Let’s be honest; Moneyball hasn’t quite worked out over the last few years.
The Oakland Athletics had gone 457-353 under Billy Beane’s leadership when Moneyball was published after the 2002 season. They continued their success for the next four years, going 368-280, but have gone just 226-260 since 2007.
Players Beane maligned in the book—Carlos Peña and Prince Fielder, for example—have emerged as superstars . Meanwhile, the most successful of the prospects he lauded are Nick Swisher and Mark Teahen.
That Rajai Davis was allowed to steal 41 bases this year is proof that this is not the same team Michael Lewis wrote about.
Maybe talking about undervalued skills loud enough for other teams to hear made it harder to find affordable talent. Maybe revealing his strategies to the world was a bad idea. Or maybe the team has had a few years of miserable luck.
However, one division of Beane Enterprises continues to enjoy unprecedented success: the Closer Factory.
In case you hadn’t heard, A’s closer Andrew Bailey was just named the 2009 American League Rookie of the Year. Bailey put up a 1.86 ERA, a 3.79 K/BB ratio, and an astounding 0.88 WHIP in 83.1 innings en route to earning 26 saves in 30 opportunities.
At the end of last season, Bailey was a nobody who no one thought would make much of a splash in 2009. The closing role wasn’t open anyway; a healthy Huston Street was supposed to compete to reclaim his job from Brad Ziegler, who took over as a rookie in 2008.
Street’s story should sound familiar; in 2005, he was unexpectedly thrust into the closer’s role, put up 23 saves and a 1.72 ERA, and was named Rookie of the Year. A’s fans with good memories might also notice similarities to Keith Foulke, Billy Koch, Jason Isringhausen, and Billy Taylor.
What’s the point of all this? Why does it matter that the Athletics have been so successful with their closers?
It matters because the A’s approach the idea of closing very differently than other teams do.
Like wins , saves, Beane decided, were absurd ways to measure performance. “The situation typically described by the save,” Lewis wrote, “was clearly far less critical than a lot of other situations pitchers faced.”
He’s right. The man who comes in to pitch in the ninth inning with nobody on and a three-run lead doesn’t need as much talent to do his job as does the guy who takes the mound with the bases loaded in the seventh with the score tied.
Saves, Beane discovered, are not only meaningless, but comically overvalued. “You could take a slightly above average pitcher and drop him into the closer’s role, let him accumulate a gaudy number of saves, and then sell him off,” Lewis said. Having had multiple previous successes, Beane “assumed he could do so over and over again.”
Seven years later, the plan has continued to go off without a hitch. The worst that happens is Beane can’t find a good trade, so the A’s let their closers leave via free agency and get draft picks in return, as happened with Jason Isringhausen.
The best case scenario is that they trick a desperate team into giving up one of the best players in the game, as happened when the Athletics dealt Street to the Rockies just over a year ago.
This isn’t shrewd management; this is a Ponzi scheme. The difference is that, while Bernie Madoff forced false information upon his clients, Beane’s trading partners actually seem to enjoy using inaccurate metrics.
To be fair, Bailey and Street are more than just “above average” pitchers. Saves may be overrated, but Bailey’s other numbers demonstrate great skill, and while Street’s rookie year turned out to be a fluke (a 1.72 ERA usually requires more than 2.77 K/BB), he’s still been quite effective (3.28 ERA over the last four seasons).
On the other hand, it’s worth noting that Oakland closers haven’t held up very well after they were traded. Taylor and Koch imploded on impact when they joined the Mets and White Sox, respectively. Foulke had one good season with the Red Sox before his career started spiraling down.
Of the players mentioned in this article, only Isringhausen has had more than one season with an ERA under four after leaving Oakland.
A’s fans, don’t get too used to having Bailey pick up saves. If his future truly is closing, it will be elsewhere. With another season or two at the same level of dominance he displayed this year, he could foreseeably join the Athletics’ rotation (after putting Jeremy Giambi in right field, converting a closer to a starter isn’t much of a stretch).
But if Bailey’s peripherals worsen and the team loses faith in him, Beane won’t hesitate to see how much teams will offer for his inflated stock on the trade market. He’ll be sent packing, and the A’s will find another poor sap to develop into the next trade bait.
Just ask Huston Street.