The small-market Oakland Athletics did well in 200X by taking advantage of a market for baseball players that under-valued on-base percentage. The Athletics were blessed with the "big three" starting rotation, and then built a lineup around high-on base percentage players such as Scott Hatteberg who were available at well below market rate. Since that time the secret has gotten out, and it has become more difficult for the "small market" Athletics to take advantage of market inefficiencies before the rest of the league catches up.
But what if the next market inefficiency is hiding in plain sight? Having reached rock bottom in 2022 with a poor outlook for signing, drafting, or retaining talented players or fans, there may be a unique opportunity to pursue the next market inefficiency with little to lose.
The Athletics may only need to look south to Orange County for the next Moneyball Opportunity: pitchers who can hit, or at least get on base.
Imagine a 25-man roster of all pitchers. That’s probably too extreme. But now imagine 4 of those players are a legit leadoff hitter, a number two, a number three power-hitter, and a cleanup hitter. Let’s start with Tony Kemp in the leadoff spot. It would be great if one or two of those spots in the lineup also play premium defensive positions such as 1B or Catcher. Fill in the remaining three spots, and you’ve got 21 pitchers. Intrigued?
Now let’s say 5 of those pitchers are capable of pitching 5 or more innings after 4 days of rest. Just because they are capable of pitching for the distance, does not mean the team would regularly leave them out there that long if the matchups are not favorable. That leaves 16 remaining roster spots for pitchers. Perhaps seven of those 16 are a traditional bullpen with major league experience, including 1 or 2 LOOGYs, a setup man, and a closer. That leaves 9 spots on the 25-man roster. Perhaps one or two of those spots go to specialists such as Nick Allen (SS) or Terrence Gore (PR). That leaves an additional 7 spots on the roster for AAA/AAAA replacement-level pitchers that could be trained to get on base against major league pitching while also fielding fly balls in LF or RF.
If you have read this far, you might have realized that the 2023 Athletics have little WAR to lose by replacing their prospective 3B or OF in those roster spots with a pitcher who might do just as well at the plate or in the field at these positions. Perhaps the over-specialization of MLB players, particularly at the AA/AAA/AAAA level is a new inefficiency in the market. While losing little WAR in the 5-9 spots in the lineup, the A’s could find great benefits for the entire pitching staff by having depth and specialists aplenty in the bullpen, so that starters are not over-worked, openers and closers are readily available, and the manager can take advantage of favorable matchups and pitchers who are suited for certain scenarios. This could keep runs allowed low for many games, while the appropriately talented 1-4 hitters still come up to bat at least three times, creating the opportunity to outscore the other team more often than not.