November 15, 2013
What Do the A's Really Believe?
Signed IF-S Nick Punto to a one-year, $3 million deal with a vesting option for 2015. [11/13]
When you’re reporting, there are questions you start with that get answered, questions you start with that don’t get answered, and questions you didn’t start with that do get answered and end up being more important. The original idea for this clubhouse chemistry piece in ESPN the Magazine was that the A’s seemed to be pursuing happymakers as an undervalued asset. I wanted to find out whether a) that was true and b) how they were doing it. Ultimately, a more interesting (to me) story emerged, about how the traditional sabermetric rejection of clubhouse chemistry clashed with science, and the nascent movement that recognized that.
And I never did figure out, despite loads of reporting—despite talking to numerous people in the front office, close observers of the team, broadcasters, players current and former, rivals, and manager Bob Melvin—what the A’s really believe. They just signed Nick Punto, and I’m still not sure what that says about them. Here are the facts, as I collected them, and which might help you decide.
(Almost all of what follows comes from the reporting I did for that ESPN piece. ESPN is kind to let me repurpose my notes for this. It might be useful context for you to have read that piece. Even if it’s not, I’d sure like it if you did!)
The A’s had that 2012 season where they won 94 games and Brandon McCarthy afterward said they wouldn’t have won 70 without chemistry gods Brandon Inge and Jonny Gomes. That’s fantastically debatable—maybe it’s 70, maybe it’s 93. But if anybody has benefited from chemistry, it seems to be the A’s, by accident or design. Their front office, though, in private and in public, largely dismisses the notion that chemistry can be bought, measured, or manufactured.
An example: Stephen Vogt, the veteran minor leaguer whom the A’s picked up in trade from the Rays early last season, has an excellent reputation in the clubhouse. He’s a good dude, a well-behaved guy, no ego, a hard worker, and he does spot-on impressions of his managers. He was also well known to the A’s director of professional scouting, Dan Feinstein, who worked for the Rays through 2011.
"Oh yeah. He knew about me. It had something to do with it, I'm sure,” Vogt said. “I would like to think that personal—the way people are, who they are, the chemistry aspect would go into figuring out who the guys are you want on your team."
But Feinstein was completely unambiguous about it. “The fact that (Vogt and John Jaso) are good guys played virtually no role in why we acquired them,” he said in an email. “We acquire players based strictly on talent; it’s really just a bonus that they are well liked.”
This matches up with what Billy Beane has generally said in public. And David Forst, the assistant GM, acknowledged that good chemistry is welcome, but “it’s nearly impossible to create or plan for. Given what we’re working with today and our inability to sort of know the players outside of our own clubhouse, it’s very difficult to predict or project how someone outside that room will affect it.
“The most recent situation we were faced with was Bartolo’s suspension last year. As well as I knew the 25 guys in the clubhouse that day, I couldn’t have told you how they would respond as a group to something like that happening. It’s the same with an injury, or if you make a coaching or managerial change.”
And, as one person in the front office told me, “without starting pitching, chemistry doesn’t mean shit.”
So that’s clear. The A’s are clear. And we get to the question of whether to believe them.
Not that they aren’t credible, but their obligation is to the ballclub, to the players and the owners, not to the press. I’d be disappointed if they didn’t cover up their next big breakthrough. And every reporter gets paranoid about being misled; Feinstein’s directness starts as convincing, assuring, and then I talk myself into thinking maybe it’s suspicious. Like, hey why would he tell me so strongly? Who’s he trying to convince here? It’s a disorienting process, asking people who have no obligation to tell you the truth to tell you truth.
“Anything that's said publicly should be taken with a grain of salt,” Gabe Kapler advises early in the reporting. It’s somewhat more convincing that the A’s never gave me any hint or suggestion in background conversations that they felt differently than the public statements conveyed. But, reporters learn early, off-the-record is sometimes just an easier place to mislead. The off-the-record comments still influence the reporting and the reporter, but without being exposed to the lights of fact-checking and accountability.
So we ask other people. We ask the players. Brandon Moss: “Somebody’s responsible for it. I refuse to believe that’s a coincidence.” Brett Anderson: “Billy’s got to get credit for it.” We ask former players who know Beane well. Jason Giambi: “He likes to play the numbers guy, he’s great on the computer, Mr. Moneyball. Trust me, Billy does (care about chemistry). Billy always adds guys that are great in the clubhouse.”
We preface a question to Bob Melvin with something like, Billy will say he doesn’t really pay a lot of attention to chemistry… and Melvin cuts us off, and says something like “wellll.” And we say what and Melvin says “did he say that?” Yeah. “When did he say that?” In an interview with Athletics Nation last winter. And only later do we think, hey, that would have been a good place to follow up, and we kick ourselves for leaving it in such a mysterious place. Argh.
Certainly the public profile of the A’s would suggest they’re not spending money on intangibles. But think about the Moneyball A’s, the stereotype about them: fat guys playing out of position because defense doesn’t matter. This is contradicted by an entire chapter on replacing Johnny Damon’s defense, but there’s also some truth to this: Michael Lewis writes that “the first pamphlet Billy had read on the subject had said that fielding was ‘no more than 5%’ of baseball,” and he didn’t realize that Damon’s defense was as valuable as it actually was. Defense was shrouded in doubt. Even after all of Paul Depodesta’s number-crunching, as detailed in that book’s sixth chapter, they can conclude only that “there was still no exact number.”
And yet, despite the doubt, the uncertainty, the difficulty in measuring it, they knew it might be valuable and they persisted in trying to measure it. Defense was a mystery, but ultimately it was a solvable mystery. Wherever there’s a solvable mystery, there’s profit in recognizing it first.
You’d like to think that the moves the A’s make would answer the question, but most of the time it’s complicated. They added Brandon Inge, but they also let Inge walk after the season, after all that he has supposedly done in the clubhouse. They let Jonny Gomes go for what seems a pittance by McCarthy’s math; but they also made him a reasonable offer, considering he’s basically a platoon DH. They wanted him back, probably would have had him back if the Red Sox hadn’t given that basically-a-platoon-DH a two-year deal. McCarthy left, but McCarthy was priced out of small-market baseball. ("Those decisions were made for us," I was told.) They traded good clubhouse guy Kurt Suzuki away. A year later, they traded for good clubhouse guy Kurt Suzuki. Most of the time, these moves can be easily explained without accounting for happy vibes. “These decisions were made for us,” Forst said. The signal-to-noise ratio in chemistry analytics is low.
So now here comes Punto. If it’s hard to know how to properly measure a guy’s contribution to chemistry, it’s easy enough to do a Google search.
(Punto’s) impact in the clubhouse has been priceless, especially when the team sunk to a season-worst 12 games below .500 on June 21.
His value to a team searching for chemistry, however, cannot be understated, especially during walk-off wins.
Team chemistry is … Nick Punto, guys like that," said veteran second baseman Mark Ellis. "That's what team chemistry is.
Considering Punto is mostly known as a punchline on the Internet, a .325 lifetime slugger, replacement level (by WARP) last year, replacement level the year before, what else can we possibly conclude but that the A’s like him for his… something else? For his guts, or something? And like him enough to sign him early in the offseason, when teams tend to overpay to land their guy.
Alas, it’s never that simple. Punto is a considerably better player than that paragraph suggests. The deal is so reasonable if you think he’s even a little better than WARP gives him credit for, and some do. Baseball-Reference had him at 2.2 wins last year, and about 2 wins per 130 games since he turned 30. He switch-hits. He plays three positions, and he plays them all well; in the same way that positional flexibility probably gives players a bit of a value boost that isn’t reflected in their WARP, it probably makes them a bit more valuable from a team-building standpoint when they’re signed early in the offseason. Now the A’s have options, in every direction. They can spend the winter shopping Alberto Callaspo or Jed Lowrie (or Eric Sogard) (or, heck, Josh Donaldson!) in an infielder-thin economy. Or they can keep everybody. Punto doesn’t do much, but what he does do--a little bit of everything--is especially valuable at this time of year.
So, ultimately, is this about Nick Punto being a good guy and a spark in the clubhouse and a skilled chemist? Months I’ve spent thinking about this, and I still don’t know. I doubt it. I think I believe the A’s. I think they consider chemistry out of reach, and they wouldn’t price it into their decisions. But I think they know it’s there, too, just unpriceable. I think they got Punto for the ballplaying, but they’re secretly a little glad they also got Punto for the jersey shredding. —Sam Miller
Fantasy Impact: Punto is on the receiving end of plenty of snark from the baseball community at large, but he’s a capable utility player of some value when used correctly. The same can’t be said for Punto’s value when it comes to fantasy, though, as evidenced by his lifetime .248 average, 17 homers and 249 RBI in 3,510 PA. Punto is likely to see some significant playing time in 2014 thanks to Jed Lowrie’s injury history and Oakland’s unstable second base situation. But no amount of playing time will make Punto palatable for our purposes, despite a sneakily respectable OBP and positional versatility. —Ben Carsley