Friday, December 12, 2014

"Hope Is Not a Great Strategy"

The popular sentiment, or at least one of the most vocal sentiments, with respect to the Athletics shipping off "All Stars" Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss and Jeff Samardzija is that ownership -- mainly front man Lew Wolff -- is being "cheap." Accusation of abuse of the fan base are reverberating across the Twittersphere. In particular, this comment stood out on the SMB feed:
While it's understandable and comes from the hearts' of true Athletics fans, it ignores the guiding principles of Moneyball:

  • Buy low, sell high.
  • Don't invest in declining assets.

When heaping praise on he-who-shall-not-be-mentioned, a similar sentiment was expressed. Yoenis Cespedes' stock was sky high thanks to two titanic Home Run Derby performances and some AND-1 mixtape calibre outfield plays. A certain then-Red Sox pitcher was, statistically speaking, having perhaps his peak year. Pain was felt all around with the result, but it was a decision guided by how the Athletics have always operated.

  • Get maximum value relative to where the franchise is in the competitiveness cycle.

The reality is that, injured or not, Moss ended up having an average year and largely was a non-factor down the stretch -- before magically reappearing in the Wild Card game.

Moss' WAR was 2.5 and his average was .234. His best attribute was his attitude, followed by his 25 home runs.  Moss is 31 and arbitration eligible. He is going to command around seven million. Remember, this guy was a scrap-heap pickup. It's better than even odds that Moss' best years were in green-and-gold. Moneyball doesn't pay for past performance.

Donaldson is perhaps the best case A's fans have of ownership "abusing" the fanbase. Not only is he a great story, a converted catcher and fringe prospect in the Rich Harden-Cubs deal, he is a fiery guy who plays hard and posted some amazing numbers. Tyler Kepner of the New York Times even gushed that he was, based on WAR, the best player in the game.

Still, there were cracks in the firmament. Donaldson slumped mightily in 2013 after the All Star break and seemed to peak in 2014 around the time Kepner's article came out. Make no mistake though, Donaldson -- based on his last two years -- is a stud and the A's won't be getting a +6 WAR from Brett Lawrie. (Although, the switch to grass may help him blossom.)

Instead, the Athletics are saving a good amount of money, as Fox's Ken Rosenthal writes:

Donaldson projects to earn $4.5 million in his first year of arbitration, according to Matt Swartz of MLBTradeRumors.com. His salaries after that, assuming normal health and production, could be $7.5 million, $11 million and $16 million, a rival agent said. And those numbers actually might be conservative. So, the savings for the Athletics figure to be in at least the $40 million range.

The prospects are TBD. The Athletics might really regret this trade. But, JD's value was Mike Trout-high and nagging concerns like his leg-kick-timing no doubt entered into the calculus. The other thing to consider is that the Athletics swapped a plus defender at 3B for another plus defender. While WAR  has entered the lexicon, its defensive component can be glossed over. On the offensive side of the ledger, Donaldson only hit .255 last year -- albeit with 29 home runs.

While true that Donaldson may have had his issues with Beane, he himself may have issues without now-Red Sox hitting coach Chili Davis, a man who worked wonders for the Athletics.

Longer-Term Vision

One of the often mentioned words regarding competitive baseball clubs is that there are "windows" in which a team has a decent chance of: a) making the playoffs; and b) winning the World Series. Jonah Keri, a fabulous writer, had serious egg on his face when before the 2012 season he offered that the Athletics had felt their window to compete had closed and that was the motivation behind shipping off Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and Andrew Bailey.

From the Grantland piece:

Oakland’s trades of Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, and Andrew Bailey last month signaled a rebuilding process within a rebuilding process.

It turns out Keri, a really, really smart guy, guessed wrong. Beane sold high on each player. With the exception of one very fine season (2012 for Gonzalez), all three have failed to blossom into true "All Stars." Cahill and Bailey are virtually forgotten and Gonzalez is still a 2-3 pitcher, not quite an ace. The only common denomination among the three is that they all received big paydays.

The trades, from a marketing perspective, were disastrous in the short run. (In general, it is best to avoid buying the Athletics yearly calendar.) Fans were upset and similar allegations of no "long term vision" and ownership being cheap were uttered.

Of course, the "prospects" netted in this trade helped propel the team to three great seasons and included two future All Stars -- Derek Norris (2013) and Ryan Cook (2012). A cogent argument could be made that the savings from shedding these players -- or assets as Beane might call them -- also enabled the team to be the high bidder on Cespedes -- also an All Star (2013).

Hearing rumblings that Beane et al. might be looking to add -- now that he has subtracted so much -- sounds heartening and familiar. This is Beane in a piece by Oakland Tribune scribe John Hickey:

"We've collected young players, and we're going to try to redeploy the extra payroll."

A long-term vision should be defined by winning baseball and, no matter how championship-less the club remains, for their budget (real or self-stated) the team continues to excel in the aggregate.

Again from Hickey's piece:

Beane simply doesn't believe in the tear-down-to-bare-ground-and-rebuild philosophy. Since 1997 under Beane, the A's have won at least 74 games every year. The only other major league teams who can make that claim are the Yankees and the Cardinals, two postseason regulars.

Here is some historical perspective on this accomplishment from ESPN's Buster Olney:

The last year they posted fewer than that, Jose Canseco was their designated hitter, Scott Brosius was their third baseman and they had just started to install a young infielder named Miguel Tejada into their everyday lineup. It was 1997, and Oakland finished that season with 65 wins and 97 losses. 

Year after year since, the Athletics have ranked near the bottom of the majors in payroll, given the constraints of their market, and yet year after year, they have tried to win.

In contrast, here's an instance where the Athletics were truly cheap and lacked vision. From the National Baseball Hall of Fame's newsletter Inside Pitch:

On Dec. 10, 1935 – 79 years ago this week – the Philadelphia Athletics traded future Hall of Fame slugger Jimmie Foxx and pitcher Johnny Marcum to the Boston Red Sox in return for Gordon Rhodes, George Savino and $150,000. 

By 1935, Foxx had collected two MVP Awards and crushed 302 home runs. He belted 58 homers in 1932, two shy of Babe Ruth’s record at the time, and won the American League batting Triple Crown in 1933. His natural strength, cultivated as a boy on his family farm in Sudlersville, Md., was so formidable that Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Gomez declared Foxx “has muscles in his hair.” 

Rhodes, meanwhile, lost 20 games for Philadelphia in 1936 and retired. Savino, a catcher, never made it out of the minor leagues.

The truly cash-strapped Athletics traded one of the greatest sluggers ever to pay the bills.

The modern-day Athletics are frugal, but cheap is a stretch.

The Counter-Narrative

It's human nature to tie events (favorable or unfavorable) to our convictions. To say that Wolff, the bane of large swaths of the fan base for his inability to commit and build a new stadium in Oakland, is orchestrating a concerted effort to dampen fan enthusiasm while enriching his ownership group is a an easy, if emotional-driven, connect.

The initial SMB tweet regarding the team not really caring about the size of the season ticket base is grounded in the fact that, thanks to numerous streams of revenue sharing (luxury tax, MLB Advanced Media, shared MLB.com merchandise sales) and due to the city and county owning the O.co and taking their cut of the gate, the Athletics financial sheet likely shows that the vast majority of operating income is not attendance driven. The gate is gravy. The proverbial Pepsi machine in Moneyball is always well stocked.

The Athletics due to their perceived status as "small market" have the political cover to make decisions that big market clubs "can't do." However, winning drives these choices.

An interesting aside: All MLB teams will be increasing their digital revenue in the near future, thanks to HBO turning to MLB Advanced Media for streaming.

The fact remains that numerous instances of the Athletics spending money have occurred recently. They don't fit with some fan narratives and depictions of Wolff, Beane, Fisher, et al. and are conveniently glossed-over.

For instance:
  • Extending Sean Doolittle.
  • Extending Coco Crisp.
  • Signing Scott Kazmir.
  • Trading for Jim Johnson (who made $10 million last year).
  • Signing Yoenis Cespedes.
Are the Athletics big-spenders? No. But, fans shouldn't want them to be profligate. The list of big contracts to "big" stars by big market teams that have worked out poorly is long. There are also a lot of players whose value exceeds their production -- Jed Lowrie will soon join the list. The problem is that players are paid based on past performance, and they usually get their best contract after their most productive playing days are over.

Building a Fan Base

By what measures exist (social media, historical gate attendance, merchandise sales), the Athletics fan base is below-average. It really burns one to shell out for a nice custom gold jersey with a player's name on it, only to wake up with a relic as they have been shipped off. It even applies to shirseys, meaning that the average Athletics fans' wardrobe is littered with short-timers and names of years past. This dynamic, the lack of a stable, marketable player, has certainly not helped develop fans. However, in recent years it has been given far too much weight.

The biggest threat the Athletics face is, and has been, the Giants and their shiny trophies. Championships breed passionate fans. Winning the World Series (vicariously through your favorite team) is, for a true baseball fan, the defining moment(s). The Athletics 2012 run was magical, but to paraphrase Beane, "No one remembers you unless you win the last game of the year."

The Giants are a marketing machine and have strategically positioned their minor league teams -- in San Jose and now Sacramento -- such that their Northern California presence is dominating. Before you say, "The Athletics seceded Sacramento," consider that the River Cats really wanted the Giants. From a column by the Sacramento Bee's Marcos Breton in September:

“Our fans were overwhelmingly leaning toward the Giants or they didn’t care which big-league team we were affiliated with,” (River Cats President) Jeff Savage said.

The Athletics badly want to win. It will validate their whole philosophy and bury the ghosts of post-season past. Again, noting human nature wires us to think this way, they may also want to win to gain  greater relevance and political capital for use in a stadium quest.

Just Don't Do It

The only jerseys, shirseys or player-related paraphernalia Athletics fans should purchase is that related to players long-retired and safe from the trading block.

Based on past results and with faith in "the process," only the name on the front matters. The Athletics might truly stink this year (although it's doubtful). However, at the very least the team won't be overly-burdened by big contracts to players in decline; or crippled by inertia.

As Beane noted in Hickey's article:

"Hope is not a great strategy."

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