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Jan 14

Billy Beane, the A’s, and Knowing Things

Josh Donaldson

Josh Donaldson (20) was traded to the Toronto Blue Jays in November of 2014. He was pretty good.

Maybe it shouldn’t come as any great surprise that Oakland GM Billy Beane and his staff of brainiacs is reshaping the A’s roster rather than developing. It is. A little. It shouldn’t be, though, if we were paying attention. Since Beane took over as the Oakland GM after the ’97 season, the A’s have climbed from a 65-97 team to perennial contender, finishing .500 or above 12 times and winning the West six times.

That doesn’t make the A’s super special. The Angels have also won the West six times in that same span, but while the Angels haven’t had a payroll below 100 million since 2005 (and averaging 150.8 million since 2012) the A’s have done it by spending on average 56.6 million over the last 15-years. This isn’t about economics. Don’t worry. I’m not going to argue Beane should win a Nobel for achieving similar results while spending half of what the Angels did over the same 15-year period.

No. The A’s tailspin last year was too fresh. Once leading the West by as many as six games as of June 19th, the A’s hit rock bottom and ended up 10-games back, barely eking out the second wild card over rival Seattle. The A’s had the stink of a loser amongst a crowd that likes plucky upstarts and good stories. It was only fitting the Royals came from behind in the wild card game. The A’s were losers.

That just proved it.

Trading Josh Donaldson seemed extreme. Even now, seeing what I’ve seen, I don’t really like the move all that much because Donaldson has been so good since becoming a full time player for good in mid-August of ’12. I don’t care that he’s 29. Entering his first year of arbitration eligibility (as a Super 2) he’ll still essentially be playing for free. Hey, the A’s got Brett Lawrie and Sean Nolin. Whatever.

I’ll just move along.

Then Beane traded Brandon Moss to Cleveland, Jeff Samardzija to the White Sox, and Derek Norris to the Padres. Yoenis Cespedes was jettisoned last season to bring in Jon Lester who signed with the Cubs. Jed Lowrie signed with the Astros, so the starting shortstop was now gone and the A’s still intended to play Eric Sogard.

It’s all good, though. Beane traded for Ike Davis.

So as the baseball world gushes over that trickster Beane for trading for Ben Zobrist and Yunel Escobar and restocking his farm system with live, young arms, it struck me completely by accident that it shouldn’t been tricky at all. The A’s were never that bad that they needed to be dismantled.

Run Differential – Again

As I’ve spent the past few days revisiting the year of the original Jurassic Park and The Sandlot I came across something that was sort of surprising: based on a run differential of +157, the A’s were expected to win 99 games last year. I’m sure it’s been mentioned elsewhere, and I just never caught it. There’s a lot to read. I consume information anymore yet rarely retain it. The modern curse.

99 games is one more than the Angels won last year. To be 11 games short of expectation is extreme. The A’s were damn unlucky.

In fact, as I’ve been waxing pathetic about the 1993 Mets for underachieving based upon expectations (here and here), I failed to notice that the 2014 A’s had the 15th worst residual (difference between actual winning percentage and expected winning percentage) mark since the beginning of the 20th century. Out of 2400 different teams, the A’s were the 15th worst, historically snake bitten.

I re-ran the numbers, determining a new exponent to use in the Pythagorean expectation formula based on all data since 1962. In this scenario, I used 1962 as my delineation point since that was the first year that both leagues played a full 162 game schedule. My new exponent dropped to 1.856, making my formula appear as thus:

\frac{runs scored^{1.856}}{runs scored^{1.856} + runs allowed^{1.856}}

The new formula didn’t change the A’s win expectations very much, but excluding all the early 20th century teams from my list bumped the A’s all the way to 8th in the unlucky list. For fun, I’m including the bottom ten (the Bin Ten?) that failed to meet expectations:

Year Team Run Diff W-L Expected W-L Residuals
1993 Mets -72 59-103 73-89 -0.0887
1986 Pirates -37 64-98 77-85 -0.0798
1984 Pirates 48 75-87 87-75 -0.0747
1967 Orioles 62 76-85 88-73 -0.0740
1975 Astros -47 64-97 76-86 -0.0708
1999 Royals -65 64-97 75-86 -0.686
2006 Indians 88 78-84 89-73 -0.0678
2014 A’s 157 88-74 99-63 -0.0675
1972 Orioles 89 80-74 90-64 -0.0669
1993 Padres -93 61-101 71-91 -0.0642

Great Expectations – Fail

That’s a fairly startling list. The 2014 A’s outscored their opponents by 157 runs, and that’s by far and away the most until way down in my list I hit the 1990 Yankees in the 48th spot, a team that won 91 games with a run diff of 162. Okay, so wow. The A’s ran into some bad mojo last year and things went sideways.

There’s an argument to be made here that Beane and the A’s acted hastily, but to call the A’s unlucky and end it at that isn’t much. Even if it’s kind of historic in its magnitude doesn’t mean all that much. I guess I worry about this nifty little experiment of mine defining an argument rather than using it for support. It’s like that saying about when your only tool is a hammer everything looks like a nail.

My first thought was close games. You can’t outscore teams by that many runs and win all the close games too. It doesn’t really work like that. Going over the game logs at retrosheet.org, the A’s were tied with Toronto as the fourth worst team in the Majors last season by winning percentage in one-run games. The A’s were 21-28 with a winning percentage of .429. That’s bad, sure, but not epically bad. Seattle was 18-27 with a WP of .400 and finished one-game back of the A’s.

In the larger context of things, the A’s 21-28 is fairly tame as far as losing one-run games is concerned. Dating back to 2000 (stopped my search here since it was the first Beane administered team that finished first) the A’s WP of .429 sits 83rd worst out of 450. Okay, bottom 20% but not a real explanation.

That’s all teams, however. The A’s outscored their opponents by a lot. Certainly, they’re unique in that regard.

Eh. For all teams that have outscored their opponents by 100+ runs in a season—teams that are all good teams with pennant aspirations—the 2014 A’s were eighth worst out of 84 teams. Bad, sure, but Atlanta won 101 games in 2003 and owned a worse winning percentage (.405) in one-run games. Since 2000, Oakland was the only team to outscore their opponents by 150 or more runs and fail to win 90. The 2003 Houston Astros team were the next closest to achieve the feat, managing to outscore their opponents by 128 runs and winning only 87 games. That team was expected to win 94 games by run differential and finished a measly one-game back from the Cubs in the Central.

In all of the aughts, there are only six out of 84 teams (or 7%) to win fewer than 90 games while outscoring their opponents by 100 or more runs. It’s an incredibly difficult thing to do. It’s certainly not due exclusively to one-run games.

You also don’t remake a team based on something like that. Records in one-run games are essentially meaningless in determining quality of a ball club. A 15-14 win looks the same as a 1-0 when collating data. For instance, between 2005 and 2009, the Arizona Diamondbacks never once failed to win more one-run games than they lost. In those five seasons, they were an incredible 141-106 in close games (a .571 winning percentage) while having an overall record of 395-415 (.488).

In 2013, the A’s went 30-20 in one-run games, and since 2000 the team has nearly an identical winning percentage in one-run games, .540, as they do in winning percentage overall, .545. Sometimes things happen.

Widening the criteria a bit, I looked at the W-L record where the score was decided by either one or two runs. In that case, the A’s were 10-13 in games decided by two runs, bringing their overall total to 31-41 (.431). That winning percentage was the second lowest for teams scoring over 100 runs. Only the 2012 Cardinals had a worse WP (.394). That team lost to the World Champion Giants in the NLCS. If you’re wondering if it makes much difference if I just look at winning clubs, not necessarily large run differential clubs, the answer is no. For all teams that finished at .500 or above since 2000, the A’s were the fourth worst team in terms of WP in games decided by one or two runs.

So, still bad.

Expanding this out further, games decided by three or fewer runs put the A’s at the top of the list. They were 14-13 overall in these games, making their total record 45-54 for a WP of .455. It’s not unprecedented to not do well in games decided by three or fewer runs and still win in droves. It is uncommon, however, to see a team outscore their opponents by so many runs and have a losing record. The 2007 Yankees did it. They managed to outscore their opponents by 191 runs yet go 36-42 in games decided by three or fewer.

Another thing you typically don’t see is a team win 90+ games while having a losing record in games decided by three runs. It does happen, as recently as 2013 when the Dodgers won 92 games while going 7-13 under these conditions, but they also went 25-21 in one-run games and 26-15 in two-run games. Playing sub-.500 ball in both one and two run games has happened just 15 times for teams winning at least half their games. Only three of those teams—the 2007 Yankees, the 2001 Cardinals, and the 2012 Rays—won 90 or more games and only the 2008 Indians (an 81-81 team) had a losing record in games decided by three runs. The A’s WP of .519 in three run games was the second worst under these conditions.

There are a few ways to look at this, and we can debate whether the A’s were unlucky or just not good enough. I simply found the exercise interesting. I ran the numbers through R, identifying a fairly tenuous relationship between winning percentage and winning percentage in games decided by three or fewer runs. The correlation coefficient was .55, but that was against teams that sat at .500 or better. For all teams since 2000, champions and dregs, the coefficient jumped up to .684. Still not terribly exciting. There is a stronger relationship, though, for wins and WP in games decided by three or fewer: .848. Ideally we’d want that number as close to 1 as possible, but that’s what I’m working with.

Well, here we go. After running a linear regression against predicted wins based upon the A’s actual winning percentage in games decided by three or fewer runs, the A’s were . . . surprise, a 74 win team last season.

Just for fun, I’m adding in a table of what last year’s teams won, were expected to win based upon run differential, and what they would win based on record in three run games:

Team R RA Wins Exp Wins <= 3 Runs
ARI 615 742 64 67 70
ATL 573 597 79 78 80
BAL 705 593 96 94 90
BOS 634 715 71 72 76
CHA 660 758 73 71 75
CHN 614 707 73 70 76
CIN 595 612 76 79 75
CLE 669 653 85 83 88
COL 755 818 66 75 61
DET 757 705 90 86 91
HOU 629 723 70 71 70
KCA 651 624 89 84 94
LAA 773 630 98 96 92
LAN 718 617 94 92 88
MIA 645 674 77 78 80
MIL 650 657 82 80 80
MIN 715 777 70 75 76
NYA 633 664 84 77 90
NYN 629 618 79 82 75
OAK 729 572 88 99 74
PHI 619 687 73 73 73
PIT 682 631 88 87 86
SDN 535 577 77 75 83
SEA 634 554 87 91 82
SFN 665 614 88 87 91
SLN 619 603 90 83 94
TBA 612 625 77 79 72
TEX 637 773 67 67 75
TOR 723 686 83 85 82
WAS 686 555 96 97 90

Wins and Expected Wins

Most of these are relatively close except for Oakland. Based upon their record in games decided by three runs or less, they should have won 14 fewer games, which was by far and away the worst amongst the 30 teams.

Here’s a fancy scatterplot to say thanks for reading:

OaklandI’m not here to explain how things went wrong or why they went wrong or when they did. For all I know, things went exactly as Beane intended them to go because he secretly coveted a corner infield of Lawrie and Davis, which sounds every bit like the traveling vaudeville show in White Christmas.

My whole point is that we shouldn’t be surprised by Beane and the remodel. This team was good enough to win 100 games and then it happened.

Josh Donaldson – photo credit: Keith Allison via photopin cc

1 comment

  1. Robert

    It’s not this complicated. The A’s always jettison their best players rather then pay the going rate. How about keeping Lester and J. Smarjda? Why not keep Mcdonald and Cespedis , all the way back to Jason Giambi? They never put a championship team on the field because MLB allows them to run the team with a substandard payroll in an area that already has the WS winners. As an original franchise, they deserve a better city and ballpark. Or, an owner who will not run the team on a shoe string. Send them back to Philly and let there be a game every night in that beautiful field.

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