What Happened to Moneyball in Oakland?

A decade ago, the Athletics franchise was all about finding undervalued players to walk, play it safe on the basepaths, and generally exceed expectations in the win column.

First of all, Oakland’s payroll on the offensive side from 1999-2001 was 55% of the AL average, versus a nearly equal 59% the last two seasons. So while ownership’s support is similar, the Moneyball era teams averaged nearly 95 wins–versus Oakland’s last three season’s win totals in the mid 70s. Things have changed around Oakland…

The primary nine guys in the lineup for Oakland between 1999 and 2001 walked more than 11% of the time, and stole an average of 43 bases combined per season. These last two seasons have seen the A’s walk a just a shade over 8% of the time, and in just 47 games this season, A’s outfielder Rajai Davis already has 18 steals himself. The 2010 core lineup is on pace to swipe 80.

It’s not to say that stealing a base is harmful, but getting caught is. Especially since the Oakland Moneyball teams had some power. The Giambi brothers, John Jaha, Miguel Tejada, Ben Grieve and a young, healthy Eric Chavez could all mash, so what was the use of risking a out on the basepaths when the next batter had the potential to hit one out? Those Oakland teams were only caught stealing 20 times a season over that three-year span, compared to the 2010 AL in which teams are on pace to get caught nearly 40 times apiece.

These last few seasons, perhaps the A’s have felt that a lack of power in the lineup begs for some small ball. Whatever the new Moneyball system is, it’s not what it used to be, and it’s not working. Despite an 80% steal rate, the A’s are scoring the 4th least runs in the American League, and performing worse than their payroll would suggest. In 2001, the A’s offense tallied 32.5 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) on a payroll of about $25M. In 2009 that payroll had doubled (AL salaries went up by only 1.5 during that same span) while the A’s offensive WAR was cut down to 11.2. Compensating for inflation, the 2001 team got 1.34 WAR per million dollars, while the 2009 team tallied just 0.33 WAR per million. Quite the decline.

Improving fielding seems to be the new sabermetric trend, but Oakland’s UZR rating is negative this season, and was negative last season. So no Moneyball there.

If the A’s want to reign in the AL West again on a still proportionally low salary, they’ll have to find something new that’s undervalued on the baseball market, and start playing a new game of Moneyball.

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