Two Teams, Opposite Directions?
There has been wide-spread praise in sabremetric circles for Michael
Lewis' new book, Moneyball. Most of the book focuses on Oakland
GM Billy Beane's philosophy of integrating statistical analysis into the
scouting equation for building his organization, something that many organizations
are still reluctant to embrace. One of the lengths the A's take this
to is to concentrate their drafting strategies on college players who meet
their statistical criteria. But make no mistake: the A's do not completely
disregard non-college players as some in the media have suggested.
While it's true that the A's have had great success with their strategy,
they would not have enjoyed the same success without Eric Chavez or Miguel
Tejada (or Ramon Hernandez to a lesser degree), players who did not attend
any college, yet have been the keystones to their success on offense the
last 3 years. So to suggest that a team can succeed in it's minor
league development by ignoring amateur players other than those in college
programs is simply ignoring the facts.
There's no debate that many front offices have been living in the 19th
century with their approach to evaluating draftable talent, but most are
at least coming to the realization that statistical analysis is a very
inexpensive way to get an edge on their competition. It does not
require a truck load of scouts; just one or two guys with laptops and spreadsheets
crunching numbers. If paying 2 guys $100,000 ends up insuring that
a team's million dollar bonus baby contributes to the major league club,
it's money well spent.
The biggest advantage of drafting college players is not that they are
more polished. In fact, many have to unlearn habits that their college
coaches taught them. No, the biggest advantage, especially with pitchers,
is that there is simply less risk, and for an organization on a budget like
the A's, that can be as important as the quality of talent. College players
are closer to physical maturity so that they have fewer years left to be
concerned about career-threatening injury. They also have emotional
maturity in their favor as well. There is less chance for a breakdown,
and thus less chance of a loss on the investment. Drafting college
players is the safest and ultimately cheapest way to stock an organization
with healthy, decent players. The A's are simply playing the law of
averages in order to build a very good regular season team.
The problem with the A's is that their philosophy gears them toward being
only a really good regular season team, but vulnerable in the playoffs. Oakland
doesn't put much credence in a lot of the tools that scouts love to praise
like speed and defense. Instead, they focus on on-base percentage and
little else. It's easier (and cheaper) to find kids who are really
good at one skill than it is to find one who is above average in the five
tools. For the regular season, that's an excellent strategy because
the law of averages works in favor of that philosophy; given enough opportunity
- like a 162 game season - a team that gets on base consistently will score
enough to win more than their share of games.
The post-season, however, is a different story. The playoffs are
all about tools and the most toolsy players are generally drafted out of
high school, or younger if the player is international. It is the
team with the most toolsy players, guys like Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera,
Garret Anderson and Francisco Rodriguez, that wins the short series. The
law of averages doesn't work in the post-season because there is very little
opportunity for it to play itself out in seven games or less. In the
A's case, it is doubly troubling because if the opposition can limit their
ability to get on base, they have no alternatives for scoring. They
are a fairly one-dimensional offense and historically, teams like that don't
win championships. The last such team to win it all was the 1995 Braves,
and before that the 1983 Orioles and 1982 Cardinals. Three in 20 years
is not exactly playing the law of averages to win a championship.
But at least the A's are on a solid foundation and will be a viable contender
for division championships for as long as Beane and Company stay around.
Who knows, they may get lucky one of these years and win it all. The
Montreal Expos, on the other hand, won't. And unfortunately, it's
not because of anything they are doing on the field.
The Expos will cease to exist soon because in the spring of 2006, major
league owners will vote to contract them and the Florida Marlins. By the
start of the 2007 season, they will be just another bit of baseball nostalgia.
They won't be moved, despite the relocation dog and pony show that currently
pits Washington DC versus Portland, Oregon. If baseball's owners were
truly serious about putting franchises in the most viable markets, DC would
have received one of the expansion franchises in 1992. In terms of
average disposable incomes and target audience, Baltimore/Washington is more
capable of sustaining two franchises than either the Bay Area or Chicago.
Northern Virginia, specifically Fairfax County, would be the ideal location
as Baltimore would lose fewer fans and a team in Fairfax would draw fans
from as far as Richmond. According to the last census, there are more
people in Fairfax County than their are in the cities of Detroit, Cincinnati,
Boston, Seattle, Cleveland, Denver, Kansas City, Oakland, Miami. Minneapolis/St.
Paul, St. Louis, Pittsburgh or Tampa, AND it is one of the top five wealthiest
counties in the country.
People point to the fact that DC "lost" two teams. What they so
eagerly ignore is that 1) both times, the owners (Calvin Griffith and Bob
Short) in question were given everything they wanted (stadiums, tax deals,
etc.) on a platter in order to move, and that 2) DC is a completely different
market now than it was then. Fairfax County, for instance, was predominantly
farmland and forest as late as 1975. Today, only five cities have
more office space than Fairfax County and it's the corporate headquarters
of dozens of Fortune 500 companies, including Mobil, EDS and M&M/Mars.
None of that matters, though. DC won't be getting a team... ever.
As long as owners want new stadiums deals, and congressman and senators
can be bought off on Capitol Hill with major league baseball PAC money, DC
will be the market every owner will threaten to move his team to. And
new Collective Bargaining Agreement assures that the DC option will always
On page 50, the plan is spelled out pretty plainly. It states that
the Office of the Commissioner and/or the Clubs agree not to contract while
the current agreement is in place (through the 2006 season), but have the
option to do so by as many as two teams in 2007. From April 1, 2006
until July 1, 2006, the owners may vote to contract. More importantly,
as part of this agreement, the Player's Association agrees "not to bring
any contractual or NLRA challenge to the decision to contract. Moreover,
the Association shall not pursue, encourage, finance or assist any anti-trust
challenge to such decision to contract." In short, the Player's Association
agrees to roll over and play dead on the issue of contraction.
So what does this mean? It means that for the next 3 years, we
will see a repeat of what happened to the Expos following the 1994 season:
a sell-off of all their quality talent in exchange for practically nothing.
But this time, it will be two teams doing it: the owner-less (or overly-owner-abundant,
depending on how you look at it) Expos and the Marlins, who are owned by
baseball's Angel of Death, Jeffrey Loria, who played Dr. Kevorkian to the
Expos before bringing his show to South Florida. Essentially, both
teams will be gone by the time the owners make it official in the spring
of 2006 as their considerable stable of talented players will have been auctioned
off well before that deadline. At that point, the rest of the owners
can resume threatening and extorting their localities, just like the good
Coincidentally, Bud Selig has elected not to continue on as Commissioner
after 2006. I guess he doesn't want to be the guy telling Montreal
and South Florida and Washington DC/Northern Virginia that they aren't good
enough for baseball. While guys like Billy Beane stand out as shining
examples of ingenuity and resourcefulness in management, I have to wonder
whether the people who are planning the future of the sport are the ones
who aren't good enough for it.