Oakland Athletics: understanding who’s running my team

Oakland Athletics Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Billy Beane, left, and General Manager David Forst, speak to the media on Monday, Oct. 5, 2015, in Oakland, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) (Photo by MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images)
Oakland Athletics Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations Billy Beane, left, and General Manager David Forst, speak to the media on Monday, Oct. 5, 2015, in Oakland, Calif. (Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group) (Photo by MediaNews Group/Bay Area News via Getty Images) /

One of a series of articles looking at the front office structure of each major league team. Let’s take a closer look at the Oakland Athletics.

Oakland Athletics

  • Managing Partner: John Fisher
  • Executive Vice President of Baseball Operations: Billy Beane
  • General Manager: David Forst

Fisher is one of the sons of the founding partners of The Gap clothing line. Also a founding partner of an investment firm, he held a stake in the syndicate led by Lewis Wolfe when Wolfe purchased the Oakland Athletics in 2005. When Wolfe sold most of his stake in 2016, Fisher became the controlling partner.

In terms of day-to-day decision-making, of course, Fisher’s involvement is limited to laying out the budgetary basics and trying to drum up support for the new stadium the team has sought for years. In all the baseball-related aspects, the A’s belong to Beane and his chief aide, Forst.

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The team’s money situation has been a hamstringing reality since Beane arrived more than two decades ago – otherwise, we wouldn’t have Moneyball, would we? It continues as a stricture today. At $1.10 billion, as assessed by Forbes, the A’s rank 26th among the 30 major league teams in overall value.

For the record, they were 29th a decade ago ($295 million), so it’s possible to make the argument that finances in Oakland are improving. The raw data, however, tempers that judgment. Over the same time period, the values of 23 teams grew by an average of $400,000 more than the A’s did.

Revenues confirm the sobering stats. The Oakland Athletics took in $218 million in 2019, dead last in MLB and an annual growth rate of 4 percent since the $155 million the team grossed in 2010.

As a revenue producer, Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum is aging poorly, a principal reason why team management is desirous of relocating downtown. The stadium produced $147 million in revenue in 2019, fourth-lowest in the game ahead of only the Orioles, Rays and Marlins.

The ever-present shadow of the Giants across San Francisco Bay crimps the A’s in other ways. As the region’s dominant baseball entity, the Giants reap nearly 80 percent of the $1.581 million generated annually by Bay Area baseball lovers. That leaves the Athletics to get by on $323 million, the fourth-smallest revenue slice produced by any region, ahead of only the Reds, Royals and Marlins.

The team’s brand also labors in the Giants’ substantial shadow, producing $95 million last year. That made it the game’s fifth weakest brand, ahead of only the Reds, Royals, Rays and Marlins.

MLB’s central office tries to help out. At $534 million in league support, the Athletics receive almost precisely the $532 million league-wide average revenue sharing, a generous portion considering their market size. But that also leaves only the two Florida-based teams as more reliant, on a percentage basis, upon league support for their existence.

Beane, and Forst too for that matter, have adapted to become masters at finessing those revenue problems. They came about it from vastly differing backgrounds. Beane earned his advanced degree in team-building on the field. A hotshot high school prospect, he played parts of six seasons with the Mets, Twins, Tigers, and Athletics, never justifying the promise that got him drafted with the 23rd overall selection in 1980.

Retiring in 1990, he caught on as an advance scout for the Athletics under GM Sandy Alderson, was promoted to assistant GM in 1993, and with Alderson’s encouragement set about trying to deduce ways to improve the team’s record without spending money the Athletics didn’t have.

When Alderson retired following the 1997 season, Beane succeeded him. In the intervening decades, his SABRmetrically minded front office has become an incubator for efficiency-minded executives, among whom Forst is merely the latest. A 1998 Harvard grad in sociology, he dabbled briefly in minor league ball before catching on with the Athletics as a scout.

Named assistant general manager in 2004, he became so closely identified with Beane’s approaches and methods that in 2015 the team created a new position for Beane just to solidify Forst’s role in the hierarchy.

Through the entirety of Beane’s tenure – and thus Forst’s as well – the constant has been relative poverty. Oakland’s payroll peaked last season at $109 million, exactly 50 percent of pre-tax revenues.  That was 25th of 30 teams, about as high on the chart as the A’s ever get.

Only two Oakland players, Khris David ($16.75 million) and Marcus Semien ($13 million) will make in excess of $10 million this coming season.  The last time the A’s signed anybody to more than a $33 million contract was in 2012, when they went to $36 million over four seasons for slugging free-agent outfielder Yoenis Cespedes. Two and one-half years later, they dealt Cespedes away.

Over the seasons, this “win on the cheap” approach employed by Beane and Forst has been, as might be expected, inconsistent. When it fails, the Athletics tend to come up very small. Since Beane’s arrival, the A’s have finished fourth or fifth in the AL West five times, including consecutive last-place finishes from 2015 through 2017. On a half dozen different occasions, the Athletics have finished 20 games or more out of the division lead.

But Oakland Athletics fans can probably live with that because the front office has been periodically able to fashion a winner. Oakland has won six division titles under Beane or Beane/Forst, and the A’s have played in half the post-seasons since 2000.

Measured by Wins Above Average, the impact of front office moves during the Beane era has averaged +4.7 games per season*. Again, there are wild swings in that data, including three seasons when front office moves hurt the team’s cause by more than 10 games.

Long term, though, those are offset by the eight seasons – 2019 among them – when Beane/Forst personnel decisions aided Oakland’s talent base by more than 10 games. In three such seasons, 2012, 2015 and 2019, the value of those moves exceeded the margin by which the Oakland Athletics qualified for post-season play.

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*This calculation is obtained by determining the net impact of all player transactions on team performance for the season(s) in question. Wins Above Average is a zero-based offshoot of Wins Above Replacement; thus, the final figure suggests the degree of positive or negative movement in the standings attributable to front office moves.