Two Teams, Opposite Directions?

Oakland A's
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.

Montreal Expos

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 the new Collective Bargaining Agreement assures that the DC option will always be open.

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 old days.  

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.