When Life Depends on a Lottery: The Oakland A's

I like Jonah Keri. I enjoyed his book about the Tampa Bay Rays (The Extra 2%), and I tend to respect his point of view when he writes. But everyone is entitled to be offbase from time to time and Keri's latest article at Grantland, "The Myth of the Small Market Window" is certainly offbase. Inspired by the A's recent purge of Andrew Bailey, Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez, Keri lights into the idea that small market teams have mere windows to compete, he says in his opening,

"Billy Beane loves to talk about Windows. The Window is the short period of time in which small-revenue clubs supposedly have to compete. Right now, the Window is closed in Oakland. The Window was open once, and the A's general manager did everything he could to keep it that way just a little bit longer. But changes in the game, we're told, have made it harder and harder to prop open the Window even a crack … much less wide open, allowing years of fresh air and pennants to waft in.

There is a nugget of truth behind this Window obsession. Smaller-revenue teams have a tougher time signing premium free agents, or retaining their own top players past their initial six years of team control. That puts extra pressure on these poorer teams to bring up a bunch of great prospects all at once, then hope they get good at the same time before they get expensive.

But far more often it's a bullshit excuse. It's a vague, faraway goal that always seems several years out of reach. It's a cover for cheap, greedy ownership, lousy scouting, drafting, and player development, and myopic trades. It's a weak attempt to placate a fan base screwed over by years of management incompetence and indifference."

Well then.

I disagree with what he accuses in his third paragraph quite vehemently. To completely disregard the challenges of having a revenue stream like the A's and feel that they can simply compete on equal footing with the Yankees and Red Sox of the world is dangerously naive. Yet Keri isn't stupid, he seems to get it because the second paragraph hits the nail on its head.

Keri's big argument in many ways surrounds on thing. He may say, "lousy scouting, drafting and player development" but that is all one package right there. If you believe in the predictability of baseball players' future production, a lousy scouting department would lead to a lousy draft as your draft would be filled with lousy players, presumably these lousy players can't suddenly be trained to be very good and thereby it poisons the hope of your player development making them too in turn look lousy.

He says that the problem for Oakland boils down to their inability to find talent. He closes his case with,

"Greater emphasis on young talent by rival teams and a lousy stadium situation might be partly responsible for the A's Window being slammed shut. But the far bigger reason is the same one that has left Pirates fans without fresh air for 20 Bonds-less years, the same one that's got Royals fans only now starting to get a little optimistic after a 26-year playoff drought: The A's have a bunch of cruddy players because management didn't do a good enough job of getting non-cruddy ones."

That begs the question, what makes a good draft? To figure it out first off all I looked at data from 1990-2004 and while I tend to prefer FanGraphs' WAR calculation, for the sake of expediency I used Baseball-Reference's calculation as they have a wonderful draft database that allowed me to find the information I needed. First for a little about the information: one I used every American League team between 1990-2004 (this means for 1996 when the Devil Rays were stocking their farm system they are counted as are the 1996 Milwaukee Brewers though they vacated the AL with the Devil Rays' 1997 arrival). This 15 year block was arbitrary, and I felt that getting closer more recent drafts would complicate matters as many players would just be starting their careers and therefore career WAR numbers would be off. Of course this isn't a foolproof system as there are still players from the 1990 draft who are active and many more from 2004 who are. Secondly there is double counting in these numbers - guys who were drafted by Team A, did not sign, then were drafted by Team B. Their WAR numbers are counted more than once in some instances. However, if looking at the quality of the players chosen, it is both too time-consuming and complicated to figure out who signed/did not sign. While one can fairly argue that a front-office's ability to sign a draft pick is a major part of what makes them good or bad, I wanted to more do an evaluation of talent chosen here, but that is a fair criticism though I don't think it would greatly alter the results or conclusions, it could.

To determine what makes a good draft there are several measures one could look at. Is it more successful if more of your players drafted ultimately end up playing at the highest level - MLB? If that is the case the A's draft of 2002 - the famous "Moneyball draft" was the best in the American League between 1990-2004. Of the 51 players drafted 27% made it to the show including, Joe Blanton, Jonathan Papelbon (who they A's drafted but who did not sign) and Nick Swisher. These players have combined to put up 56.7 WAR in the years since or roughly 1.1 WAR overall the 51 players drafted. But that 56.7 WAR is dwarfed by the combined output of the 1990 Yankee draftees who combined for 120.8 WAR in a draft that featured, Carl Everitt, Andy Pettitte and Jorge Posada. Of the 74 players the Yankees drafted in 1990 they put up an average of 1.6 WAR all said and done while on 18% of them made the bigs. But that number isn't as large as the 1990 Baltimore Oriole class, who had fewer graduate to MLB (15%) but put up 76.0 WAR despite being a class of just 45 draftees making their average pick worth 1.7 WAR in the pros. Yet virtually all of that value came from one guy: Mike Mussina (74.6 WAR).

So which is better? It's hard to say. The Orioles missed on virtually everyone but really hit on one guy. The Yankees above had three very solid players out of 74, and the A's meanwhile graduated a lot of pretty good but not necessarily Hall of Fame bound players (also in the A's example, that WAR number should climb given how many of those players are still playing baseball). This is sort of evidence in and of its of the draft being a crapshoot.

211 teams have drafted in the American League since 1990. The average WAR a team can expect out of their draft class during that period of time is 23.3 WAR. Going from a high of the 1990 Yankees' 120.8 to a low of the 1999 Yankees and 2003 Devil Rays' -4.6 WAR (to further belabor the above point that Devil Rays draft class had one of the highest graduation rates at 24%). During this period of time an American League team could expect that about 13% of the players they drafted would reach the pros. But did some teams do better than others? See for yourself?

Team

Avg % Pro

St Dev % Pro

Total WAR

Avg WAR

St Dev Avg WAR

Angels

13.1

4.00

305.9

20.4

19.03

Athletics

17.0

4.77

459.7

30.6

18.31

Blue Jays

12.0

3.67

406.7

27.1

25.23

Brewers

8.6

1.99

162.4

23.2

25.27

Devil Rays

17.6

5.10

192.0

21.3

19.48

Indians

11.0

3.71

293.6

19.6

25.32

Mariners

12.0

3.50

460.2

30.7

28.23

Orioles

14.0

3.71

304.3

20.3

20.13

Rangers

13.1

3.86

355.7

23.7

20.32

Red Sox

14.7

4.30

362.9

24.2

15.57

Royals

13.0

4.93

310.4

20.7

23.99

Tigers

11.3

3.61

259.0

17.3

14.43

Twins

13.8

3.23

395.7

26.4

19.47

White Sox

13.8

4.56

361.0

24.1

25.15

There is no clear answer. The Mariners clearly found the most talent out of the draft between 1990 and 2004 with an American League leading 460.2 WAR, but then again 104.6 of that comes solely from Alex Rodriguez. The Tigers meanwhile were clearly the worst at 259.0 WAR. But here is whee stuff continues to get complicated. While the Mariners were far better, largely owing to Rodriguez, they had a wide deviation in how much talent they actually got out of the draft with a standard deviation from draft to draft a second worst in the American League 28.2 WAR nearly equal to their 30.7 WAR average. Yet the Tigers were the epitome of consistency, at 14.4 WAR deviation though that number too nearly equaled their 17.3 WAR average draft.

If it is about getting the most players out of your draft to go pro Tampa Bay (17.6%) and Oakland (17%) are tops there. But the results are quite different with Oakland getting 30.6 WAR of talent per draft whereas Tampa Bay just managed 21.3. The point is that there are a lot of numbers on this page that are meaningless.

The draft is a crapshoot. It always has been a crapshoot and will always remain a crapshoot. As Jason Wojciechowski says on his great Beaneball post about the Keri article,

"It's surely not reasonable to simply say "the players coming up aren't as good, so the front office has done a bad job," right? I mean, do you remember how highly Grant Desme was rated before he QUIT BASEBALL TO JOIN THE PRIESTHOOD?

I'm sorry for the allcaps, but my gosh, what a stroke of poor luck. I'm still frustrated about it, which is why I yelled. But anyway, my point is that luck obviously plays a part. There are aspects that are, plain and simple, out of the control of management. How much? I don't know. The issue is that I don't think Keri knows either."

There are mistakes made by every front office. It is clear that pursuing Matt Holliday was a mistake that stalled a rebuild and took valuable pieces away from the A's that could've kept this window of contention open a bit longer. But to argue that there are no windows of contention and that simple greed and stupidity results in a team with a low-revenue from failing to be the Rays of the past year is ridiculous. Agree or disagree with what Beane is doing or has done, having to depend upon the draft for the majority of your talent leaves you victim to a great deal of luck. Lately the A's have been on the bad side of it.

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