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February 14, 2012

Painting the Black

Examining the Beane Stock

by R.J. Anderson

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Baseball lends itself to retrospection. Its rules tend to remain constant, and the limited number of ways in which one can throw or hit a baseball leaves room for today’s players to resemble yesterday’s players in one respect or another. Even baseball contracts beget retrospectives. When a player signs a new deal, we look to his past for hints about his future. The same goes for general managers, and you can bet that Athletics fans are feeling hopeful in the wake of Billy Beane’s reported upcoming pact with Oakland, which is set to run through the 2019 season.

Beane remains one of the league’s most recognizable executives—thanks in no small part to Moneyballs silver screen adaptation—despite the A’s last postseason berth coming in 2006. All of Oakland’s losing since has given Beane’s critics—those who question whether he’s more interested in soccer than baseball—a louder voice. Those who support Beane point to the A’s socioeconomic status while crediting his resourcefulness in avoiding the 100-loss mark; meanwhile, the Beane critics finger his regime’s inability to draft and develop players and insinuate that his inefficiency act no longer works. Consider the quotes John Perrotto gathered in his latest column if you believe those statements to be exaggerations.

Beane is a point of contention, but what else is new? For one, the complexions of the opposing groups. Early last decade, the battle lines matched up well with the ongoing struggle between sabermetricians and purported philistines. Discrediting the Beane doubters is no longer a matter of mocking their unwillingness to break from tradition. There are smart analysts out there who wonder if Beane got himself into this mess with iffy management. Formerly an immutable law of small-market contention, the idea of success cycles is now under fire by the same people who created the success cycle concept.

That the Rays are the proof of brilliance while the A’s have become mismanaged goofballs is an amusing thought. What are the Rays if not the new A’s? What were the A’s of Moneyball lore if not the new Indians? The names change, the stories don’t; each includes a group of baseball whiz kids neglected locally who overcome insurmountable odds. Winning against a stacked deck—or balling on a budget, as B.J. Upton put it—is a romantic idea. People like romantic ideas, and so they like watching The Little Team That Couldn’t Spend win. Once the winning stops, the fuzzy feelings leave, and doubt about management’s competency kicks in. Maybe the Rays will avoid this fate, but neither the Indians nor the A’s could.

One aspect of the Athletics’ fall that goes unnoticed is how their odds have worsened. One way to evaluate a small-market team’s chances is by using the Payroll Index, as I explained when I evaluated the Indians prior to the 2011 season:

Accomplishing such an exercise is easy by using methodology developed by Tom Tango. He goes into detail on the process, but essentially one can arrive at the desired results by finding the team’s Payroll Index—or simply dividing the team’s payroll by the league average, then multiplying by 100. Think of this number as OPS+ or ERA+ for payrolls, wherein a Payroll Index of 100 represents a league-average payroll, numbers above 100 represent more than, and anything below represents less than. From there, a team’s playoff odds can be found through a simple equation ((Payroll Index/2)-23).

Here is that same exercise applied to the post-Moneyball Athletics:

Season

OAK Payroll

League Avg.

Payroll Index

Playoff%

Wins

2003

$48,977,599

$70,661,091

69

11.5%

96

2004

$58,484,000

$69,414,422

84

19.0%

91

2005

$53,960,500

$74,226,910

73

13.5%

88

2006

$64,615,625

$79,757,849

81

17.5%

93

2007

$80,777,050

$85,567,539

94

24.0%

76

2008

$46,325,000

$92,229,627

50

2.0%

75

2009

$62,434,450

$93,094,757

67

10.5%

75

2010

$54,457,000

$95,015,886

57

5.5%

81

2011

$67,354,000

$96,993,034

69

11.5%

74

Forget about succumbing to the odds: the A’s made the playoffs twice—and had legitimate shots in two other years—over a nine-year span that saw their average playoff expectancy sit at 12.8 percent. That has to be considered a success. So why deride Beane when, by this measure, he did about as well as you can ask? Because nobody cares about the above chart, and because that is how baseball works. If the roster underachieves, then you blame the manager. Once you roll through two managers, as the A’s have done since 2003, then you blame the general manager. That the A’s most marketable player is Coco Crisp doesn’t help Beane’s case, either:

Crisp’s selection gets to the heart of another matter: Oakland’s lack of impact players. Blame it in part on the team’s inability to lure top free agents to town. Sometimes that failure is cash-related, and other times—as with Adrian Beltre—it is a matter of Oakland being an undesirable home. If Oakland cannot sign free agents who are impact players and can trade for a proven impact player only every now and again (Matt Holliday being the most recent example), that puts the emphasis on drafting and developing.  Analyzing a team’s drafting ability is about as difficult a baseball topic as it’s possible to study, so the table below stops short of trying to analyze more than whom the A’s took, who became the best player, and how many of those players are projected to make the 2012 roster:

Draft

Top selection (pick number)

Best player

Picks on ‘12 team

2003

Brad Sullivan (25th)

Andre Ethier (2nd-round)

0

2004

Landon Powell (24th)

Huston Street (1st-round)

2

2005

Cliff Pennington (21st)

Pennington

1

2006

Trevor Cahill (66th)

Cahill

0

2007

James Simmons (26th)

N/A

1*

2008

Jemile Weeks (12th)

Weeks

2

*On a technicality—the A’s drafted Colin Cowgil, but did not sign him.

It isn’t clear whether the A’s are poor drafters, poor developers, or a combination of both. It is worth noting that the A’s have attempted to buttress their draft classes by being active in the international amateur market. Michael Ynoa (recovering from Tommy John surgery) and Yoenis Cespedes are the most notable additions on that front, but it remains too early to judge whether those signings worked out or not. The same applies to the A’s recent draft picks, like Grant Green, Michael Choice, and Sonny Gray. Add in a sprinkle of bad luck (Grant Desme retiring) as well some unfortunate non-signings (Gary Brown, Mike Leake, and Justin Smoak), and it makes sense that the A’s recent farm production has underwhelmed.

Keep in mind that the A’s have not picked earlier than 10th overall since 1999. Even next June, the A’s will select 11th. Why do the A’s continue to field better than basement-level teams given that odds of selecting a surefire impact talent slip quickly the deeper the first round goes? Would they not benefit more from taking a year or two off from being fringe-mediocre and gaining a top-five pick or two? As assistant general manager David Forst once told Kevin Goldstein:

I think you have to [try to rebuild and win at the same time]. We have an obligation, to ownership and our fans, to try and win now. There are not many teams in professional sports that can really go out there and credibly say, "You know what, we're going to punt this season." You can't do it, you can't do it in today's environment, so you have to rebuild and still put a credible product on the field at the same time. It's a tough balance, but we feel we've done it. We haven't sacrificed anyone's spot on the major-league roster where it would have hindered the development of a player or our team.

Oakland’s surest means of acquiring impact talent is trading veterans for prospects. And so, as Beane is wont to do, he spent the offseason shopping and trading veterans. All the bartering resulted in Beane spinning Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, and Andrew Bailey off for six of the organization’s top 11 prospects (or six of the top 12, since Cespedes appears to be the A’s best prospect now).  Beane is building for the future again, hoping to experience that idyllic situation in which all of the team’s prospects develop, reach the majors, and mature into a good team over a three-to-five-year span. From there, the cycle begins anew—usually.

This cycle could be different if the ballpark deal with San Jose goes through. San Jose has become synonymous with hope and with the dream of keeping a few of those impact players in town beyond their first five or six seasons. That Beane did not jump to a new team could mean he thinks the new ballpark is going to happen. It could all fall apart, like Fremont—Beane will have an opt-out tied to the stadium, after all—but for now, he seems to buy in. To borrow an unspoken analytical parlance from back in the day: there must be something there if Beane bought in. Whether Beane’s latest rebuild will take the A’s back to the postseason remains to be seen. Just know that if Beane and the A’s fail, it won’t be because of a lack of commitment. 

R.J. Anderson is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see R.J.'s other articles. You can contact R.J. by clicking here

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