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Forst, A’s Eschew “Moneyball” To Botch Rebuild

Chicago White Sox v Oakland Athletics
“And he crushes it to deep shortstop!”
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The headline, and most of this article, are pretty gloomy and doomy, consistent with the A’s 22-62 record replete with disappointing performances from young upstarts. Before descending into the abyss, let us first acknowledge two truths that keep hope alive even in the darkest hour:

Not everything has gone sideways in the rebuild (just most things). For example, perhaps it was a broken clock randomly showing the correct time but the A’s appear to have pulled off a heist — or at the very least some solid petty theft — in dealing Cole Irvin to the Orioles for Darell Hernaiz who, at age 21 is mastering AA to the tune of a .336/.392/.490 slash line.

Also, if there is a reliable principle in baseball it’s that you really can’t predict what a team will look like or how they will perform even 2 years down the line. Ask the 36-46 Mets or the 37-45 Padres if this was the plan, then check in with all the prognosticators who had the Diamondbacks 2 games up on the Dodgers come July (it won’t take long), and remember that come 2025 almost all of the fillercrap (a term I invented to describe certain players and their role on a roster) on this 2023 team will have given way to a whole different cast of characters.

If 2012 and 2018 proved anything it’s what we already knew, and the 2025 A’s could finish 39-123 or 97-65 led by envies-of-the-league Mason Miller, Lawrence Butler, Hernaiz and others. You just never really know.

That being said...the A’s front office minimized its odds of success anytime soon by ignoring principles of the very “Moneyball” book their practices inspired. None is more relevant right now than Billy Beane’s cautionary mantra 20 years ago that as a GM you should never make a trade because you feel you have to trade a player. You trade from a position of strength, not by signaling to the world that you will take the best deal offered, not the deal you are entitled to hold out for, and then fielding myriad lowball offers only to accept one of them.

Probably the worst of the A’s many flawed deals of late was the Sean Murphy trade, if only because Murphy had the most value as a healthy budding star with 3 years left on his contract. Heck, Forst isn’t the only GM who should be castigated for this trade. Every GM who didn’t offer a little more — yet still not nearly enough — messed up here.

Somehow, for Murphy the A’s settled for a package that the moment the deal was made, analytic models and human analysts alike wondered what the heck Oakland was thinking. Now we’ve had a chance to see some of the key pieces up close and personal, and what do you know? Kyle Muller’s command and hittability are just like his MiLB profile while Esteury Ruiz’ exit velocities are “as advertised”. Ruiz could still develop into a pretty good player, while Freddie Tarnok and Royber Salinas remain interesting pitching prospects.

But similar to the Josh Donaldson trade (which at the time I said would have been reasonable had the Blue Jays added Marcus Stroman), this is a deal that looked solid — except that it was missing, y’know, the headliner.

You botch a rebuild by making a series of trades in which first you signal to the universe that standing pat is not an option and then begging GMs to give you at least something useful. It’s the opposite of what Beane preached to a national audience 2 decades ago.

You also botch a rebuild by ignoring another core Moneyball principle, which revolves around “the art of winning an unfair game”. Given fewer resources to play with than, say, the Mets or Padres, you have to use those resources more skillfully and judiciously. So while the Mets are trying to buy wins by overpaying for past performance, or the Padres are accumulating stars and hoping the scrubs will suffice around them, you need to be crafty in how you spread around 1/10 of the wealth.

The Tampa Rays have mastered this by recognizing that how you spend your available money isn’t always in the most visible way. Instead of trying to cleverly unearth the undervalued Scott Hattebergs (although they do this too), they invest in scouting in order to identify affordable talent that exists in other organizations and overseas.

If you know how to identify talent better than anyone else, you don’t always need to draft it. You make the shrewdest trades and you sign the shrewdest talent available more cheaply around the globe.

Where the A’s have failed to embrace the tenets they revealed in a book and subsequent film is that they gutted their scouting department instead of choosing it as the area to invest in so they could keep talent flowing through the pipeline even as they parted ways with their pricier players.

When you have the scouting force to identify a Danny Haren you can afford to move on from Mark Mulder, while your ability to locate the Hattebergs and the Mark Ellises allows you to weather the loss of a Miguel Tejada.

What Forst did, these past two seasons, is to put a lot of hopes on the shoulders of prospects with flaws that are hard to overcome. If there’s one red flag that suggests a hitter’s AAA success won’t translate to the big leagues it’s the inability to recognize a chase slider. And yet Oakland targeted Kevin Smith as the only healthy (sorry Hoglund) and talented (sorry Logue, Snead) piece in a deal for the last 2 years of Matt Chapman’s contract. Did anyone watch Smith enough to see what the A’s were getting? You wonder.

In scouting you hear a lot about “how the ball comes off his bat”. There’s that pure sound, that easy hard contact, that bodes well. So it should sound off a few alarm bells when a player’s calling card includes “exceptionally low exit velocities”.

Now we can’t fault a lack of scouting for the choice of Ruiz because apparently he was scouted by none other than scouting legend Keith Leippmann, who reported Ruiz was “the most complete player he had seen in the minors” in 2022. Well Ruiz did have a terrific season but Ruiz, with his famously low EVs and the reads, jumps, and routes we’ve now watched in the big leagues, was the most complete player Leippmann saw? You wonder whether that means Leippmann was experiencing hysterical blindness throughout 2022 or that he only got around to seeing 5 players that year and one of the othes was Yacksel Rios.

We could go on and on. I only had to see Muller pitch once or twice to panic about how straight and hittable his fastball seemed to be and how well batters saw the ball coming out of his hand. Ken Waldichuk has some promise, but his lack of consistent fastball command should raise more than a few concerns. Did Shea Langeliers not swing through fastballs in the minors or did no one really notice?

Time and time again, Forst appears to have leaned on hoping that “well he had a good MiLB season last year” can be a sufficient reason to target a prospect and consummate a deal that looks terrible on paper and just as bad to industry scouts. Because after all, we have to deal our guy and everyone knows it.

And that’s how you botch a rebuild.