The Rays and A’s Are Still Bargain Hunting

A lot of talk this offseason was about how HRs became cheap and sluggers are not getting paid. Two teams that adapted to that really quickly were the A’s and Rays. Just a couple years ago, the A’s and Rays both were no-power teams that mostly tried to compete with pitching, and, in the Rays’ case, great defense.

As of today (May 30th) the Rays and A’s are first and fourth in HR in the majors despite playing in not the most hitting-friendly parks.

They are also first (OAK) and ninth (TB) in average team launch angle, so they are probably either trying to acquire or teach launch angle.

They both strike out a ton (Rays are first in K% and A’s are fourth) but overall, offensively, it kind of works for them. The Rays are fifth in wRC+ and the A’s are eighth, which is not bad, given their financial constraints.

Where they are paying is defense. The Rays at least have a good OF compensating for their terrible IF, but they are still just 22nd in the defensive rating at the FanGraphs leaderboard. With the A’s it gets really ugly; they are dead last in defense and basically terrible in almost all of their positions.

For the Rays, it seems to work overall, as they are third in position-player WAR, and they also had some Pythagorean bad luck, but the A’s are just 22nd in position-player WAR, so they might have taken it too far.

Overall, the Rays and A’s still follow the trends and act quickly, but finding a bargain is harder and harder. Teams now have a good concept of value and if you find a bargain somewhere, you usually have to pay a price somewhere else.

Probably, it is still good that they try it. They need to gamble on upside and a balanced team is probably not the way to go. It is hard to say how much they gained, but launch angle and homers probably was a slight market inefficiency and they both went to it quickly.

What I found interesting were the Dodgers. Overall, they are a very good team, but they are not hitting homers and their launch angle is one of the worst in the majors (22nd). I thought as a sabermetrically-inclined team with a former Rays FO, they would try to close that hole, but then again they already were really good and can afford to lose some value. Also, the Dodgers team is much more expensive, so a super fast re-structuring of the team like the A’s and Rays did is not really feasible. An expensive team is not as flexible as a team full of pre-arb and early arbitration players and can’t react to a changed market as quickly.

It will be interesting how they develop in the next years. Will they slowly try to increase LA and power while trying to keep their strengths? Or will they sacrifice some defense and contact like the Rays and A’s did?

It will also be interesting if the Rays and A’s stick with it. Power will probably get slightly more expensive again, but I don’t expect the price to explode because the success of the A’s and Rays has been moderate and now teams mostly go by overall value. What teams certainly want to try is to teach elevating to their young players so they can get power without a big trade-off. Players with power and defense will always be sought after, and not be available as a bargain, so being able to teach LA to defensively good prospects could be a market inefficiency, but that is of course not easy to do.

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