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Friday, September 23, 2011

Me and Brad Pitt: ? degrees of separation

Today, the "Moneyball" film is being released nationally, starring Brad Pitt (longtime blog favorite Angelina Jolie's spouse) as Oakland A's GM Billy Beane. I read and enjoyed Michael Lewis's book of the same name many years ago.

A lot of people in baseball directly or indirectly contributed to this moment. When Michael Lewis wrote this book, he consulted then-ESPN baseball columnist Rob Neyer, who used to work for Bill James. I don't know if Lewis was reading the usenet group (or some similar discussion forums), but there was some great stuff being posted there by people who created and operated Baseball Prospectus. Many SABR members were also involved in these discussions. Here's my contribution to a KC Royals discussion, September 11, 1996. Readers might note that the on-line baseball community was giving a lot of attention to on-base percentage and runs scored in 1996. That's because we all read Bill James in the 1980s.

Anyway, in April 2000, inspired by what I was reading in those on-line forums and in some related books, I gave a talk for the Louisville SABR group called "Can Small Market Teams Compete?" I've archived a scan of my presentation on Google Docs, complete with my pre-powerpoint handouts about the size of American cities (census data), the Forbes magazine 1999 list of team values, team payrolls from USA Today, etc.

I thought it was a good talk, though some members of the audience were fairly skeptical about my conclusions. For those who don't want to look at the scans, here's an October 5, 2000, post I contributed to STATLG-L, a baseball discussion list that I used to frequent:
Subject: small market teams
From: Rodger A. Payne
Reply-To: Baseball (and Lesser Sports) Discussion List
Date: Thu, 5 Oct 2000 12:41:08 -0400

At a SABR Regional meeting in Louisville earlier this year (April, iirc),
I presented "Can Small Market Teams Compete?"

I'm a KC fan and have a personal interest in this question for obvious
reasons. However, the team I used as my case study was Oakland.

Much of my presentation was about team finances and population. Teams like
Philly and the Chisox are in big media centers, but media often seem to
consider them to be "small" (and some smaller city teams are considered
"big"). It's interesting stuff, but I'm leaving it out of this post.

Instead, I'm posting about the last portion of my presentation, which was
devoted to strategies that small market teams could use to build discount
winners in today's context. Then, I pointed out that the A's employ
virtually all of them. Here are the 3 most important:

1. Build on youth.

First, teams can set very low salaries until players are arbitration-
eligible, and even then pay below free agent prices for players. This
means, in practice, that most players work on-the-cheap for 3 years and at
well below market for the next 4 years (if they decline arbitration in the
last year, they are on the road to free agency).

Further, data on performance indicates that players tend to reach a high
level of play in this discount period (some research shows that most
players are fully developed around ages 24-25, though the data is better
for hitters), often peak around 27, and decline from age 30 onward--when
free agent market conditions are often determining salaries.

The Indians developed an innovation now sometimes copied by other teams:
offering certain players multiple year contracts to "buy out" years of
arbitration (or even a year or 2 of free agency). With strong choices,
this can really save money and buy good will with a player who might
otherwise get a very low salary in years 2-3 of his major league career.

The A's, as was noted yesterday, take much advantage of this with Chavez,
Tejada, Hudson, etc. Next season, look for Jose Ortiz (a middle
infielder), Eric Byrnes (OF), and Adam Piatt (corner infielder) to play
important roles on the A's--replacing perhaps higher-priced Velarde,
Stairs and Jaha (the A's probably screwed up in resigning Velarde and Jaha
last season).

2. Use "Ken Phelps All Stars" to plug holes.

The minor leagues are filled with veteran baseball players that could be
obtained easily (as minor league free agents or in "minor" trades) and
quite cheaply. Triple A rosters, in particular, are now littered with
these guys (often "failed" prospects). Just look around the AAA rosters
the past few seasons. These players are generally not arbitration eligible
and can be paid peanuts for several years, which is usually during their
peak/pre-decline age 28-30 seasons.

Moreover, many of these veterans are quite capable of playing important
roles on major league teams. The key issue is whether teams will give them
a chance. It might be difficult to find an All Star hitter, or a very
talented SS, CF, or C, but talented LF, 1B, DH, pitchers and probably some
2Bs are readily available. Think Brian Daubach--not a star, by any means,
but quite capable of putting up an .800 OPS and contributing to a winning
team (if not asked to carry too much of the load). Daubach actually had
putrid numbers against LHPers this year (657 OPS in 110 PAs), but fits the
bill versus righties: 794. He was better in 1999 (943 vs. RHPers, when he
got only 50 PAs vs. LHPers). Dave McCarty would be another example.

The A's have been quite good at acquiring and using these players:
Geronimo Berroa, Matt Stairs, Olmedo Saenz, Sal Fasano, Gil Heredia
(arguably) and perhaps Jeff Tam fall into this category. Jeremy Giambi
may as well.

3. Value walks.

I think a good argument can be made that major league teams dramatically
undervalue on-base skills. Players who walk a lot don't seem to reach the
majors in proportion to their real value. I'm not confident that there's
systematic study of this (yet), but it seems apparent to me. The cliche
repeated about players from the Dominican Republic is that "you don't walk
off the island." Similarly, players seldom "walk" their way through the
minors to the majors.

Yet, walking is a vital part of OPS. Players who walk more than other
players contribute a great deal to scoring runs. That's a huge positive
and some teams obviously don't get it. Sadly, KC is one of those teams.

The A's, however, are well known for appreciating the base-on-balls. The
major league team has been near the top for a couple of years now, GM
Billy Beane has said in interviews that the organization looks for players
that walk, and their minor league affiliates from top to bottom are at or
near the top of their leagues in walking/OBA. I used numbers from 1998-99
in my presentation to demonstrate this point. These walking teams are also
very good at scoring runs.


Teams should, of course, combine these strategies. Since KPAS are mostly
1B/LF/DH-types, it makes sense to focus scouting and other resources on
developing SS/C/CF/3B. KC, of course, has mostly failed at this, while
Oakland has Tejada, Hernandez, T. Long and Chavez. NYY has Jeter, Posada,
Williams and soon Soriano/Jimenez.

This would also mean getting KPAS who know the strike zone. Detroit should
be rewarded for finally giving Billy McMillon a chance. The IL walk
leaders this season included Ozzie Timmons (TB), McMillon, and Morgan
Burkhart (Bos). Three of the top 8 in the PCL were A's players (Mark
Bellhorn, Bo Porter and Steve Decker), but the list also included Mike
Neill and Brian Lesher--potential KPAS hitters. It's interesting to me to
see former KC non-walking prospect Phil Hiatt just barely in the top 20.

Well, this is pretty long so I should stop. Comments would be appreciated.
I'm also interested in how few walks a team surrenders to its opposition
(I think pitchers with great control are often undervalued) and potential
gains from developing talent with an inflated value and trading it for
players of *real* value. Swap that stolen base king or proven closer for
someone who can really help a team win.
One point that I didn't discuss, and neither did Michael Lewis, is the use of steroids. Those Oakland teams a decade ago featured Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada. That's two MVPs linked to steroids -- and that's not even counting prototypical moneyball players like late-career David Justice and Jeremy Giambi.

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