A Retrospective of Recent A's Labor Acquisition Practices

A year ago, I dared to ask the question:

To what degree do the Oakland Athletics rely on building teams around "swindling" players from other organizations and getting more value than they give up?

I was curious to see how the A's front office crafted the great teams of the last few years and attempted to draw conclusions about how the team navigates through "dry spells", where wins are hard to come by and lots of the players are bad. Since 2016, that the Athletics have supplemented more and more of their team with drafted players, especially on offense. But a majority still come from trades. Would this trend continue into 2022, or would things change?

The previous six seasons are placed here for added perspective. I focused on the most recent route of acquisition for a player- if they were drafted by the a's, traded away, then signed as a free agent, they're listed here in the final category. While there are lots of ways baseball teams acquire players, I attempted to truncate them into four different categories. Players the A's drafted, traded for (money or other players), signed in free agency (major or minor) and "international free agency" prospects.

The performance data referenced below is fangraphs war (fwar). WAR is by no means the final, easy determinant of any baseball player's true talent. And it's not all equal- a reliever's contributions aren't exactly the same as the position players.

2015 Payroll: $83M (27th)

Drafted: 3.6 fWAR. Highlights: Sonny Gray (3.9).

Traded for: 21.3 fWAR. Highlights: Josh Reddick (2.8), Jesse Chavez (2.5), Billy Burns (1.9), Jesse Hahn (1.7).

Free Agency: -0.6 fWAR. Highlights: Scott Kazmir (2.4), Pat Venditte (0.2).

International Free Agency:

2016 Payroll: $86M (26th)

Drafted: 3 fWAR. Highlights: Ryon Healy (1.5), Ryan Dull (1.2), Sonny Gray (0.9), Bruce Maxwell (0.2).

Traded for: 11.6 fWAR. Highlights: Khris Davis (2.4), Marcus Semien (2.1), Sean Manaea (2), Josh Reddick (1.5).

Free Agency: 2.4 fWAR. Highlights: Rich Hill (2.9), Ryan Madson (0.5)

International Free Agency: -0.3 fWAR. Renato Nunez.

2017 Payroll: $81M (28th)

Drafted: 8.9 fWAR. Highlights: Matt Chapman (2.8), Sonny Gray (2.2), Matt Olson (2.1), Boog Powell (0.7).

Traded for: 14.6 fWAR. Highlights: Jed Lowrie (3.6), Khris Davis (2.5), Sean Manaea (2.2), Yonder Alonso (2).

Free Agency: 3.5 fWAR. Highlights: Matt Joyce (2.7), Ryan Madson (1).

International Free Agency:

2018 Payroll: $65M (30th)

Drafted: 12.1 fWAR. Highlights: Matt Chapman (6.7), Matt Olson (3.5), Chad Pinder (1.9), Lou Trivino (0.6).

Traded for: 27.5 fWAR. Highlights: Jed Lowrie (5.1), Marcus Semien (3.9), Blake Treinen (3.6), Sean Manaea (1.8).

Free Agency: 6 fWAR. Highlights: Trevor Cahill (2), Nick Martini (1.3), Brett Anderson (0.9), Edwin Jackson (0.7).

International Free Agency:

2019 Payroll: $92M (25th)

Drafted: 11.9 fWAR. Highlights: Matt Chapman (6.1), Matt Olson (3.9), Chad Pinder (0.8), Seth Brown (0.7).

Traded for: 30.4 fWAR. Highlights: Marcus Semien (7.6), Mark Canha (4), Ramon Laureano (3.9), Liam Hendricks (3.6).

Free Agency: 5.1 fWAR. Highlights: Brett Anderson (2), Yusmerio Petit (1.4), Joakim Soria (1), Robbie Grossman (0.8).

International Free Agency:

2020 Payroll: $35M (25th)

Drafted: 3.5 fWAR. Highlights: Sean Murphy (1.5), Matt Chapman (1.2), Matt Olson (0.8), Lou Trivino (0.2).

Traded for: 12.5 fWAR. Highlights: Mark Canha (1.7), Liam Hendricks (1.3), Chris Bassitt (1.3), Ramon Laureano (1.3).

Free Agency: 2 fWAR. Robbie Grossman (1.3), J. Lamb (0.3), J. Soria (0.5), Y Petit (0.1).

International Free Agency:

2021 Payroll: $83M (23rd)

Drafted: 13.7 fWAR. Highlights: Matt Olson (5), Matt Chapman (3.4), Sean Murphy (3.3), Seth Brown (1.1).

Traded for: 24.1 fWAR. Highlights: Frankie Montas (4.1), Chris Bassitt (3.3), Sean Manaea (3.3), Tony Kemp (2.7).

Free Agency: 0.1 fWAR. Highlights: Jed Lowrie (0.9), Sergio Romo (0.2).

International Free Agency:

2022 Payroll: $47M (29th)

Drafted: 8.2 fWAR. Highlights: Sean Murphy (5.1), Seth Brown (1.8), Nick Allen (0.5), Daulton Jefferies (0.5).

Traded for: 4.4 fWAR. Highlights: Elvis Andrus (1.6), Tony Kemp (1.5), Ramon Laureano (0.9).

Free Agency: -2.3 fWAR. Highlights: Zach Jackson (0.9), Christian Bethancourt (0.7).

International Free Agency: -0.1 fWAR. Highlights: Luis Barrera (0.2), Jordan Diaz (-0.3).

It seems like the A's have gradually benefited more from hitters they have drafted since 2015, but continue to not see many of their drafted pitches actually aide the big league club. Since the pandemic/labor strife season of 2020 was an outlier, I have made this graph showing the % of these four routes of player acquisition based on the total fWAR count. In 2015 and 2022, the A's flashed a brief few weeks of mediocrity before slipping into a profound spiral of suck.

I noticed something different about these two bad teams- most of the a's valuable players were acquired in trades for '15, but drafted in '22. Were the A's making worse trades? At least for the short term gain, certainly. Was the rest of the league more cautious with trading with the A's? Speculative, but there were a lower quantity of different teams in the transaction logs. Were the A's improving in the draft? Over this period of time, certainly.

It seems like the A's have gradually benefited more from hitters they have drafted since 2015, but continue to not see many of their drafted pitches actually aide the big league club. Here is a graph showing the % of these four routes of player acquisition based on fWAR:

* I projected the stats from the shortened 2020 season into a full season.

The free agents line on this chart is particularly damning. In 2018, the A's were able to find several valuable players by "dumpster diving"- not attempting to outbid the rich teams, but instead sifting through the misfit toys. Ironically, two of the biggest success stories were pitchers who thrived with the a's before getting traded away. The recent years have seen abhorrent results in this acquisition line. Is this more of a competency or resource problem? Conditionally to their payroll, here is a quick table of the % spent on free agents, and traded players of the A's Opening Day roster:

Year total payroll
% to traded
% to drafted
% to fa's
2015 $83M 56%
2016 $86M 43%
2017 $81M 33%
2018 $65M 61%
2019 $92M 77%
2020 $35M 78%
2021 $83M 54%
2022 $47M 65%

While the A's spent 38% of their opening day payroll on free agents in 2018, they got much better results from their money than spending about that % in '21. It may be a mix of bad luck and poor decision making process, but there should be a lack of confidence when the A's bring in free agents until this period reverses. One can see where pandemic attendance limits and a lockout took its toll, as the A's saw a dramatic decrease in the % of payroll to free agents in '22

To win as a poor team, you need a lot of things to go right. Drafting, trading, developing, and finding low profile free agents that break out. There were times when the A's organization engineered all of those different elements, but this research shows that none of them happened at the same time, except in 2018. That is the story of the A's previous contention cycle- great players who did not peak at the same time. I'm sure we all hope for better timing in 2024-27.