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June 11, 2003

Littleball

Are the A's Equipped to Succeed in October?

by Mark Armour

As one might expect, the success of Michael Lewis's great new book, Moneyball, has led to a number criticisms of Oakland Athletics' GM Billy Beane, his staff, and their entire organizational philosophy. These criticisms should not have come as a surprise: Lewis presents Beane as a brilliant visionary operating in an antiquated system peopled, for the most part, with morons. There may be a great deal of truth to this, but the idea that some of Beane's competitors would be defensive is understandable.

The most interesting criticism of the Athletics' success is that as impressive as their regular season results have been, their style of play cannot succeed in the playoffs against quality competition. Sure, the Athletics win 100 games every year with one of the lowest payrolls in the game, but if they can't win in the post-season, what good is it? This turns out to be a convenient critique since the A's have lost in the first round of the playoffs for the past three seasons.

This criticism is not new, of course. Joe Morgan has been saying similar things for the last year or so: The A's offense, which has relied mainly on reaching base and hitting home runs, is not effective in the post-season facing quality pitching. A team needs to be able to "manufacture runs"--steal bases, bunt, hit behind the runner, etc. The A's do not, or cannot, do these things, so they are doomed to fall short in the playoffs. Or so the argument goes.

The 2002 Athletics had essentially a league-average offense, scoring 4.94 runs per game in a league that averaged 4.81. Yes, the Coliseum is normally a pitcher's park (though it did not play like one last year) but this is offset by the fact that the A's did not have to face their own great pitchers. The team finished 4th in the league in home runs and 3rd in walks, yet 9th in batting average, 13th in sacrifice bunts, 13th in sacrifice flies, and 14th (last) in stolen bases.

When the A's dropped a five-game series to the Twins, heck, even while the series was still going on, Joe Morgan was telling viewers that the Athletics' brand of offense was at a disadvantage against post-season pitching staffs.

There are a few holes in this theory.

First of all, the Athletics scored 26 runs in the series, 5.2 per game, slightly more than they did during the regular season. Unfortunately, their vaunted pitchers allowed 27, 5.4 per game, versus a season average of just over four. The problem was not the hitting, it was the pitching, specifically Tim Hudson, who got hammered in games One and Four.

In addition, the Athletics finished 21-17 in regular season games against the Yankees, Twins, and Angels, the other three AL playoff teams. Unless Morgan is claiming that the A's offense cannot win against these teams in the post-season specifically, these 38 games are better evidence of the team's ability against quality pitchers than the five they played against the Twins in October. As further evidence that it was pitching that let them down, Oakland played Minnesota six times in nine days around Labor Day. The A's scored 25 runs, just 4.2 per game, a much worse performance than they would manage a month later, yet the team still won five of the six contests.

Analysts tend to shy away from post-season studies, and for good reason. In order to examine any sort of baseball strategy you really want a large sample of games to be able to make a convincing case. There is a lot of luck involved in a baseball game, and it does not even out over five or seven games. This fact is unsatisfying to a lot of people, but it is nonetheless true. Additionally, such a study does not lend itself to looking at other periods in history, because different run environments change the way the game is played.

About the best we can do is look at all of the post-season series in the Wild Card era.

Since 1995, when baseball began inviting eight teams into the playoffs, there have been a total of 56 post-season matchups. A supposition, which is far from perfect, is that teams that steal more bases (keeping in mind that these are all good teams) are also more able to play for one run when needed late in a close game. (We could use sacrifice hits as a proxy instead, but bunting is likely more a reflection of the manager than the talents of the players.) The team with the higher number of regular season stolen bases has won 28 times, exactly half.

Since many of these series pitted teams with very similar regular season steal totals, let's instead examine only the matchups in which one team stole at least 40 more (regular season) bases than the other. This narrows the study down to just 23 samples.


Year  Series  Fast Team     SB    Slow Team      SB    Result
-------------------------------------------------------------
1995  ALDS    Seattle       110   NY Yankees     50     W 3-2
1995  NLDS    Cincinnati    190   Los Angeles   127     W 3-0
1995  NLDS    Colorado      125   Atlanta        73     L 1-3
1995  NLCS    Cincinnati    190   Atlanta        73     L 0-4
1995  WS      Cleveland     132   Atlanta        73     L 2-4
1996  ALDS    Cleveland     160   Baltimore      76     L 1-3
1996  NLDS    Los Angeles   124   Atlanta        83     L 0-3
1996  NLDS    St. Louis     149   San Diego     109     W 3-0
1996  NLCS    St. Louis     149   Atlanta        83     L 3-4
1997  NLDS    Houston       171   Atlanta       108     L 0-3
1997  ALCS    Cleveland     118   Baltimore      63     W 4-2
1998  ALDS    NY Yankees    153   Texas          82     W 3-0
1998  ALDS    Cleveland     143   Boston         72     W 3-1
1998  NLDS    Houston       155   San Diego      79     L 1-3
1998  WS      NY Yankees    153   San Diego      79     W 4-0
1999  ALDS    Cleveland     147   Boston         67     L 2-3
1999  WS      Atlanta       148   NY Yankees    104     L 0-4
2000  ALDS    NY Yankees     99   Oakland        40     W 3-2
2000  NLDS    Atlanta       148   St. Louis      87     L 0-3
2001  ALDS    NY Yankees    161   Oakland        68     W 3-2
2001  ALDS    Seattle       174   Cleveland      79     W 3-2
2001  WS      NY Yankees    161   Arizona        71     L 3-4
2002  WS      Anaheim       117   San Francisco  74     W 4-3

The running team won 11 series, just less than half, and finished 49-55 in games. The biggest mismatch occurred when the speedy 1995 Cincinnati Reds (a league leading 190 steals) reached the NLCS against the plodding Atlanta Braves (73 steals), and were summarily swept, "manufacturing" just five runs in the four games.

Does this prove that the makeup of a post-season offense is irrelevant? No, of course not, it's still a ridiculously small sample, further skewed because many of the same teams are involved for multiple seasons.

What we can say is that there is quite a bit of recent evidence that a team constructed like the Athletics can win in the post-season. The 1995 Atlanta Braves finished 13th (of 14) in the NL in stolen bases and 10th in sacrifice hits, yet beat three much more aggressive base-running teams to win the World Series. The next season the Braves finished dead last in steals and won two post-season series before bowing to the Yankees. The 2001 Diamondbacks were built on pitching and home runs, yet defeated three teams in the post-season, all of whom were better at "manufacturing" runs.

Again, there is nowhere near sufficient data to draw any firm conclusions.

Joe Morgan is a smart guy, one of the smarter players I ever had the pleasure to watch. If you want to know why Joe believes that offenses need to be broad-based, take a look at his great Cincinnati teams. The 1975-76 Big Red Machine was likely the best offense ever assembled. They didn't merely lead the NL in runs, they led by 105 and 87, respectively. In 1976, they paced the circuit in doubles, triples, home runs, walks, batting average, slugging average, on-base percentage, stolen bases, stolen base percentage, and fewest grounded into double plays. What's not to like? In 17 post-season games, of which the Reds won 14, they outstole their opponents 32 to one.

Morgan epitomized this diversity in '76, smashing 27 home runs, walking 114 times, swiping 60 bases (against nine caught stealing), and leading the league with 12 sacrifice flies. Although you can't blame Morgan for wanting an offense to do all of this, we might never see its likes again.

Morgan ought to know about the vagaries of the post-season. His 1973 Reds also featured fine pitching and an excellent well-rounded offense, finishing second in the league in runs and pacing the circuit in stolen bases, yet they lost a five-game series to a vastly inferior Mets team that they had handled eight out of 12 times in the regular season. Did this series point out a flaw in the Reds' makeup? Of course not. Anything can happen in five games, and much of it happened in that series.

I loved the baseball of the 1970s and 1980s. The different parks and playing surfaces, coupled with the lower run totals of the era, resulted in a wide variety of viewing experiences. Each game seemed not simply a battle between the players, but a contest to decide the proper way to play. The 1972 Athletics defeated the Reds despite scoring just 16 runs in a seven-game World Series. After three years of doing this, Oakland was finally toppled in 1975 by the Boston Red Sox, a slow team that hit home runs. And then the Red Sox were felled, by the thinnest of margins, by the Big Red Machine, a club that did essentially everything well.

The point everyone seems to have missed about Lewis' portrayal of the A's philosophy is that Beane knows that he can't have it all. If Scott Hatteberg could steal 60 bases and play great defense, like Joe Morgan, he would be making $10 million a year and playing somewhere else. I suspect that Beane would gladly take a team that could steal 210 bases with a high success rate (like the 1976 Reds), if he could afford it. He's looking for players whose performance exceeds their perceived value.

It's not easy. The 2000 Athletics scored 947 runs (second in the league), but then slipped to 884 (4th) in 2001 and 800 (8th) in 2002. This year they are on a pace for 744 (10th). It is not a great offense, and has not been for a few years, but there is no evidence that this type of offense has caused any problems in the post-season, or that it will in the future. They have placed a high burden on their great starting pitchers, and that is not likely to change.

That is, of course, unless the A's start listening to Joe Morgan.

Mark Armour is the co-author (with Dan Levitt) of Paths To Glory, the stories of the building of several interesting baseball teams, which was published this spring by Brasseys, Inc., and the director of SABR's Biography Project. You can contact him at markjane@attbi.com.

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