August 3, 2012
By SCOTT MITCHELL, QMI Agency
For the better part of two decades, the Oakland Athletics franchise has been among the most fascinating in professional sports.
From the late 1980s and early ‘90s when Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire formed the Bash Brothers, to the early part of the 2000s when Michael Lewis penned a game-changing book about a failed-player-turned-GM in Billy Beane embracing advanced statistical formulas to evaluate players, the A’s have been a small market baseball team with a big profile.
Eight years after Moneyball hit the shelves, the A’s are still doing things their way.
While the league has now caught up and every team is blending their own statistical formulas with traditional scouting methods, the A’s pioneered the movement.
Back in 2004, Farhan Zaidi was a grad school student at the University of Cal-Berkley on the eastern side of San Francisco Bay.
He was your typical economics student, playing fantasy sports and watching as much baseball as he could when he wasn’t working on his PhD.
He read Moneyball and enjoyed it. Then, on a whim, he decided to send his resumé to a few baseball teams while he was eating lunch one day.
Two weeks later, he was sitting in Beane’s office, and the rest, as they say, is history.
Today, Zaidi is one of the most respected executives in the major leagues and was ranked as the 27th most influential Canadian in baseball by QMI Agency columnist (and Hall of Famer) Bob Elliott.
“I’d always been a huge baseball fan and like a lot of other mathematically inclined baseball fans, I’d read Moneyball and that was obviously a really fun read,” says Zaidi, who’s now in eighth season with the A’s, serving as one of Beane’s top aides as director of baseball operations. “It’s not that the book made me want to get into baseball, but it made me believe it was possible for someone like myself, who didn’t play college or pro baseball and have that on-field experience that historically seemed like you needed to get into baseball.
“Now, knowing the stacks of resumés we get in the offices, it was a longshot at best.
“My first few weeks on the job were pretty surreal.”
Zaidi’s profile doesn’t read like any other baseball executive.
Born in Sudbury, Ont., Zaidi moved to the Philippines when he was five years old before returning to North America for school. He also has an uncle and three cousins living in Calgary.
He has no professional playing experience and had never worked in baseball before being hired by Beane.
Now, the 34-year-old is providing analysis on players, working on contracts and travelling with the team.
It didn’t take long for the enormity of the lifestyle change to sink in back in 2005.
“Frank Thomas was a guy I watched in my early teen years and throughout high school and he was absolutely one of my favourite players,” Zaidi recalls. “I have never been as starstruck as when we were at the winter meetings in 2005 and Frank Thomas walked into our room.
“I’m not sure I was able to maintain the proper level of professionalism, even though we were negotiating with him at the time.”
He also remembers his first amateur draft, although it might be one he’d like to forget.
“That was the year we took Cliff Pennington at the top of the draft,” Zaidi says. “I very much remember the conversations in the draft room. From a statistical standpoint (Pennington) had everything you wanted. He hit for power, he walked, he didn’t strike out much, he played shortstop, so he played a premium position.
“I still remember to this day, the debate we were having was between Cliff Pennington and (Jacoby) Ellsbury, the (Boston) Red Sox centrefielder who went a couple picks later. Those were two guys who, from a statistical standpoint, actually looked very similar.”
Ellsbury put together an MVP-calibre year in 2011, racking up 9.3 WAR (wins above replacement), while Pennington has managed 6.3 WAR over parts of five seasons as the A’s shortstop.
It’s metrics like WAR — a number used to tabulate how valuable a player is versus a league average player and takes offence and defence into consideration — that have evolved the game of baseball.
And the A’s have been at the forefront of that movement since the late ‘90s.
“You can hit a bloop that turns into a double and that’s not really a good piece of hitting, that’s just luck,” Zaidi says when explaining how advanced metrics are used. “I’d rather have the guy who hit a line drive, even though it was an out.
“They create the right picture of how valuable players are.”
While Zaidi says the A’s have developed their own metrics, stats such as FIP (fielding independent pitching), BABIP (batting average on balls in play), ground ball/fly ball rates and line drive percentages are creeping into every day use by fans and media.
It’s those metrics that helped the A’s overhaul their pitching staff last winter, dealing established arms Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez for a bevy of prospects and financial relief.
For a small market team with limited funds, it’s all about cost-control.
“You read some of the coverage of our deals and people seem to think we enjoy trading away established players — we don’t,” Zaidi says. “You always have to evaluate what’s best for the long term and if you think you can get pieces that add up to greater potential in the future, then you have to at least consider it.
“Sometimes, you’re right, and sometimes, you’re wrong. If you just always go with the popular perception of these players, that’s probably a recipe for mediocrity.”
It’s that type of outside-the-box thinking that led to the A’s signing Cuban phenom Yoenis Cespedes, outbidding a number of bigger market teams for the slugger. Cespedes immediately brought some buzz back to the Bay Area with his tape measure home runs, along with an alarming number of strikeouts.
“On a pure talent level, we think he’s not only one of the best players in Cuba, but one of the best players in the world,” Zaidi says of the Cespedes signing. “And it’s very rare for one of the best players in the world to become a free agent and to be on the market at a price where we can even discuss that player.
“Just in terms of his physique and explosiveness, he reminds me a lot of Brett Lawrie. He has that kind of athletic ability. Our scouts have compared him to Bo Jackson a lot.”
It’s the type of transaction he was making playing fantasy baseball back in the ’90s.
But now, it’s for real.