March 19, 2015
Every Team's Moneyball
Oakland Athletics: There is No Moneyball
Every day until Opening Day, Baseball Prospectus authors will preview two teams—one from the AL, one from the NL—identifying strategies those teams employ to gain an advantage. Today: unsolvable-yet-succeeding Oakland Athletics and the solvable-yet-losing Colorado Rockies.
I'm convinced that the A's plan for success is not to have a plan for success. Or, rather, to act in such a way that their competitors cannot divine their plan for success, since those two things are, as regards the other 29 teams in baseball, the same.
That is, the competitive landscape may be filled with teams desiring to reach some Objective Truth about players, the marketplace, even the game of baseball itself. If this were poker, we might say those teams are playing the cards: If their hole cards are good enough, they'll raise pre-flop, and if the flop hits, they'll bet and raise; but if they miss at any point, they'll fold. Now, they're not stupid, so a mathematically correct percentage of the time that they don't hold cards good enough to bet and raise, they will use a trick they learned from David Sklansky's The Theory of Poker: If they calculate that they should be bluffing one-eighth of the time, they will bluff when the first card on the flop is one of six cards they predetermine, on a one-time basis, will trigger the bluff, taking out of their hands the possibility of becoming predictable, overbluffing, or underbluffing. They'll employ other, similar strategies. They will grind the game down to its mathematical core, they will take advantage of the fish at the table, and they will reap a small profit. The whole game is down to a system.
The A's, by contrast, are playing the players: They're far more interested in what you've got in your hand than what they've got in theirs; they are, for that matter, far more interested in what you think they have in their hand than in what they actually have; they'll win just as often by getting you to fold superior cards as they will by trapping you into betting with an inferior hand; and they don't look down their nose on psych-out tricks like telling you with alarming accuracy what cards you're holding (The Daniel Negreanu) or playing a hand without ever looking at their cards (The Doyle Brunson). Sometimes things won't fall their way, sometimes they'll get too cute for their own good, and sometimes you won't be able to tell whether they're crazy or foxes, but they will contend for championships and it'll be a hell of a lot of fun to watch them doing it.
Which isn't to say that the A's aren't, fundamentally, playing mathematically correct poker/sabermetrics: They're folding 7-2 off-suit (except every once in a while, just to mess with you) just as surely as they know that you pay for on-base percentage, not batting average. It just means that while every other team is racing to take advantage of the next piece of data (FIELDf/x!), corner the market on the next great area of analysis (pitch framing!), and generally stay ahead of the front office curve, the A's are doing their best impression of the creepy bald-headed monk child in The Matrix: "There is no curve."
This also isn't to say that the A's don't sometimes hit on strategies for player-acquisition based on an assessment that those players are undervalued by the market in the classic way we've been talking about since Moneyball: Andrew Koo's fascinating piece on fly-ball hitters comes to mind, as does Eno Sarris' recent finding that the A's lean more heavily on short pitchers than anyone else. But check out the A's acquisitions Koo listed in that article: Josh Reddick, Seth Smith, Brandon Moss, Jonny Gomes, Brandon Inge, Stephen Drew, Kila Ka'aihue, Jed Lowrie, Chris Young, John Jaso, Alberto Callaspo, Stephen Vogt. Exactly two of those players are still on the roster, and one wonders, as Reddick begins his second arbitration season, just how long he's destined to be an Athletic. The new guys?
Lawrie, the top fly-ball hitter the A's brought in this offseason, has a lower rate than any of the 12 players listed in Koo's article, a tad behind Jaso.
Short pitchers? Chris Bassitt (6-foot-5) was acquired from the White Sox and should compete for a rotation spot soon; A.J. Griffin (6-foot-5) should come off the disabled list and into the rotation around June; Jesse Hahn (6-foot-5) was acquired from the Padres and should be the no. 3 starter; Sean Nolin (6-foot-4) was acquired from the Blue Jays and should compete for a rotation spot soon; Drew Pomeranz (6-foot-5) could have a rotation spot at least until Griffin and Jarrod Parker return. And the A's present class of pitching prospects isn't exactly towering, but they're not "short" within the meaning of Sarris' study either: Kendall Graveman, Nolin, Dillon Overton, R.J. Alvarez, Bassitt, Bobby Wahl, and Daniel Gossett are all at least 6-foot-2. Among their group of legit or semi-legit pitching prospects, only Brett Graves, last year's third-round pick, is 6-foot-1 or shorter.
This is not to throw shade at Koo or Sarris, if that needs to be made clear. They observed true facts. The A's, though, are a moving target. Facts remain true only as long as Billy Beane wants them to.
Even R.J. Anderson's observation that the A's have spent the last few years trading their entire farm system, while in a sense even truer now, after the acquisitions of Jeff Samardzija, Jon Lester, and Ben Zobrist, might cease being true at a moment's notice. That is, even at the meta level of identifying, as Anderson did, that the A's appear to have a stable philosophy of valuing instability, that philosophy itself may be just as unstable as all the rest. After all, Beane's built rosters the traditional way before: The 1999-2006 A's, Beane's first heyday, featured 21 players1 who managed at least three years in Oakland, 14 of whom lasted at least four years. These longevity figures, which will strike fans of some teams as implausibly short, seem nigh unthinkable to A's fans now.
If the A's struggle out of the gate (or, hell, even if they don't), would you put it past Beane to send Zobrist elsewhere? To cash in Reddick? To deal Crisp, the longest-tenured Athletic? I don't know if he will or he won't. I don't know if anyone knows if he will or he won't. And I think that's exactly the point.