The Oakland A’s Bargain Basement Sluggers, Part II

Yesterday, I wrote a post listing the minor league veterans the A’s turned into major league stars over the last 25 years.  Today, I will state some of my thoughts about the A’s success in locating these kinds of players.

First, the A’s focus on these kinds of players was largely a matter of desperation.  The A’s had three periods, from 1988 to 1992, from 2000 to 2006 and finally from 2012 to 2014, where the team was really good.  Those teams were largely built around prospects that A’s developed themselves mostly through the Draft and amateur signings.  The A’s, however, simply didn’t have the financial resources to compete every year for long periods of time.

You will note that many of the years the players I listed in yesterday’s post played for the team occurred during the periods when the A’s weren’t particularly good.  In other words, when the A’s didn’t have a player they had developed themselves to build around at a position, they looked for somebody cheap they could get a couple of good, or at least adequate, seasons out of until they could develop a younger prospect they could control for five or six seasons.

The A’s financial woes were the main reason Sandy Alderson and Billy Beane got into statistical analysis, the whole Money Ball thing, first.  Starting with Berroa, they realized that sluggers who drew walks but didn’t hit for much of an average and struck out a lot were undervalued and could be obtained cheaply.  Perhaps even more importantly, they realized that minor league veterans who consistently hit in the minors but hadn’t done much in limited major league opportunities, would eventually hit at the major league level if they got more significant opportunities.

That’s certainly no longer the case, as other teams have a much better idea of what these kinds of players are worth. In fact, the success the A’s had in finding Brandon Moss and Stephen Vogt probably had more to do with the A’s greater emphasis because of financial considerations to continue to acquire and give opportunities to these kinds of players, while wealthier teams continued to hire more reliable major league veterans.  I would bet that if I were willing to do the research, the A’s have run through a great number of these kinds of players who never did break through at the major league level.

In fact by 2012-2013, when the A’s found Moss and Vogt, the team had reportedly move on to defense as an under-valued skill around which to obtain affordable talent.  Five years later, most of the other 29 teams have caught up with that angle too, and now teams are looking at pitch-framing, defensive shifts (which make sure-handed, but not very rangy defenders look better), and other more esoteric analyses in order to find a competitive advantage.

One thing that is also interesting to note is that once the A’s had located and developed these kinds of players into stars, they didn’t have much success trading them away for new talent.  The A’s ultimately traded away each of Geronimo Berroa, Matt Stairs and Marco Scutaro.  Stairs and Scutaro had long major league careers after the A’s traded them away, and, while Berroa did not, he certainly looked like a valuable commodity at the moment the A’s traded him mid-season in 1997.  However, the only player of any value the A’s got in return for these three was Jimmie Haynes, a starting pitcher that I bet even many A’s fans don’t remember well today.

Billy Beane famously claimed that the reports that other teams didn’t want to trade with him because he was allegedly such a sharp trader didn’t have a lot of basis in fact.  Many teams have done well in trades with the A’s during Beane’s reign in Oakland, and the trades of Berroa, Stairs and Scutaro are certainly examples.

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