Friday, July 21, 2006

The A's Formula for Success

The Oakland Athletics were in town to beat up on the poor Orioles this week, and it got me thinking about the A's and Billy Beane's much-hyped sabermetrics and how everyone says that pure numbers are his "formula for success" on a tight budget.

I read Moneyball during the 2004 season, and I definitely recommend it to any baseball fan because it does an incredible job of explaining just how well numbers can be used to evaluate a hitter's value. It's fascinating stuff.

But the more I thought about the A's and their success this week, the more I realized the central flaw in the book. It merely glosses over the fact that the A's have been extremely successful in scouting and developing excellent young pitchers from college. Sure, it gets talked about for a chapter, but THAT's the reason for the A's success, not the few extra runs they get out of their tight budget because Scott Hatteberg walks a lot and came cheap.

Billy Beane may find a bargain on an underrated player that's slightly above league average because Beane values numbers that other GMs aren't thinking about, but when you break down the numbers and evaluate everything sabermetrically, the players that everyone thinks of as the best players in the league are still the best players in the league.

Shocking, right? And here you were thinking this was some magic formula that would have any team winning championships with other teams' utility infielders.

To prove a point, one of the new stats that everyone loves is VORP, or value over replacement player. It's kind of confusing, but basically this is saying how much a player is worth over some nameless generic player.

Not too surprisingly, the top 10 goes:
  1. Travis Hafner
  2. Albert Pujols
  3. Vernon Wells
  4. Joe Mauer
  5. Jim Thome
  6. Derek Jeter
  7. Miguel Cabrera
  8. Manny Ramirez
  9. Carlos Beltran
  10. Chase Utley

So here everyone's talking about the A's craaazzy system of evaluating players and whatnot, but the reason it works is that their pitching is always so good.

The stats don't lie.

In 2005, the Athletics were sixth in the majors in team ERA and first in batting average against. Meanwhile they were a middle-of-the-pack hitting team (17th in batting average and, -- before you bust me for using a "worthless" statistic -- 14th in on-base percentage and 20th in the Moneyball favorite, OPS).

They win because the pitching is great, so they can have a mediocre lineup and still win games. And middle-of-the-road players are really where sabermetrics help you get the most bang for your buck. When you're debating between $3-4 million-a-year players, sabermetrics will show you who will help you win the most games. But a $15 million-a-year player is still lightyears ahead of those guys.

Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball, seems to want readers to believe that the Yankees should be winning about 150 games a year if they were using all that money with a knowledge of sabermetrics, but that's not really true because once you get up to that much money the best players are still the big names, and those are the players that command the kind of money that only the Yankees and Red Sox can provide.

So there's all this hype about hitter stats, but the real difference maker is talented scouting that is able to find quality pitchers who will be ready to pitch in the Majors with little adjustment time.

Think about it. They had Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito dominating the West. Then when Hudson and Mulder got their payday when their rookie contracts ended, the A's filled holes with Rich Harden, Dan Haren and Joe Blanton.

So how does this pertain to the Orioles?

It gives me optimism, that's how. The O's have tons of highly-regarded pitching prospects. Erik Bedard is already showing he can be an ace, Daniel Cabrera has ace stuff but needs to learn to control it, Adam Loewen is working out his kinks with the big club and has showed flashes of brilliance, Hayden Penn is knocking on the door, and they've got guys like Garrett Olson, Brandon Erbe and Radhames Liz who are all well though of by people in the know.

It takes a long time to build up a quality stable of young arms like this, but the Orioles are well on their way and fans could be seeing results sooner rather than later.

So while you O's fans are crying over the crushing haplessness of Peter Angelos and thinking this team will never compete (by the way is it wrong that I caught myself today checking Wikipedia to see how old Peter Angelos is? ... 77), please recognize that our lineup, even with the Conines and Millars of the world, would be pretty good with Oakland's pitching. Oakland's in first place in their division and they're 28th in the league in runs scored! (Yeah I know that's the crappy AL West, but still, the O's are a far superior hitting team.)

So have some hope. Soon Russ Ortiz will get the boot and Rodrigo Lopez will be traded and we can watch the future: Bedard, Cabrera, Loewen and Penn all in the rotation.

Sorry this post wasn't funny... I'll try harder next week.

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