Here’s a Moneyball maven striking it rich for Athletics


As director of professional scouting and baseball development for the Oakland Athletics, Dan Feinstein scouts amateur players, evaluates the organization’s talent, is involved in contract negotiations and arbitration cases, ponders trades and analyzes potential free agent signees.

His varied portfolio is news to at least one of the team’s players.

“I don’t doubt that he does a lot, and has done a lot, for the organization, but I don’t know to what extent,” catcher Derek Norris said of Feinstein during a recent A’s visit here.

For the past three years, Feinstein, 42, has been one of the prominent executives powering the Oakland approach to diamond success known as Moneyball under its guru, general manager Billy Beane.

There’s been plenty of success this season for the American League West-leading Athletics, who boast one of the best records in baseball and stand near the top of the league in team pitching and hitting. And they’ve been doing it with an assortment of players excelling in both the traditional and Moneyball statistical categories.

Beane employed the Moneyball strategy to enable his low-revenue Athletics to compete against richer clubs. Popularized by the Michael Lewis book “Moneyball” in 2003 and the 2011 film of the same name starring Brad Pitt, the plan has spread throughout the major leagues.

Moneyball aims to identify and acquire undervalued players by placing a premium on what were then newly minted statistics such as OPS (on-base-plus-slugging percentage), as well as walks, caught stealing, pitches taken and other measures.

Feinstein returned to Oakland in 2011 after spending six seasons as director of baseball operations for the Tampa Bay Rays and a year with the Los Angeles Dodgers. He had spent the better part of a decade splicing game videotapes for the Athletics after starting as an intern in 1994.

Other than his year with the Dodgers, making do on a shoestring budget is the only professional reality Feinstein has experienced. It’s one he embraces.

“We’re always trying to think outside the box and acquire or sign players that maybe have some hickeys to them, and I enjoy trying to find players that are maybe undervalued with other teams,” he said. “It’s really the only way I know.

“While it’d be nice to work with a payroll of some of the other clubs, I very much enjoy the challenge of staying within a constrained budget.”

Moneyball has found success in Oakland, with the Athletics on target to capture their seventh A.L. West title since 2000. They’ve been leading the division most of this season.

Josh Donaldson is second in the league in WAR (wins above replacement) and in the more mainstream category of runs scored. Teammate Coco Crisp is 10th in on-base percentage. No A’s base stealer has been thrown out more than twice.

On the mound, left-hander Scott Kazmir is among league leaders in WHIP (fewest walks and hits allowed per innings pitched), as well as the more traditional statistics of wins and earned run average.

In fact, the A’s lead the A.L. in runs scored and are second in fewest runs allowed – all on a $74.8 million payroll, ranking them 27th in Major League Baseball. In comparison, the Dodgers and New York Yankees are over $200 million.

“Obviously, we’re all thrilled,” Feinstein said of Oakland’s 2014 strength.

Feinstein is ecstatic to be working in baseball.

At 15, he already knew the game was where he wanted to make his career. Feinstein, a catcher who could not make the team at the University of California, Davis, said he “explored every avenue to get my foot in the door” after college.

With the Athletics, who play just down the road from his hometown of Lafayette, Calif., where he still lives, Feinstein started out doing the things interns do — making photocopies and fetching coffee. That’s when he wasn’t lobbying Beane, then the assistant general manager, for additional responsibilities.

In 1995, he jumped at Beane’s offer to add videotaping to his chores. The following season it became his full-time job.

“I’ve been very lucky. I’ve been in the right place at the right time,” Feinstein said. “I don’t think there’s anyone in baseball who would tell you they look at their job as a job.”

Like anyone employed in a baseball team’s front office, Feinstein said, he aspires to “bigger and better things” professionally, including being a general manager. He added, however, “I’m extremely comfortable and thankful in the role I currently have.”

A key aspect of that role is the Major League Baseball draft, which was held last month. Eighteen of Oakland’s 40 selections were pitchers.

“That was by design,” Feinstein explained. “The only way that we’re going to have success at the major-league level is if we have pitching, and you can never have enough of it. It’s the single biggest asset we need to compete.”

Planning for the three-day draft is “a yearlong, exhaustive process that has already started” for 2015, he said.

“It’s one of those things that we all are fascinated with: not only the process, but being in that war room in the week prior to the draft,” Feinstein said.

He’s hopeful the A’s can make a run to the World Series this season – it would be the team’s first appearance in the Fall Classic since 1990.

“There’s a lot of season left to go, and anything can happen,” Feinstein said, “but so far it’s been a perfect storm of a group of guys who’ve come together and played their best.”

 

Howard Berman versus Brad Sherman, by the numbers


The biggest challenge in covering the congressional race between Reps. Howard Berman and Brad Sherman lies in determining how to judge the two men and compare their performances in Congress.

In their increasingly intense contest, the two veteran Democrats each has portrayed the other as, to put it mildly, an ineffective lawmaker. Such exchanges were a major part of a recent Berman-Sherman debate at a Sherman Oaks Homeowners Association meeting, as well as at other confrontations. Reports on the campaign are based heavily on these two-way attacks, which aren’t helpful to Angelenos trying to figure out whom to choose in the polling booth. But their records are hard to quantify. As a friend who covers Congress said, “so much of what happens back here occurs out of public view.” That certainly is the case with a bill that wasn’t introduced by either Berman or Sherman. It was this year’s huge transportation bill, which will provide the Los Angeles area with a billion dollars for transit and other projects and create thousands of jobs. California Democratic Sen. Barbara Boxer was a co-sponsor, but that term doesn’t adequately describe the extraordinary maneuvering and persuasion she had to use to get such a measure through a deadlocked Congress.

I’ve been exploring the Web site GovTrack.us, which tries to solve the dilemma by collecting information on legislation in Congress from a variety of government sources and then crunching the data. The founder, Joshua Tauberer, started it has a hobby while an undergraduate in 2004, and it is the go-to site for statistical analysis of congressional action.

I’ve written briefly about GovTrack before, and I am drawn to it by my interest in using statistical analysis for subjects that have long resisted it — such as sports and politics. I was an early purchaser of “The Bill James Baseball Abstract,” which, beginning in 1977, brought revolutionary statistical analysis to a sport long ruled by folk wisdom and vague instinct. James’ method was the subject of the book and movie “Moneyball.”

Tauberer is the Bill James of Congress. His site includes voting records, bills introduced and passed and signed into law and committee memberships. He subjects each bill’s journey through Congress to a statistical analysis, which he translates into rankings of Senate and House members. The most interesting part is his ranking of members on leadership and ideology.

On a chart showing these two categories, Berman ranks as a moderate, slightly on the left side of center. He is high on the leadership scale, which Tauberer determines, in part, by looking at the clout of those co-signing Berman’s bills. If you get a lot influential cosigners on your bills, it makes you a leader under the Tauberer system.

Sherman is slightly to the right of Berman on the ideological scale, and below him when it comes to a leadership ranking. Berman is rated a leader, and Sherman rank and file.

Sherman might argue with that. On his bill waiving the visa requirement for Israeli visitors to the United States, he had as co-signers such Democratic leaders as Steve Israel and Jerrold Nadler of New York. And both Berman and influential Berman supporter Rep. Henry Waxman were co-signers of Sherman’s bill to prevent state and local governments from banning male circumcision.

Still, Tauberer’s leadership rankings reflect the status of the jobs they have held in Congress.

Berman, elected in 1982, was chairman of the Foreign Affairs Committee when Democrats controlled the House and now is its highest-ranking Democratic member. He is the second-ranking Democrat on the prestigious Judiciary Committee and a member of its intellectual property and Internet subcommittee, of vital interest to his many film industry constituents. Sherman, who took office in 1997, has not reached such high positions. Nevertheless, he is a member of the financial services and foreign affairs committees, and is the highest-ranked Democrat on its terrorism and trade subcommittee.

GovTrack also lists every bill that members have introduced. I read summaries of them and found what I expected, a number of moderate to liberal measures reflecting each authors’ interests. Berman introduced a version of the American Dream Act, speeding the way for children of undocumented immigrants to get an education; a measure strengthening First Amendment rights; a bill helping Salvadoran immigrants; a measure for arms control in the Middle East.

Sherman introduced measures requiring the breakup of “too big to fail” banks, hedge funds and insurance companies; imposing sanctions on countries buying Iranian oil products; toughening laws governing China trade. In his first year, he introduced a bill requiring members apply in writing for a pay raise, which undoubtedly antagonized a number of them.

Chasing down their bills is important. Reading the summaries gave me a picture of the congressmen on the job. Combining that with GovTrack’s statistical analysis, I felt I got a handle on them as congressmen. But that doesn’t tell the whole story. After all, as GovTrack notes, of the 11,553 bills in the current Congress, only about 5 percent will become law.

Statistical devotees — baseball followers of “Moneyball” and political managers — will tell you that the intangibles also are important.

That’s why in the weeks remaining before the November election, journalists and voters should make an effort to come to see Berman and Sherman in person at their forums and debates. It takes an effort to get there, but you may be rewarded with a worthwhile show that can help you make up your mind on Election Day.


Bill Boyarsky is a columnist for The Jewish Journal, Truthdig and L.A. Observed, and the author of “Inventing L.A.: The Chandlers and Their Times” (Angel City Press).