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August 24, 2012

Overthinking It

The A's, the Rays, and Two Different Ways to Ball on a Budget

by Ben Lindbergh

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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:

At the end of the day, it boils down to positive value, getting positive return on any one move. We won't shy away from a player if we think he'll generate positive value. Scouting and player development for us is really going to be our lifeblood. For us to be successful, we have to develop players coming up through the minor leagues right now.

A couple answers later, Friedman added, “It’s very difficult to sign free-agent starting pitching. That’s not a market we necessarily want to participate in much.”

Six years later, we can see how serious he was. Under Friedman, the Rays haven’t given a single start to a pitcher acquired via free agency. This season, 78 percent of the Rays’ innings have been thrown by homegrown pitchers (defined as pitchers who haven’t pitched in the majors with another organization). That’s the highest percentage of any team, by far—the Rangers are second, at 71 percent, and only one other team, St. Louis, is over 60 percent. It’s the highest percentage of any team since—well, since the 2011 Rays, who checked in at 80 percent. Before that, though, the last teams to have a percentage that high were the Twins of the late 1990s and early 2000s, who also competed in spite of Pohlad payrolls (and seemingly without the sabermetric advances of the A’s and Rays).

Last year, the Rays didn’t get a single start from a pitcher over 29. James Shields turned 30 this year, which prevented a repeat. Still, the Rays have played 125 games, and 124 of them have been started by pitchers they drafted. (Cesar Ramos, who was drafted by the Padres, made one start before anyone could stop him.) They’ve been a bit more willing to allow outsiders into the bullpen, either because they think they can get better deals there—Fernando Rodney, J.P. Howell, Joel Peralta—or because they’re so good at developing pitchers that they can’t find enough failed starters to switch to relief.

This all seems pretty straightforward, right? The Rays determined that paying for starting pitching wasn’t smart, and they’ve avoided it at all costs (literally). Instead, they’ve emphasized good drafting and development. And as a result, they’ve managed to win with low payrolls.

But then there are the A’s. On Thursday night, the A’s sent Tyson Ross to the slaughter against Cobb and the red-hot Rays. Ross is an Oakland draftee. For the A’s, though, Ross is the exception, not the rule (fittingly, he was demoted after the game). Here’s the big difference I’ve been building up to: the A’s have gotten only 24 percent of their innings from homegrown pitchers. That’s the lowest percentage of any team but the Pirates, whose pitchers haven’t been as successful as Oakland’s (ninth in the NL in FRA). And yet the A’s, who’ve flown in the face of the winning-with-homegrown-pitching plan, are succeeding with a payroll even lower than that of the Rays, who’ve followed the plan to perfection.

Bartolo Colon and Brandon McCarthy alone make for two more free-agent starters than Andrew Friedman has ever signed. Tommy Milone and Jarrod Parker came to Oakland via trade (although the two pitched only briefly for their previous clubs), and Travis Blackley via waiver claim. Only two homegrown pitchers, Jerry Blevins and Sean Doolittle, have played prominent roles for the A’s in relief. Maybe the A’s have tried and failed to follow the Friedman plan. Maybe they have their own.

Friedman isn’t the only GM looking for “positive value.” Every other GM does it, including Billy Beane. Beane has just found that positive value in places that would make Friedman’s face look like this. Maybe he can make it work; Colon and McCarthy came cheap. It hard to find free-agent value, but it’s also hard to draft pitchers who pan out. There might be more than one way to ball on a budget.

Of course, just because importing pitchers has worked for the A’s this season doesn’t mean one approach is just as effective, or as sustainable, as the other. The Rays are playing for their fourth playoff appearance in five years, and their playoff odds are higher. The A’s are playing for their first since 2006, and the last time they had lasting success, it was because of all the homegrown stars that were missing from the Moneyball movie.

If I had to guess, though, I’d say that Oakland’s low homegrown pitching percentage won’t stay nearly this low for long. In fact, it might be a one-year blip, a stopgap year in which Beane's gambles happened to hit. Last year, over half of the A’s innings came from homegrown pitchers, included since-traded arms like Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, Andrew Bailey, Josh Outman, and Craig Breslow. And even if Ross doesn’t develop any further, the 2013 A’s should get more innings from Brett Anderson, Dan Straily, and A.J. Griffin. The A’s and Rays are probably too much alike to keep doing something this different, and building from within is probably the only sustainable way to win. However briefly, though, both ways are working in 2012.

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

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