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When Life Depends on a Lottery: The Oakland A’s

January 8, 2012

I like Jonah Keri. I enjoyed his book about the Tampa Bay Rays (The Extra 2%), and I tend to respect his point of view when he writes. But everyone is entitled to be offbase from time to time and Keri’s latest article at Grantland, “The Myth of the Small Market Window” is certainly offbase. Inspired by the A’s recent purge of Andrew Bailey, Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez, Keri lights into the idea that small market teams have mere windows to compete, he says in his opening,

Billy Beane loves to talk about Windows. The Window is the short period of time in which small-revenue clubs supposedly have to compete. Right now, the Window is closed in Oakland. The Window was open once, and the A’s general manager did everything he could to keep it that way just a little bit longer. But changes in the game, we’re told, have made it harder and harder to prop open the Window even a crack … much less wide open, allowing years of fresh air and pennants to waft in.

There is a nugget of truth behind this Window obsession. Smaller-revenue teams have a tougher time signing premium free agents, or retaining their own top players past their initial six years of team control. That puts extra pressure on these poorer teams to bring up a bunch of great prospects all at once, then hope they get good at the same time before they get expensive.

But far more often it’s a bullshit excuse. It’s a vague, faraway goal that always seems several years out of reach. It’s a cover for cheap, greedy ownership, lousy scouting, drafting, and player development, and myopic trades. It’s a weak attempt to placate a fan base screwed over by years of management incompetence and indifference.”

Well then.

I disagree with what he accuses in his third paragraph quite vehemently. To completely disregard the challenges of having a revenue stream like the A’s and feel that they can simply compete on equal footing with the Yankees and Red Sox of the world is dangerously naive. Yet Keri isn’t stupid, he seems to get it because the second paragraph hits the nail on its head.

Keri’s big argument in many ways surrounds on thing. He may say, “lousy scouting, drafting and player development” but that is all one package right there. If you believe in the predictability of baseball players’ future production, a lousy scouting department would lead to a lousy draft as your draft would be filled with lousy players, presumably these lousy players can’t suddenly be trained to be very good and thereby it poisons the hope of your player development making them too in turn look lousy.

He says that the problem for Oakland boils down to their inability to find talent. He closes his case with,

“Greater emphasis on young talent by rival teams and a lousy stadium situation might be partly responsible for the A’s Window being slammed shut. But the far bigger reason is the same one that has left Pirates fans without fresh air for 20 Bonds-less years, the same one that’s got Royals fans only now starting to get a little optimistic after a 26-year playoff drought: The A’s have a bunch of cruddy players because management didn’t do a good enough job of getting non-cruddy ones.”

That begs the question, what makes a good draft? To figure it out first off all I looked at data from 1990-2004 and while I tend to prefer FanGraphs‘ WAR calculation, for the sake of expediency I used Baseball-Reference’s calculation as they have a wonderful draft database that allowed me to find the information I needed. First for a little about the information: one I used every American League team between 1990-2004 (this means for 1996 when the Devil Rays were stocking their farm system they are counted as are the 1996 Milwaukee Brewers though they vacated the AL with the Devil Rays’ 1997 arrival). This 15 year block was arbitrary, and I felt that getting closer more recent drafts would complicate matters as many players would just be starting their careers and therefore career WAR numbers would be off. Of course this isn’t a foolproof system as there are still players from the 1990 draft who are active and many more from 2004 who are. Secondly there is double counting in these numbers – guys who were drafted by Team A, did not sign, then were drafted by Team B. Their WAR numbers are counted more than once in some instances. However, if looking at the quality of the players chosen, it is both too time-consuming and complicated to figure out who signed/did not sign. While one can fairly argue that a front-office’s ability to sign a draft pick is a major part of what makes them good or bad, I wanted to more do an evaluation of talent chosen here, but that is a fair criticism though I don’t think it would greatly alter the results or conclusions, it could.

To determine what makes a good draft there are several measures one could look at. Is it more successful if more of your players drafted ultimately end up playing at the highest level – MLB? If that is the case the A’s draft of 2002 – the famous “Moneyball draft” was the best in the American League between 1990-2004. Of the 51 players drafted 27% made it to the show including, Joe Blanton, Jonathan Papelbon (who they A’s drafted but who did not sign) and Nick Swisher. These players have combined to put up 56.7 WAR in the years since or roughly 1.1 WAR overall the 51 players drafted. But that 56.7 WAR is dwarfed by the combined output of the 1990 Yankee draftees who combined for 120.8 WAR in a draft that featured, Carl Everett, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada. Of the 74 players the Yankees drafted in 1990 they put up an average of 1.6 WAR all said and done while on 18% of them made the bigs. But that number isn’t as large as the 1990 Baltimore Oriole class, who had fewer graduate to MLB (15%) but put up 76.0 WAR despite being a class of just 45 draftees making their average pick worth 1.7 WAR in the pros. Yet virtually all of that value came from one guy: Mike Mussina (74.6 WAR).

So which is better? It’s hard to say. The Orioles missed on virtually everyone but really hit on one guy. The Yankees above had three very solid players out of 74, and the A’s meanwhile graduated a lot of pretty good but not necessarily Hall of Fame bound players (also in the A’s example, that WAR number should climb given how many of those players are still playing baseball). This is sort of evidence in and of its of the draft being a crapshoot.

211 teams have drafted in the American League since 1990. The average WAR a team can expect out of their draft class during that period of time is 23.3 WAR. Going from a high of the 1990 Yankees’ 120.8 to a low of the 1999 Yankees and 2003 Devil Rays’ -4.6 WAR (to further belabor the above point that Devil Rays draft class had one of the highest graduation rates at 24%). During this period of time an American League team could expect that about 13% of the players they drafted would reach the pros. But did some teams do better than others? See for yourself?

Team Avg % Pro St Dev % Pro Total WAR Avg WAR St Dev Avg WAR
Angels

13.1

4.00

305.9

20.4

19.03

Athletics

17.0

4.77

459.7

30.6

18.31

Blue Jays

12.0

3.67

406.7

27.1

25.23

Brewers

8.6

1.99

162.4

23.2

25.27

Devil Rays

17.6

5.10

192.0

21.3

19.48

Indians

11.0

3.71

293.6

19.6

25.32

Mariners

12.0

3.50

460.2

30.7

28.23

Orioles

14.0

3.71

304.3

20.3

20.13

Rangers

13.1

3.86

355.7

23.7

20.32

Red Sox

14.7

4.30

362.9

24.2

15.57

Royals

13.0

4.93

310.4

20.7

23.99

Tigers

11.3

3.61

259.0

17.3

14.43

Twins

13.8

3.23

395.7

26.4

19.47

White Sox

13.8

4.56

361.0

24.1

25.15

There is no clear answer. The Mariners clearly found the most talent out of the draft between 1990 and 2004 with an American League leading 460.2 WAR, but then again 104.6 of that comes solely from Alex Rodriguez. The Tigers meanwhile were clearly the worst at 259.0 WAR. But here is whee stuff continues to get complicated. While the Mariners were far better, largely owing to Rodriguez, they had a wide deviation in how much talent they actually got out of the draft with a standard deviation from draft to draft a second worst in the American League 28.2 WAR nearly equal to their 30.7 WAR average. Yet the Tigers were the epitome of consistency, at 14.4 WAR deviation though that number too nearly equaled their 17.3 WAR average draft.

If it is about getting the most players out of your draft to go pro Tampa Bay (17.6%) and Oakland (17%) are tops there. But the results are quite different with Oakland getting 30.6 WAR of talent per draft whereas Tampa Bay just managed 21.3. The point is that there are a lot of numbers on this page that are meaningless.

The draft is a crapshoot. It always has been a crapshoot and will always remain a crapshoot. As Jason Wojciechowski says on his great Beaneball post about the Keri article,

“It’s surely not reasonable to simply say “the players coming up aren’t as good, so the front office has done a bad job,” right? I mean, do you remember how highly Grant Desme was rated before he QUIT BASEBALL TO JOIN THE PRIESTHOOD?

I’m sorry for the allcaps, but my gosh, what a stroke of poor luck. I’m still frustrated about it, which is why I yelled. But anyway, my point is that luck obviously plays a part. There are aspects that are, plain and simple, out of the control of management. How much? I don’t know. The issue is that I don’t think Keri knows either.”

There are mistakes made by every front office. It is clear that pursuing Matt Holliday was a mistake that stalled a rebuild and took valuable pieces away from the A’s that could’ve kept this window of contention open a bit longer. But to argue that there are no windows of contention and that simple greed and stupidity results in a team with a low-revenue from failing to be the Rays of the past year is ridiculous. Agree or disagree with what Beane is doing or has done, having to depend upon the draft for the majority of your talent leaves you victim to a great deal of luck. Lately the A’s have been on the bad side of it.

This post was also posted in its entirety as my regular Sunday post on Athletics Nation. I encourage any readers of this blog to go there to comment and join in with an opinionated and baseball savvy group of A’s fans. 

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22 Comments leave one →
  1. MogulMan permalink
    January 9, 2012 3:23 pm

    Semi-related: of the top eleven prospects on Sickels’ just-released preliminary list, eight came to the organization via trade with seven coming just recently (four in the Gio trade, two in the Cahill trade, one in the Bailey trade). The other three are the first round picks from each of the last three seasons.

  2. MogulMan permalink
    January 9, 2012 7:52 pm

    Indeed. Sickels gave no Oakland prospects higher than a B- both last year and the year before….this year, there is an A- (Parker), a B+ (Cole), and two B’s (Peacock and Gray).

    Three years ago, Sickels gave Cahill and Anderson a B+, Gio a B, and Inoa, Mazzaro, Simmons, Henry Rodriguez, Outman, Brett Hunter, and Carignan a B-.

    • January 10, 2012 7:51 pm

      Its amazing how quickly the system has turned around care of these trades. That said, the A’s need a successful draft, I just wonder if that is something you really can do.

      • MogulMan permalink
        January 10, 2012 8:21 pm

        I should have written “no Oakland pitching prospects” in the above.

        In terms of position players, Michael Choice got a B+, Derek Norris received a B, and Grant Green was given a B-. Nine guys were rated at C+.

  3. January 11, 2012 4:55 pm

    My problem is that I just cannot take seriously a guy who writes, “The Yankees above had three very solid players out of 74,” when referring to Petitte, Posada and Everett. Forgetting Everett who may have been solid, my have been tapioca pudding; calling Posada and Pettitte “very solid” just plain destroys the writer’s credibility. Pettitte chose to retire rather than win 13-17 games a year until he reached 300 and a spot in the Hall of Fame and Posada will eventually get close enough in the balloting to make him the suject of countless debates. These were not “very solid” ballplayers. These were integral parts of championship teams. These were ballplayers who were the poster men for baseball’s being a game played by human beings, outdoors (mostly) on grass and dirt (often) … as opposed to baseball’s being a math test, taken by 27-year-old boys (who were overjoyed to be picked to play right field) and their only friends, the laptops, in their bedrooms, in the basements of their parent’s houses.

    Boys, you just cannot call Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada “very solid” and write for ANY medium and expect to be taken seriously.

    • January 11, 2012 5:01 pm

      Thank you for commenting. I don’t think that Pettitte or Posada are HOF-bound nor that they warrant that much debate. They were great players etc. The point is if you look at WAR which is the method I chose to use. They are very solid. They aren’t like Alex Rodriguez who on his own tops all three and would clear an additional Carl Everett. Basically your argument is one of semantics as opposed to one of substance. If I wrote “three great players” the point ultimately is still the same.

    • January 11, 2012 5:02 pm

      Thank you for commenting. I don’t think that Pettitte or Posada are HOF-bound nor that they warrant that much debate. They were great players etc. The point is if you look at WAR which is the method I chose to use. They are very solid. They aren’t like Alex Rodriguez who on his own tops all three and would clear an additional Carl Everett. Basically your argument is one of semantics as opposed to one of substance. If I wrote “three great players” the point ultimately is still the same. That said I appreciate the lame basement of their parent’s house comment, that was original. Never heard that one before.

  4. January 11, 2012 5:03 pm

    Although I absolutely adore your piece’s title. I owned a card store when Van Poppel’s rookie card came out. My customer’s sure didn’t retire on his RC … but I did. (mwahhh)

    • January 11, 2012 5:05 pm

      Well I appreciate that. I suppose you have not been able to sell those rookies in a while?

  5. January 11, 2012 5:12 pm

    Nope, you’re missing the point. Your choice of words is not some petty distractor; it is the most important part of my argument. It goes to your credibility, and your credibility is the issue here. Your answer was a repitition of your sabermetric reasoning for “very solid” That’s fine, and you’ve got a right. But I’m attacking your use of sabermetrics to try to prove your point. That’s also fine, and I’ve also got a right.

    You’re obviously a smart guy. Whether you are right or wrong isn’t important, and it isn’t proveable. Same goes for me. You understand this, right? Right.

    • January 11, 2012 5:18 pm

      Let’s say that sabermetrics are bunk. Let’s say that Pettitte and Posada both are key integral parts of four World Championships (something that both sabermetrics and an eyeball test agree upon, furthermore something I also agree with). My point is that the draft is a crapshoot. That 1990 draft was great for the Yankees, then one year later they go with Brien Taylor and only three players actually make the Majors: Lyle Mouton, Keith Garagozzo and Bronson Heflin (until today I was unfamiliar with the latter two). Taylor’s failure as a surefire due to injury is proof of the argument that there is no sure thing in a draft. The fact that the 1991 draft for New York – 80 players (and the first pick in each round no less) and only three make it to the pros – is indicative of the sort of scattershot results.

  6. January 11, 2012 5:16 pm

    Yeah, I had a chance to sell 4 cases of ’89 Topps (is that the right year; it’s been a while) but the guy wanted me to throw in a dozen ’88 Donruss Greg Jeffries and my soul. Couldn’t do it; only had 11 Jeffries

    • January 11, 2012 5:20 pm

      The real popular one was the ’91 Upper Deck. Topps which was my brand didn’t have him until 1992 which is the photo used in the masthead though not the infamous high value rookie card.

  7. dominik permalink
    January 11, 2012 5:42 pm

    I think it’s no coincidence that the As have a large number of graduates but rarely really good players.

    if you read moneyball you can see that beane want’s to draft “sure thing” players with not much risk. but the problem is that unless you have a top10 first round pick low risk means also low upside.

    maybe beane should start to draft real talent again. I understand the point of having a lot of solid players instead of a few great ones.

    but on the other hand you need some stars. to win and also to make money. the As have just been a boring team in the last seasons.

    people want to see exiting young sluggers and not solid pitching and guys who “just get on base”. if they did maybe they would have some fans= more money to buy good players.

    It is good to draft some low risk players but you also sometimes have to draft that wild 98 mph throwing fireballer with a tendency to alcohol if you want to get some stars:D. I think there needs to be a balance between low risk, low ceiling guys and high risk, high ceiling guys if you want to win (of course if there is a low risk, high ceiling guy-like harper or strasburg you take him too but those guys are so rare that you can’t base your entire farming on them).

  8. January 12, 2012 1:08 am

    Ok, I think we’ve finally come to that point in the disussion that I love so much — everyone agrees with me. No, seriously, I do believe we all share some basic baseball values, even if we might arrive at finding them in varying ways.

    I also suspect we share still another value — the girl from the TV show “Chuck” is on Kimmel, wearing that basic “little black dress.” that women wear to distract us from WARs and ERAs and DICEs. So, it’s been a pleasure. Really.

  9. MogulMan permalink
    January 13, 2012 3:02 pm

    Scout.com has Parker at #23 overall, Choice at #29, Gray at #31, Green at #47, Cole at #76, Peacock at #85, and Chris Carter at #99.

    • January 14, 2012 12:36 am

      I am shocked that Chris Carter is that high.

      • MogulMan permalink
        January 14, 2012 1:46 am

        Last year’s MLB average for contact rate when swinging at a pitch in the strike zone was 88%. Carter in 46 PA last year was at 60.5%. Yikes.

      • January 14, 2012 3:09 pm

        Carter just looks awful out there. He goes out there and has such a huge power build but then seems to flail a lot. Like he is fighting everything off instead of locking in and unloading on the pitch. He needs some serious help because he looks lost as it doesn’t even seem like if he did make contact he’d do anything but rollover on the ball with the weak swings he is taking.

      • MogulMan permalink
        January 25, 2012 11:34 am

        Baseball America released their projected 2015 Oakland lineup (which of course is a fool’s errand). The rotation was Parker, Peacock, Anderson, Gray, and Cole, the closer was DLS, and the defense looked like this: Norris (C), Chris Carter (1B), Weeks (2B), Pennington (SS), Grant Green (3B), Choice (LF), Jermaine Mitchell (CF), and Josh Reddick (RF) with Seth Smith as the DH.

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