CASA GRANDE — In 2002, Oakland Athletics General Manager Billy Beane changed baseball when he assembled a team constructed largely of players no one else wanted.
The result was a 103-win season for the Athletics and an American League West championship. It also ushered in the analytics revolution to the game; 17 years later, all Major League Baseball teams use some form of advanced metrics when constructing their rosters.
Like Beane’s Athletics, the Vista Grande baseball team is starting a trend that other high schools may want to follow.
Vista Grande didn’t necessarily use analytics to advance to this year’s 4A semifinals, but Spartans assistant coach Victor Olivares credits the team playing American Legion baseball in the summer for its success in the spring.
“You have to think outside of the box,” Olivares said. “There’s a lot of baseball going on with club baseball. I think most of the legion teams do it right with their own guys. I think we we’ve been successful. I don’t think we are the most talented team, but I think our team bonding and our togetherness comes from American Legion.”
In 2019, Vista Grande finished 20-10 overall and 7-3 in the 4A Kino region — good enough for second place in the region behind eventual state champion Tucson Salpointe.
Among those seven wins in the region, two of them came at the hands of rival Casa Grande Union by scores of 12-5 and 11-0.
Now the Cougars have decided to follow suit and join the Spartans in playing American Legion baseball during the summer.
“I think at the end of the day you have something to play for during the season and that’s super important,” Casa Grande assistant coach David Reyna said of playing legion baseball.
Reyna said American Legion baseball is more beneficial to building a team than club baseball because there are more games on the schedule.
“With (legion ball) you have 12 games, and you want to be in the top four if you can,” he said. That’s what we are shooting for in the future.”
The Cougars, who finished 7-15-1 overall and 2-8 in the region, graduated seven players and will have a team comprised of one incoming senior, seven incoming juniors and three incoming sophomores.
And while Reyna said there’s an emphasis put on the rivalry with Vista Grande, the focus for the Cougars over the summer is player development.
“It’s nice to get those kids some exposure,” he said. “We’re a young squad, so getting them an opportunity to play outside of the regular season is beneficial as well. They are not so amped up and tight when they come out during the regular season.”
Reyna admits this year has been rough for the Cougars, but he said it’s been better than expected. He went on to say that success is not necessarily measured in wins and losses.
“We are going to have these kids for a while,” he said. “We are junior-heavy and sophomore-heavy so we are going to have these kids in the program for two or three more years. We want to make sure we get them (significant) exposure now so when they get to juniors and seniors we will have some good opportunities to compete.”
With CG Union joining the summer legion league, the Cougars-Spartans rivalry continues during the summer. Last week, the Cougars came away with a 2-1 victory at Vista Grande High School.
“I’m glad they joined,” Olivares said. “I think they’re at the bottom of the (legion) standings and I think they are young and it will be good competition for them at the end of the day. Our goal is to win. Our goal is to get to the top four and win the state legion championship and move on to Northern California. We were close the last two years, and we are hoping that will change this year.”
For the Cougars, the hope is to have the same success the Spartans have enjoyed recently, and at the same time, make the rivalry competitive.
“Rivalries are always going to be better when you have two solid teams for sure,” Olivares said. “I don’t know too much of what (the Cougars) have done in the past. I think after last season, they had to adapt and change it up and do something over the summer.”