After I titled this post, I began to think I may have bit off more than I can chew, but let’s at least take a stab at determining how Oakland continues to succeed in an unorthodox way – and I’m not talking about Moneyball. At this point the A’s story is pop culture history and Billy Beane’s status has moved from hero to legend. Ten years ago Oakland had the advantage when it came to advanced statistics. Today, teams have caught up and some have even surpassed them. However, look close and you will see that Beane might be quietly rolling out Moneyball 2.0.
While I was researching my idea for applying the economic concepts of opportunity cost and economic profit to the value of wins above replacement in team transactions, I stumbled upon something interesting. In the last five years the Oakland A’s are one of only three teams to have an above average eWAR value in each of those years. As I explained in a previous post, eWAR tries to determine the impact, both real and potential, of player acquisitions and departures. For example, Albert Pujols joined the Angels in 2012 and amounted 4.8 wins above replacement. Based on how I am calculating economic WAR, the St. Louis Cardinals — the team from which Pujols departed — had a lost opportunity cost of 4.8 WAR in 2012 for not resigning him. If you’re still a little confused, I would suggest reading that article before moving on.
I stated in that post that for some teams, applying the economic value of WAR does not always work. This is because sometimes management has to make player decisions based on payroll constraints instead of what kind of value they might bring to the team. For the Oakland A’s, these budget issues are ominous and inescapable. However, Oakland seems to be using this to their advantage. It is true that teams with large payrolls should have an edge, but if those teams make bad personnel decisions, the consequences could be much worse than they would be for the smaller payroll clubs. This is due to the differences in the size of contracts typically offered by large and small market teams. The A’s never have a player who is making so much money they can’t unload him to another team. Some of your big market organizations don’t have this luxury. The point is that Oakland has recognized this anomaly and has begun to exploit it.
Don’t get me wrong, Billy Beane and company are still taking advantage of new and improved stats in order to bring on under-valued players, but what goes unseen, or at least unsung, is the strategy behind it. Looking at the club’s consistently above average eWAR shows us that Oakland is still making better decisions than most teams when it comes to which players to bring on board and which one’s to let go. The only organization with a higher eWAR in the past five years was the Tampa Bay Rays under the leadership of wunderkind Andrew Friendman. Like Beane, he too has found the secret sauce. But what is it?
The recipe is actually quite simple. Oakland is minimizing the risk element in all transactions by stocking up on proven big leaguers to fill their starting lineup and in the background secretly cooking up an irresistible smorgasbord of minor league talent to entice buyers to trade them their above replacement level players.
I came up with a metric in a past post that I called Draft Efficiency. It calculates the percentage of players drafted by a team that actually end up making their big league roster. I kept wondering why Oakland was near the bottom of that list with only 4% of their players drafted, since 2007, that have made the big league team. Then I looked at how many of their draft picks have made the big leagues at some point regardless of which team they made their debut. There was my answer. It turns out, Oakland has had 9 draft picks since 2007 make their big league team. They had 17 draft picks make the show with other teams. There are only a handful of teams where the difference in these two numbers is so skewed and it is not teams you might think.
For instance, it would seem logical that teams with skinny payrolls would have more of their draft picks end up playing for another team because they could not afford them. This proves to be partially untrue — see chart. The Royals and Rockies tend to develop their players all the way through the system. They at least give their prospects the shot of playing at the big league level. Down the line those players might end up with other teams, but despite their budgets, these two teams are clearly focusing more on keeping those players within their organization.
The A’s, on the other hand, use their farm system as a breeding ground for potential bargaining pieces. I am not saying they don’t care to develop their minor league players. They just have a different strategy behind it. They are doing it with a different goal in mind. That goal being to leverage those pieces, when ready, to acquire above average yet still under-valued proven ball players. I said before Oakland is trying to minimize the risk within their 25 man roster. History has taught us there is no bigger risk than an untested prospect. So, Oakland sends those prospects to other teams in exchange for predictable win players. And according to eWAR the A’s have been the best at doing this in the last five years.
While the original moneyball tactic is still alive and well, Oakland has found a few other ways to outperform the competition. In this case I am highlighting their organization’s unique strategy. I am not saying this is the solution for every team, just that it seems to be working for Oakland. Today, most teams are on the same playing field when it comes to analytics. To some, this might seem boring, but for me it’s exciting. It is exciting because now we will start to see new strategies and innovation. Teams will be forced to look to new avenues to gain an upper hand. Keep a sharp eye though because the next moves might be subtle.Next post: BttP Podcast: Ep 15 – Author Susan Petrone
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