The A’s are Moneyballing Again

Back at the turn of the century, the 2000/2001 Oakland A’s were remarkably successful, and that success led Michael Lewis to write a little book called Moneyball, which you’ve probably heard of. I think everything that could possibly be said about that book and those teams has probably been said, written, and re-hashed 100 times, so don’t worry, I’m not writing this post to kick that dead horse anymore. I just want to point out that, 12 years later, the A’s have basically done the exact same thing that got the book written in the first place.

Those A’s teams won 193 out of the 323 games they played, the second best winning percentage in the game, despite the fact that they were spending a fraction of what their high revenue competitors were throwing at players. The A’s teams of last year and this year have won 182 of the 312 games they’ve played, the second best winning percentage in the game, despite the fact that they were spending a fraction of what their high revenue competitors were throwing at players. For more context, a table.


A’s Teams Winning % Payroll %
2000-2001 0.597 1.8%
2012-2013 0.583 1.9%

Payroll % is simply the amount of total league payroll that the A’s accounted for in those two year windows. Basically, once you account for the inflation that the game has seen as a whole, the A’s aren’t really spending more now relative to their opponents than they were 12 years ago, even though their payroll is $20 million higher now. While MLB is certainly doing well financially as a sport, the A’s continue to significantly trail their counterparts in both revenue and payroll.

And yet, they keep winning. Since the start of last season, the A’s are 29th in MLB payroll — only the Astros have spent less — and 2nd in wins, only one victory behind the Braves for the title of winningest team in baseball. The Braves themselves deserve a lot of credit for building an excellent team with an average payroll, but even they have outspent the A’s by nearly $60 million over the last few years. For all the well earned congratulations the Rays have gotten for winning on a budget, they’ve spent more money on big league payroll and have 10 fewer wins than the A’s since the start of last season. There is no team in baseball doing more with less than the current version of the A’s. There isn’t even a team that is all that close.

With their recent surge and the Rangers collapse — coming in part due to the A’s just beating them head to head over the weekend — Oakland has all but guaranteed themselves a second straight division title; even the A’s teams that got Moneyball written didn’t accomplish that feat. And this has all happened during the era in which the A’s advantages were supposed to have dried up.

Every team — okay, almost every team — is now putting value on guys who can get on base and avoid making outs. The big market, high revenue teams have adopted many of the A’s philosophies, and are now using an analytical approach to building a team, rather than squandering their advantage in resources as was more common a decade ago. Pretty much every team has someone or multiple someones in their front office doing work with databases and looking for market inefficiencies. The A’s aren’t a revolutionary in terms of decision making anymore.

But they’re still really good at finding value. I wrote about some of their successes back in June, highlighting the huge returns the A’s have gotten from guys like Josh Donaldson, Coco Crisp, and Bartolo Colon, who make about $12 million between them this season. And certainly, those three have been hugely valuable, especially Donaldson this season.

However, these A’s teams aren’t winning the same way that the Moneyball A’s teams did. One of the loudest criticisms of the book, and the theories it espoused, is that Beane and his staff were just riding the coattails of a few really great players, most notably The Big Three of Mark Mulder, Tim Hudson, and Barry Zito, with a side of Miguel Tejada, Eric Chavez, and Jason Giambi thrown in for good measure. This team, though, is winning because of the strength of the bottom of the roster, not the top of it.

Here’s a graph of the distribution of WAR for every player who contributed to either the 2000-2001 A’s teams or the 2012-2013 A’s teams. The Moneyball era A’s players are in red, while the current players are in blue.

AsbyWAR

Those 2000-2001 A’s were extremely top heavy, with the top six players combining for +54 of the team’s +92 total WAR during those two seasons. By contrast, the top six players on the A’s teams of the last two years have racked up +38 WAR, accounting for about half of the team’s total production, but well less than the 60% that the Big Three hitters and pitchers were responsible for back then.

The difference has been almost entirely made up in roster spots 7-25, which are regularly overlooked places to add value. After the huge dominance of the red lines (the first one is Giambi, if you’re curious) in the first six spots on the chart, you see the blue lines begin to take over almost entirely after that. These A’s teams are bottom heavy, as they’ve gotten production from nearly every spot on the roster, rather than having a small core of stars do the bulk of the heavy lifting.

And this, more than anything, seems to be the best way to find value in the marketplace today. This is essentially the same plan that the Red Sox have used to resurrect their team after last year’s implosion, dumping a few premium players (by reputation, at least) and replacing them with a larger quantity of less heralded but still productive players. With the rest of baseball catching up on things like on base percentage, the A’s have once again led the charge towards building winning rosters on the cheap by exploring roster construction methods not currently en vogue.

People still like stars, but Donaldson — the A’s most productive player during the past two seasons — ranks 27th in the majors in WAR during that time. The A’s best player wouldn’t have been the best player on nearly any other team in the sport, and yet, they are second in the big leagues in winning percentage during that span. Stars are great, and there’s nothing wrong with having great players, but baseball teams do not win because their stars performed extraordinary feats, as the Angels can certainly attest.

There’s no single right way to build a baseball team, but there are some ways that are cheaper than others. The A’s lack of resources means that they constantly have to be looking for the cheapest ways to win. 12 years ago, that was developing home grown stars and finding unathletic looking guys who got on base. Now, that’s building a deep roster of above average players and utilizing them as well as possible through the effective use of job shares and platoons. The Moneyball A’s won in large part because their strengths were very strong, but these A’s are winning because their weaknesses are not very weak.

Given how the game has changed, how everyone else in baseball is now trying to do the same thing, and how the spread of knowledge across the sport was supposed to close the loophole that allowed Beane and his staff to build a winner in the first place, this team is probably more deserving of having Lewis write a book about “the art of winning an unfair game”. That the A’s have done it again is truly amazing.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.

158 Responses to “The A’s are Moneyballing Again”

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  1. yolo says:

    Love the article, but your analysis of Donaldson is a bit off base considering he wasn’t even called up until the last month or so of the 2012 season. So when you say, “People like still stars, but Donaldson — the A’s most productive player during the past two seasons — ranks 27th in the majors in WAR during that time. The A’s best player wouldn’t have been the best player on nearly any other team in the sport” about the guy who is basically tied for second best player in the AL this season, that’s a little misleading.

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    • ralph says:

      Was going to post the same thing, with a couple minor corrections.

      Donaldson actually had 98 thoroughly-uninspired MLB PAs in the first half of 2012. Then he went back down to AAA, gave up catching, and — coincidentally or not — hasn’t stopped hitting since.

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      • ralph says:

        Make that 100 PAs in the first half of 2012, with 98 ABs. Which ought to make his current 2013 walk rate of 11.1% all the more impressive.

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      • Troy says:

        One more minor correction. Donaldson had already stopped catching during his first stint last season. The A’s gave Donaldson the third base job after Sizemore tore his ACL the first day of spring training.

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        • ralph says:

          You’re right that Donaldson played pretty much exclusively at 3B in 2012.

          But, for the record, Donaldson did start three games at catcher for the A’s in 2012 — on June 3rd, 10th, and 13th. That game on the 13th on was his last in the bigs until he got called back up in August.

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  2. Hitler But Sadder says:

    This was a truly excellent article; it is articles like these that keep me coming back to this site everyday. I never really bought into the riding the coattails criticism but that graph was a very powerful visual and maybe there is something to that. Nevertheless, I too am amazed at what the Athletics are doing and wish more of the mainstream sports outlets would spend some more time talking about them. This team was always supposed to be good but it was supposed to happen in 2016 not last year.

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  3. Kevin says:

    “and 2nd in wins, only one victory behind the Braves for the title of winningest team in baseball”
    The Red Sox are 92-59. What am I missing?

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  4. Hodgie says:

    Athletics have indeed been amazing but can’t say that I agree with the Red Sox comment. Their turn around seems almost entirely due to improved performances of their returning players. Victorino is really the only new addition adding significant value over last season’s contributors and his contract is certainly more big ticket than small market. The beards make a nice narrative but it is still the premium players that stir Boston’s drink.

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    • Dave Cameron says:

      Mike Napoli, Stephen Drew, and Koji Uehara would like a word.

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      • ralph says:

        Ultimately, the Red Sox bet big on players’ 2013 performances being more like their career performances than their 2012 performances, and were amply rewarded.

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      • Hodgie says:

        I will give you they lucked into an incredible season from Uehara (considering the original plan was Hanrahan and/or Bailey), but compare the gains of Napoli and Drew versus those from Pedroia, Ortiz, Ellsbury, Saltalamacchia, Lackey, Lester, Buchholz, Doubront…..

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    • Yanks Fan says:

      You may wanna throw Carp in there too. In limited playing time, his overall contributions ain’t bad, especially for a guy who was traded for a PTBNL. His slash line may be a bit of an overperformance, but still not bad.

      Oh, and I just wanna glue Mike Napoli’s beard to the floor. Filthy sonuva…

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    • mlbfan23 says:

      money cures alot of weaknesses. They basically reinvested payroll that they dumped in that dodgers deal.

      yes theyve gotten unexpected production from nava/carp, but its still a $160 mill payroll team with over 70 mill added in victorino, dempster, gomes, hannhran, thornton, uehara, ross, napoli, etc. Just in free agent additions payroll for 2013

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    • Rick says:

      Ironically the Red Sox have spent big money on free agents who were undervalued on the A’s a year ago, and have now become too expensive for a team like the A’s to afford (for example: Drew and Gomes both played for the A’s last year, and now are simply too expensive for the A’s payroll – not so for a huge money spending team like the Red Sox).

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  5. taprat says:

    Implicit but not directly stated is that the A’s are also finding ways to get the most out of every player on the roster through things like platooning, defensive shifts, using both catchers, and intelligent pitcher management. Rays are doing it too. It isn’t just identifying talent – it’s using it correctly.

    As is unfortunately so often the case, a great counterexample is Seattle…

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    • wally says:

      Yes, and Melvin needs to get some credit here. He’s very good at getting the right lefty-righty match up at the the right time and on both sides of the ball. I’m sure Beane, Melvin and co. sat down to discuss this overall game plan, but Melvin is executing about as good as a manager can. I’m an A’s fan, and ever since he showed up in Oakland, I’ve finally stopped yelling at A’s managers about poor in game management.

      I might like to see a little more Cook and Doolittle and less Balfour at times, but especially lately, he’s been willing get those two in important relief spots over Balfour.

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      • taprat says:

        The fact is, you can’t do it the way this iteration of the A’s has done it without the right GM and the right Manager. And again… the Rays are a similar example.

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      • Nick says:

        The half-amazing, half-inevitable thing is this is the same franchise that hired Art Howe to be dugout lawn furniture (at least if Michael Lewis is to be believed).

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        • Ozzy says:

          And then subsequently hired Macha and Geren to pretty much do whatever Beane told them to. Melvin is quite possibly the first manager Beane has had who he’s actually let make most of the daily decisions on his own.

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  6. ralph says:

    The graph is pretty striking in how top-heavy it is. But honestly it looks pretty equivalent as you go further right past the top-heaviness.

    You’ve provided information so that the reader can discern the 2000-2001 A’s had a WAR of 38 outside the top six. Which got me curious, and unless my data entry skills are lacking, the current Oakland iteration has a 76 WAR over the past two seasons.

    Which, paired with your information confirms my above suspicions rather exactly — the present A’s have also received 38 WAR from players outside their top six.

    This version’s 38 WAR should go up a little bit in the next two weeks, but it shows that there is really a gap of maybe 6-7 WAR/year between these two A’s varietals. Which doesn’t make this year any less impressive, but does help tell a more complete story.

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    • NBarnes says:

      Jason Giambi was pretty good.

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    • JKB says:

      I would like to see the graph above broken out by Pitching WAR for pitchers vs. Batting WAR for non-pitchers. I am wondering if there are other differences between the current A’s and the A’s from 12 years ago that might be hidden by blending WAR from those two player pools.

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    • Eric Feczko says:

      I think Dave is referring more to the distribution of WAR after the top six as opposed to the total war after the top six.
      It’s not that the 7-25 guys are more valuable in 2012-2013, its that the distribution of value is more even in the 7-25 guys in 2012-2013. Despite the reduced WAR, they are winning to the same degree and with the same proportion of payroll.

      The difference between the other points may be due to the scale of the graph. By eye, a difference of 0.5 WAR is small. Perhaps a graph of only the 7-25 guys would make the point clearer?

      In any case, this was a nice piece. The article suggests that an even distribution of value makes a better team than an uneven one. This concept may reflect a critical market inefficiency that the A’s have capitalized on.

      Conceptually, this is a very sensible point. As an analogous thought experiment, consider a starting lineup with 9 guys with 0.4 OBP, versus a lineup with three 1.0 OBP guys and 6 0.1 OBP guys. Although the average OBP is identical between the two groups, the former lineup is more likely to score runs than the latter over a nine inning span.

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  7. Matt says:

    What the A’s are doing right now is really unbelievable. It’s a more impressive feat than their early 2000′s teams or the Rays’ run of dominance.

    They’ve essentially built one of the best teams in the majors with everyone else’s garbage.

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  8. FeslenR says:

    The success of the A’s also comes from their cheap pitching staff that includes Parker, a rookie in Gray, Straily. None of these guys are that expensive at all.

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  9. jsolid says:

    This is a great post – great analysis, answering a fascinating question, with some historical narrative. One of Dave’s best.

    Its worth pointing out that the A’s since the beginning of 2012 are 12th in WAR (.550 implied winning percentage). so the fact that they are 2nd in winning percentage (.583) is clearly due to witchcraft.

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    • TheGrandslamwich says:

      Don’t mistake witchcraft from Voodoo!

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    • jsolid says:

      * wait its even worse than i thought. i forgot the season isnt over yet. their implied winning percentage is .535 So they beat it by .048, wow. They are second to the Orioles in that, because 2012 happened.

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      • wally says:

        Melvin is a pretty good manager, they have had good bullpens and plenty of useful players on the bench for the late game lefty-righty business. All three factors combined must explain some of this.

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      • jeopardydd says:

        It’s possible that WAR doesn’t capture all value, and that the A’s front office knows what it doesn’t capture.

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        • baycommuter says:

          We know they have proprietary WAR, if someone in the NSA is really ambitious they could try to reverse engineer it.

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        • Fircoal says:

          This is true. The A’s built their pitching staff with a lot of flyball pitchers to suit a large stadium with great outfield defenders. FIP tends to not like them as much because they get flyouts rather than strikeouts.

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        • wally says:

          Certainly we (meaning someone other than me) could try to estimate what FIP is missing on the A’s given what FIP assumes the rate of FBs being converted to outs vs. what Cespedes, Crisp and Reddick (and other A’s outfield contributions) have averaged.

          I guess its generally not surprising that on the A’s ERA < FIP << xFIP given the way FBs are being converted to outs and how FB tend not to leave the park in Oakland.

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  10. Ivan Grushenko says:

    “The big market, high revenue teams have adopted many of the A’s philosophies, and are now using an analytical approach to building a team, rather than squandering their advantage in resources as was more common a decade ago.”

    Yes Gene Michael of the Yankees copied the 1999-2004 A’s Moneyball formula in building the Yankee powerhouses between 1994 and 2000 with high OBP players like Williams, Jeter, O’Neill, Boggs, Posada…..That Beane sure ia a pioneer!

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    • Wobatus says:

      Yeah, soon Beane will have a team like the current Yanks: ARod, Jeter, Overbay, Wells.

      It’s true, though, that those Yanks weren’t just free agent built, at least the OBP, since Jeter, Williams, Posada were in house, and O’Neill by trade. The money did let them add high obp guys like Knoblauch, Boggs, Strawberry etc to fill in. And they spent on Clemens, Cone, Orlando Hernandez, etc.

      As Dave says, lots of ways to build a team. The Royals and O’s this year have the best UZR, for example.

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      • Ivan Grushenko says:

        The point is that the Yankees didn’t “adopt many of the A’s philosophies”. They used the “analytical approach to building a team” a decade before the A’s did, and they were a lot more successful than Beane’s teams ever were.

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        • Wobatus says:

          Well, they did have a ton of money. But it is true, Michael and Watson deserve some credit. They’d spent for years before that without winning titles.

          I mean, you could also say, hey, the Yankees figured out obp, they signed Rickey Henderson.

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        • Eminor3rd says:

          You, like all of the mainstream media, missed the entire point of moneyball. It was NOT about high OBP sluggers that were bad at defense, it was about identifying market ineffeciency, which, at the time, was that, and now is different.

          The Yankees have NEVER done this. The Yankees bought all of their talent at market value via free agency. Which was fine, but not something the A’s could afford to do.

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        • jeopardydd says:

          I think you may be missing the point.
          Beane’s accomplishment was in finding undervalued talent to help build a team on a shoestring budget (to fill in around their homegrown starts).

          Is that really what the Yankees did? Nope. They filled in around their homegrown stars with high-priced tament.

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        • Dave says:

          I can’t believe I’m defending the Yankees, but the 1996-2000 Yankees featured guys like Brosius, who the A’s gave up on, O’Neill, who the Reds gave up on, Boggs, who the Red Sox gave up on, Strawberry, who the Dodgers and Mets gave up on, and their own young players. They did not have the highest payroll in baseball until after their 2000 World Series win. Did they have a big payroll? Yes, I believe it was top 4 for basically that whole time.

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    • Ozzy says:

      You’re right, because no one thought any of those guys were any good.

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      • Ivan Grushenko says:

        Well the Reds thought O’Neill was worse than Roberto Kelly. Which Yankee fan in 1990 thought Bernie Williams was any good? Who thought Posada was an awesome prospect?

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        • Wobatus says:

          Williams was the BA number 11 rated prospect after the 1990 season. Jeter was number 4 before 1995. Posada was not highly touted and no one thought Rivera would be the greatest reliever of all time.

          I think you have a bit of a point, although really what Stick did was make the Yankee’s spend the money but a bit more wisely than before. They could still afford to squander in places. And of course, the Moneyball A’s had some conventional high draft picks and highly touted prospects as well. The Moneyball draft itself kinda busted after Swisher, who was also highly thought of pre-draft.

          But i think the point of Dave’s article is more that there are other ways to find undervalued players and build a squad. Beane clearly isn’t just about OBP. And lots of people valued OBP through the years. Branch Rickey, Earl Weaver. Bill James was writing about it years before Beane, and Earl Weaver used high OBP players and platooned guys.

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    • Yanks Fan says:

      I think what Ivan is trying to say is that Gene Micheal’s understanding of the importance of “patience and power” came before Moneyball heralded the OBP idea into the public light. Even if they weren’t doing it with math (maybe they were?), they understood how it was important to baseball. According to the book, Beane got it from Alderson who got it from Bill James’ abstracts. Basically they both figured out something that was pretty important.

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    • jpg says:

      Hey Ivan, nice strawman you got there. Fact is, comparing what Michael and Watson did for the NYY to Beane is lazy and sloppy. The Yankees weren’t using advanced analytics. They didn’t have stat geeks. They didn’t have to find market inefficiencies. They didn’t do any of that shit. What they did do was take full advantage of Steinbrenner’s suspension to allow their smart baseball people to make smart decisions. They drafted and developed guys patiently rather than rush them through the system. Further, they stopped depleting their farm with irrational deals like Buhner for Ken Phelps.They used their financial resources smartly by buying guys like Jimmy Key and Wetland when they were ready to take that next step. And lets face it, they got lucky quite often. Jeter may not have even been on the 96′ team if Tony Fernandez doesn’t get hurt. Heck maybe Jeter gets dealt at the deadline if Fernandez had stayed healthy and played well. Stick was a day away from DFAing Mo, until Rivera woke up and suddenly started throwing 97 MPH. O’Neil was brought in because Roberto Kelly was blocking Bernie and they needed a place holder until Ruben Rivera was ready… So yeah…That, in a nutshell is how the Yankees built their dynasty. Honestly what they did couldn’t be any different fthan what Beane has done. If you really wanna get technical, Sandy Alderson, Beane’s mentor, was employing many of the same Moneyball philosophies in the mid-to-late 80′s long before Stick, Watson and Buck started winning in NY so there’s that….Again nice strawman…

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    • DowntownChico says:

      IVAN, OBP was a stat before moneyball. No one said it wasn’t. Moneyball is not about OBP. That’s a common simplification and misconception.

      It is about finding market ineffeciencies in the market that is Major League Baseball. Is is about accomplishing two things:

      A) Acquiring as much Player Value as possible.
      B) Spending as few resources as possible (Read: Money) to get that Value.

      The Yankees did accomplish one of these feats. But they did it with the highest or second highest payroll in baseball.

      In 2000:
      Williams: $ 12.357 Million
      Jeter: $10 Million
      O’Neill: $6.5 Million
      Boggs: N/A
      Posada: $1.25 Million

      So the players you mention as genius front office decisions ahead of their time toal $30.107 Million Dollars.

      This would be 44% of the 2013 payroll for the Oakland A’s

      In 2000, these players made more money than the payrolls of four entire teams, and only $2 million less than two other teams

      That is not what moneyball is about. Learn a book.

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    • Wass says:

      That wasn’t an analytical approach to building a roster. That was hitting on some draft picks then paying high salaries to keep them on the team and surrounding them with high priced free agents. As someone else said, if what you took from Moneyball was that Moneyball=high OBP you completely missed the point. Or more likely never read the book.

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      • B N says:

        To be fair, the book was not all that interesting with respect to the baseball operations aspects (at least not to me). I found actually the sort of personality exploration of Billy Beane to have much more weight: the failed top pick working to avoid the same failures he saw in himself.

        From a story standpoint, that is a far more interesting yarn than the yawn story of “Buy undervalued assets,” which is the first rule of investment. (The second rule probably being, “Identifying such assets before your competitors is non-trivial.”)

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  11. Mike Green says:

    Bartolo Colon-luck or skill?

    Normally, you don’t expect a 38 year old pitcher with a 4.00 ERA to improve. There were some qualifiers about it though. His xFIP was actually better two years ago. After pitching in the Cell and as a RHP in Yankee, you could expect his HR/FB rate to decline.

    On the other hand, as his K rate has declined (expected), he’s knocked down his W rate to Tewksburian levels. What seems to have happened is that he is throwing many more two-seamers leading to balls in play- more resolution of at-bats early in counts. One guesses that good coaching help played a role.

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  12. kevin says:

    Good article. I wish you had mentioned that cheap, young starting pitching has been a HUGE factor in the recent success of Oakland and Tampa. Since Free agent starting pitching has gotten extremely expensive drafting and trading for minor league pitchers is the best thing a cash strapped franchise can do. Both the A’s and Rays have identified solid starting pitchers via trade or draft that will give 3 years at near minimum salary and 3 more arbitration years.

    They have each traded away pitchers once their “cheap” years were running out. Oakland traded Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, didn’t resign Brandon McCarthy. Tampa traded Kazmir, Edwin Jackson, Garza, and Shields. Will they pay David Price? Probably not. They have Ordorizzi and Colome ready to step in plus they will likely get a couple very good prospects for Price.

    Each team has had good production 1-5 in their rotations without spending all that much money.

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    • Wobatus says:

      Straily, Griffin and Milone weren’t even all that highly touted. They all seem to step in and do well. Gray had more pedigree but he has been better in the majors than in the minors.

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      • Ozzy says:

        There was a ton of tinkering with Gray in the minors too. The organization was having him throw a changeup almost exclusively at times because they didn’t think he had a decent secondary offering.

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      • mlbfan23 says:

        not a big fan of the griffin, straily, milone trio. they are back rotation types
        10 in BAA, whip, top 15 in era. if only he could fix the hr issue

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        • Wobatus says:

          True, but they are at least pretty good back of the rotation types. A lot of times you bring up untouted youngsters and your staff kinda stinks. Or even touted youngsters, like Tillman, Arrieta, Matusz, Britton

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        • rageon says:

          Top 15 ERA is a “back [of the] rotation type”?

          In a league with 15 teams.

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    • rageon says:

      Oakland’s success this year and last in large part comes down to the fact that when they traded two establish pitchers (Cahill and Gonzalez), they came away with two young pitchers (Parker and Milone) that ended up being pretty darn good. Plus they got Ryan Cook and Derek Norris, as well as Peacock (who they turned into Lowrie) and Cole (who they in a round-about way turned into Jaso). Basically, they didn’t botch those two trades.

      Way back when, the A’s did a good job of keeping a solid team together (for a while) by trying to trade Mulder and Hudson, with the former turning into Haren and then Cahill and others, but the later turning into basically nothing. The A’s of 2005-2010 could have been drastically different if the Hudson trade had panned out.

      The margin for error for Oakland is extremely small, given their payroll, as buying a replacement just isn’t going to happen. They hit on the their big trades of late (trading Gio and Cahill; trading for Lowrie), as well as the low-risk/high-reward signing of Colon. Without each of those going right, I’m not sure the A’s are a contender this season. Maybe there’s some luck to that, although I’d like to think that they just nailed the scouting on those guys and then managed to put them to use in the best way possible.

      Either way, since the second half of last season it’s been real fun to have been an A’s fan.

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  13. Matt says:

    Best player on the team (and one of the best 3B in baseball) was a busted catching prospect. Best reliever on the team was a busted 1B prospect. Second-best starter on the team was a busted for steroids 40 year old with one pitch. Best home run hitter on the team was dumped by 3 other organizations. 2/5 of the starting rotation was drafted in the 13th and 24th rounds. Etc.

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    • Jimbo says:

      An island of misfit toys, isn’t it?

      I do think coaching is getting short shrift here. Billy looks like a genius for his mix-and-match trades, but the staff had to hone this raw talent into the jewel it’s become. The myth that Oakland just sticks OBP machines on the field and prays they block one or two that roll past is just that, a myth.

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      • Narra says:

        I agree with the coaching comment and suspect we’re seeing a subtler play. Find the right coaching to fit your tools.

        Perhaps what we’re seeing now is all the cylinders firing on full.

        The front office is doing what it’s always done, finding flawed players with big spikes.

        Curt Young is being old Curt Young (with the Sox paying part of the salary no less!).

        Chili Davis seems to be Josh Donaldson’s horse whisperer.

        And the one piece of the puzzle that’s always seemed to be missing, the manager, seems to have been finally filled with Bob Melvin, the Mad Scientist of Platoons.

        Managers are the new Moneyball?

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      • za says:

        The FO has taken an approach valuing defensive stats, since they were seen as undervalued once other teams started paying more attention to OBP.

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        • a says:

          An oversimplification of all of this is the concept of building a team based on players who know their role. Whether it be a lefty specialist in the BP, a utility fielder who can play anywhere, platoon players, a setup man who is content being a setup man or a PH or DH who understands his role is to be ready to grab a stick after sitting on the pine, great teams have to have good role players. One guy who managed that way pretty well was Tom Kelly.

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  14. tz says:

    I love the graph of the distribution of talent (as measured by WAR) on the A’s.

    The Braves have a similar mix on this year’s team. One big advantage of having a team with this kind of mix is that it lessens the chance of the team’s management freaking out if you lose one or more of your “irreplaceable” players. Imagine the panic, say, in Anaheim if the Angels were in the 2014 playoff race and they lost Trout.

    By keeping a large number of “value” role players, you lower the negative impact of having to go to your bench. Leveraging the total value of all the roster-deep quality might just be the 2010′s version of Moneyball.

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  15. Steve says:

    How can you not root for the Athletics? Screw it. I’m an A’s fan. Also a Rays fan. I’m a fan of smart GMs.

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  16. ALEastbound says:

    They just need that catcher who can’t throw anymore turned first basemen to really make a run.

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  17. Nick says:

    As a Red Sox fan it is going to hurt if/when we end yet another Oakland A’s playoff run. If we can’t do it I’m rooting my ass for Billy.

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  18. Tim says:

    “This is essentially the same plan that the Red Sox have used to resurrect their team after last year’s implosion, dumping a few premium players (by reputation, at least) and replacing them with a larger quantity of less heralded but still productive players. ”

    Yeah, except one team has nearly unlimited financial resources and the other doesn’t. Keep your homerism out of your articles, Dave.

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    • Dingbat says:

      Because Dave Cameron’s homerism for the Boston Red Sox is well established.

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    • ghug says:

      I don’t think you can call it a homerism thing, as, last time I checked, Dave is a fan of the Mariners, not the Red Sox.

      The point is merely that they used similar methods of roster construction. The disparity in financial resources is the reason this article is about the A’s and not the Sox.

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    • chuckb says:

      Dave — noted Red Sox homer. You’re new here but there are others who will appreciate your douche-ness. Welcome.

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    • jesse says:

      But that’s exactly what the Red Sox Did; by purgeing three big contracts in beckett/crawford/gonzales they were able to reinvest the 58m in savings to acquires Victorino/Drew/Napoli/Gomes/Uhera/Dempster/Ross – 8 players who account for 53mil but have produced 17.5 WAR, all of whom were signed as FAs.

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      • jeopardydd says:

        Those 8 players make about as much as the A’s entire payroll. How can you say it’s basically the same thing?

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        • Eric Feczko says:

          Because Dave is pointing out that an even distribution of value is worth more than an uneven one.

          One could look at teams with payroll very close to the red sox: the angels, the phillies, the giants, and see teams with a more uneven distribution in WAR than the red sox. The point is that the A’s are winning more than other teams because of the distribution of value. This is a point he’s made several times over the past few years, and one that hasn’t really caught on in the league.

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  19. Tim says:

    Why would they deserve a book about their success? Their formula over the last two years has been basically the formula for every good and cheap team in the free agent era: expose your prospects, sign a bunch of high-variance cheapish free agents, and hope that they all hit their upside at the same time. It’s the same formula they were using from 2007-11, except they weren’t winning then, so apparently we don’t care?

    I also don’t get why we’re still fawning over Moneyball when it’s become clear that big advantage enjoyed by the Giambi-era A’s was that they were cheating more and better than anyone else.

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  20. Eighty Want says:

    I’d love to see a similar chart for the Angels. Talk about a top-heavy organization. Trout alone might constitute nearly a quarter of their team WAR.

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  21. Melvin is a good manager- this is an advantage the Moneyball A’s didn’t have. Their manager was evil – I saw the movie.

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  22. mlbfan23 says:

    looking at the 2013 A’s team and the additions. I dont think the young and jaso deals worked out. Especially giving up krol and cole for jaso, injuries wrecked his year. Young has been the highest paid A’s player. Love lowrie’s bat (surprisingly healthy) dont care for his defense. Now that hiro nakajima looks like a 3-4 mill sunk cost, lowrie has saved the team at least hitting wise. Griffin and Parker solid seasons. Milone looks very fringe and mediocre. Perosnally, i wish they didnt make the gio gonzalez. He’s probably a fringe ace and the one guy they ended up keeping anderson cant ever stay healthy. He’s been mostly a non factor on these last 2 contending teams and he has 2 yr/ 20mill remaining on his contract. Probably untradeable at this point

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    • Todd Criner says:

      Without the Gio Gonzalez deal, the A’s very well may not have won back-to-back West titles. That trade gave Beane trade pieces to make other deals, in addition to adding roster depth.

      Milone has regressed some this year but he was an important pitcher on the ’12 team, especially with Colon suspended and Anderson injured.

      Chris Young’s K%, BB%, and ISO are in line with his career norms… his BABIP is what’s really hurt him, which means he could be due for a bounce-back year. Also, the A’s traded CLIFF PENNINGTON for him. Not exactly a major loss.

      Criticizing the Jaso deal is a bit of a stretch; he has performed well when healthy (.345 wOBA). Pretty hard to foresee a serious concussion sidelining him like it has. A.J. Cole has 45 innings above A-ball; he is far from a surefire MLB SP. Krol is a RP w/ an 18.8% K rate. At the very least, the jury is still out on this deal.

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  23. Robbie G. says:

    Any theories as to why there’s such a huge gap in years between Oakland Moneyball Era #1 and Oakland Moneyball Era #2?

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    • chris says:

      1 – Hudson trade was a total failure.
      2 – Eric Chavez’s back.
      3 – Rich Harden’s durability.
      4 – Failure to develop a decent hitting prospect for a decade.

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      • Matt says:

        To those 4 I’d add that they just had bad luck.

        They followed a similar strategy in 2007-2011 as they did in 2012. Unfortunately they couldn’t seem to hit on any of their mid-range pickups and the farm had a really bad run (lots of guys getting worse for no particular reason).

        Gotta hand it to management for staying the course. I don’t think they expected to compete last year, but the “go into every year with the best team you can” strategy (as opposed to the “punt a few years” strategy) allowed them to take advantage of the opportunity.

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        • PackBob says:

          I think every team’s success/failure includes good/bad luck. If Beane made good choices this year in getting value, there would also be some luck that his good choices actually worked out. Some years they don’t.

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        • Wobatus says:

          To win year in and year out with the A’s budget isn’t easy. But the A’s have been very good since, say, 2000. 5th best record.

          If you just looked at 2007-2013, they are 14th. Two spots back of the Brewers. The Rays are 6th for that time period, another well run small budget team.

          From 2002 through 20011, they are 8th. One spot behind the Twins. Which for a long time ws a well-run, but decidedly non-Moneyball, smaller payroll team.

          Of course, if you look now the A’s have had 2 very good years in a row, while the Twins have languished. But in 3-4 years it is hard to say who will be where. The twins have a boatload of talented young players in there farm system in Buxton, Sano, Rosario, etc.

          But for all those time periods, the Yanks are first and Red Sox second. The smaller market teams can’t do it every year, whether the Rays, A’s or Twins. Perhaps the rays have been most consistent over the last 7-8 years being competitive year in and year out.

          But certainly Beane’s record since the calendar turned to 2000 has been pretty good. 5th.

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        • Todd Criner says:

          Carlos Gonzalez, Matt Holliday and Ben Sheets were prime examples of 2007-2011 A’s players who had big potential but didn’t pan out in Oakland. Marco Scutaro also hit much better post-A’s.

          It’s almost as if all the bad fortune during those years has reversed for the ’12 and ’13 A’s.

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      • Jeopardydd says:

        The A’s were going to lose Hudson anyway (Hudson put a deadline for a contract extension or he would test free agency). The trade was bad, but not as bad as everybody thinks.

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      • Ozzy says:

        Lew Wolff pushing for Beane to make the Holliday trade didn’t help either.

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      • Jimbo says:

        I would add 5 – Bob Geren.

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    • JamesDaBear says:

      The gap isn’t as big as you’d think. They were also successful through 2006. They were only bad for 4 of the years in between.

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      • jeopardydd says:

        And they were 81-81 one of those 4 years, and never had a really bad season (like 90+ losses).

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      • Ian R. says:

        It’s also worth noting that even in the bad years, the A’s were never terrible. Their worst season was 2009, when they went 75-87 in a very tough division.

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        • baycommuter says:

          Another factor is that they mortgaged the future to win in 2006, first by trading Ethier for Bradley and second by signing Loaiza as a free agent and losing their #1 draft choice.
          They also made a bad call on Crosby over Scutaro.
          And they got unlucky when Zito signed with the Giants, who also signed an ancient Moises Alou, who somehow was rated higher–thus they didn’t get the Giants first draft pick.

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    • Joebrady says:

      Because it is a bad usage of the term/philosophy of ‘moneyball’.

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    • a says:

      In order to have statistics, you have high and low anomalies. If you have a couple of players who are having their worst statistical years, of otherwise high average careers, you’ll have a down year. Moneyball gives you your best chances, but as others have said, bad luck years happens go players with good WAR also.

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  24. Bryrob58 says:

    Great article as always, Dave!

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  25. Reuben says:

    I feel like there are certain people who read Dave Cameron’s articles even knowing they’ll make them mad, get blinded by that madness, and pay little attention to the article.

    Why keep reading them guys?

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  26. Patrick says:

    There are a number of posts here comparing the Rays and A’s, but I don’t think there is any comparison: what the A’s have done is much more impressive.

    We have come to think of draft picks as something a team earns, but they aren’t. They are in fact a form of corporate welfare — an extremely valuable form of corporate welfare. A top five pick gives the selecting team six (and if you’re willing to screw the player over, seven) years of labor exempted from normal market forces. It also gives the team the option to “stash” the player in the minor leagues for up to six years guaranteeing that only his most productive seasons must be paid for. We shouldn’t overlook the value of high draft picks when assessing the cleverness of a front office.

    It should also be pointed out that those picks don’t necessarily go to the teams with the biggest disadvantages. Medium to large market teams like Houston, Washington and Tampa Bay have all had the top selection in the draft multiple times in recent memory, while genuine small market teams like Cincinnati, Oakland and Cleveland have not.

    The Rays have, since 1998, had eight top five picks (including the top pick four times); this is a HUGE subsidy. They have arguably not been that effective with those picks; however players acquired using those picks or as a result of trades for players acquired with those picks have been worth at least ten wins above replacement every year since (and including) 2008 — with an average WAR of 13 wins. Without those draft picks, the Rays have been a .500 (or slightly below) franchise.

    By contrast, the A’s haven’t drafted higher than tenth any time in the Billy Beane era. And that makes what they have accomplished SO much more impressive than what the Rays have done.

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    • Gyre says:

      Beane’s value trading needs to come into play more in this extended conversation. The biggest lesson to be learned is getting that next set of pitching off the current set that (alas) needs to go out the door. The spirit instilled last year by some in-season pick ups (Inge etc) was some extra magic that is hard to duplicate by a rich team.

      I guess that ’50 feet of s***’ between the A’s and everyone else is more valuable than it smells.

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    • Wobatus says:

      Yeah, and from 2007 to 2013, including this year, the Rays have the 6th best record and the A’s 14th. I think they are both well run franchises.

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      • Wobatus says:

        Actually, you use the example of the Rays getting value from high draft picks from earlier, either the picks themselves or guys they were traded for, during the period from and including 2008. But the Rays have the second best record during that span, at 540-420. The A’s are 14th, at 488-472. So they’d be roughly equla if you took away the high picks.

        Also, you can’t say the Rays would have had zero first round draft picks. For a fair comparison, you’d have to give them picks roughly where Beane was drafting.

        This is not to knock or praise either, but you are overestimating the advantage the Rays high draft picks in an earlier era gave them since 2008.

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    • a says:

      I think the Rays success (in the AL East, of all places), is their manager. One of the best (if not the best) in the game, over his career.

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  27. RSquared says:

    Reading this article and comments reminded me of this Beane interview from last Fall (apologies if it has already been mentioned above). Note his comments on pitching and power about halfway through, and his response to Blezinski’s interpretation of that commentary about 75% in:

    http://www.athleticsnation.com/2012/10/25/3553788/still-playing-moneyball-an-exclusive-interview-with-billy-beane

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  28. coldseat says:

    Wonder why the Rays, A’s & Braves have attendance problems despite the on-field success? Does winning on the cheap perpetuate the revenue problems? Granted it beats losing on the cheap…

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    • Swfcdan says:

      Small town baseball markets?

      Im from England but im aware neither are great baseball cities, and fairly small cities too.

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      • Swfcdan says:

        But I must add, it must be great to be fans of those teams right now.

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      • Jason B says:

        Atlanta is a very populous city; they shouldn’t really have that excuse. The rest of the southeast seems to be more excited about the Braves than the folks in Atlanta do, which I think is largely due to the near-unlimited supply of Braves games on TBS over the years (and later SportsSouth), which helped to build a pretty committed fanbase throughout the southeast. For whatever reason, support within Atlanta has always seemed tepid. Very tepid.

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    • Paul M says:

      I think each situation is different. The Braves have won without winning– i.e they spoiled Atlanta fans beginning 20 years ago but only once won a WS. And it’s still a football culture. The Rays have a huge stadium problem and a fan base in a state which has not yet proven it can support a major league team at the gate with any consistency (see Marlins). Too many old people; too many other outdoor options. As for the A’s, stadium problems and the “second best” issue– you need only spend a little time in the Bay Area to see how completely the Giants dominate the media world– even before they built Pac Bell that was true. Plus all the bridges, bodies of water and hills make the freeways and traffic a significant problem, which reduces some of the potential attendance.

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    • Joebrady says:

      I’d say one problem is the lack of continuity with the players. I don’t think as many fans become die-hard because whomever their favorite player is, will be moving on in a few years.

      From a BB-perspective, you almost always do better trading you star with a year or two left. From a fan perspective, not so very much.

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    • Todd Criner says:

      Population has little to do with why these 3 teams don’t draw as well as expected… the Bay Area has one of the largest metro populations in the US, and Atlanta is a huge city. Tampa has the population to support a MLB team as well, but the poor planning w/ the construction/location of Tropicana Field has been well-documented.

      As an A’s fan who grew up just outside Oakland, I’d say it’s a combination of factors. The stadium is falling apart and not very appealing to non-hardcore baseball fans (people show up to stadiums like AT&T Park for reasons other than watching baseball — it’s an “experience”). The Giants have the lion’s share of Bay Area baseball fans (which makes them clinging to their South Bay “territory” even more laughable). I would estimate 75% of baseball fans in the Bay Area prefer the Giants over the A’s, if not more. There is also a ton of stuff to do in the Bay Area besides go to baseball games (nice weather almost year-round, the ocean nearby, cultural attractions, concerts/shows, other sports options) — I fully believe many sports fans in CA are not as “die hard” as those in other states for this reason (need proof? LA hasn’t had an NFL team for nearly two decades now, and the 49ers/Raiders/Chargers play in the three of the worst NFL stadiums).

      If the A’s ever get a new stadium built I think it would be huge for attendance though, especially in pro sports-hungry San Jose. Fringe baseball fans who might go to a game or two a year would be showing up a lot more (AT&T being built had a similar effect in SF) and serious A’s fans would be more likely to buy season tickets.

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  29. Todd Criner says:

    The 2000 and 2001 teams inspired Lewis to write Moneyball, but the true “Moneyball Era” was in fact 1999-2006 — a span of 8 consecutive winning seasons for the A’s. The 2002 team covered in the book/movie that had to replace Giambi (who SHOULD have won the 2001 AL MVP in a landslide, however the media was captivated by Ichiro/116 wins) actually won more games (103) than either the ’00 or ’01 team did.

    The Moneyball critics focus on The A’s having the Big Three and assume their success was mostly pitching-driven after Giambi and Damon left, but the ’02 A’s were actually 6th in MLB in wOBA (.337). Beane remarkably found Scott Hatteberg and traded for Ray Durham, who were both top 15 in the AL in OBP (during an era of hyper-inflated offensive stats too). David Justice would have also been top 15 with a few more ABs (he didn’t quite qualify). In subsequent years, he continued to add aging vets that produced well (such as Frank Thomas, who helped fuel a run to the ’06 ALCS).

    I didn’t think Beane would ever pull off another masterpiece like he did in 2002, but what he did ten years later trading three former all-star pitchers (Cahill, G Gonzalez, Bailey) and the haul he got in those deals may have actually topped it. The fact that he has built such a deep, versatile roster that exploits another market inefficiency (platooning), despite another 28 teams also being Sabermetrically-fluent (but with more money), is nothing short of remarkable. Beane is the smartest GM in baseball history by a longshot.

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    • Branch Rickey says:

      Ahem.

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      • Todd Criner says:

        Rickey was a brilliant GM, there’s no denying that. He deserves a lot of credit for signing/drafting stars like Stan Musial, Jackie Robinson, and Roberto Clemente. He also had much more plentiful resources when compared with his competitors than Beane has, and his career spanned much longer than Beane’s has (Beane is on the verge of getting the A’s to the playoffs for the 7th time in only his 16th season; just 5 of those seasons have been below .500).

        Breaking the color barrier was a wonderful thing, but if it wasn’t him, it was going to be someone else who did it… he just happened to be the one with the guts to go for it. Everyone knew there were good African-American players who deserved to be in the Major Leagues, so I wouldn’t call it “genius” that he decided to sign an obviously talented African-American player — “pioneering” is probably a better term.

        Maybe I’m rushing things a bit by calling Beane the “smartest ever” already, but if he keeps at it for another decade or two (and getting a ring wouldn’t hurt), I think he deserves to be listed alongside the greatest GMs in American sports history.

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  30. Paul M says:

    The 2000-01 A’s inspired Lewis– but Moneyball of course focused on the 2002 A’s– and specifically Scott Hatteberg (who replaced the departed Jason Giambi after the 2001 season), the trade for Ricardo Rincon, David Justice, the decision to jettison Jeremy Giambi (among others) and acquire John Mabry, the 20 game winning streak etc, etc… That team also won 100 games and did win the division before falling in 5 games to Minnesota.. Lewis was in effect embedded with the 2002 team.

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  31. SABRphreak Shaun says:

    The new market inefficiency will be players undervalued due to PED suspensions, freak bad luck injuries (not expected to reoccur), and off-field issues. Nelson Cruz, Jhonny Peralta, Curtis Granderson, and Roberto Hernandez are examples of players expected to obtain contracts that would seem to under-represent their value and expected performance.

    You heard it here first.

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    • vivalajeter says:

      Actually, I heard about your first market inefficiency last year when the Blue Jay’s stole Melky Cabrera with a bargain-bin contract. They really exploited that PED-related market!

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    • Jeopardydd says:

      Beane is already taking advantage of the freak injury thing. He got Lowrie, who I believe just set an Oakland record for doubles in a season, but who had trouble staying on the field in previous seasons due to freak injuries.

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      • Todd Criner says:

        Coco Crisp also an injury rep when he got to Oakland, but he has stayed healthy most of the past 3 seasons and has provided a huge spark this year especially.

        There’s a good chance Arizona doesn’t trade Jarrod Parker if he weren’t coming off Tommy John, IMO.

        Bartolo Colon was signed on the cheap after his suspension last year.

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  32. Brandon says:

    I am shocked that the article above does not mention platooning/splits. Billy Beane has very obviously utilized that to his advantage. Guys who smack the ball against righties start vs righties, and vise versa. Dave – please update this article accordingly. You missed THE point of his roster construction; splits.

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    • Paul M says:

      Absolutely right, Brandon. They kind of lucked into a 1B platoon last year (Moss and Carter) that was basically perhaps the 2nd or 3rd best “player” at that position for umpteen million less than Pujols or Fielder made– and this year they went all-in. Catcher is now a three man platoon– Vogt against RHP; either Suzuki or Norris vs. LHP; 1B is still a platoon; and 2B; as is DH and RF when Reddick was hurt.

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    • Joebrady says:

      That’s probably the most important piece. The RS signings were okay, more or less about market value. But the biggest thing they did was to be able to position themselves against lefties or righties. Not that they would always do it, but against lefties, you could play Ross, Naps, Pedey, Iggy, WMB, Gomes, Ells, Vic, and Papi. That’s 7 righties in the lineup, and two good lefties with good splits. Against a righty, you can start Salty, Carp, Pedey, Drew, WMB, Nava, Ells, Vic and Papi. That’s 7 lefties.

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  33. Edwin says:

    Dave,

    How does the A’s roster construction play into your past writing about Mike Trout, and whether or not it might be better to spend all your FA dollars on one Big FA, or to try and spread it out more?

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  34. Is it too much to ask to get some captions on the axes of graphs around here? I mean, really.
    Awesome insight though, great read and well thought out. Kudos.
    But captions, dawg, captions…

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  35. Highball Wilson says:

    This article could have been about 2013 Cleveland as well. In essence, depth is the new market inefficiency. Cleveland has used Yan Gomes, Ryan Raburn and Mike Aviles to support a solid yet flawed starting lineup.

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    • Joebrady says:

      I think it could’ve been written about a lot of GMs. It’s basically a story about a couple of good draft picks, a couple of good trades, and a couple of good pickups.

      I just don’t think this is moneyball in the traditional sense, where you exploited unrecognized attributes like OBP and defense. I think mostly Beane is just a very good GM.

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  36. james wilson says:

    Moneyball is a dead horse? You wouldn’t know it from this post. Moneyball is life.

    I don’t know why anyone would assume Colon has stopped ‘roiding. He threw 95 in his last shut down start. What he’s stopped doing is getting caught. What’s he got to lose, considering the alternatives? You go, fat man.

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  37. DaveP says:

    For some more moneyball, how about wins/ net profit on a yearly basis. With the A’s getting subsidized by other MLB teams, do they actually make a profit because their payroll is so small? Do they make as much profit as other teams because big market teams more of their gross on salary thus lowering their profit margin?

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  38. Child On Rocking-horse says:

    There must be more Moneyball… there must be more Moneyball… there must be more Moneyball….

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  39. Ubaldo extended,
    Kazmir?
    Raburn?
    yan gomes trade (also mike Aviles)
    BENCH MOB!

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  40. Indians gm chris antonetti, or neal Huntington of Pittsburgh.. liriano looks good for a guy I believe started season on DL, if so.. 16 wins?
    I like both for gm of year. ben cherington will win. but beane or antonetti deserve it. lower payrolls. after last year and changing managers.. and adding more money..again. I respect the small moves. But the roster was high already, and in 2013 how many sox are free agents?? salty (catcher) Napoli (first base) Stephen drew (ss) (fill with xander?) jacobys ellesbury cf? kazmir and ubaldo want to resign with tribe. kazmir stated he would give discount to Cleveland. boston let james loney go too. stings more he is in tampa, hitting .300+ all year. just saying, from new England!

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    • Joebrady says:

      The 2014 FAs aren’t a huge issue. We can offer all of the a QO and not to be too concerned if they all accept or decline. Ellsbury is definitely declining. If the other three accept, then they will cost $42M instead of the current $28M, and Bradley replaces Ellsbury.

      If all four decline, then Bogaerts replaces Drew, Bradley replaces Ellsbury, and we have $37M to replace catcher and 1B.

      Teams never stay the same, and everyone hates to lose plus-value players, but if worse comes to worse, and all four leave, we should still field a competitive team, plus having a pretty dominant draft board.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  41. in 2014*** how many are free agents****

    Vote -1 Vote +1

  42. Billy Beane says:

    Dudes, I’m like a genius!

    Vote -1 Vote +1

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