Applying Moneyball to the 2012 A’s
There are a lot of misconceptions to what Moneyball was about. If you search on Google, “moneyball and on base” you get 2.1M hits, more than double what you yield for searching: moneyball and undervalued. If you listen to broadcasts of teams playing the A’s it is a familiar refrain to just cast things about Moneyball based upon how often the team walks. One other aspect of Moneyball that was quite consistent was station to station baseball. The A’s weren’t a team that stole bases, bunted guys over, etc, or so the simplistic view of the book went. Just this week Rex Hudler – and let’s take his opinion with the world’s largest grain of salt because he also during this broadcast explained why players wear sunglasses (spoiler: because it is sunny), and also managed to confuse a thesaurus with a dictionary, but – he said that the A’s playing station-to-station baseball and waiting for the three run home run was “the reason they’ll be cellar dwellers in the West for years to come”. While I disagreed with the particular situation in which he made that remark, and also disagree that a team’s failure to sacrifice bunt will result in them being cellar dwellers (the Red Sox were worst in MLB last year and in last place they were not), his annoying voice and hollow opinions came back to me in yesterday’s game.
It wasn’t that the A’s failed to bunt, but what it was was that Hudler misunderstood what Moneyball meant, and it appeared at least yesterday that Bob Melvin did too. Moneyball was about taking advantage of information asymmetry. Everyone in baseball valued a skillset based upon set of principles “A”, yet by Oakland valuing a skillset based upon a set of principles “B” that actually had value that others didn’t recognize, they were able to assemble a team that could win. We all know the story, the entire league now uses “B” and we need to find, “C”, or “D”, or whatever set we are on now. This becomes naturally more difficult as the information asymmetries are fewer and fewer. But outside of the context of roster construction, there are also asymmetries within the game itself. There are guys who can hold runners on, there are guys who can’t. That asymmetry means, that you can take advantage of a pitcher with a slow motion, or it means you can take advantage of a pitcher tipping pitches, or sign-stealing, etc.
The Mariners have taken advantage of these asymmetries. Last year Kurt Suzuki struggled with cutting down runners at second base. Last year, Suzuki was third in the AL in throwing out runners, but that was only because they ran so much on him, because he only threw out 28% of would be base stealers, which was right at the league average. The Mariners, an above average team on the base paths, knew the odds were in their favor and ran. In the first four games of the season they attempt eight steals against the A’s. When Suzuki was able to throw them out at a 37.5% clip they opted not to try to run on him in the first two games in Seattle. In other words, the M’s felt they had an asymmetry to exploit, Suzuki’s bad throws from behind the plate, and did so. When they realized the A’s were up to the task, they went in search of another advantage. One other advantage they’ve exploited is Coco Crisp‘s weak arm. Every team is running at will on it, with just yesterday Brendan Ryan advancing from first to third, despite a bloop single in front of Crisp. Until Crisp proves he can throw guys out, teams should continue to liberally run on his arm – and they are.
But the A’s aren’t doing this at all – and the A’s need to. The A’s aren’t as talented as other teams, they are young, they have some one-dimensional players, some guys who still are getting accustomed to Major League Baseball, some guys who just aren’t particularly good. The A’s need to exploit every small, tiny, microscopic even advantage and leverage it to help them win. They have failed to do so and yesterday’s game was the perfect example. Behind the plate was Jesus Montero and Montero has been lauded for his hitting and has with equal fervency had his defense criticized. The A’s a relatively fast bunch and in the third inning, when the M’s couldn’t complete a double play and Josh Donaldson found himself on first, he tested Montero’s arm. And like the North Korean rocket that plummeted to the sea this week he failed the test as Montero’s throw was off-target and high, and also for good measure late. The A’s found a potential weakness in the Mariners, a hole to exploit, and what did they do?
Nothing. Top of the fourth, one out, Josh Reddick singles and stays on first so Yoenis Cespedes can ground into a double play. Fine, Reddick isn’t the best of basestealers at a little over 52.8% success in MiLB and MLB combined. But what about again with one out this time in the top of the sixth, Cliff Pennington singles. Here is a guy with a career 73.3% success rate. Why is he staying put? Two infield pop outs end that inning. Top of the seventh, Cespedes, our five tool player walks. The A’s must feel he is best using only four tools. He stays put. Seth Smith and Suzuki strike out to end the inning. Top of the eighth, Pennington again singles and his 73.3% success rate just hangs around chatting with Justin Smoak on first. Jemile Weeks hits a ground-rule double in the next at bat that strands Pennington at third when Coco pops out next at bat. Top of the ninth, two outs, sure the game is mostly a foregone conclusion at this point, why doesn’t Smith and his 81.0% success rate just take the base figuring the up 4-0 with three strikes to go M’s will let him have it increase some tiny little itty bitty bit of pressure for the Mariners? Who knows, but the A’s feel best to keep him on first.
I don’t want to see the A’s start to bunt guys over. That isn’t a winning brand of baseball. But there is nothing wrong with the stolen base if done right. The time to do it right is when you are up against a kid who is known for being defensively suspect, and you do it with guys who can steal bases. The stolen base increases pressure on the catcher, it can rattle a pitcher, and for the team doing it puts runners in scoring position. For the A’s in this past game alone it would have kept them out of one double play, and would have resulted in one run. They very well still may have, and probably would have lost, but it would’ve been a different ballgame. The M’s didn’t hesitate to test Oakland’s unproven asset, why were the A’s so hesitant to test Seattle’s? Moneyball is about exploiting minor differences and watching them stack up over the course of a long season, slowly but surely changing the odds in your favor. I wish the 2012 A’s would recognize that.
This identical post was cross-posted on Athletics Nation. I encourage all of my readers to go there to comment and argue, bicker, commiserate with a great group of A’s fans.