Los Banos

Baseball and the A’s are making it harder to be a fan

“You can’t tell the players without a scorecard.” This saying used to apply when you didn’t know either baseball team playing. Nowadays it’s true even for some hometown teams you root for, like the Oakland A’s.

For many years I’ve been a big fan of the A’s (as well as the Giants), going back to the time I moved to California in the 1970s. I enjoyed rooting for A’s players like Joe Rudi, Sal Brando, Bert Campaneris, Reggie Jackson, then Rickey and Dave Henderson and even the steroid bash brothers, Mark McGuire and Jose Canseco.

I came to identify with the A’s year after year. Although there were times when their owners were annoying (like Charlie Finley), the teams in the 1970s, ‘80s, and ‘90s always seemed to be entertaining and the players likable.

John Spevak New Photo
John Spevak, columnist for the Enterprise. Enterprise file

In the mid-1990s, however, things began to change. Billy Beane became the general manager and relied more on and more on detailed statistics to evaluate players.

At first this seemed like a refreshing approach, especially in 2002, when Beane added to his roster many players other GMs had given up on and created a highly successful team. Many people outside baseball became familiar with this approach in the movie “Moneyball,” which depicts that season.

Beane has continued to take his approach to new levels and other teams have copied him. Today all kinds of statistics (now called “analytics”) are used to shape the game. In the current analytical approach home runs are key for hitters, and players have often been instructed to change their swing to more of an uppercut to increase their “launch angle” and improve their chances of hitting homers.

It’s now OK to strike out a lot, if you have a good launch angle, since hitting the ball hard but in the park usually won’t result in hits, because of the recent deployment of “shifts,” where players are positioned according to past data that indicate where each batter will probably hit the ball.

I think I could accept most of this relatively new approach to baseball, even if it’s so different from the game I knew as kid and younger adult. But what I find irritating to point of exasperation is the dominance today of analytics over people and numbers over players.

Because numbers mean more than people, Billy Beane and the A’s don’t keep players around very long. His thinking goes like this: I’ve got numbers on every guy. If I find a guy with better or even similar numbers, especially if I can pay him less, I’ll trade or release the player I have and replace him with a cheaper player, getting about the same or better results.

Over the past few years that’s what Beane has done, shuffled players in and out based on their analytics. For example, in September 2016 I attended an A’s game and bought a program with Ryon Healy on the cover, a popular young player who was hitting home runs.

Healy had an even better year in 2017 with more homers. But by the following year he was gone, traded for cheaper, younger players who had similar or better analytics.

I should be a big fan of the A’s today because they had a highly successful season last year, making the playoffs. But the problem last year and this year is I really don’t know who the players are, let alone have a loyalty to them. There’s no telling if current Oakland stars like Matt Chapman and Ramon Laureano will be A’s next year or even later this season, let along five years from now. (I am pleased that just recently Beane extended the contract of star Khris Davis.)

Today I pay more attention to the Giants than the A’s. Part of this preference is that the Giants have a much stronger radio station, day and night, while the A’s station doesn’t reach Los Banos in the evening.

But an even more important factor is that Giants players — like Buster Posey, Madison Bumgarner and Brandon Crawford — have inspired loyalty, not just because they’re good but because they’ve been around for many years and I’ve gotten to know them well.

What further troubles me is that more and more teams seem to be copying the A’s approach to baseball operations, with players coming on and off rosters, in and out of games. Meanwhile everyone is trying to hit home runs or get walks, resulting in record numbers of strikeouts. Baseball now has fewer hits, less action and longer games.

It’s still early in the 2019 season, and I’ll continue to watch and listen to baseball games and try to root for the A’s — even though they make it so darn hard for me to be loyal to them.

John Spevak wrote this for the Los Banos Enterprise. His email is john.spevak@gmail.com.