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Playing the numbers game


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(CNN) -- Currently top of their division and seemingly heading for the playoffs for a fifth season in a row, the Oakland Athletics are one of the most consistently successful teams in Major League Baseball.

The team's accomplishments are all the more remarkable for having been achieved with one of the smallest budgets in baseball, and with a distinct lack of star sluggers and unplayable pitchers.

In fact, many people attribute that achievement to A's general manager Billy Beane.

For a sport famously obsessed with statistics, baseball management remains surprisingly unscientific. Team selections and trades are largely conducted according to the whims and hunches of coaches and managers steeped in the traditions and history of the sport.

But for Beane, a journeyman pro of modest talents during a five-year MLB career, success begins not on the pitch but at the computer screen. His backroom team works tirelessly to analyze volumes of player statistics -- using past percentages to predict future form.

And while many look no further than batting averages or pitching stats, Beane and his team mine for data that others would miss, such as a batter's ability to get on-base and a pitcher's ability to keep him off it.

Beane uses the formula to monitor his existing players but also in recruiting new players from college teams, with impressive results.

"Almost like a car salesman, if a guy walks onto the lot and a salesman qualifies him on how he is dressed he may miss out on a hell of a sale, we try to open our mind and say it's not about perception or what you think you see," Beane told CNN.

"The great thing about baseball is that the numbers are going to tell you if a player is successful or a team is successful. This game is all about numbers.

"One of the things that we're most proud of is that this isn't a one year aberration for us, we have been here four years, we've averaged nearly 96 wins a year for the past five years, we've had attendance climbing every year.

"Our goal in Oakland here is to win as many games every year as we can and to make sure we're not losing our shorts financially.

Big business

Baseball may be big business, but it is also an American national obsession, and Beane's radical, somewhat clinical, management techniques have not escaped criticism among defenders of the sport's romantic tradition.

When author Michael Lewis wrote about Beane's methods in the best-selling "Moneyball," the baseball world was divided into Beane supporters and Beane counters.

"There was a fierce desire to disprove the assertion that Oakland knew anything that everybody else didn't know," said Lewis.

"People were very upset by the idea that there was something new under the sun and that it paid to rethink the game and it paid to pay attention to what these geeks with their computers had been doing outside the game that was very threatening to a large population inside the game."

"Essentially this has been a business that's been around for over a hundred years and it really hasn't changed much so any time someone's doing something differently, its probably going to create some friction," added Beane.

Lewis believes Beane's methods can and will be applied to other sports -- if the conservatives can overcome their resistance to change.

Already a company called Can He Play Corp., has attempted to introduce a scientific approach to the NFL draft, offering coaches a mathematical model that attempts to predict how college players will perform at professional level.

"An awful lot of the same kind of thinking appliers to other sports," said Lewis.

"And in fact Mark Cuban from the Dallas Mavericks talks about the Moneyball approach to basketball, (Dallas Cowboys coach) Bill Parcells had me to dinner a couple of weeks ago to talk about how the Cowboys are doing similar kinds of things. So there are inefficiencies to exploit in all the professional sports."

Beane is already being tipped as a future member of baseball's Hall of Fame, but it is unlikely the 42-year-old is ready just yet to allow any sentimentality for the sport to influence his judgment.

"This is a competitive business," he said. "It's a sports business. And as much you want to romanticize it, it is that."


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