August 24, 2012
The A's, the Rays, and Two Different Ways to Ball on a Budget
The Oakland A’s and Tampa Bay Rays, two AL Wild Card contenders who looked like long shots at the All-Star break, are one game into a strangely scheduled Thursday-Saturday series. The two teams have a few things in common, in addition to both being AL Wild Card contenders who’ll be playing tonight in Tampa Bay. In fact, they might have more in common than any other two teams in baseball. This article isn’t actually about the ways in which they’re the same. It’s about one way in which they’re different. But I’m going to start with the similar stuff just to make the different thing more meaningful, which is pretty manipulative of me.
The first thing the A’s and Rays have in common is success in the second half. The A’s were the hot team in July, when they went 19-5. They’ve cooled off lately, but they’re 24-14 in the second half, and their playoff odds have risen by roughly 25 percentage points over that period. The Rays are the hot team in August. They’re 16-5 this month and 25-14 in the second half, which has raised their playoff odds by roughly 50 percentage points.
The second thing the A’s and Rays have in common is a low payroll. In fact, they’re probably the two teams most famous for fielding competitive teams despite not spending. (Maybe because best-selling books have been written about each of them.) This year, only the Pirates had a lower Opening Day payroll than Oakland's $53.5 million. The Rays have raised payroll by more than 50 percent since last season, but their total of $63.6 million still ranks fifth-lowest. It’s not really relevant to this article, but the two teams have the same reasons for keeping costs low: they don’t have beautiful ballparks, and they don’t draw. They’re currently locked in a battle for baseball’s lowest attendance, which the Rays will probably win (or lose, from Stu Sternberg’s perspective). Unsurprisingly, both teams often talk about playing in other places.
The third thing the A’s and Rays have in common is strong pitching. Tampa Bay has the best pitching in baseball. On Thursday night, Alex Cobb—the least effective of its starters this season—pitched a complete-game shutout to lower the team’s ERA to 3.24. The Nationals, at 3.23, just barely beat that, but the Nationals are in the National League. That’s the weaker one, and the one where pitchers hit (very poorly). The Rays lead the AL in ERA, and they also lead the AL in FRA by more than three-tenths of a run. The A’s aren’t quite as good, but they’re close: second in ERA, third in FRA.
So, two teams, both having hot second halves and contending for Wild Cards thanks to strong pitching and in spite of meager spending. I could keep counting off things they have in common—Jonny Gomes has played for both of them!—but you’d probably regret reading this article if all it ever did was list ways in which the A’s and Rays are alike. That takes us to the very important exception to the A’s-Rays equivalency.
The popular perception is that in order to compete with a low payroll, you have to develop your own players. The popular perception makes sense, since wins come at a much higher cost on the free-agent market than they do via the draft. If you can consistently develop your draftees into productive players, you’ll get more bang for your buck than you will by buying other teams’ sloppy seconds. Andrew Friedman said as much in an interview at BP in 2006, shortly after his hiring: