For some reason, pretty much every Pittsburgh Pirates forum I’ve checked has had some kind of topic or discussion about Ben Sheets signing with the Oakland Athletics for $10 M. As with any Billy Beane move, the “Moneyball” debate gets brought up. The only problem with this is that, despite tons of publication, and the existence of the book for about six or seven years, nobody really understands what “Moneyball” really means.
The most common misconception when a move like the Ben Sheets addition is made is that signing a high salary player flies in the face of Moneyball. That’s never been the case. The Athletics are no strangers to adding big contracts. Just take a look at the recent history:
-The biggest example is Eric Chavez, who signed an extension in 2004 that paid him $66 M guaranteed over six years.
-In 2009, the A’s traded for Matt Holliday before the season. Holliday was set to make $13.5 M. The A’s traded Holliday during the 2009 season, but not before paying him close to $8 M for his time in Oakland.
-A move similar to the Ben Sheets addition was before the 2007 season, when Oakland signed Mike Piazza to a one year, $8.5 M deal to be their designated hitter. Piazza hit for a .275/.313/.414 line in 309 at-bats in what would be his last season.
-In July 2005, the A’s extended Mark Kotsay, guaranteeing a $7.05 M salary in 2006 (his previous salary was for $5.5 M with escalators), and giving him $15 M between 2007 and 2008. The A’s traded him before the 2008 season.
-Let’s not forget the addition of Jason Kendall. Oakland traded for Kendall in 2005, when Kendall had three years and $34 M remaining on his contract. The Pirates paid $5.5 M of Kendall’s $13 M salary in 2007, and Oakland got rid of Mark Redman ($4.5 M in 2005) and Arthur Rhodes ($3.7 M in 2005), making Kendall a $2 M addition for the 2005 season. Oakland did pay $11 M in 2006 for Kendall, then traded him to Chicago in 2007.
To say that spending big amounts on players isn’t Moneyball is completely false, mostly because of the common misconception of Moneyball. Moneyball isn’t about winning with a $30-40 M payroll. People get confused because Oakland won with a $30-40 M payroll, and Moneyball detailed how they won with that payroll, but the goal was never to win with a low payroll. In fact, with all of the “Billy Beane has abandoned Moneyball” comments I saw, I decided to start reading Moneyball for about the 100th time last night. Right there in the preface, it confirmed what I remembered:
At the bottom of the Oakland experiment was a willingness to rethink baseball: how it is managed, how it is played, who is best suited to play it, and why. Understanding that he would never have a Yankee-sized checkbook, the Oakland A’s general manager, Billy Beane, had set about looking for inefficiencies in the game. Looking for, in essence, new baseball knowledge. In what amounted to a systematic scientific investigation of their sport, the Oakland front office had reexamined everything from the market price of foot speed to the inherent difference between the average major league player and the superior Triple-A one. That’s how they found their bargains. Many of the players drafted or acquired by the Oakland A’s had been victims of an unthinking prejudice rooted in baseball’s traditions. The research and development department in the Oakland front office liberated them from this prejudice, and allowed them to demonstrate their true worth.
-Michael Lewis, Moneyball
Moneyball was all about finding inefficiencies within the game. For awhile that was focusing on on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Those stats hardly have value now, since most everyone knows their value. One could argue that one of the biggest “Moneyball” trends right now is defense. It certainly explains why Oakland didn’t mind paying big money to guys like Eric Chavez, Jason Kendall, Mark Kotsay, and Matt Holliday (not that those players didn’t also provide an offensive impact). It also explains why Mark Ellis has been retained all these years, why Coco Crisp was one of the big off-season additions in 2010 for Oakland, and why Oakland was interested in trading for Andy LaRoche, when the majority of Pirates fans see no value in LaRoche.
So how does that relate to Ben Sheets? I can’t claim to know what Oakland was thinking in that regard, but I can take a guess. First we look at the type of pitcher Sheets is. The big issue is that Sheets is injury prone. He’s not going to put up 200+ innings like we saw in 2002-2004. He probably won’t even put up 198 innings like he did in 2008. However, I’d say there’s a good chance of him putting up around 140-150 innings like he did in 2005 and 2007, making 22-24 starts in the process.
People get too caught up in a player missing time, but ignore the player’s impact in the time he does play. John Lackey signed with the Boston Red Sox this off-season for $16.5 M a year over five years. Lackey was a 3.9 WAR player in 2009. Sheets was a 4.4 WAR player in his 2008 season. Chances are that Lackey will pitch more innings than Sheets. I’d say that Lackey is a good bet for about 190 innings, and while my 140 innings for Sheets may be a bit optimistic, it’s certainly possible.
When healthy, Lackey and Sheets provide similar value. Let’s assume that Sheets returns at the same performance level of his 2008 season. If Lackey is expected to pitch 190 innings, and those innings are worth $16.5 M, then why is $10 M for 140 innings from Sheets considered too much? If Sheets pitches 140 innings, and Lackey pitches 170 innings, and they both perform at the same level in those innings, then you could argue that Sheets is worth 73.7% less than Lackey (140 innings/190 innings). If Oakland only pays Sheets $10 M, they’re paying him 60.6% of what the Red Sox will pay Lackey. So they could be getting 73.7% of Lackey’s performance for 60.6% of the price. Even if they include the $2 M performance bonuses to Sheets, they’re only paying him 72.7% of what Lackey will make, which is fair value.
There’s no guarantee that Sheets does return to his 2008 level of performance, but I think that’s the risk Oakland is taking. This isn’t the first time this off-season that Oakland has taken this risk. Oakland signed Justin Duchscherer to a one year deal that guarantees $2 M, with $3.5 M in possible incentives. Like Sheets, Duchscherer has been injury prone in his career, and missed the 2009 season. Also like Sheets, Duchscherer put up good numbers in his time in 2008. If Duchscherer comes close to repeating his 2008 season, even if it’s only 140 innings pitched, he’ll be worth the $5.5 M.
This process has been done before. Chris Carpenter made just one start in 2007, and made four appearances in 2008 in the majors. He returned full force in 2009, and was one of the best pitchers in the game. Carpenter hurt his right elbow in 2007, and his right shoulder in 2008. That’s a scary thing to hear for a pitcher, but what people don’t consider is that arm surgery on a pitcher isn’t the career killer that it once was. It’s entirely possible for a player to return to his old level of performance, as we saw with Carpenter.
It’s not like Oakland is taking a huge risk here if Sheets and Duchscherer do struggle. They’re not tied down to Sheets or Duchscherer. They’re paying them a guaranteed $12 M combined. Jon Garland signed a one year deal for $5.3 M guaranteed. Jason Marquis signed a two year deal for $15 M. So for $12 M you could get two innings eaters like Marquis and Garland, pro
bably a guarantee to be healthy the whole season, but at the same time putting up numbers that you’d expect from a number four starter. On the other hand you could get Sheets and Duchscherer, two guys coming off of injuries, who are easily the top two guys in your rotation if they bounce back to their 2008 success, or anything close to that level.
Moneyball has always been about finding value. That doesn’t mean a $40 M payroll, and it doesn’t mean players who make $7 M or less. It means finding an area of common thinking that can be exploited to provide the most value. From where I’m sitting, it seems that there’s a negative view of players who likely won’t come close to a full season. Does that mean you ignore the numbers those players put up in the time they are playing? It also seems that people don’t want to take a risk on a pitcher who missed an entire season. That’s totally justified, as Sheets and Duchscherer are far from guarantees of bouncing back to their 2008 success. However, if you don’t sign these guys, you miss out on a possible Chris Carpenter type comeback.
This doesn’t mean you go signing everyone coming off of an injury. In the end it’s all a matter of preference. Oakland looked at Sheets and Duchscherer, and probably felt that they had a good chance of rebounding to their 2008 performance. There are surely other teams who felt that a rebound was less likely to happen. That’s the risk Oakland takes, and if it pays off, they get a tremendous amount of value with these signings. That’s what Moneyball is all about.