A’s Do Nothing

Well, that trade deadline was boring. Plenty of bait (Blanton, Johnson, Piazza, Kennedy, Stewart, the DFA’d Kielty) but not a single fish caught today. What’s going on here? Two things:

  1. The Moneyball effect. There has two subeffects from this:
     
    • There are fewer teams Billy Beane can win a trade from, because more and more teams know how to properly value players
       
    • Beane has acquired so many undervalued players that the fleeceable teams still undervalue them, and won’t pay enough for them
       
  2. The changes in free agency rules. With the latest Collective Bargaining Agreement, the team that signs a Type B free agent no longer loses a draft pick of their own, while the team that loses him still gets a free pick. That means there is less risk that a Type B free agent will accept arbitration if offered, because there’s no downside to signing such a player anymore. Type B free agents are worth at least a free sandwich draft pick, so you don’t want to just dump those guys for scraps–the player you get back has to be worth more than the draft pick.

    Nobody outside of MLB the MLPBA and the Elias Sports Bureau seems to be sure what the Type A/Type B formula is, but I’ve heard speculation that Piazza, Kennedy, and Stewart may all end up qualifying as Type Bs. In fact, some of the decisions the A’s made before the deadline may have designed to make these players Type B free agents. What we do know is that the formula is based on the past two years of performance, and you are ranked according to your position. The top 20% at each position are Type A players, the next 20% are Type Bs.

    Outfielders, first basemen and DHs are grouped together for these rankings. Someone like Mike Piazza is more likely to rank in the top 40% if he’s considered a catcher than if he’s lumped in with the huge pool of OFs and 1Bs. He played 99 games in 2006 as a catcher, and 8 as a DH. Before he got hurt, he had played 26 games as a DH in 2007. So if he DHed for 66 more games, he’d end up as a DH for free agent purposes. Piazza was ready to come back and DH in early July, but the A’s asked him to stay on the DL and try to catch. Why? Presumably because Jason Kendall sucked, but I think it’s so that he’d be calculated as a catcher. Eventually, they gave up the idea of having him come back as a catcher, and said, OK, you can DH. When did they do that? When there were 67 games left in the season. Do you think Mike Piazza sat out two games before the trade deadline? You betcha. At most, he’ll now have a combined 99 games as a DH in the past two seasons, same as his number of games as a catcher.

    I’m not quite sure why Joe Kennedy was dropped from the rotation in early July–he had one bad outing, but he really wasn’t pitching as bad as his 2-8 won-loss record would indicate. Unless, of course, the A’s wanted him to be a reliever for free agency purposes, as well. I’m not sure how they determine whether you’re a starter or a reliever–I doubt it’s strictly on games played like position players, since starters only go once every five days. But if Kennedy has a greater chance of qualifying for Type B status as a reliever than as a starter, I’m sure the A’s are all over it.

    In recent years, the A’s have found players like Travis Buck and Huston Street in the sandwich round. Is a 2-8 Joe Kennedy going to land someone with that sort of potential in a trade? Kennedy’s not a bad pitcher, and I’m sure he’s better than some of the dreck that a few contenders I can think of are running out there, but no one is going to send over a potential Buck or Street for him.

So blah, no new prospects to get us excited about the future–yet. We’ll just have to wait for the 2008 draft for our next dose of that kind of pleasure. At least there’s a good pitching matchup tonight to look forward to: Dan Haren vs. Justin Verlander. And even if there wasn’t many happy returns of the day, I shall be thankful at least that I am not a Pirates fan, wondering why my team just took on Matt Morris’ salary for no good reason.

The Sound of One Hand Typing

Often during the A’s recently concluded 9-game losing streak I’ve felt like ranting here, but I haven’t had–well, not the time; I’ve had lots of time–the hands to do so. Much of my computer time these days is spent with a sleeping baby in one arm, and I’ve held off writing, waiting for a two-handed opportunity on the computer. As I’ve sat waiting, I have officially gave up on two things:

  • Two-handed opportunities on the computer
  • The A’s making the playoffs in 2007

So here I go, pecking slowly at the keyboard.

It’s a bit of an odd sensation giving up on the A’s playoff chances in July. The A’s haven’t been this clearly out of contention in July since 1998, the summer before Tim Hudson became the first of the "Big Three" starters to make his major league debut.

So here’s one point in support of those who said that Billy Beane’s success has nothing to do with the principles outlined in Moneyball, and everything to do with the good fortune of acquiring Hudson, Mulder and Zito: the A’s streak of contention began precisely when the first of those three pitchers arrived, and ended precisely when the last of them had departed. Interesting that both Bay Area GMs, after many successful years, find themselves this summer having to re-prove themselves by moving past the foundation of their previous success: Beane without the Big Three, and Brian Sabean without Barry Bonds. And each has to start this process this summer with a farm system pipeline that is quite dry, and a trade market that has largely ceased to overvalue mediocre proven veterans. It’s a difficult task, like trying to type a long essay while holding a seven-pound baby in one arm.

It will take all of Biily Beane’s creativity to fix this thing. 10 years ago, a Jason Kendall might have brought in a package of good prospects; now he brings in a guy described as "no one’s idea of a top relief prospect" who six months ago was probably closer to being out of baseball than to the major leagues. Beane is really going to have to dig deep to extract any value out of his tradeable assets. The good news is that if there is one thing that Billy Beane is good at, it’s digging deep and finding hidden value in other teams’ minor league systems. Justin Duchscherer, Chad Gaudin, Lenny DiNardo, Jack Cust, Marco Scutaro–these guys were all acquired without fanfare for next to nothing, and all have provided positive value in return.

Still, those guys are useful role players, not stars. The thing about having a lineup devoid of big stars is that you can’t afford to have any offensive black holes like Jason Kendall and Bobby Crosby suck everything away. Like a tennis player with mediocre ground strokes who gets a lot of free points with a big serve, one star player like Frank Thomas can compensate for a lot of other deficiencies. The A’s have been hurting (literally) in a lot of ways this year, but the biggest hurt this year compared to last has been not having the Big Hurt to hit that three-run homer once a week, that turns a 3-4 losing week into a 4-3 winning record.

In fact, Beane is so good at acquiring talent on the cheap, like finding quality in rehabbing free agents (John Jaha, Frank Thomas, Shannon Stewart) it’s rather stunning to contemplate how bad his track record is at signing mid-level free agents. Mike Magnante? Arthur Rhodes? Mark Redman? Esteban Loaiza? Even his re-signs and extensions have been bad. Jermaine Dye was a total flop in Oakland. Has Eric Chavez been worth all that money? Has Mark Kotsay?

I’m beginning to think that given Beane’s strengths and weaknesses, he ought to forego the midlevel free agents altogether, and go for a stars-and-scrubs strategy. Beane can find the scrubs for cheap better than anyone. Skip having three or four $7-12 million/year players on the team–nearly every one the A’s have had in Beane’s tenure has been wasted money. Blow it all on one superstar instead. Go ahead, Billy, go forth this offseason and spend all your money on ARod.

Then after six or seven more contending seasons on both sides of the bay, we can go complain that Brian Sabean is overrated; he just lucked into that Barry Zito-led pitching rotation, and state that we’ll finally find out how good a GM Billy Beane is, now that he at last has to build a team that isn’t just a bunch of nobodies surrounding his all-time home run king.

 

Kendall Traded To Cubs

…with some cash for catcher Rob Bowen and minor-league LHP Jerry Blevins.

The 6′ 6" Blevins was not on anybody’s prospect list to begin the season. He had a 6.13 ERA last year, but something must have clicked for him in the offseason. He’s had a monster year in 2007. He had a 0.38 ERA with 32 strikeouts against only 5 walks in 23 2/3 innings in A-ball, before being promoted to AA. There, he’s struck out 37 in 29 1/3 IP, against 8 walks, with a 1.53 ERA. He’s been better against lefties than righties, but he’s not just a LOOGY like Jay Marshall; he’s been good against RHB, too.

So I’m very happy. The A’s weren’t going anywhere with or without Kendall this season, so to get anything with even some possible positive value for him is fabulous.

Meanwhile, has anyone seen Ray Fosse?  Anyone?  I’m kinda worried about him…

 

Ex-A’s Report #2: Rickey Is New Mets Hitting Coach

First, some Zito news, and now this: Newsday is reporting that Rickey Henderson will be the new hitting coach for the New York Mets, replacing Rick Down.

Well, this should be fun.  I’ve always thought that Rickey could be a pretty good first base coach, since he has an expert eye for pitchers’ moves, but I never really thought about him as a batting coach.  He had pretty much the ideal batting approach as a player; it should be interesting to see if he can explain and transfer that approach to others.

Zito Watch

Barry Zito’s sky is falling for the seventy billionth time since his career began: Tim Marchman has a column today wondering whether Barry Zito’s contract is the worst of all time.

I guess my threepart series about Zito has made me somewhat of a Zito expert, so I suppose I should respond. Let us summarize what we know about Barry Zito:

1. His detractors over the years have looked at his peripheral stats and conclude he’s not as good as his ERA, because his (luck/big foul territory/good defense) masks his shortcomings.

2. Point #1 is crap.

Barry Zito’s success rests on his proven ability to reduce the BABIP of right-handed batters far lower than normal. That’s what makes him special. It’s skill, not luck (see TangoTiger for more);  it’s not the foul ground (no significant home/road splits), and it’s not the defense (he did this even when he had Ben Grieve, Terrence Long and Matt Stairs in the outfield behind him.)

Against left-handed batters, he’s pretty much been an average ho-hum major league pitcher. But because the vast majority of batters are right-handed, Zito succeeds.

So Zito is having a bad year.  I’ve heard that he’s lost his control, he’s lost his velocity.  Is the sky at last falling?

Um, no.  Let’s look at the important numbers:

Year ERA %LHB LHB BABIP LHB Avg/OBP/SLG RHB BABIP RHB Avg/OBP/SLG
2007 4.90 25.3% .368 .306/.398/.480 .245 .233/.318/.380
2006 3.83 18.7% .297 .260/.369/.400 .281 .257/.339/.418
2005 3.86 22.8% .248 .215/.296/.335 .245 .223/.306/.369
2004 4.48 21.2% .383 .327/.423/.485 .273 .247/.308/.412

2003

3.30 23.3% .244 .223/.291/.345 .241 .218/.296/.317

2002

2.75 20.7% .305 .275/.352/.439 .233 .203/.273/.314

2001

3.49 18.0% .279 .234/.346/.358 .287 .229/.301/.342

2000

2.72 23.7% .269 .194/.348/.306 .229 .195/.280/.313

If Zito was losing his stuff, he’d be struggling against both LHB and RHB this year. But he’s been just as good as ever against RHB. His bread and butter is still there, and still working just fine.

Zito’s struggles this year are entirely with left-handed batters.  Like his worst season in 2004, he’s allowed an extremely high BABIP against them.  In addition, the word has apparently gotten around about his reverse splits, and he’s facing a higher percentage of LHB this year than ever before.

Zito has had these troubles with LHB before, and fixed them.  I think he can fix them again.  I wouldn’t quite give up on him yet.

 

Bright Blessed Days

My youngest daughter, eleven days old, attended the first ballgame of her life this afternoon. The Seattle Mariners and the Oakland Athletics demonstrated to her, in many ways, what an amazing world she was born into. As a token of my appreciation, I would to sing them a song, and it goes a little something like this:

The colors of a rainbow
So pretty in the sky

Continue reading

The Pursuit of Tenderness

I have come in recent days to question the wisdom of Thomas Jefferson’s 231-year-old sentence that we are celebrating today:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

While I am certainly grateful for all the blessings this sentence has laid upon us, it is the last word of the sentence that I have been pondering. Indeed, the phrase “pursuit of Happiness” seems to be the only part of the sentence that is uniquely Jeffersonian; the rest of it comes borrowed from other famous Enlightment philosophies, particularly those of John Locke.

Locke wrote about “Life, Liberty and Estate”. Adam Smith followed Locke up with a discussion of “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Property.” Scholars are not quite sure why Jefferson changed it from “Property”, a basic legal concept, to “Happiness”, a basic human emotion, but the effect is huge. By placing an emotion into the sentence, the sentence comes alive. It brings something tangible, something that is experienced by every human being, into a sentence that is otherwise highly abstract.

* * *

My third daughter was born a week ago today with an excess of fluid collected in her lungs. She spent the first two days of her life in a neonatal intensive care unit. As I sat by her side in the hospital, watching her with breathing tubes in her nostrils, an IV in her arm, and a gazillion wires coming from various places on her body to monitor this and that, I experienced many strong and profound emotions. I’m pretty sure none of them would be labeled “Happiness”.

* * *

Human beings have a large set of emotions they experience. These days, we simply take it as self-evident that Happiness is the ultimate emotion, the one we ought to pursue above all others. We spend a lot of time and energy obsessing about how to be happy, but is there truly a hierarchy of emotions, with happiness at the top? Or is this just an idea that Jefferson planted in our heads 231 years ago, and has grown so large today that we cannot get around it?

* * *

Happiness is a positive, but selfish emotion. It’s about me, how well things are going for me. I experienced positive emotions while sitting in the hospital, but I wouldn’t call those emotions “Happiness” because they had nothing to do with me at all. When I think about how I felt sitting in the neonatal ICU, holding this small child with all the tubes and wires sticking out of her, the one word that comes to mind is tenderness.

Tenderness is a social emotion, not a selfish one. It’s about caring for someone else, about wanting to attend to another person’s well-being, above and beyond your own. It’s both positive and negative at once: positive in that you want to make this other person grow and thrive and flourish, and negative in that you recognize how delicate and fragile life can be. The feeling is deeper, and more profound, than any shallow happiness can ever be.

* * *

My daughter is home now, healthy and growing. I got some good sleep last night, my first good rest in a long time. It is the happiest I’ve felt in weeks. But how I feel doesn’t really matter.

Look up “happiness research” on the web, and you get all sorts of information about how human beings can, do, and ought to behave. Happiness researchers will provide statistical evidence that having additional children won’t make you any happier.

Humbug. I think that happiness researchers, like happiness itself, are somewhat besides the point. Look up “tenderness research“, and all you get are articles about beef. A lot of people, I think, are barking up the wrong cow.

* * *

Humans are social beings, with social emotions, and we pursue our social connections–creating families, making friends, joining political parties, attending churches, volunteering, becoming sports fans–for reasons that go beyond our own personal happiness.

Meanwhile, I can’t help but wonder: what would our world be like today, if Jefferson had written that among our unalienable rights were “Life, Liberty, and the Pursuit of Tenderness”?