“What the %@#$! are the A’s doing?”

That’s how I found out about the Scott Hatteberg contract extension Friday night, picking up my cell phone and hearing that question. At the time, Mariano Rivera was trying to blow a ninth-inning lead to the Red Sox, so unless the A’s were starting Saddam Hussein in Ted Lilly‘s rotation slot, I really didn’t care all that much what they were up to.

Once Rivera escaped, I returned the phone call and learned that the A’s had signed Hatteberg for the 2004 and 2005 seasons, with an option for 2006, at a cost of $5 million for the first two seasons, combined.

Hatteberg was one of the A’s success stories of 2002. Picked up for the bargain price of one meeeeeelyun dollars, the former catcher was made into a full-time first baseman and hit .280/.374/.433, good for a .292 EqA that ranked right in the middle of the pack among major league first basemen.

Hatteberg made a strong transition to his new position; according to Clay Davenport’s defensive Translations, Hatteberg saved 17 runs more than an average first baseman in 81 games last season, an excellent figure. He was one of the primary characters in Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, with Lewis devoting a chapter to Hatteberg’s story and, in particular, to his approach at the plate.

In 2003, however, Hatteberg has hit like a replacement-level first baseman: .264/.348/.394 (which includes a monster series against the Angels over the weekend), and his .259 EqA ranks him above just a handful of regulars at the position. At 33, Hatteberg doesn’t seem to have much development left, and if he is to have an unusual career path, Nate Silver’s PECOTA system doesn’t see it. After plugging in Hatteberg’s 2003 performance, it projects a slow decline from his 2002 peak.

Year     AB   2B  HR   BB  SO   AVG   OBP   SLG   EqA  VORP  Wins

2004    388   21   8   54  39  .259  .351  .372  .265   9.7   0.9
2005    325   16   6   46  34  .260  .357  .356  .259   5.7   0.5
2006    279   14   4   40  30  .253  .351  .357  .252   2.1   0.2

Hatteberg’s comparables list largely consists of first basemen who became pinch-hitters, defensive replacements and high-school coaches in their 30s: Bruce Bochte, Johnny Grubb and Tito Francona all show up more than once over the next couple of years. There’s no one among Hatteberg’s comps who provides hope that he will be an above-average hitter for his position for the duration of his contract.

While the A’s have the game’s best rotation locked up at a reasonable cost for the next few seasons, Billy Beane hasn’t been as successful when signing position players. While the four-year deals of Eric Chavez and Miguel Tejada have worked out well, Beane has taken a lot of criticism for three other signings that haven’t:

  • In the summer of 2001, Terrence Long was in the middle of his second season as a league-average outfielder. With the A’s set to lose Johnny Damon to free agency over the winter, Beane made a commitment to Long as the A’s center fielder of the future: four years, $11.6 million. The deal gave the A’s cost certainty for Long’s age 26-29 period, his theoretical peak, and seemed like a reasonable gamble for a player who had shown himself to be adequate to that point.

    Long, however, turned out to be a poor defensive center fielder, and his hitting regressed to .240/.298/.390 in 2002. Last winter, the A’s signed Chris Singleton in the hopes that Long would regain his stroke once removed from center field. That hasn’t happened; he’s at .248/.298/.394 so far in 2003, and is likely headed for the bench if the A’s can acquire an outfielder this week.

  • Born just three months after Long in 1976, Ramon Hernandez signed a four-year deal of his own in March of 2002, for a total of $9.5MM. As with Long, the A’s had locked themselves into a player at a key position through that player’s peak. Hernandez hasn’t flopped the way Long did, and his defense has enabled him to be an asset in spite of his bat not developing the way they had hoped (.257/.316/.449 in 2003, his best season).
  • Acquired in a trade-deadline deal in 2001, Jermaine Dye‘s bat helped the A’s make a big run to the Wild Card before he suffered a broken kneecap in that year’s Division Series. Nevertheless, with Dye coming off two big years and entering his age-28 season, the A’s signed him to a three-year, $32-million contract in January. The contract has been a disaster; Dye slipped to a .278 EqA last year and has been one of the worst players in baseball this year in his limited playing time. Dye’s defense, once excellent, hasn’t been the same since the injury, either, rendering him a millstone on the A’s payroll.

Those who argue that Beane doesn’t deserve the accolades heaped upon him generally begin and end their argument with those three contracts. All, however, were defensible in context, and when judged as a whole with Chavez, Tejada and the pitchers, are simply parts of the plan that didn’t work out as well. The Indians inked some bad deals in the mid-1990s, too, but all we remember are the extremely affordable Jim Thomes and Manny Ramirezs who won five division titles in a row.

In this case, however, the contract looks bad from the start. Unlike Long or Hernandez or Dye, Hatteberg is 33 years old and doesn’t have any upside. He’s getting his deal not coming off a peak performance, but rather, in the middle of a season that pretty accurately reflects his abilities. There is no reason to worry about keeping him off the market, because there’s not going to be a fight for his services this winter. After all, the lesson of Scott Hatteberg isn’t that Scott Hatteberg is an extremely valuable asset, but that there are lots of guys out there who can be above-average first basemen for very little money. The first edition of the Beane A’s–the guys who scored runs–made great use of Matt Stairs and Geronimo Berroa and Greg Myers and Olmedo Saenz. Locked into low payrolls, Beane was successful by not overspending for replaceable talent.

Moreover, the trend is for more free talent to be available. This winter, there are going to be a bunch of players on the market just begging for the chance to play first base, post a .290 EqA and make $750,000. Brad Fullmer and David Ortiz had EqAs of .304 and .290 last year, and are combining to make $2.25 million this year. They were just the tip of the iceberg; with teams getting more aggressive about non-tendering arbitration-eligible players, the market is going to become flooded with cheap, short-term solutions for a first base/DH hole. Guys like Doug Mientkiewicz and Travis Lee–younger, better versions of Hatteberg–are going to be praying for guaranteed contracts. Locking up a roster spot, locking up cash, and shutting your team out of that market doesn’t make sense.

In announcing the signing, Beane made some comments about Hatteberg, but they were the kinds of things baseball men say to the press all the time. A GM could sign Osama bin Laden and the press release would include something like, “He’s a real leader, a spiritual guy with a knack for rallying people around him.” It was standard-issue cliché, the front-office version of what Crash Davis taught Nuke LaLoosh, along with a nod to the idea that having the extension would take a load off of Hatteberg and help his performance.

Looking for a better explanation, I talked to an A’s front-office member Monday afternoon. He echoed the idea that Hatteberg’s performance had suffered in part due to the ongoing contract negotiations, and stated firmly that the A’s think Hatteberg will continue to provide a .370-.380 OBP over the life of the deal.

Significantly, though, the executive made the point that Hatteberg’s approach at the plate–he’s averaging 3.9 pitches per plate appearances, making him one of the most patient hitters in the game–epitomizes what the A’s are trying to establish as the organizational approach. By making a commitment to Hatteberg, the A’s are hoping to send a message to all their players, especially those in the minors, that they will reward plate discipline and patience.

So to answer the original question, the A’s signed Hatteberg because they think he’ll maintain his 2002 performance over the next few years, and because he represents what the organization is trying to teach its young hitters. I think the first notion is misguided; it will be surprising if Hatteberg even matches last year’s numbers in any season. The latter idea is interesting, and perhaps if the A’s looked like they’d be stronger offensively over the next couple of seasons, I’d be inclined to say it’s worth the gamble. Given how their roster looks, though, they’re going to need that money and that playing time to improve the offense. If they don’t, the Big Three are going to find themselves trying to drag a 700-run team to glory.

Hatteberg is part of the problem, and making this kind of commitment to him, while well-intentioned, is likely to be a net negative for the A’s.

I’ve always had twin goals in writing about baseball: to inform and to entertain. It’s important to me that the analysis I do be sound, be grounded in fact and in the work done by the real sabermetricians in the field. Maybe more so, though, I want my work to be enjoyable, to reflect the love I have for baseball and the joy I get from it. I want it to make people laugh. On my best days, I think I approach both goals.

Then I see a clip of an movie from the 1940s, or see footage of a funny-looking man standing on a stage and holding a golf club in some godforsaken part of the planet, and I realize just how high that “entertainment” bar has been set.

Bob Hope was a genius in his field who sustained his popularity through four generations. He spent the majority of his century on Earth in the pursuit of one goal: pushing people’s lips closer to their ears, and in that pursuit made countless lives a little bit better.

Heaven’s a funnier place today, and those of us left behind are the worse for it.

Thank you for the memories, Bob.

Thank you for reading

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