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Interview with Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane

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Thursday morning I spoke with Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane by telephone. I asked him a few general philosophical questions, then a few specific questions about the Athletics.

SICKELS: Billy, thanks for taking the time to talk with me today. Generally speaking, when looking at pitchers and trying to judge their current value and future potential, do you have a personal preference for pitchers with velocity, or pitchers with command? Obviously you want a pitcher who has both, but if the choice is between a guy with plus velocity/stuff but shaky command, or a guy with average velocity/stuff and good command, which way would you lean?

BEANE:  Well, that's a tough question to answer. It really is a case-by-case situation where you have to judge the pitcher on his own merits. You look at the velocity and his stuff, obviously, and you look at his command obviously, but you also look at his delivery, his size, his health record, everything.
     Both velocity and command are components among others. Velocity is related to strikeouts, but they aren't always the same thing. What I find myself looking for from pitchers is the swing-and-miss. They can get that from velocity, but they can also get that by changing speeds and deception. There are some pitchers who have plus velocity but don't get the swing-and-miss, and other pitchers who don't have big radar readings but do get the strikeouts.
      There is a general idea that velocity can't be taught but that command can. I think there is something to that, but there are exceptions.

SICKELS: In your own system, you have pitchers like Shawn Haviland and Paul Smyth who did improve their velocity compared to where they were in college.

BEANE: That's right, it does happen. And of course there are plenty of examples of pitchers with velocity who didn't have command, but who did develop command later. So that's what I mean when I say it is a case-by-case thing. Velocity or command isn't something that I look at as a rule of thumb, other than that we look for a pitcher who gets strikeouts, no matter how he gets them.

SICKELS: Can you walk us through an average day for you during the off-season? How busy is it compared to the regular season?

BEANE:Well, this job never ends. It depends on what part of the off-season you are talking about. In October, you work on things like contracts for next year, target lists for free agents, beginnings of trade talks. November is similar, but you might start preparing for arbitration and the prep for the winter meetings.
     The period between the end of October and Christmas is very busy. It will slow down for a few weeks after Christmas to about the middle of January and that's the point where you might be able to take a vacation with your family, but even then you stay in touch every day, and it isn't long before you have to get ready for spring training. Even on days when you technically work 9-to-5, you are still talking phone calls on the way to the office or on the way home.

SICKELS: When you make a decision about a player, a signing or a trade, obviously both scouting and statistics play into it. But is there any role for "gut feeling" or "intuition"?

BEANE: That depends on how you define intuition. Some people would define intuition or gut feeling as the same thing as a wild guess. We have to be more objective.

SICKELS: Well, I was thinking of intuition more in the sense of your brain or your subconscious, not to get Freudian on you, but some part of your mind that is involved in pattern recognition that might notice something in a player that you don't think about consciously right away, but that comes into your awareness as an "aha!" insight.

BEANE: Oh, I would agree with that, yeah. Intuition, like what you are talking about, is what I would call the benefit of experience. You have all this past experience in your mind stored away, and something current will trigger a memory of that experience, I can see that expressed as intuition, and yeah, there is certainly a place for that, though when something like that happens, we'll still try to find something objective to back it up.

SICKELS: With the basic agreement up for negotiation as we approach 2012, what do you think of the idea of trading draft picks?

BEANE: I think it would be a great idea. I have always been in favor of that, it would create more interest in the draft for the fans, and as a GM anything that improves my flexibility is a good thing.

SICKELS: Will it happen? It always gets talked about but it never gets implemented.

BEANE: Well, I can't say for sure obviously, we'll have to see what gets negotiated. I would say that it is a better than 50/50 chance, but it is not guaranteed. We'll just have to see.

SICKELS: You've made some roster changes this year, bringing in David DeJesus and Josh Willingham, adding Hideki Matsui. With Daric Barton entrenched at first base, and with Ryan Sweeney and Conor Jackson around, does this make Chris Carter the odd man out?

BEANE: You never know what will happen when you go into spring training. I would rather have too much depth than not enough depth. . .people get hurt, have bad springs. With Chris, we remain very high on him, but Barton is the man at first base and we want Chris to get more outfield time. He is a good enough athlete to handle it, he just needs more experience defensively.

SICKELS: You remain high on the bat though?

BEANE: Certainly.

SICKELS: He had adjustment problems in the majors but played much better after the 0-for-33 beginning.

BEANE: Yes, he did. Carter has a history of slow starts when he reaches a new level, so we didn't expect he would dominate in the majors right away. We didn't expect him to go 0-for-33 either, but he adapted and stayed level mentally, and it wasn't a surprise to us that he did so. That fits his pattern.

SICKELS: Another outfield prospect, Michael Taylor, really struggled last year in Triple-A. But I just can't believe that what he did in the Phillies system was a fluke. What happened with Taylor?

BEANE: Michael is a great athlete, and he's also very intelligent. But like many smart players, he overthinks things when something is wrong. There were also some injuries involved, and the combination of the injuries and a slow start just built up. But we don't judge him just on one season, we look over his whole career. There was a lot of focus and attention on him last year and I think he pressed over it. With less pressure this year he can do better. We still like him a lot.

SICKELS: Your starting four looks set with Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, Dallas Braden, and Brett Anderson. How is Anderson's arm?

BEANE: Brett finished strong and is ready to go, we aren't worried about his health at all.

SICKELS: Gonzalez really put it together last year. Even when he struggled in past seasons, he struck a lot of people out, but the rest of it came together.

BEANE: Yeah, with Gonzalez we were looking over his whole track record like I mentioned before. The strikeouts were always there and he just needed some time and patience to bring the rest of it together.

SICKELS: Who is the fifth starter? You have many candidates. .. Tyson Ross, Bobby Cramer, Rich Harden, Brandon McCarthy, maybe Josh Outman.

BEANE: Yeah, we brought in several candidates and we fell like we have more depth than most teams do for the fifth starter job. We'll just have to see what happens in spring training, but any of those guys could get it. We know what Harden and McCarthy can do when they are healthy, but Cramer was really impressive late last year and will get a shot too. Anybody who pitches well in Mexico and the PCL needs to be looked at. Josh looked great in instructional league and looks fully recovered from surgery. We like our depth.

SICKELS: Any update on Pedro Figueroa's recovery from Tommy John? He was an intriguing prospect before he got hurt.

BEANE: Rehab is going well, no setbacks. We expect he will pitch in competition sometime in 2011, but recovery to full form can take two years so we won't rush it.

SICKELS: One final question. Eric Sogard looks like a nice sleeper prospect to me. Can he play shortstop?

BEANE: He will get the opportunity to do so in spring training. We like him a lot, he has a good mixture of skills.