Why haven’t the A’s finished above .500 since 2006? It’s a question I’ve seen asked by some detractors of sabermetrics, as if a few seasons under .500 can eradicate nearly 40 years of research. I never felt the need to dignify that question with a response, as the answer is very simple. Poor Billy Beane spilled the beans about his winning formula with a very small payroll, and the teams with a large payroll took their money and Beane’s secrets all the way to the bank. Simple.
Sure, it’s logical. But it was logical to assume big-game Cliff Lee would dominate the middle-of-the-road Giants offense in the World Series, too. That’s why we play the game. Or in my case, that’s why I do the research.
The timeline fits, doesn’t it? The book is released in 2003, and one full season later, 2004, was the last of five consecutive 90-win seasons for the A’s, dating back to 1999. The team rebounded in 2006 to win 93 games and play for the AL pennant, but haven’t had a winning season since.
I tried to think of it from the other perspective. I tried to think of exactly what reason there could be for Billy Beane’s on-base percentage approach to all of a sudden stop working. Is OBP no longer the best factor of runs scored? Research shows it still is; where a team ranks in OBP is roughly where it’ll rank in runs scored in any given year, in either league.
Ok, was Beane’s A’s an aberration during their period of dominance? Nope, quite the contrary. From 1999-2004, they ranked 5th in the AL in both OBP and runs scored, so that checks out. What about their recent period of failure? Well, in the four seasons since 2006, the A’s rank 11th in OBP in the American League and 12th in runs scored. So that checks out, too.
So what does that tell us? Something happened in between 2004 and 2006. Was it the release of the book? Just for fun, I checked the OBP rank of the A’s in 2005 and 2006. They checked in at 6th and 7th, respectively. So what was going on in baseball that caused the A’s OBP to decrease steadily each year? Maybe my theory was starting to check out. Were the big market teams really buying up all the high-OBP players, offering contracts far greater than the small-market A’s could?
Consider the following list of the 35 highest on base percentages in all of baseball since 2006 (author’s note: to compile this list, I set the minimum plate appearances to 1,700, or 425 per year. 425 PAs per year, using the same rate MLB does to qualify players for the batting title, comes out to a player missing 25 games per year. To me, it’s a sample size large enough to trust the numbers. I’m so convinced my findings will remain true, if a reader has an issue with this threshold and can logically offer a better one, I’d be happy to re-crunch the numbers).
By Jove, I think I’ve got it! Wait, got what? Well, read the list again. Of these 35 players, 28 of them have enjoyed a multi-year contract valued at over $10 million annually. Of the seven that haven’t, Chone Figgins is in the middle of a multi-year contract worth “only” nine million dollars and Dustin Pedroia is earning an average of $7.357 million (it’s a relatively safe bet his next contract will be worth over $10 annually). Shin-Soo Choo, one of the best young players in the league, has yet to hit free agency and so has Joey Votto, and Votto will likely earn nine figures when he next signs a dotted line. David Wright is also on this list, averaging $9.17 million per year. But if the Mets exercise his 2013 option, he’ll move to other end of the line, as the value of his seven-year contract will exceed 70 million dollars.
That leaves Jack Cust and Brad Hawpe, and of course Jack Cust has spent his entire career as an Athletic up until about two weeks ago. To compare, the highest contract the Athletics have ever doled out in the history of their franchise came to 69 million dollars over six years to the face of their franchise Eric Chavez. To think the A’s could afford the contracts given to the names on this list is sheer lunacy.
So, why haven’t the A’s finished above .500 since 2006? Because they couldn’t afford to play under the same organizational principles they used to. But give Beane some credit. Last year’s team finished exactly at .500 and the A’s are a lot of “experts” picks to be a surprise contender next year, especially since Lee is now out of the division. If the A’s make the playoffs this year or next, Beane would have turned the organization around within five years. For a team with one of the lowest payrolls in the league (the absolute lowest the last two years and the second lowest three years ago), a successful 5-year plan is enviable.
*All statistics researched and verified by fangrpahs.com