been missing in six first-round exits in their last seven playoff appearances. And early on, the deal looked like a steal for Oakland. Lester won his first three starts and even Cespedes contributed to his old team’s cause, smacking a three-run homer to help Boston beat the Angels.
“See, that’s the kind of trades Billy makes,” Wolff crowed after the Cespedes homer. “He puts them somewhere where they’re going to help us no matter what!”
However, the magic has run out recently. The A’s have lost eight of their last 10 games and are below .500 since the trade, falling out of the AL West lead for the first time since mid April.
“There’s no special sauce here,” Forst acknowledged. “We have our analysis and we have our scouts and we try to put the two together as much as we can.”
Far more often than not, it’s an equation that works.
Follow Kevin Baxter on Twitter @kbaxter11