How do the A's value baserunning?

Cause I Ran, I ran so far away... - USA TODAY Sports

In the wake of Jonah Keri’s excellent article on Coco Crisp’s base-stealing (along with a few others written about him), I’ve thought about what the A’s currently value more appropriately than others do.

In the Moneyball era of the early 2000s, the A's were the darling of a new statistically-minded movement in baseball. Famously portrayed by Michael Lewis in his book of the same name (and later adapted into a movie), the A's remade their team upon the departure of Jason Giambi to replace the runs he created, rather than Giambi as a player. In general, the A's M.O. was to find players with skills other teams did not value properly - the Chad Bradfords, Scott Hattebergs, and David Justices of the baseball world.

Fast-forward to the late 2000s and continuing today, the Rays are that team. The Rays, with a young, smart executive (Andrew Friedman) in the mold of Billy Beane, and a Wall Streeet-minded owner, Stu Sternberg, have become the new sabermetric darlings of baseball. Indeed, the front office operations of most teams have been radically transformed over the last 10 years, and the Rays are the poster child for it. Where the A's signed the Scott Hattebergs based on their projections of his value, he was already a major leaguer. What was left unexploited was getting surplus value out of players who are budding young stars by signing them past their arbitration and into their free agent years. The Rays famously signed Evan Longoria in 2008 - two weeks into his major league career - to a 6 year/$17.5M deal with three club options. No team had ever done such a thing, but the rewards were clear: if Longoria was the MVP-caliber player the Rays thought he would be, his value would far outstrip any money he was owed under this deal within the first two years, and provide only surplus value thereafter. This contract is widely lauded as the most team-friendly contract in modern baseball (if not also reviled by player agents.) The next time a Blue Chip prospect came the Rays' way in 2011, they did it again. This time it was with Matt Moore, and after only two MLB starts - one in the playoffs that year no less - that they signed him to a 5 year/$14M contract with three club options. It's unclear yet whether Matt Moore will be an MVP candidate (or even the Rays' #1 starter going forward), but again, they locked in his contract value while it was relatively low compared to his value as a run preventer. Finally, with the James Shields-for-Wil Myers trade this Winter, it seems clear the Rays are after a similar formula with the former Royals mega-prospect.

The Rays are also known to value defense tremendously. One of the more interesting examples of this is their signing of Jose Molina after the 2011 season. What looked like simply a cheap backup catcher signing turned out to be maybe much more. Mike Fast, then of Baseball Prospectus, wrote an eye-popping article in 2011 that ranked Jose Molina as the best pitch framer in baseball. The eye-popping part was that Molina saved 73 runs over a five-year period beginning in 2007. That's about how many runs Miguel Cabrera provided above replacement (defense accounted for, Fangraphs numbers) in 2012. Later research propped the number up, showing that Molina may save as many as 50 runs per year, and Rays all but admitted it directly. That's a hell of an unvalued commodity! Now, to be sure, catcher defense is by far the most difficult position to quantify defensive value for. In addition, for what he saves with his glove, his bat leaves much to be desired. Nevertheless, the point remains: the Rays value defense very highly, in ways that some other teams might not.

This piece is not meant to extoll the Rays, though. What I want to know is what the A's care about these days. Going back to the Keri article about Coco Crisp, Crisp responds to Keri's question about success rate:

"I just don't want to get thrown out, that's my main thing. My main thing isn't how many bags I can steal. It's how successful I can be, so I can steal and still have a large amount of successful stolen bases."

Indeed, the article mentions Crisp's ruthless efficiency on the basepaths over his career with the A's: 88.2%. What's more, if you simply take Fangraphs baserunning runs above average (BsR) from last year, the A's are second only to the Angels, 18.3 to 12.4. From 2008-2012, here are the Top 10 MLB rankings of BsR:

Team

BsR

Rays

60.8

Rangers

56.6

Athletics

44.7

Phillies

36.9

Twins

36.6

Angels

29.7

Padres

24.7

Mets

23.9

Rockies

21.6

Marlins

9.6

Now, let's look at last year's roster, ranked by Fangraphs BsR. For brevity's sake, I'm omitting anyone who had a positive or neutral BsR:

Player

BsR

Jonny Gomes

-0.1

George Kottaras

-0.1

Brandon Hicks

-0.2

Kila Ka'aihue

-0.4

Brandon Inge

-0.5

Chris Carter

-0.9

Adam Rosales

-1.4

Stephen Drew

-1.5

Kurt Suzuki

-1.6

With the exception of Adam Rosales, every single one of those players got a one-way ticket out of Oakland, one way or another. And it's not even certain that Rosales will even make the 2013 Opening Day roster (though it's probably likely he sees time on the A's in 2013 at some point) Let's do the same for 2011:

Player

BsR

Chris Carter

-0.1

Adam Rosales

-0.1

Brandon Hicks

-0.2

Hideki Matsui

-0.5

Kevin Kouzmanoff

-0.6

Landon Powell

-0.6

Jemile Weeks

-0.7

Eric Sogard

-0.8

Daric Barton

-1.0

Andy LaRoche

-2.3

Kurt Suzuki

-2.7

Conor Jackson

-2.7

Josh Willingham

-2.8

Cliff Pennington

-3.5

Ryan Sweeney

-4.0

Again, there is not one player on that list who is guaranteed to make the 2013 Opening Day roster, and most of those guys are just plain gone. Rosales is still there, as are Daric Barton and Eric Sogard, but that's it. It's possible to say that the one thing all these players have is that they are kind of bad in general. Kevin Kouzmanoff? Toiled away in AA and AAA for the Royals in 2012, and now trying to make the Marlins. The same story is basically repeated for Conor Jackson, just with different teams. Hideki Matsui? Retired after an unsuccessful comeback for the Rays in 2012.

The other (circumstantial) evidence I have is recent comments made by Farhan Zaidi (A's numbers guru) at the Sloan Sports Analytics Conference to Joe Posnanski, now of NBC Sports and writing for Hardball Talk:

Zaidi and I were talking about this when he told me something that I found utterly staggering. He said that Oakland's objective model for measuring a player's value - remember now, we are talking about the Oakland A's, the Moneyball people, Jonah Hill and so on - found that Miguel Cabrera, NOT Mike Trout, was more valuable in 2012.

More from Sloan: Finding peace with WAR

Well, that's not exactly right. He was quick to say that the difference between the two was so slight as to be almost invisible - they were, for an intents and purposes, in a virtual tie. But their system did have Cabrera ahead by the tiniest of margins."

It's clear that, offensively, Cabrera was last year a better hitter than Mike Trout. But, given that two of the least developed areas of statistical methodology in baseball turn out to be defense and baserunning, it's probably not a stretch to say that the A's value one, if not both, of those things differently. At the very least, Zaidi admitted that the A's have a proprietary system that they use to rate players that is substantially different than what is publicly available. (A larger part of Zaidi's comments from Sloan are available at Fangraphs.)

So, what to conclude about all of this? We could argue that Fangraphs BsR may not capture the magnitude of the runs saved or created by a player on the bases using the A's system, but we could argue that it at least captures the directionality of it. In other words, the numbers I've copied above give us a hint of where the A's may value someone based on their baserunning prowess, but not exactly what that value is. There were some curious cases where the A's didn't re-sign people that seemed like obvious re-sign candidates. Jonny Gomes made up the right-half of a seemingly successful LF/DH platoon with Seth Smith, depending on where Yoenis Cespedes played. He left for Boston in free agency, with an offer from the A's that was half of what the Red Sox offered. Chris Carter was shipped to Houston as part of the Jed Lowrie deal along with Brad Peacock and Max Stassi, a surface-level overpay for a player who hasn't played more than 100 games in a season, ever. Kurt Suzuki was shipped away rather unceremoniously for David Freitas. George Kottaras was released when it appeared the A's had found a bargain left-half of a catching platoon with Derek Norris. Stephen Drew went unsigned by the A's, and they instead chose to put their faith in Nakajima, an untested Japanese SS. Finally, Ryan Sweeney was shipped away in the Andrew Bailey trade, when at the time, he was one of the few players the A's had slated to play the outfield at all.

Granted, there could be other powers at play here. Gomes was to be part of a crowded outfield picture in 2013, and the A's were unlikely to outbid Boston or any of his other suitors. Chris Carter may strikeout 30% of the time, and Jed Lowrie could prove to an excellent value, especially given the current middle infield milieu of poor performers. Kurt Suzuki had a long-term contract and his bat only appeared to be declining. George Kottaras appeared to be an inadequate defender behind the plate, and that leopard-print thong was just too much to handle. Stephen Drew was the premier shortstop on the market and the A's were sure to be outbid. And Ryan Sweeney had knee trouble that could diminish his value as a defender. Conversely, Cliff Pennington was traded away despite having a very positive BsR in 2012. That said, in defense of the trade: when someone offers you Chris Young for Cliff Pennington, you say yes quickly and ask questions later.

Also: what else do the A’s care about when it comes to baserunning? Do they have a metric for breaking up double plays? Do they have one for advancing first-to-third? What is their breakeven point for stolen base attempts? Are they timing second-to-home scoring on singles? I have no clue what the A's system is for valuing players. Indeed, that's akin to the Coke formula for most teams: guarded, probably locked away in a safe, with its true contents only known to one or two people. It's just always a wonder to me how exactly the A's value players and what exactly those values are. At the end of the day, your guess is as good as mine.

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