A's fans, by and large, probably want to punch Moneyball right in the nose. No other franchise has to live under the shadow of a 13-year-old book, one where the core message is universal and unchanging, but the surrounding details have aged like an open can of soda. The Dodgers aren't still dealing with Sheriffball, with every move inspected under a Kevin Malone lens. Every time the Giants get intentionally walked, there isn't someone mumbling "good ol' Barryball" under their breath. That stuff was over a decade ago. Get over it.
The A's, though, are still the team of Jonah Hill and Brad Pitt. They don't deserve it, but it's going to be impossible to shake. And, to be fair, the central thesis of the book still remains: The A's are going to have to find cracks to exploit, angles to take. Moneyball was never just about finding slow dudes who could walk. That's why the sequel never made it out of development.
Peter Brand:Hey, it looks like other teams figured out they should target players with high on-base percentages.
Billy Beane: ...
Beane: Well, shit.
That isn't the sequel. The sequel is the A's figuring the new way to zag after the rest of the league has zigged. It's something that could fill an HBO show, much less a two-hour movie. It would be endlessly fascinating to know what the A's plan was and how they executed it.
This comes up now because the A's are 14-21. They have one regular with an adjusted OPS better than the league average, and he's a pending free agent. They have one starter with an adjusted ERA better than the league average, and he's a pending free agent. As of right now, their problems are they can't score, can't pitch and can't field. Other than those minor details, this is fine, the dog said, sipping his coffee as the house burned.
How did the A's get here? What market inefficiencies were they trying to exploit? Where was the ____ball that led to the 2016 roster?
The A's led the league in errors last year, and they're leading the league in errors this year. If you go to FanGraphs and sort by defensive ratings, the A's are dead last. More than that, they're almost twice as bad as the 29th-worst team. It would help explain why the team's ERA is nearly a half-run higher than the (still lousy) FIP.
This is not a coincidence. The A's targeted Khris Davis because they figured concerns about his defense and patience were overblown, and that no one was appreciating his relatively rare in-game power.
Chris Coghlan was sneakily valuable with the bat over the last two seasons, and it was only moderately loopy for the A's to compare him to Ben Zobrist after acquiring him. He's hated by defensive metrics, though, posting negative dWAR in every season of his career. It's how he could hit 16 homers with a .341 OBP last year while playing five positions, yet was worth only two wins. The A's didn't care.
Marcus Semien was an offense-first middle infielder who was widely projected to play second base in the majors. The defensive stats are split (dWAR likes him okay enough, UZR hates him), but he'll probably never get a Gold Glove nomination. He was acquired to be a bat-first shortstop.
In the Andrelton Simmons/Kevin Kiermaier era of defensive superstars, the A's are definitely zagging when it comes to defense. Or, at least, they're feeling that defense is overvalued in the current market. I'm tempted to suggest that they're priced out of the market, except if you want a Brendan Ryan, I can get you one by 3 o'clock this afternoon, with polish. It's not like Juan Lagares is making money the A's haven't handed out before.
It's as if the A's think that while the rest of the world is looking for the next Kevin Kiermaier, they're better off searching for the anti-Kiermaiers.
It's definitely a theory.
The A's offseason, outside of their fascinating (and seemingly brilliant) gamble with Rich Hill, was spent on relievers. They dealt xFIP god Evan Scribner away and waived Dan Otero, but they traded for Marc Rzepczynski, and they signed Ryan Madson and John Axford for a combined $32 million.
Madson has been excellent, just like he was last year, don't get me wrong. But is the plan to win with their new relievers shortening the game, aping the Royals' postseason blueprint? Or is it to puff up the value of these relievers, then deal them to the teams who want to be the Royals? Or is it to try for the first one, then have the second one available as a backup plan?
Not sure. It's not a bad plan. On a budget, though, it is a kind of expensive plan. And it sure involves John Axford and a three-year deal to a 35-year-old reliever who missed three straight seasons with arm problems.
Either way, it's working for now. This might be the cagiest part of the current A's strategy right now, assuming they can exchange these relievers for prospects.
The only homegrown players on the A's 25-man roster are Sean Doolittle and Sonny Gray. Soak that in for a bit. Think about how hard that is to do. There were only 10 homegrown players on the 40-man roster as of Feb. 3, easily the lowest percentage of any team in baseball. Edit: And that guy in the picture at the top of the article, Ryan Dull, is also homegrown. So three players.
The reason for the lopsided 40-man makeup is simple: They're trading for almost twice as many players as the next team. Is it grass-is-greener syndrome, where they think other teams' prospects are better than the ones in hand? Or is it a development issue, where they're forced to go outside of the organization? Maybe it's that they feel more comfortable evaluating players with professional experience rather than pretending they have the resources or desire to properly vet international free agents and players hitting with aluminum bats.
It could also be a fluke, just a variable byproduct of a budget-conscious team trying to make a solid roster by any means necessary. Five years from now, it might be all homegrown prospects and free agents.
It could be a part of the plan, though, which would be fascinating.
There's nothing that stings more right now than the struggles of the A's pitchers combined with the rise of Drew Pomeranz. It's not like the A's were the first team to lose patience with the lefty, and it's not like there were dozens of reasons to think he would adjust to a starting role like he has.
But he was traded for a mediocre hitter at a position that should be easy to fill, in theory. Which is kind of a theme.
The A's traded for Yonder Alonso, a player who has been eternally trapped in the limbo between 1 and 2 WAR, a first baseman who won't hurt much, who won't help much. As a final piece of a roster puzzle, sure, throw him onto the pile. As a cornerstone of an offseason, it's underwhelming.
They might have had a hunch as to why Alonso never lived up to his first-round potential, internally diagnosing what's wrong, with plans to rebuild his swing. It's no secret that the Rays targeted Drew Smyly because they thought his high fastball was underutilized and a perfect match for their organizational philosophy. The A's might have thought the same thing with Alonso.
That apparently would go for Billy Butler and Ike Davis, too. Davis cost only a little money, so that's an easy one to brush off, but Butler cost a lot of money. He was a DH coming off a bad season, but the A's figured they could get him back to his Sliver Slugging ways. There's still a year and a half to prove that theory right, but, uh, it's not looking good.
Add it all up, and it's pretty clear there isn't a _____ball. There are just a bunch of loose transactions and stabs in the dark that the A's are forced to take because the farm system isn't producing. That's the crucial part. Moneyball could have easily been about how teams get young players for six years before they have to pay them, so you'd better figure out how to get young players.
In the five drafts between 2009-13, though, the A's got Sonny Gray, a good season from A.J. Griffin, a good season from Jemile Weeks, a solid season from Dan Straily and a few players who are contributing to other organizations. Out of those five drafts, only Gray can be considered a part of a long-term plan. There isn't a ______ball that can work under those constraints. There isn't a plan that can paper over that fatal flaw.
I'm not privy to how the A's finances work and how everything is allocated, but if the money given to Butler, Madson, Axford or even relative successes like Rich Hill or Scott Kazmir took away from international prospects and development in general, then it's beyond time to reassess what's going on. Because after a 94-loss season, the A's look even worse. That's some ignominy that should have been extremely hard to accomplish.
I'm not sure if there's a plan to get out of this mess. I'm not sure if there was a plan in the first place, at least one that led to the current roster. And that's an awful problem for a franchise that defined what it meant to have an organizational plan.