Thursday, 28 January 2010

The rise and fall of Moneyball

I’m beginning to have my suspicions about Billy Beane.

I loved Michael Lewis’ ‘Moneyball’ and devoured it in rapid time when it came out on paperback. I became interested in Beane’s madcap brand of sabremetrics and when, later, I saw it paying off for Theo Epstein and the Red Sox I was converted.

But somewhere along the line Billy seems to have lost his magic touch.

Eric Chavez is a case in point. I used to be a huge Eric Chavez fan and at one point (Bill Mueller and Trot Nixon not withstanding) considered him my favourite player. Even now I hope that each coming season will be the one that Eric is finally able to shake the injuries aside and play more than 50 games before being shut down.

Even Chavez for all his early 00’s brilliance was completely out of goose with the philosophy the A’s under Beane were meant to follow. Chavez struck out a ton! Sure, his defence was fantastic from a run-prevention perspective but Chavvy would think nothing of striding into the batters box at the cavernous Oakland Coliseum and simply raking, something he did very well for several years, with little or no thought to the (Bill) Jamesian creed the A’s were meant to subscribe to.

With Chavez, Beane also massively deviated from his philosophy of only paying what he had to for players. Lose Jason Giambi? No worries, get Jeremy Giambi and David Justice on the cheap! That was the old motto, yet the A’s gave Chavez a huge contract, one they are still paying despite Chavez spending less time at the Coliseum than most fans.

Basically the A’s’ recent history can be summed up as a series of very canny trades (Adam Kennedy, Scott Hatteberg, Mark Kotsay, Nomar Garciaparra, Sean Gallagher, getting rid of Mulder, Hudson and Zito before the tide turned) and bizarre financial splurges that seem to have little or no upside.

I’m not talking about the Holliday deal here. Whilst I’m not convinced that giving up Carlos Gonzalez and Hudson Street was smart, Holliday could have worked out HUGE for Oakland (and I’m convinced that Holliday’s time in Oakland was all that bad anyway) and they were able to move him to St Louis for prospects anyway. Street would have likely have priced himself out of Oakland’s range at his next free agency anyway.

But now Billy has done it again. $10,000,000 for Ben Sheets, plus incentives! Are you kidding me? The same Ben Sheets that hasn’t pitched since 2008, the same Ben Sheets that hasn’t pitched 200 innings since 2004?

This is a ludicrous deal. I’m not denying Sheets’ quality, he is a career 86-83 pitcher having played for some pretty poor Brewers teams (and some playoff Brewers teams it must be said before we get too forgiving of this less than elite W-L record).

The trouble is that Sheet was on the wane way before injury cost him all of last season.

In 2007 Sheets went 12-5 with a 3.82 ERA in 141 IP, impressive, but $10m impressive? In 2008 Sheets went 13-9 with a 3.09 ERA in 198 IP. Again impressive, but I’m still not sure its the elite level pitching I would expect from a 10 million dollar undisputed ace.

I would argue that Sheet’s best season was 2004 when, despite going 12-14 he held an ERA of 2.70, struck out 264 (with a 8.25 SO/BB ratio!) and maintained a 0.983 WHIP.

That is elite! Phenomenal number on a clearly dire team. In 2007/8 the Brewers, now complete with Prince Fielder, Ryan Braun and an in-form JJ Hardy, Bill Hall and Rickie Weeks were a far better team, a team where Sheet’s good but not great numbers don’t stand out as much. Lets not forget, for the second half of the 2008 season Sheets wasn’t even the Brewers’ ace, that was CC Sabathia’s role.

Clearly the A’s are trying to buy-low, sell-high like the planned to do with Holliday. The trouble is they’ve fundamentally overpaid for Sheets.

Regardless of what success, even qualified success, he’s had in the past, the guy hasn’t pitched in 18 months! If Tim Lincecum missed 2010 with tommy john surgery then came back in 2011 I would be sceptical at paying him $10m!

The Red Sox have long mirrored the A’s, except with more money. Both teams play ‘Moneyball’, its just that the Sox has more money to play with, they can afford to make more mistakes.

The Red Sox however understood the concept of low-risk/high-reward last season with John Smoltz and Brad Penny. Sure, neither of those guys worked out with the Sox, but both were on drastically reduced contracts and, from the Red Sox’ perspective, no-harm no-foul. The A’s has missed the point here and have gone for high-risk/low-reward. The best that could possibly happen is that Sheets adapts well to playing such a pitcher-friendly park and performs at level one could place a $10m price tag on, at which point the A’s will have to pay him more as incentives kick in. The worse that could happen is that Sheets is hampered by injury again and ends up being overtaken as the staff ace by Justin Duscherer and Vin Mazzaro.

Surely with Duscherer having missed last year with injury himself the A’s could have made an effort to bring in a pitcher with a least an odds on chance of staying healthy to lead the rotation. Oakland could well find themselves with no No1 or 2 pitcher come July if both Sheets and Duscherer revert to their fragile type.

Moneyball indeed.

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