The Major League Baseball season is not a race; it’s a test. It’s an exam meant to test your guts, will, but most importantly, your brains and your mouth. You come up with new ideas and deny, shush, deny, shush, and then in all likelihood, you pass; your brain grinds to an empty halt or you boast your ingenious skull, and you are gutted, thanked, and given an “F” that lasts for years. So, for one of the best teams in the Major Leagues in terms of passing the hellish assessment, they’ve learned from their last failure: Be invisible, continue studying, and smile while practically every other baseball team scratch their noggins, stymied by their lack of speed and drenched in confusion.
Strangely enough, the Oakland Athletics are in first place in the American League West, tied for the best run differential in baseball (+30) and has one of the best records in all of MLB (9-4). But of course this line comes with utter dismay: How are the A’s doing it again? They have a payroll of $60,372,500, so it’s not like they’ve opened up options with some green. And last year the wallet was even smaller.
No one eminent has generated an answer for the conundrum. On-base percentage? No, the Athletics aren’t a prime team in that category, posting a .310 OBP last year. Starting pitchers with good WHIPs? No, everyone now knows the value of that and other statistics so the A’s didn’t have a hidden advantage there. Team spirit? Camaraderie? The manager? Luck? Destiny? Prayers answered? It must be magic, many said. It must not be numbers this time, they said. It has to be grit, will, and clutch hitters – ingredients that can’t be calculated or measured by a computer.
These are the Oakland A’s, led by General Manager Billy Beane and a front office that knows they can’t win by relying on frivolous and subjective baseball heart. Psychological factors –whatever can’t be seen on the box score – mean next to nothing compared to what the Athletics, the Tampa Bay Rays, and other teams do best: statistical analysis. Finding new, cheap ways to win baseball games and properly evaluate players that other ball clubs overlook. It’s the same mantra as 2002, just in a new form that not everyone knows about.
Instead, the Athletics, and perhaps the Houston Astros, are using homeruns as the basis for their new analysis. Homeruns as automatic run scorers to be their new, unseen statistical evaluation to get inexpensive, undervalued players.
Is it an insane hypothesis? Everyone seems to know that the A’s hit a lot of homeruns last year (195). And these aren’t all-around guys, just like Scott Hatteberg wasn’t an all-around guy. Because the A’s don’t have the financial resources to buy the best, multiple tool players, they have to purchase ball players with one or two tools – mainly the ability to hit. And this is how the Athletic players hit: they belt homeruns. It’s just like 2002 except on-base percentage is substituted with the long ball.
The idea has some correlation with how the Athletics have performed in recent years. The A’s once boasted one of the best (and cheapest-made) on-base teams in the Bigs. From 1999 to 2006, Oakland posted only two seasons with a team OBP under .339, once recording a .355 and .360 OBP in 1999 and 2000 respectively. After their 2007 season, though, the on-base percentage for the club fell sharply and so did their homeruns (.318, 125; .328, 135; .324, 109; .311, 114). Last year, however, the A’s made the postseason for the first time since 2007, boasting on-base numbers that are still weak (.310), but homerun numbers that rocketed (195). When they did that in 2012, the Athletics had the seventh-best run differential in baseball and were ranked fourth in the American League.
Homeruns are an admired statistic but they’re a gold mine for poorer teams. Teams can build leads easier, and thus be more likely to win ballgames, with homeruns. If a hitter is really good at knocking the ball out of the ballpark, then leads will be simpler to construct. Don’t get on-base? No problem. Strike out, ground out, fly out – do it all the time. No problem. Just make sure you hit some bombs to make up for it. A lineup with a number of guys who hit more than your average number of homeruns – closer to 20 or more – will score a lot of runs and win games. Teams can compromise for not drawing a lot of walks or striking out a lot if they still score a significant amount of runs, or at least maintain a strong run differential thanks to their pitching (which the A’s do). No matter what happens with the next batter, a homerun puts runs on the board; getting on the base pads doesn’t guarantee this.
Getting on-base will make pitchers throw more pitches and be worn out quicker, allows the opposing team to damage the weaker pitchers on a staff – the bullpen – quicker, and gives teams better odds to score. And this is a brilliant offensive strategy. The best scoring teams in baseball are the ones that take pitches, have longer at bats, wait until they have hitter counts to rack in runs, and simply score a lot because they walk. But everyone knows about this now. Moneyball helped shed light on the best hitting strategy in baseball. Players with fantastic on-base abilities are not cheap anymore because teams know their worth. The best, highest-paid hitters in MLB are guys with great on-base percentages. Prince Fielder, Joe Mauer, Joey Votto, Albert Pujols – these hitters take walks, so big league teams know, thanks to Moneyball, that they aren’t flawed players or risks to sign. Thus, the bank comes in and money is the divide in baseball again. Teams don’t want to take risks again because they think that everyone is on the same statistical, mental playing field. Lockup players to big deals before they hit free agency, then, to make sure you don’t have to engage in a battle of monetary assets.
But what can a poor team do when they don’t have the money to even lockup players before they hit free agency?
So, what else can the A’s do when everyone steals their golden geese? Opposing General Managers will know right away when the A’s look for on-base guys. They understand now how important they are, so the richer teams can do what they did before 2002: buy what they think works. Now that everyone uses a tested, effective offensive strategy the A’s have to slide under the cracks again. They have to sign cheaper players that hit a lot of homeruns and are overlooked because they have low on-base percentages or strike out a lot. Josh Reddick ($510,000 2012 salary; .305 OBP; 151 strikeouts), Derek Norris ($492,500; 60 Ks in 60 games), Coco Crisp ($7 million; .325). Oh, the tribulations of money.
This method works with strong starting pitching, compensating for not boasting strong on-base skills to work opposing pitchers. With this statistical method a team can build large leads with homeruns and still have a fine bottom line because it has starting pitchers to hold the leads. Teams may not score 800 runs this way because you don’t have a barrel of on-base athletes, but clubs can still score close to that amount while not allowing a flood of runs thanks to electric starters. Key in point in the Athletics’ run differential last year. They didn’t score runs with absolute ease with the homerun, stepping on home plate 713 times, middle-of-the-pack in MLB, but they still kept a +99 run differential, and high run differentials means you win baseball games and are more likely to get to the postseason. Two sides of the coin allowed the A’s to sustain these numbers, as four Athletic starting pitchers had ERA+ of 110 or more, leading to 614 runs allowed, sixth in the Majors and second in the AL. This is not unlike the Yankees' style, a style that led them to 13 division titles in 17 years.
The theory explains a few things about the Athletics. Oakland wasn’t meant to win last year. They came into the season with a paltry payroll and held a practical fire sale of an already struggling team. They traded away their All-Star closer Andrew Bailey and their best pitcher Gio Gonzalez, allowing the Washington Nationals to ready themselves to be the beast of the National League East. But the A’s were still a below-.500 team even with Gonzalez and Bailey; left for worse without them. Maybe their trade pieces would help Billy Beane’s team win in the future once they develop, some surmised, but no one expected the Athletics to win immediately.
And then the future hit early. They started the season 11-13, coming to an improvement only by being at .500 at the All-Star Break and 13 games behind first place in the AL West on June 30. But knowing the A’s means knowing that the second half is a different season, as they went on another post-All-Star Break thanks-for-teams-giving-up-on-their-seasons tear, going 19-5 in July. A nine-game win streak down the stretch then vaulted the A’s from six games back of the Texas Rangers to just three by September 2, outscoring opponents 72-22. Even without Brandon McCarthy on the mound after his brain hemorrhage the Athletics never faltered, pushing a three game deficit in the AL West standings with two series to go, and with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim snapping at their tails, into a division crown, sweeping the Rangers in the last days of the regular season.
So, this new theory is rational. A poor A’s team with a payroll of $52,872,500 on the 2012 Opening Day, the least privileged team in the Majors, found cheap ways to win. Sounds like 2002? How else did they do it other than going back to what they did in 2002, just with homeruns instead of on-base percentage? Winning is often about stealth, after all, and most MLB teams are in the dark about the A’s current methods. You can’t counter what you don’t understand.
The theory doesn’t seem to only be conjecture; the Astros appear to be on the same track as the Athletics. Houston has steadily posted weak on-base numbers over the past seven years (No higher than .332, and under .312 the last four seasons), having losing seasons five of those years. Once they amped up their front office with a new general manager Jeff Luhnow, though – one who many baseball experts think is creating one of the best statistical analysis teams in MLB – their homerun numbers jumped from their 2010 and 2011 seasons, hitting a still-paltry 146 homeruns in 2012, but 38 and 51 more than what they collected in 2010 and 2011. Unlike the A’s, however, the Houston pitching hasn’t kept up (4.56 earned run average and a 1.428 WHIP last year). End result: 107 losses and the worst season in franchise history. Just imagine how many bats Billy Beane would have broken if Oakland followed that statistical suit.
The A’s probably learned from last time. Moneyball was a boon of baseball knowledge, one that made us slap our faces, but was hemlock for the Athletics. Their entire mode of operation was based around pretending that they were simply lucky that their teams won while they lost All-Stars every off season. You can’t act, though, when a writer makes a book chronicling a season and exposes your statistical analysis. The novel was a hit and made everyone realize the cunning of Billy Beane and his front office, presenting the world of sabermetrics that was under their noses for years. Every team began to mimic the A’s until now all other 29 Major League clubs use sabermetrics to a degree. The mystery of sabermetrics had its mask removed.
At least one mask.
Up until a little while ago, the Major Leagues was re-separated by the dollar bill thanks to all the statistical advantages out in the open. Now the A’s have to fight tooth-and-nail so most people don’t perceive the patterns in their statistics and success. Buying wins is stealth. It’s about mentally confounding your opponents, cloaking your powers, and searching for the newest ways to discover the best value until you fail the test. So far, everyone has yet to pass – everyone but the green team finding the best green.