The Extra 2% of Moneyball is Good Enough
With the Rays and A's colliding in the AL Wild Card Game this year I felt it was only appropriate to revisit this post from May of 2018 about the sabermetric strategies of the teams from Oakland and Tampa Bay that inspired books about some of the best runs in the histories of both teams. This year they are facing off as the byproducts of a couple of unorthodox strategies. The A's rely on home run power at a bargain, yet they were also the beneficiaries of stellar defense from their 3B Matt Chapman, 1B Matt Olson and CF Ramon Laureano. Chapman was the Wilson Platinum Fielder of the year last year and the Rays Kevin Kiermaier is considered the best centerfielder in the majors as well. The Rays made waves last seasons with the introduction of "The Opener," a strategy having a reliever start the game and bringing in long relievers earlier in the game to mess up the opponent's situational lineup. The A's borrowed the strategy for last season's Wild Card game against the Yankees, a move that proved disastrous and ended their season. This year, both teams will be opening the game with established starting pitchers for the right to play against the Astros in the Divisional Series.
The baseball world was turned upside-down with the release of the 2003 Michael Lewis book “Moneyball” through its analytical look at the game through statistics that the scouting community had previously ignored. Some of the main takeaways of the book were that onbase percentage is more valuable than batting average, fielding stats are unreliable and stolen bases and sacrifices are just ways to give up valuable outs. The true take away was that the A’s under Billy Beane were trying to pay as little as possible for as many wins as possible. They were inspired by the writing of Bill James, a former security guard at a meat factory who had taken to writing about statistical oddities in baseball. Onbase Plus Slugging (OPS) has recently been a popular statistic, but the A’s brain trust found OBP to be three times more valuable than slugging, so they would measure onbase times three plus slugging to evaluate players. This strategy only amounted to one postseason series victory and zero World Series appearances.
In 2011 Jonah Keri released a book on the Tampa Bay Rays and their ultimate success of their 2008 World Series appearance, losing to the Phillies. Unfortunately, Mr. Keri has since proved himself to be a bit of a scumbag with a violence problem who won't be getting any writing jobs for quite a while. The Rays went from worst to first in the hardest division in baseball. They changed their owner, changed their manager, changed their name and won with a tiny budget. They secretly hired statisticians led by Nate Silver of Five Thirty Eight fame, so that they could throw out the old baseball ways and leap to the forefront in advanced baseball statistics. With Joe Madden at the helm and after years of high draft picks, the Rays stocked a series of prospect pitchers and cast away hitters. They enacted extreme shifts that enraged opponents based on statistical grids of every inch of a baseball field to track where the ball would most likely be hit. By the end of the A’s and Rays runs, most if not all MLB teams had changed the ways that they looked at the numbers and how they would evaluate players.
Jason Giambi, 1B
The ghost that haunted the Moneyball A’s as it was Giambi's production that needed to be replaced, and the PED ghost of the Yankees after his 2004 admission. He ultimately endeared himself in the league again in his 40’s when he nearly became a player/manager for the Rockies. Giambi was with the A’s from ‘95 to ‘01 and the Yankees from ‘02 to ‘08 before pinch hitting and DHing with the Rockies and Indians for the last six seasons of his career. From ‘99 to ‘06 he hit 30 or more homers, and had an OBP over .400 seven out of eight seasons and had 100 or more RBI six of those seasons. The one season where he did not make any of those marks, Giambi spent half a season recovering after having a tumor removed. He was a big slugger, but he wasn't a selfish hitter, "walks are integral to the game." He would adjust his swing for the circumstances in his career. He hit for all fields in Oakland, but when he came to the Yankees he changed to a pull hitter because a ball he would hit to left center in Oakland for a homer would be an out at The Stadium. A student of hitting, he was always making adjustments to make up for whatever weakness he had. At the end of his career, he finished with 440 homers, 2010 hits, a .277 AVG and .399 OBP.
Tim Hudson, RHP
Moneyball doesn’t spend a lot of time talking about the big three pitchers of Hudson, Zito and Mulder, other than to say that they held onto them for several years before they hit free agency. There’s also the inference that they didn’t really need to concern themselves with making their rotation much better when you consider that the whole book is about relievers and onbase percentage. All three pitchers did fall into the Billy Bean drafting strategy of taking collegiate pitchers because they had better success rates than high school pitchers, even if the younger guys might have higher ceilings. Hudson was the best bargain of the three, as he fell to the sixth round in the draft. The season that he finished second in Cy Young voting, he had an ERA of 4.14 and had 20 wins, the win stat being noted as being pretty useless to figuring the value of a pitcher in sabermetrics, yet his career ERA over 17 years was 3.49. That was the high point of his wins, in just his second season as he went on to a 222 and 133 record. Hudson was one of the most consistent pitchers of his era by only posting three seasons with ERA’s over 4.00, only one season with less than 20 starts and 8 seasons with 15 or more wins. He excelled when he was in his mid-20’s in the AL and when he was in his mid-30’s in the NL. In his second to last season in 2014, he finally was a World Series Champion at the age of 38 with the Giants. A four-time All-Star and Cy Young vote getter, Hudson finished his career with 2080 strike outs.
Barry Zito, LHP
The highlight of Zito’s career was his 2002 AL Cy Young award for winning 23 games with the A’s in 35 starts. He probably didn’t deserve the award that season as Pedro Martinez bettered Zito in every statistical category (K’s, ERA, WHIP) but finished second in voting. That was the only season that Zito even received Cy Young votes, although it was his second consecutive season with MVP votes, and first of three All-Star teams. He earned all of his 165 career wins between the two Bay Area teams, the A’s and Giants and won a World Series with the 2012 Giants. For his one World Series start he went 5.2 innings, giving up just one E.R. against the Tigers and earning the win.
For the six seasons from ‘01 to ‘06, Chavez was the best third baseman in the game. It may have even started in 2000, a year he hit 26 homers, 86 RBI and slashed .277/.355/.495. But from ‘01 to ‘06 Chavez won six straight Gold Glove Awards, hit 25 home runs or more five straight years, lead the league in walks in ‘04, won the Silver Slugger in ‘02, and hit 100 or more RBI four times. All of this before he turned 29 years old. He needed to accomplish all of this at an early age because his career was slowed by injuries after this run, as he only played more than 100 games once over the following eight seasons. Despite playing full seasons less than half of his 17 year career, Chavez still finished with 1477 hits, 260 homers, a .342 OBP and seven trips to the postseason. Pay attention when he throws to you.
David Justice, OF
At the end of his 14 year career the A’s pulled Justice off the scrap heap to help replace the production of Giambi and he was able to hit 11 homers to push him to 305 career dingers. Five times receiving MVP votes, he hit 40 and 41 homers in ‘93 and 2000, respectively. Justice started his career with big shoes to fill as he took over right field for former two-time NL MVP Dale Murphy. He hit 28 home runs in ‘90 with the Braves to win the NL Rookie of the year award,. Even though he had a career .279 AVG he still had a monstrous .378 OBP (well better than what a .300 AVG hitter could expect), and had 903 walks to his 999 career strikeouts as a power hitter. There is an awkward moment in the book where Michael Lewis ogles Justice's physique and handsomeness where he mentions that whatever happened in the end of his marriage with Halle Berry couldn't have been his fault because he was such a beautiful man. In reality, she got a restraining order against him when they divorced and their were accusations of physical abuse. Aside from the strike shortened '94 season, every season from 1991 to 2002 Justice was on a division championship team every year, no matter if it was the Braves, Indians, Yankees or A's.
Miguel Tejada, SS
From ‘99 to ‘06 Tejada hit 21, 30, 31, 34, 27, 34, 26, 24 home runs. For most of these seasons he was exclusively playing shortstop with only a few games in the tail seasons at DH. He was the ‘02 AL MVP, lead the league with 150 RBI in ‘04, lead the league in doubles in ‘05 and ‘09 with 50 and 46, respectively, and yet as a guy who struck out over 90 times twice in his 16 year career, Billy Beane referred to him as “Mr. Swing-at-anything.” He wasn’t the best Sabermetric player as a career .336 OBP hitter, but he had an incredible career, especially as a shortstop with a .285 AVG, 2405 hits, and 307 homers.
Scott Hatteberg, 1B
He is the patron saint of back up catchers and of players that change positions later in their careers. The Red Sox gave up on him as a back up catcher after an injury that affected his throwing arm and the A’s picked him up to be their 1B. Initially he was a real work in progress as a defender at first base, but as his first season progressed, he worked his way into being a well above average defender. He was not a failure of a hitter with the Red Sox, his numbers didn’t change much as he upped the sample size, however the Sabremetrically-minded management of his new team valued those numbers more. His numbers with the Reds for the three seasons after his time with the A’s were even better (OBPs of .357 over 7 seasons in Boston, .355 over 4 seasons in Oakland, and .384 over 3 seasons in Cincinnati). 1153 career hits, 550 with the A’s.
Jermaine Dye, OF
He may be most remembered for his gruesome injury in the 2001 playoffs where he fouled a ball off his left knee, bending it in the wrong direction. It wasn’t just the horror of the injury that dashed the hopes of the A’s that year, while Tejada and Chavez hit 31 and 32 home runs in the regular season, Dye’s 13 homers over 61 games were second only to Giambi’s 38 for rate of home runs to games. He was a Gold Glover in ‘00, Silver Slugger in ‘06, and the World Series MVP in ‘05 with the White Sox. Over his 14 year career, he played over 100 games in ten of those seasons, hit 25 or more homers eight times including 44 in ‘06, and drove in over a hundred RBI four times. He hit .274 AVG and 325 homers over his career.
Johnny Damon, OF
Although he is written off as not creating on base situations and for being a base stealer, through his career he was more of an onbase guy. He was ripped for not being the best fielder after Moneyball talked about the uselessness of fielding stats. He didn’t have the best arm but he had pretty good range. In the end he racked up a lot of hits and steals (2769 hits, 408 steals), good AVG (.284 AVG, .352 OBP), and a couple of championships ('04 with the Red Sox, '09 with the Yankees).
Prince Fielder, 1B
He is the most powerful player I have ever seen. I once saw him take just two pitches in batting practice at PNC park in Pittsburgh, he hit two home runs and one of those went into the river. He put his bat down and stopped swinging right there to save it for the game. There were stories of “Cecil Fielder’s kid” playing varsity baseball at 13 years old and hitting bombs. Billy Beane thought Prince was too fat even for the misshapen fruit of the Oakland A’s in the draft. He did have to retire due to injury in his 12th MLB season, hitting 319 homers, having a .382 career OBP, six All-Star games and three top four finishes in MVP voting. Prince and his father Cecil both hit 319 career home runs in a bit of a statistical anomaly of genealogy.
The Extra 2% Rays
Carlos Pena, 1B
One of the few players mentioned in both books he was a looming super prospect in Moneyball and the x-factor in the Extra 2%. At Northeastern he was under the radar for pro scouts and got no attention despite being a college star. He was chosen for the Cape Cod League where he excelled and was suddenly a top prospect. A team player, a nice fielder and a monumental power threat. Although he had a career .232 batting average, his OBP was .346 to match his 286 home runs. In '07 he hit 46 homers and '09 he led the AL with 39 homers and he hit three home runs in the '08 ALCS to pace the Rays on the way to the World Series. Pena was a guy who subverted traditional sabermetrics' aversion to bunting, using it against the shift as a means for getting on base, not as a way to give up outs.
The first true draft product of the Rays new regime, Longoria was a rookie on the '08 Rays World Series team and his 27 home runs were second to Pena on the team. This season Evan Longoria hit 20 homers with a .325 OBP for the Giants. He recently had his career year, his in 2016 (36 Homers, 98 RBI, .273 AVG). A bit of a clone of Ryan Zimmerman, except with more year to year consistency but less of a track record when it comes to AVG. Twelve seasons into his career, Longo's 33 year old season is his second with the Giants after ten with the Rays, a career still rolling with 297 homers, 1703 hits, and a .335 career OBP (although a less impressive .267 AVG). He has three Gold Gloves, three All-Star trips and was the AL Rookie of the Year in 2008 and a 54.2 career WAR.
Zobi-wan Kenobi is the ultimate super-utility player having played at least 220 games at 2B, RF, SS, and LF and for being smart enough to have never played catcher. He broke out as a member of the 2008 Rays World Series team and the next season hit 27 HR as a utility player earning him a spot on the AL All-Star roster and 8th place in AL MVP voting. In 2015 he was traded mid-season the Royals where he became their two-hole hitter on their World Series winning team. The next season he joined the Cubs and contributed all over the field for their breakthrough championship. He hasn’t just been a Forest Gump of baseball, he has 1566 hits, 167 homers, a .357 OBP, and five seasons of either receiving MVP votes and/or going to the All-Star game over 12 seasons. He’s 38 years old for the 2018 season but he is a versatile leader possibly capable of playing well into his 40’s thanks to his incredible batting eye that keeps him from swinging at pitches out of the zone. He had a limited season this year but still managed a .358 OBP despite a .260 AVG in 47 games, a year limited due to a prolonged absence because of family issues. The consummate super-utility player, he has played right field, left field, second base and first base for the cubs and Joe Madden this year.
Troy Percival, RHP
Eight out of nine straight seasons with 30 or more saves, four time All-Star and a comeback season in 2008 with 28 saves for the Rays. He was the closer for the '02 Angels Championship team and missed the Rays playoffs in '08 due to injury. His 358 career saves rank 11th all-time, ahead of Rollie Fingers, John Wetteland, Huston Street, Rick Aguilera, Rob Nen, Goose Gossage and Craig Kimbrell. Percival had a career 3.17 ERA, however he played most of his career with the Angels posting a 2.99 ERA in Anaheim before a bad season in Detroit led him to retire after the '05 season. He came back with the Cardinals in '07 before joining the Rays in '08 where he added 34 more saves to his resume before calling it quits again.
Cliff Floyd, OF
The only player on both Florida franchises first World Series teams. He was once a well rounded slugger, later relegated to a role as a power hitter after the AstroTurf in Montreal ruined his knees (like many others before him), his .278 AVG betrayed his robust .358 OBP. He had only four full seasons in 17 years, but three of those seasons he hit 28 home runs or more. Twice to the World Series, and a champion with the Marlins, when he aged out of being a young phenom, he matured into a veteran presence for multiple teams. He finished his career with 233 homers and 148 stolen bases.
One of the biggest snubs on the Hall of Fame ballot, The Crime Dog and Mark McGuire are the only two players to ever both leagues in home runs during their careers. The flourish in his swing and his 493 home runs were more flashy than his mild mannered personality. He played for six teams in his career when other stars of his time like Barry Larkin, Chipper Jones, Tony Gwynn and Cal Ripken stayed with one team their entire careers before moving into the Hall of Fame. He returned to his hometown of Tampa twice to play for the Devil Rays, Driving in 100 RBI three times and hitting 32, 27 and 31 home runs (although one of those seasons was split with the Cubs) in his late 30's. A power hitter with a career .377 OBP, he should move out of the Hall of Good Enough and into the Hall of Fame if he gets the recognition on the ballot that he deserves.