An Interview with Oakland GM Billy Beane

I spoke with Oakland GM Billy Beane this morning. Here is a transcript of the interview.

JOHN SICKELS:
   Billy, thanks for taking the time to talk with me today.
   I want to start with a general question, then get to more specifics about some of the youngest players and prospects in your organization. First of all, you've spoken frequently of the necessity for a smaller-revenue team to build from within, and the Athletics clearly had to do that this year. Is it difficult to decide when you're in rebuilding mode, and when you're in win-now mode? Obviously you always want to win, but how you assess your current position is going to impact how you handle trades and free agency. If your team is really good or really bad, you know it, but how do you assess this if you're somewhere in the middle? For example, in 2009 you finished 75-87, but your Pythagorean won-loss record was 81-81, so maybe this team is better than it looks. How does this impact your decision making for 2010 and the future?

BILLY BEANE:
    Good question. I think one of the General Manager's most important jobs is to figure that out, to always know where you are in the organization development process. Sometimes the public perception, in the media and with the fans, of where the team is, can be different than what the private internal perception is. The way I look at it, you are either building something special or you have something special. Our market is challenging as you know, and we are in rebuilding mode right now, but I think there are a lot of good things to look forward to.
     As I see it, our organization has two "waves" of players. We have a strong group of young pitchers up in the majors right now....Anderson, Cahill, Bailey, Gonzalez and others. . that's the foundation for a great staff, and we have a group of young hitters coming up behind them who will be ready soon. It's a process we went through in the 1990s so we know how it works.

JOHN SICKELS:
     So you do see yourself as in the rebuilding phase right now.

BILLY BEANE:
    Yes, but these things can change quickly. What you want is for a young group of players to come up at roughly the same time, but it's a case by case thing for each player, and you have to give them time to adjust to the major league level. Expectations can get very high when you're bringing up young talent, sometimes too high, but it is our job to factor that in. Even if our won-loss record doesn't change next year, we will still be light years ahead of where we are now in the development process itself, just by the young guys getting another year of experience.
     Even a level-headed guy like Brett Anderson will need adjustment time. He's a very good pitcher now, but how will he look in three or four years? He should be outstanding.
     When a player first reaches the majors, he's in survival mode, just getting use to the pace of the game, the big league setting, the travel, playing against the best guys he's ever faced before. Eventually they move beyond that survival mode, they get comfortable, and then you see how good they really are. The time it takes is different for every player, some of them the adjustment happens fast, sometimes it takes longer, sometimes there are setbacks. Right now, we have a lot of players who are making that transition from survival mode to realizing they belong. But once it clicks, the upward improvement can be incredibly rapid, and it is a beautiful thing to watch happen, for the specific player and when it happens to a team as a whole.
     The draft is incredibly important for us, of course. When you're in a rebuilding mode, you can't miss on your early round draft picks, especially if you're in the top half of the first round. If you have a top five pick especially, you can't miss on those at all. The research is very clear on the value of a top five pick compared to the bottom half of the first round. We picked 12th last year and 13th this year, and are happy with what we have to show for it. (ed.-Jemile Weeks and Grant Green). When we built up the team in the 1990s, early round picks were critical for us.

JOHN SICKELS:
     That's interesting that you mention the importance of the early choices, but sometimes guys can be a big surprise. Andrew Bailey, rookie of the year, was a sixth round pick.. I've been an optimist about him but I didn't expect something like this. At what point did you realize you had something special on your hands?

BILLY BEANE:
     Well we always knew he had a lot of potential. We always felt he could make it as a starter, but he kind of hit the wall in that role at Midland (in 2008).

JOHN SICKELS:
     Yeah, he had some problems down there. But then he moved to relief in the second half and was better, and I remember seeing him in the Arizona Fall League last year and thinking he looked really good. I thought he could be a good middle reliever, but he was much more than that this year.

BILLY BEANE:
     He always had the strong strikeout rate, which I know is something you look at and we certainly look at as the best indicator of future performance for a pitcher. He looked good in spring training, throwing 92-94, and we felt he fit well into the pen. But then he got comfortable really quickly, and his confidence took off. He got really fired up, his stuff went up to 94-96 even 97 with the cutter. We didn't see that coming. We thought he'd be fine in the pen, but he just got better and better. It built on itself and you saw the final results.

JOHN SICKELS:
     He wasn't a high-round draft pick.

BILLY BEANE:
      No, and you can't count on finding a rookie of the year with a sixth round pick. That's why the early rounds are so important. But it also shows you can find players who have potential, and in Bailey's case it was the strikeouts that indicated it to us.    

JOHN SICKELS:
     You mentioned the young wave of pitching up this  year, and as good as Bailey was, rookies held down the starting rotation. Your top six starters averaged 22.6 years of age, with Dallas Braden the "veteran" at age 25. Anderson and Cahill had to be very pleasing given how little Double-A experience they had. But what about Gio Gonzalez? You mentioned the important of strikeouts. He's got the strikeouts but he still can't get anyone out.

BILLY BEANE:
     Gio is a really interesting guy. Even when he's getting hit hard, he still strikes guys out. Ultimately we think it will play out in his favor. Gio is a very high-strung guy, high-energy, and sometimes that works against him. It will take him a little longer to get comfortable, but we understand that. Brett Anderson is the opposite, he's very calm and under control emotionally, but Gio is still learning to harness his emotions. We think he made a lot of progress doing that.
    If you look at his game-by-game lines, you can see signs that he's pulling things together. Back in July, he had a really bad game against the Twins (ed.--10 hits and 11 runs allowed in 2.2 innings on July 20th), but he came back from that to pitch well against the Yankees (July 25th, one run in 6.2 innings) and Red Sox (July 30th, eight strikeouts in 5.1 innings) on the road. That's not easy in those environments, so he showed he could bounce back. We were also really happy with his last start, where he fanned 10 and didn't walk anyone (October 2nd against the Angels) in six innings. That shows the kind of potential he has. He just needs more time to put it together consistently, learn to channel his emotions when he gets amped up.

JOHN SICKELS:
     You mentioned the wave of young hitters who will be ready soon. Where does Chris Carter fit into that? Can he really play the outfield?

BILLY BEANE:
     Chris is far more athletic than people think. He needs work out there, but he has a better chance to stick in the outfield than the other candidates like Barton. We haven't given up on Barton at all by the way, we still believe in his potential. But Chris's bat looks special. It would really help us fit him into the lineup if he can play the outfield.

JOHN SICKELS
     I saw him late in the year for Midland, and I agree, he is more athletic than people say. He's not just a slugger either, he looks like he's pretty polished with the bat.

BILLY BEANE:
     Yes. Our people in Midland thought he was the best all-around hitter in the Texas League, a pure hitter now, not just a power guy. He's made adjustments as he's moved up and has improved his approach at a rapid rate. And he's still very young, too. We had some concerns about how he would adapt in Triple-A, but he handled the challenge well, hitting four homers for Sacramento. He will need some Triple-A time to make the final adjustments with the bat, and to settle on a position.

JOHN SICKELS:
     So you will keep him in the outfield?

BILLY BEANE:
     Well, it would help us if he could stick there. We'll see how things look in the spring. We still have Barton and Doolittle to find places for, too.

JOHN SICKELS;
     You said you haven't given up on Barton. Do you still like Doolittle?

BILLY BEANE:
     Yeah, we still like both of them a lot. It's too bad about Doolittle's knee, that was badly timed for him and for us, but we still think he's going to be a good hitter.

JOHN SICKELS
     The other big bat in Triple-A is Brett Wallace. Can he stick at third base?

BILLY BEANE: 
     Well we don't know for sure yet, but we won't take him off third base until he proves he can't handle it. His bat has come very quickly, he was just a year out of college and hit well in Triple-A. The bat looks special to us. Sometimes with guys like that, the glove gets panned by scouts just because the bat has come so quickly and they are looking for something to criticize. Also, I think Brett's defense gets panned unfairly because of the way his body looks.

JOHN SICKELS:
     It looks to me like he has a strong arm and decent hands, but his range is limited.

BILLY BEANE:
     Maybe, but third base is a big hole in our system, and if he can make it there it would fit very nicely into the plan. The other factor is that Brett believes he can play third base, he's committed to it, and it is foolish not to let him try. So we're keeping him there until he proves otherwise.

JOHN SICKELS:
     We are almost out of time, but there is one more guy I want to ask you about. Grant Desme had a great year in the minors, and was one of the big boppers in the Arizona Fall League. He's always had good tools but was slowed down by injuries. I like what he did in A-ball, but his strikeout rate is very high. Does that worry you?

BILLY BEANE:
    Well, we drafted him high (second round, 2007) and we've always liked his potential. He got hurt, but he made up for lost time this year. You mentioned the strikeouts, and yes that is something we're aware of. The other concern is age; people point out he was kind of old for A-ball. But the bottom line is that he performed this year, he looked great this fall, and we can't worry about failure until it actually happens. The guy he reminds me of is Jayson Werth, a big guy who could run when he was young. Desme has a similar package, and that sort of power is hard to find in a right-handed hitter.

JOHN SICKELS:
    Does he start at Midland or at Sacramento?

BILLY BEANE:
    We'll decide that in spring training, but probably Midland. We'll have to see if the strikeouts become a problem, but we really like what we saw from him this year.

JOHN SICKELS
     Billy, I know you're a very busy man, but thanks for taking the time to chat today!

BILLY BEANE:
    Thanks, John!

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