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July 30, 2012

Pebble Hunting

The Oakland A's and Getting Past Windows

by Sam Miller

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In a three-week period last December, the A’s traded the only two starting pitchers who had thrown 200 innings for them in the previous year, and the team’s closer. The moves left the A's with a starting rotation of Brandon McCarthy, one empty spot, and three pitchers who had a) combined for 17 starts in their careers and b) had never appeared on a Baseball America top 100.

The state of the team’s rotation, though, didn’t seem to matter. The A’s were not playing for this year, and with three trades in three weeks they made that very clear. Rather than criticize the A’s for failing to put a competitive team on the field, it was safe to applaud Billy Beane for putting Oakland in a position to someday put a competitive team on the field, someday in the future, someday after 2012. They punted. A prudent move.

Our Transaction Analysis for the trade of Trevor Cahill for Jarrod Parker (and others) made this point.

For the A's, this deal is all about windows. The A's window, of course, is only a mythical one for now, as they aim to be in San Jose in three years. That's all they have right now—hope that the team can be out from under its untenable location and stadium handicaps when MLB finally gets over its avoidance behavior and resolves the situation.

The point is that Cahill gets expensive when that theoretical window opens. The health “if” is certainly there (for Parker), but he should match Cahill's production by the time the mystery window arrives.

Meanwhile, in the corresponding piece for the Bailey trade, we noted that “trading for Bailey and Sweeney makes sense given Boston’s win-now mindset.”

Because who among us thought the A’s window was now?

The idea that a win is calculably more valuable to a team on the cusp of postseason play than one far removed from contention is one of the more valuable Things I Know Now That I Didn’t Know When I Was 11. It’s essential when evaluating any trade or signing. It’s what makes a trade like Gio Gonzalez for four prospects a winner for both sides, and it’s what keeps Billy Beane popular (if a bit frustrating) in Oakland. Nate Silver presented the idea spectacularly in 2005, arguing that teams projected to win 82 or fewer games should generally be sellers and that even some teams projected to win 82 to 87 games should be, too.  

And so there’s a feeling—well, I don’t want to create a straw man, so I’ll say that I often feel—that a team that isn’t good shouldn’t try to get better until they can be the best. From this position, a team like the A’s isn’t wrong to sell off its valuable pieces; it’s wrong not to sell off more, and it’s wrong to expend anything trying to move from (best guess) 72 wins to 74. Yes, I have complained about a team improving itself. This sounds weird when I say it aloud.
The problem—not with Silver’s methodology, which acknowledged and controlled for this problem, but with Conventional Wisdom—is that it’s spectacularly difficult to say with any confidence before a season which teams are going to be in the 87-to-93 range. It’s easy to form a preseason consensus about which teams are likely to win 70 or 75 games. But that consensus often sucks at predicting baseball. The 2011 Diamondbacks were this staff’s pick to finish last (they won 94 games and finished first). The Padres were our pick to finish last in 2010 (second, 90 wins, one game out). The Rockies were our fourth-place pick in 2009 (second, 92 wins, Wild Card).

In a simplistic reading of Silver’s work, all of those teams should have sold aggressively in the previous offseasons. But, as Voltaire wrote, the perfect is the enemy of the good. The best way to win a World Series might not be to put together one spectacular team and hope it finds a window, but to put together as many teams as possible that are capable of having things break right. This is especially true now.

  • Average number of wins required for a Wild Card spot, 2000-2011: 95.4
  • Average number required in a theoretical two-WC format, 2000-2011: 89.8

During those 12 years, 25 percent of AL teams winning 87 to 90 games made the playoffs. In a two-WC format, 60 percent would have. (In the NL, the rates are 46 percent with one WC spot, 71 percent with two).

(That’s a bit of an optical illusion, as exactly as many teams will win the World Series each year, and it may turn out that, in time, teams won’t value a Wild Card spot enough to sell out their futures. Too soon to say.)

The three trades in December weren’t the end of the A’s offseason. They signed Coco Crisp, Yoenis Cespedes, Manny Ramirez, Jonny Gomes, and Bartolo Colon, and they traded for Seth Smith. Every one of these moves (except, perhaps, Cespedes) could have been criticized for the same reason: Why invest in a team whose window is so far away? Gomes and Colon were no more likely to be part of the next good A’s team than Cahill was, so why invest millions (even just a few millions) in them? The same criticisms could have been leveled at anything the Pirates had done to improve this winter. Maybe even the Dodgers (18.6 percent playoff odds to start the season) and even the Nationals (16.8 percent, after the Gio trade). Thirteen teams had playoff odds below 20 percent to start the season, and five of them are within two games of a playoff spot right now.

The A’s lost on Sunday, but they have the third-best record and the fifth-best run differential in the American League. I asked Ben Lindbergh during an episode of Effectively Wild last week whether, knowing what we know now, the A’s were right to have blown up their pitching staff this winter. Gio Gonzalez would be awfully nice to have right now, after all. But the A’s are, in this case, the exception that proves the rule: they can have no regrets because the trades they made actually did improve them now, creating a sort of early longshot window.

In: 5.4 WARP
Out: 2.2 WARP

What we know now is that the A’s didn’t punt. They improved. And they did it by putting themselves in a better position for things to break right.

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

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