Sunday, January 17, 2010

Moneyball (and Beane) Evolving

In somewhat of a surprise, Billy Beane traded for a player that seemingly doesn’t fit the very Moneyball approach that he used to fight his way to the elite in the AL in the early 2000’s. recently featured an article from fangraphs written by Dave Cameron about this very phenomenon we’ve seen this offseason, a concerted effort by the so called Sabermetric franchises to improve their run prevention. The Boston Red Sox were a slugging team last year, the same mold they used in 2004 and 2007 to bring home World Series’. Last year they apparently had one of the worst overall defenses in baseball. Theo Epstein saw this (coupled with the fact that defense is currently under evaluated and undervalued), and made several strategic moves to improve the defensive prowess of his squad. Theo grabbed up Mike Cameron. Cameron is a good offensive player and an absolute vacuum in center field despite being 36 years old. This allows him to shift Jacoby Ellsbury over to left field where his weak arm will play better and he can certainly improve on his UZR which he had quite poor marks in 2009. Also, Theo grabbed Adrian Beltre to play the hot corner despite owing the ailing Mike Lowell around $12 mil in 2010. Beltre is a perennial gold glove candidate (he won in ’07 and ’08) whose skill in the field is undeniable. Scouts and UZR agree in this particular case. He then gave the contract he offered Matt Holliday ($82.5 mil) to John Lackey. In Moneyball, we learned that Billy Beane would stop at nothing to put a thoughtful hitter into the lineup (one who takes pitches and walks), even if it meant that the players glove was an absolute clunker. It’s clear that while, assuredly, he still is using the same philosophies he used during the early part of the last decade; they’ve evolved.

Kevin Kouzmanoff doesn’t do well that which Beane previously coveted so much in years past, get on base. In fact, Kouz barely kept his OBP above .300 in 2009. But before you think Beane has somehow swapped philosophies and lost his mind, it’s necessary to examine his thought process further. First of all, Beane lacked a player that could adequately play third base. He acquired Jack Fox from the Cubs earlier in the offseason, but Fox is more of a DH/ 1B type. Beane also has Eric Chavez to turn to. Oh, you probably assumed he was retired. Chavez hasn’t stayed healthy in several years and Beane has no confidence that that recent trend won’t continue. Smart bet. Kouz, like Beltre, is a pretty nice third baseman. He had his best UZR year in 2009 and broke the record for 3B fielding percentage which resulted in his glove heading to Cooperstown. He doesn’t have tremendous range but given his fielding percentage you can bet he makes just about every single play. Offensively, he’s not half bad either. His OPS doesn’t look like much but after taking a look at how he has performed on the road vs. at home you can see why his numbers don’t jump off the page.

Split: HR/ OPS

Home: 5/ .743
Away: 13/ .823

Home: 11/ .658
Away: 12/ .802

Home: 9/ .662
Away: 9/ .778

Kouz has horrendous home/ road splits because he plays half his games at the worst hitters park in MLB, Petco Park. On the road he is good for around an .800 OPS and more homerun power as well. He isn’t moving to a good hitters park, but the Coliseum will play smaller than Petco. Also, he will be moving to the tougher league so we should account for that as well.

Beane gave up Scott Hairston and Aaron Cunningham. Cunningham was a AAA player in 2009 and has nothing left to prove there. He has around a .900 career OPS in AAA but doesn’t have a great deal of power. Some felt Cunningham was a fairly steep price for Beane to give up (given that he has 6 more years of team control) but Beane probably has his reasons. What might those be? Beane may have soured on Cunningham or he may simply have had too many outfielders. I think it’s probably the latter. Beane already has the means to field 3 virtual center fielders in 2010. He signed Coco Crisp and still has Rajai Davis and Ryan Sweeney. That’s a pretty stellar defensive group. He’s also got the quality defender Travis Buck to back them up. Lastly, Michael Taylor (who was acquired from Toronto for Brett Wallace in the aftermath of the Halladay/ Lee blockbuster) is on the horizon. Taylor figures to be both a very nice offensive and defensive outfielder. Hairston (an OF like Cunningham) was shipped to Hoyer’s Friars too. He too was expendable because of the surplus of averageish outfielders Beane has. One has to understand that Beane handles his players more like chess pieces than human beings. He will swap any player at the drop of a hat if he feels the move will either strengthen his franchise in the short term, long term or both no matter the circumstances. Hairston is an above average corner outfielder and passable center fielder. And offensively? You won’t be terribly surprised to know that Hairston walks with similar frequency to Kouzmanoff which is to say, not very often. He too has pretty good pop but probably not quite as much lightning as Kouz. Beane also netted Eric Sogard in the trade. Sogard is a left handed hitting 2B who walks a ton (weird) but doesn’t have much pop.

All in all, Beane swapped 1 major league and 1 minor league outfielder for 1 major league and 1 minor league infielder when he needed just that, more infielders. The Major league players swapped were quite similar. Both have good power and play good defense but aren’t ideal in the sense that they don’t get on base enough. In terms of this transaction, I’d say the edge has to go to Beane/ Kouzmanoff. Beane gave up the superior minor leaguer in Cunningham but he probably felt he wouldn’t be terribly useful with Taylor’s ETA something like late 2010 or 2011. Also, while Cunningham looks to be a pretty decent contributor he’s still a prospect and thus a question mark.

This transaction does continue to show the shift in baseball towards the realization that it’s a zero sum game. As the defensive metrics become more reliable, the smartly run franchises like Boston and Oakland will look to capitalize. People have this perception that Moneyball was an approach to create a lineup with a bunch of players who got on base (or you might say made fewer outs) and little else. This is actually false. Moneyball actually was and is about attempting to acquire the undervalued. OBP used to be highly undervalued. Now that baseball realizes how important it is to avoid outs, OBP is far from undervalued. I think Beane and Theo are both realizing that the current market is undervaluing defense and are jumping on the opportunity to improve their clubs on the other side of the ball. The truly shrewd business men in baseball will continue to do this so long as such arbitrage opportunities present themselves. My personal belief is that eventually each team will use similar metrics to put values on players and statistics and the ability of teams to pounce on such instances of arbitrage will become increasingly difficult. Unfortunately, it will probably make it even more difficult for the poor franchises to compete with the Yankees and Red Sox. Of course, being a Giants fan, I can hardly wait for that day to come when the Giants continue to run their front office as if the internet doesn’t exist and RBI’s are an excellent barometer for offensive production.

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