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The Problem with Oakland

With large market teams represented fourfold in the league championship series, some have seen fit to reminiscence and kick dirt on the dead horse known as Moneyball. A tired topic, to be sure, it is one that deserves more attention to detail and logic than offered elsewhere. The question that must be answered is whether Billy Beane’s player evaluation methods have failed him and his organization.

Yes, when it comes to amateur talent.

In the famed Moneyball draft of 2002, Beane selected 15 of the first 300 players in the draft, nine of whom have since reached the majors. This includes Nick Swisher, Joe Blanton, Mark Teahen, John Baker, and Jared Burton. In the 2003 draft Beane selected 11 of the first 300 players and only two – Omar Quintanilla and Andre Ethier – reached the majors; neither played large roles with the Athletics and were instead used to acquire Milton Bradley and the deceased Joe Kennedy. Beane once more had 13 of the top 300 picks in 2004 and while a handful reached the majors only Huston Street and Kurt Suzuki are worth writing home about. The year 2005 saw Cliff Pennington, Travis Buck and Vin Mazzaro taken, and in 2006, the A’s tabbed Trevor Cahill and Andrew Bailey. That’s roughly five at-least major league average talents in 2002 and roughly eight in the four drafts thereafter.*

The lack of impact talent extends beyond (and in large part) because of the prospect classes. Drafting and expecting a handful to routinely turn into average players is unrealistic. This is why teams complement draft classes with international talent and trades.

Even if the A’s did draft well immediately after Moneyball was published, you would be hard-pressed to find major league results. Using Baseball America’s top 10 lists from 2004-2007**, I compared the amount of players on said lists that remained within the organization to start the 2009 season against two other small market teams: the Colorado Rockies and Tampa Bay Rays. The results are replicated at the end of this post. The Rockies have an extraordinarily high retention rate*** of 72.5% while the Rays/A’s are equal with 42.5%. Keep in mind that, unlike the Athletics, the Rays (a) turned Delmon Young into Matt Garza and (b) were horrible from 2004-2007 for many reasons.

Teams with limited cash resources must be able to develop some of their amateur players into stars. Signing undervalued talents is smart and useful, but relying upon undervalued players for superstar contributions is an impossible feat. The A’s farm system produced the stars of those early 2000**** teams and Beane did an excellent job at supplementing the talents. Whether the new blood is lacking due to poor luck, bad drafting, or awful development in the minors is anyone’s guess and probably a combination of three.

Consider this: the A’s had six players finish with more than 4 WAR in 2002; 4 players in 2003; 4 players in 2004; 3 in 2005; and 3 in the four seasons since. Eric Chavez and Bobby Crosby succumbed to constant injury, a few free agent and trade acquisitions didn’t work out, and some players have gotten extremely close (like Ryan Sweeney this season), but the A’s have still been without consistent star talent for too long. This is why the A’s averaged 94.5 wins from 2002 to 2005 and only 79.8 wins since 2006.

*No, it’s not fair to expect that same hit rate moving forward. For reference though, here are the percentages of players drafted (not necessarily signed) who reached the majors at some point in their career; 2000 13%; 2001 21%; 2002 21%; 2003 4%; 2004 25%; 2005 12%; 2006 5%.
**The 2004 list is the starting point so the first post-Moneyball draft class would be eligible for inclusion. 2007 is the last list for the same reason, only the 2006 draft class.
***Survivor bias exists.
****Again, just for reference. Eric Chavez was drafted in the first round; Miguel Tejada signed as an amateur international free agent; Jason Giambi drafted in the second round; Mark Mulder drafted in the first round; Jason Isringhausen in a reliever trade-off; Tim Hudson drafted in the sixth round; Barry Zito drafted in the first round; Johnny Damon in a three-way trade; Jermaine Dye via trade; Chad Bradford via trade; Jim Mecir via trade; and of course the venerable John Mabry via trade.

The prospect list results, as promised: