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Sonny Gray and the Collective Bargaining Agreement

After the A’s traded Sonny Gray on Monday, I saw a lot of people declaring that the A’s are just doing the same old thing for the same old cheapskate reasons blah blah blah. That’s an easy thing to think if you’re just looking at the surface of things, but if you dig deeper and study it, you find it’s a bit more complex than that.

One of the themes I addressed in the A’s team essay I wrote for the 2014 Baseball Prospectus Annual was that whenever you see the A’s changing their behavior, you should look at whether there have been any changes in the rules of the game (on the field and ESPECIALLY off) that motivates that change in behavior. Because the A’s have been a poorly financed club from their very founding, all of the major innovations in baseball have had a bigger effect on the A’s than any other team.

The successes and failures that the A’s franchise has had over the years have largely depended on whether the A’s have been ahead of these changes or behind. There’s really only been one major innovation in the sport where the A’s weren’t either way ahead or way behind the curve on a major change: the breaking of the color line in the 40s and 50s, where the A’s were somewhat in the middle of the pack amongst teams that integrated.

The first major shock to the sport happened in 1914, when a new league, the Federal League, challenged the American and National Leagues. The Federal League did not adhere to the reserve clause which limited player movement and kept salaries down. This hit the A’s harder than most other teams for these reasons:

  1. The A’s were more poorly financed than other teams. They were not owned by wealthy industrialists, but by people who were baseball industry lifers, including manager and part-owner Connie Mack. As such, they could not absorb financial shocks very easily.
  2. The A’s were the best team in baseball, winning four of five AL pennants between 1910 and 1914, with three World Series wins. The A’s had better players who could be lured to the Federal League with market-value salaries. The A’s could no longer afford to keep their team together. Some were traded and some jumped to the other league
  3. Much of their talent pipeline ran through the minor league Baltimore Orioles, which Mack was also a part-owner of. A new Federal League team in Baltimore, the Terrapins, drastically hurt Orioles attendance and revenues. The Orioles were forced to move to Richmond, VA, and to sell their players to other major league teams other than the now financially-strapped A’s. This sell-off included the sale to the Boston Red Sox of one promising young pitcher named Babe Ruth. It is likely that if the Federal League had not come along, Ruth would have ended up on the A’s.
  4. The Baltimore Federal League team even hurt the A’s 100 years later, when the city of San Jose sued MLB to let them move to their city. San Jose lost that case, because of the anti-trust exemption the MLB was awarded when the Baltimore Terrapins sued MLB for the deal which disbanded the Federal League and left the Terrapins without a league to play in. The Supreme Court ruled against the Terrapins, and that same ruling was applied to San Jose.

So the A’s 1910-1914 dynasty broke up, and the A’s were a bad team for over a decade. Connie Mack assembled another juggernaut at the end of the 1920s, though, winning three straight pennants from 1929-31, and two World Series. But the Great Depression hit the A’s revenues hard, and Mack was forced to disband his dynasty again because of external economic forces.

Around that time, the A’s completely missed on another innovation that revolutionized baseball: the farm system. Connie Mack simply did not believe in it. The A’s were by far the last team to develop a farm system, and the lack of a quality system to sign and develop players through kept the A’s among the worst teams in baseball for over three decades.

The A’s dynasty in the 1970s was primarily a function of owner Charlie Finley beating the other teams to another innovation, the amateur draft. Finley went out the year before the draft was set to begin and spent a record amount of money on amateur players before they could be subject to the draft the following year. From this haul, he got a nucleus of players that formed that dynasty: Catfish Hunter, Rollie Fingers, Blue Moon Odom, and Joe Rudi.

In the 1970s, Finley tried again to ahead of the next big change to baseball’s rules: free agency. He traded Reggie Jackson and Ken Holtzman. Then tried to sell off Fingers, Rudi and Vida Blue before their free agency, but commissioner Bowie Kuhn rejected the deals in the “best interests of baseball.” The next year, the arbitration system was agreed to in the collective bargaining agreement, but it was too late for Finley. This system placed value in minor leaguers because they were controllable for six years. Had he known that was coming, Finley might have tried to trade off his assets for younger players. Of the core players of his dynasty, only Vida Blue was traded for a haul of young assets. The rest left via free agency, and the team once again fell to the basement of the league.

One could argue that part of the A’s success in the late 80s/early 90s was because the A’s beat the competition to the innovation of steroid use, but I’m (Canseco cough cough) not going to go there.

Since then, the A’s fortunes have primarily been shaped by two major innovations, one of which the A’s hit and the other of which they completely missed.

The missed one: the construction of Mount Davis to lure the Oakland Raiders back to the Coliseum. It was a disaster for the A’s, especially since it happened just as the retro-ballpark innovation began. Suddenly, the Coliseum became a much inferior product compared to other ballparks around the league. And when AT&T Park opened across the bay, it became obviously inferior to another ballpark in the same market. This had a huge effect on the team’s revenues relative to other teams in baseball.

The hit: the A’s were ahead of every other team on the statistical analysis innovation. Of course, you know all about Moneyball by now.

* * *

The point of this history lesson is this: innovations and rule changes matter. If you don’t adjust your behavior quickly in response to these innovations and rule changes, you can find yourselves decades behind the competition.

So if you’re going to write about what a team is doing (especially if you are getting paid to do so), it would help if you had a good grasp on the rules of the game that the team is playing. And if a team changes its behavior, look if there are any underlying innovations or rule changes that may be motivating this change.

So here’s the frustrating thing to me about this Sonny Gray trade: I read a bunch of analysis of the trade, and some of it said it was “same old same old”, some of it mentioned trying to align the team’s age with the possible opening of a new ballpark, but I did not once read anywhere (maybe it existed but I didn’t see it) any mention of a BIG GIANT RULE CHANGE that affected the A’s and ONLY THE A’S.

Here’s the rule change in question: in the latest collective bargaining agreement, the A’s portion of revenue sharing from the league is phasing down to 0, starting THIS YEAR. This is a rule change that applies ONLY TO THE A’S, and to no other team.

Here’s why: in previous CBAs, teams shared 20-34% of local revenues with each other equally. In the 2011, CBA, they decided to only distribute revenue sharing to the smallest 15 markets. But an exception was made for the A’s, because Oakland is actually one of the 15 largest markets. The 2011 CBA lets the A’s to collect revenue sharing as long as they were still in the Coliseum. In the latest CBA in 2016, they decided to phase this out for the A’s over four years.

The A’s were receiving $30-$35M per year from revenue sharing, according to various sources. Let’s call it $32M to make the math easy. That means the A’s revenue sharing income looks like this:

2016: $32M
2017: $24M
2018: $16M
2019: $8M
2020-onward: $0

If you take all of this information together, it explains several things about the A’s behavior:

  • Why, despite their low revenue, they would occasionally sign mid-range free agents like Ben Sheets, Esteban Loaiza and Billy Butler. They were afraid that if they did not spend this money, the other owners would get mad at them for taking revenue sharing without spending it, and take their revenue sharing away from them.
  • Why they never tried to pull off a full tank-and-rebuild scheme where you let the team be awful for a few years to collect top draft picks. They tried every year, with varying degrees of success, to assemble a roster that had at least some reasonable chance if everything worked out right to make the playoffs. Same reason, really: it would look bad for a big-market team to take revenue sharing and not use it.
  • Why they suddenly this year decided that they would pick a spot in Oakland and build a stadium. They need to get something built soon, because they don’t have $32M in revenue sharing to prop them up.
  • And finally, why the A’s are finally now saying that they are willing to go through a full tank-and-rebuild process. It’s not simply because they expect a new stadium. It’s also because the motivation they had in the past to avoid the tank-and-rebuild process is no longer applicable because of the new CBA.

So this means that the timing of this mattered to the A’s. Gray will be getting more expensive each year just at the same time as the A’s revenues will be falling. And so the A’s have a huge motivation now to avoid free agents and expensive arbitration eligible players until they can increase their revenues again with a new stadium. And that decreased the A’s leverage in trade negotiations, because keeping Gray would hurt them more than it did before.

So, once again, the A’s sold off a successful player, just as they have had to do many many times in their 116-year history. But it’s lazy to just claim that nothing is different about this one. Yes, it’s a similar outcome, but it has behind it a very different motivation from the previous ones. And isn’t that an interesting story to ponder?

The Four Aspects of Henduism

The A’s have a two-run lead. They are two innings away from their first World Series championship in 15 years. They are batting in the top of the eighth, with two runners on base.

Dave Henderson is at the plate.

Hendu has seen leads like this evaporate in the postseason before. His own homer off Donnie Moore. Bill Buckner’s error. Kirk Gibson’s homer. He was on the field for all of those improbable comebacks.

Hendu knows what’s at stake here. The A’s were leading 8-0 in this game, and now it’s 8-6. Those potential runs that are out there on first and second bases are very important. Driving those runs in, or not, could be the difference between a championship, and another agonizing defeat.

The Giants’ best reliever, Steve Bedrosian, is summoned from the bullpen to face Hendu. Hendu gets ahead in the count, 3-1, but then Bedrosian rears back and paints two blazing fastballs on the outside corner. Hendu fouls these perfect pitches off.

So here we are, a full count, with two outs. The runners will be going.

What does Hendu do?

Here’s what Hendu does: he yawns.

* * *

Dave Henderson passed away this weekend. He was only eight years older than me.

I’m about to turn 50. Unavoidably, my thoughts recently have been turning towards mortality. Before, when athletes my age or younger who have passed away, I could always find some thing about their deaths that I could dismiss as irrelevant to me. They had a genetic defect, or were freakishly large. They were addicted to drugs or alcohol. They played a violent sport where they repeatedly bash their brains against their skulls.

But I haven’t been able to shake off Dave Henderson’s death. Partly because he basically died of the kind of thing people die of when they die of old age: organ failure. It is hitting me now that death can come at any time now. It may come 50 years from now, but it may come in just eight. Or it may come tomorrow.

And I also have been unable to shake of Dave Henderson’s death because I loved the guy. If you were an A’s fan in the 80s and 90s, you loved, loved, loved Dave Henderson.

God, I loved Hendu. I miss Hendu.

* * *

My peak as an A’s fan corresponded to the years that Dave Henderson patrolled center field for the A’s, 1988-93. I must have gone to 30-40 games a year those years. And I always sat out in the left-center bleachers, between the two (unrelated) Hendersons, Dave in center and Rickey in left.

It was a wonderful time. Yes, it was a happy era because the A’s were a great team those years. But the joy also came from Dave Henderson himself.

There have been players before and since who acknowledge and are grateful for and interact with their fans. But I have yet to see a player who could rival Hendu to the degree in which he actually, genuinely liked his fans. At any time, before, during, and after any game, he was ready and willing to interact with the fans behind him in the outfield. He’d sit in the bleachers during batting practice sometimes. He’d go out to dinner with fans after a game. And there was always a lot of joking banter between pitches.

I particularly loved the start of the game. Hendu would come out at the top of the first inning to warm up with a big smile on his face. He’d take the ball out of his glove, and wave it over his head at us in left-center, and then to his two(!) groups of fans in right-center: Henduland and Hendu’s Bad Boy Club. And then Hendu’s Bad Boy Club would launch their “Hendu is a bad boy” chant, and the game was on.

It was a ritual that said to you, every game: isn’t this great? Isn’t this fun? Isn’t this life just a joy to be living?

We need more rituals like that.

* * *

“Are you happy, Daddy?”

My eight-year-old daughter asks me this question a lot. She is the closest thing I have seen to Dave Henderson since Dave Henderson. People who only intermittently interact with her often ask, “Is she ever not happy?”

Of course, I see her so much that I know that she is not always happy. She has her pet peeves that set her off, make her grumpy. But her default mode is happy. She is, by default, smiling, excited, happy to see you. She is quite popular as a result. Happiness is infectious.

* * *

My default emotion is not happiness. It’s…I don’t know…satisfaction? I’m satisfied. Things are fine. I’m calm. I’m OK. But happiness doesn’t come easily or naturally for me.

Satisfaction is not infectious. People don’t flock to other satisfied people. I will never be as missed when I am gone as Dave Henderson is. It just doesn’t work that way.

Why is that? Why are the Dave Hendersons of the world the exception and not the rule? Why was Dave Henderson extraordinary instead of ordinary? Why can’t we all be more like Dave Henderson, or my daughter, and be joyous all the time?

* * *

This is a Swedish short film called “The Egg“. It’s a beautiful film, which presents a lovely way to look at why there are so many different kinds of people in the world.

You don’t need to believe in the Hindu idea of reincarnation to appreciate what a beautiful idea this is. Perhaps I’m not capable of being as joyous as Dave Henderson, or my daughter, because my soul simply isn’t as mature as theirs is.

Which means we have a dual responsibility to each other: theirs is to lead by example, to give our souls something to aspire to become in our future lives. Ours is to not turn them backwards, to not drag them back down to our more unripened levels.

* * *

The Hindu religion presents four main aspects, or goals, of human life: kama, dharma, artha, and moksha. Now, I’m not Hindu, so this is not my religion, but I am a believer in finding the underlying truths of any religion, and translating them into a form that you can understand. As God said in the film above, every religion is true in its own way.

So let’s take these aspects of Hinduism, and translate them (sort of like what the Pixar short Sanjay’s Super Team did) into a form we can understand: what these concepts mean in a baseball context. And let’s pick Oakland A’s players to represent each of these concepts.

Let’s call this framework Henduism:

  • Kama.

    Kama represents our desire and longing for emotional, sensual and aesthetic pleasures. In Henduism, Kama is represented by Yoenis Cespedes.

    Cespedes, when measured objectively, was never an all-star quality player with the A’s. His statistical results were perhaps slightly above average. He wasn’t a star hitter because he chased high fastballs too much, leaving him vulnerable to various forms of pitch sequencing. Defensively, he often took bad routes on fly balls, and sometimes clanked the balls that fell in his glove. He didn’t read pitchers very well on the bases, so he was a poor basestealer, despite his speed.

    But oh my goodness, what a talent. In an A’s uniform, he was simply beautiful human being to watch, even in failure. If he dropped a ball in the outfield, he would often make up for it by launching a frozen rope to the next base as the player tried to advance. When rounding the bases, there was a spellbinding grace to his form when he ran with a full head of steam. And when his bat did make contact with the ball, the result was often the most majestic of home runs.

    If there is a baseball equivalent of lust, Yoenis Cespedes induced that feeling.

     

  • Dharma.

    Dharma is the quality of conducting yourself virtuously according to the the duties, rights, and laws of your society. In baseball terms, it means “playing the game the right way.” In Henduism, Dharma is represented by Mark Ellis.

    Ellis spent nearly a decade in an A’s uniform, a rarity in the tenure of Billy Beane, who swaps players in and out like a card dealer flips over playing cards. In many ways, Ellis was the opposite of Cespedes. Ellis rarely did anything that tickled your aesthetic senses and made you say “Wow!” He was an ordinary-looking athlete of ordinary size and strength and speed. But in those ten years, I can probably count on my fingers the number of times Ellis made a mental mistake. He was always in the right place at the right time, making the right decision of where to be, of where to throw the ball or not throw the ball, of whether to take the extra base or to stay put.

    You knew exactly what you were getting with Mark Ellis when you wrote him into the lineup. You could always rely on Mark Ellis, because he always played the game the right way.

     

  • Artha.

    Artha refers to the goal of reaching prosperity and success. In Henduism, Artha is represented by Rickey Henderson.

    If the goal of baseball is to score runs, then nobody has achieved that goal more than Rickey Henderson. Rickey holds the all-time record for most runs scored in a career.

    But there’s more to Rickey than that. Rickey was the full package. He could hit for average, he could work the count and get on base with a walk (OMG could he do that), he could hit for power (most home runs ever leading off a game), he could steal bases (single-season and career records in that, too), and he could play defense, too. As Bill James famously said, you could split Rickey in two, and you’d have two hall-of-famers. And he also won a couple of World Series, to boot.

    If your goal is winning, and you were picking an A’s player in history to build your team around, Rickey would be your first pick.

     

  • Moksha.

    The goal of Moksha is to make real the kind of the person you were meant to be. This can only follow from a liberation or release from the fears and burdens of everyday life.

    Moksha is represented in Henduism by Dave Henderson.

* * *

“There’s not really much pressure when you’re supposed to make an out. And I guess I’m the only one who realizes that. So, I have a distinct advantage in that everybody else on the field is pressured, and I’m not.”

Dave Henderson

Hendu yawned.

Dave Henderson would often do this in a tense situation in a ballgame. He’d take a step out of the batter’s box for a moment, and let loose a nice big yawn.

Then, relaxed, liberated by the yawn from the pressure of the situation, he’d get back into the batter’s box and face the battle before him, as the best possible Dave Henderson he could be in that moment.

There are those who do not believe in clutch hitters. But Dave Henderson hit .324/.410/.606 over the four World Series he played in. You may think that’s just the luck of the statistical draw. I do not. I think it was Moksha.

* * *

Most of us are broken in some way. We have fears, anxieties, scars, built up over years of heartbreak and abuse and neglect and failures. We build psychological walls around ourselves to protect ourselves from these problems. Mine are certainly lesser than others. I’m sure many, many people have scars far worse than mine, with much thicker walls built up around them.

But here I am: a child of divorce and alcoholism, who got sent to a different country in a different climate with a different culture and a different language just as I was hitting puberty. I developed some psychological walls around myself as a result. I think I fear success (Artha) a bit too much, because I feel like it could be too easily taken away from me. I’m afraid of Kama, too, of being too amazing and sexy and strong, because losing that would be too painful, too. So I hide inside Dharma, doing my duties, behaving properly, probably a bit too much. I miss out on the other connections I could have.

* * *

I think most baseball players, like most of us normal human beings, have their own fears and anxieties and scars. A baseball career is a fragile thing. One small mechanical hitch could be the difference between being in the majors and being out of baseball. One hit a week is the difference between an all-star and an also-ran. Is there time, is there energy, to risk making emotional connections to the whole wide world, when every moment, every play, is so critical to success or failure?

But then there was Dave Henderson. Hendu could yawn in the face of pressure. Hendu had accepted his vulnerabilities, and released himself from the fear of failure. And because of that liberation, he could afford to smile and wave to an audience who watched his every move. And through that smile, and that wave, he lifted an entire fanbase.

* * *

“Are you happy, Daddy?” The wise old soul inside my young little daughter looks into my eyes, and intuits that I have not reached Moksha. I am not quite the person I could be, because I have not released myself from my fears and inhibitions. And most of all, I have not allowed myself the freedom to release myself from my biggest fear of all: that I will somehow mess up this responsibility of fatherhood, that I will play the parenting game in the wrong way, that I will throw some unnecessary scars onto her, and set back her beautiful soul.

She won’t accept my unhappiness. She wants more from me.

“Come on, Daddy, ” she says, and grabs my hand. She pulls, and my inertia yields. She lifts me out of my chair. A smile starts to form on my face.

“Let’s go play!”

My Amazing Funeral Procession

“Steph Curry’s great. Steph Curry’s the MVP. He’s a champion. Understand what I’m saying when I say this. To a degree, he’s hurt the game. And what I mean by that is I go into these high school gyms, I watch these kids and the first thing they do is run to the three-point line. You are not Steph Curry. Work on the other aspects of the game. People think that he’s just a knock-down shooter. That’s not why he’s the MVP. He’s a complete basketball player.”

Mark Jackson

I’m more ghost now than man.

I’ll be turning 50 in a month. Of those 50 years, I’ve played soccer for maybe 42 years. I probably peaked physically at around age 27 or 28, as most human beings do. Which means that half my soccer-playing life, 21 of those 42 years, has been spent in the slow process of fading into a mere shadow of the player I used to be.

There was a time when I never worried about what was behind me. If I had half a step on an opponent, I was gone. No more. Every advantage I earn disappears quickly these days. Each decision I make takes much longer to execute. Younger players just read my eyes and get to where I plan to go before I do. My moves are all telegraphed, like an outdated metaphor trying to go viral on a brand new communications medium.

My ghosting is almost complete. The last lights on my neural relay are flickering.

* * *

I have a friend, Jeff Raz, who once was the lead clown in a Cirque du Soleil show, Corteo. Jeff played a clown imagining his own funeral. A procession of acrobats and jugglers and clowns arrive to play tribute to the dying clown, to give him a few last moments of amazingness before his time is up.

I’ve learned from watching him up close what a huge difference there is between a world-class clown in a world-class circus, and the amateur clown at your kid’s birthday party.

A top-level, world-class circus contains a wealth of jaw-dropping acrobats and jugglers and performers who push the limits of what the human body can do. But your jaw can only drop so many times before jaw-dropping becomes repetitive, and amazing becomes normal.

The job of the clown in a world-class circus is to push the reset button on amazingness. The clown taps into your natural ambition to do amazing things, but mistakingly focuses on an element of the preceding act which is not actually the source of its quality. So, for example, if a dancer does an acrobatic Fred Astaire act with a broom, a clown follows that act by trying to replicate that success by dancing with a vacuum cleaner.

Of course, the cleaning utensil was not the point of the preceding act; it was the skill and strength and artistry and precision of the dancer. The clown replicates the form of the act but not the quality, and in doing so, brings our expectation levels back down to those of the normal human being, so that the next act can wow us again.

* * *

In a way, then, your birthday party clown unintentionally makes the same mistake the the top-level clown makes on purpose: s/he imitates the form of the clown, with the makeup and the outfits, but often not the function or the quality. And it is this form without function which horror films use to turn clowning on its head, from a reset button on amazingness to a trigger for the grotesque side of human nature.

* * *

Every once in a while, an athlete comes along who drops our jaws, and changes the baseline of what we think is humanly possible. Right now, that athlete is Steph Curry.

The shooting, the dribbling, the shooting, the passing, and OMG the shooting — Curry dazzles us like no other basketball player has done before. With his human proportions amidst the giants of the NBA, Curry serves as both acrobat and clown in the same, complete package. It’s the greatest show on earth.

* * *

My youngest daughter is eight years old. I have coached her soccer team for a couple of years now. At first, the kids only understand the simplest element of soccer’s form: trying to kick the ball in the direction of the goal. A soccer game with six-year-olds is a clump of small human beings clustering around a ball as it pinballs around within the cluster. It is not exactly The Beautiful Game.

But now, two years later, I can see the kids’ eyes becoming open to the function of the game instead of just the form. The first time being aware of the game instead of just the ball. The movement into open space with a dribble. A reminder to a teammate not kick the ball into the middle of the field in front of your own goal. The first primitive attempts at passing the ball to an open teammate.

It’s like a closed flower beginning to open its petals to the sunlight.

* * *

Meanwhile, I keep playing, twice a week, getting worse and worse every time I play. I am one injury from hanging up my soccer cleats for good. Any time I step on the field now, it could be my last time.

But every once in a while, I still manage one more good run, one more nice pass, one more good shot, and the sun delays its setting for just one, brief, bittersweet moment.

But not everything can be avoided. Not forever. Times end, because they have to.

* * *

The young kids in the high school gym, chucking three pointers instead of playing beautiful basketball, they’re just inexperienced youngsters who see the form but don’t yet understand the function. With guidance, their time will come.

You may, if you choose, elect to judge children and old men against the standards of the peak human being, to compare amateurs and novices to professionals. You may elect to criticize their mistakes in an isolated snapshot, as unconnected events to be judged without context, each a single flawed image in a grotesque horror show, every one of which harms the potential perfection of the universe.

Or, you can join me and take a seat at the finest table in all the galaxy. Let us watch the beautiful circus of life, from naïve clowns to amazing acrobats to sad ghosts, march by. It’s my amazing funeral procession, and you’re all invited.

My blog is moving

I have moved my blog from wordpress over to ken.arneson.name. Update your blogrolls and RSS feeds accordingly.

Many reasons, but to sum it up in one word: simplicity.

To sum it up in a few more words: I have grown more and more dissatisfied with each of the available social media, each for its own quirky reasons. Moving stuff back to my own server will give me a more flexible canvas to paint things as I see fit.

I still don’t anticipate blogging regularly in the near term. But when I look out a little bit farther into the distance, when I clear more stuff off my plate, regular blogging seems more possible, if not more likely.

Some Baseball Notes

I have written a guest column for Baseball Prospectus today. It’s about the Far West League, a new summer collegiate wood bat league in Northern California.

Mark Ellis got traded to the Rockies today. He definitely will be missed by us A’s fans. He was the longest tenured A’s player by five years. Ellis was not a great hitter, but he held his own at the plate. He was a phenomenal second baseman, and the fact that he has never won a gold glove is a complete misjustice. The remarkable thing about Ellis is something that is very hard to appreciate unless you watch him a lot: he never, ever makes a mental mistake. He always seem to make the right decision, which would make him likely coaching material when his playing days are done. But before that happens, I’ll be tuning into as many Rockies games as I can find. Pairing Ellis with Troy Tulowitzki in Colorado should make for some up-the-middle defense quite worth watching.

Meanwhile, over at Beaneball, Jason Wojciechowski has listed his top 25 favorite A’s position players of all time. Since his list is so different from what mine would be (both because we have different tastes, and because I’m much older), I thought I should figure out what my own top 25 would be. So here goes:

1. Rickey Henderson
2. Mark Ellis
3. Dave Henderson
4. Reggie Jackson
5. Mike Gallego
6. Dwayne Murphy
7. Eric Chavez
8. Gene Tenace
9. Stan Javier
10. Bert Campaneris
11. Marco Scutaro
12. Terry Steinbach
13. Sal Bando
14. Joe Rudi
15. Dave Parker
16. Matt Stairs
17. Miguel Tejada
18. Mark McGwire
19. Frank Thomas
20. John Jaha
21. Mark Kotsay
22. Mike Bordick
23. Milton Bradley
24. Mike Heath
25. Jemile Weeks

Honorable mention: Cliff Johnson, Tony Phillips, Carney Lansford, Bruce Bochte, Geronimo Berroa, Ramon Hernandez, Olmedo Saenz, Adam Melhuse, Kurt Suzuki.

My New Job

A generation ago, nearly every General Manager in Major League Baseball was a former major league player. Today, there are only three. What happened? Sabermetrics.

Popularized by Michael Lewis’ Moneyball, sabermetrics involves the use sophisticated statistical analysis to help teams gain that little extra edge it takes to win. Gone are the days when being a backslapping good-old-boy was the key to landing a GM job. In these days of information overload and super-fast computers, success means knowing how to squeeze The Extra 2%, as Jonah Keri puts it, out of every transaction.

And now these sabermetric concepts are spreading. Nate Silver, one of the pioneers of baseball statistical analysis, has moved on from baseball into politics. His FiveThirtyEight blog is a must-read for all political junkies.

This is a tremendously exciting change for some. But for political professionals, it’s a scary development, as evidenced just this morning when the popular political blog Frum Forum posted an article entitled “Why Moneyball Doesn’t Work.” Politicos are now going into attack mode on baseball.

The job description for politicians, like old baseball GMs, still mostly involves being a backslapping good-old-boy. But what if the migration of Nate Silvers into politics changes the job description for them, as it did for baseball GMs? What if they need to understand basic mathematics and rational reasoning in order to perform and keep their jobs, instead of just blowing hot air in whatever direction feels right? What if the Moneyball revolution spreads as quickly in politics as it did in baseball? What if efficiency in government actually suddenly becomes important, and the formerly-valuable skill of spewing vapid rhetoric turns formerly respected professionals into pitifully sad ignorant has-beens like Murray Chass? Like the old-school scouts who could not adjust to the new era, all these people could all be out of a job within a decade!

That’s where I come in.

Three years ago, I wrote a blog entry on How to Defeat a Sabermetrician in an Argument. This article remains to this day, if I must say so myself, the definitive explanation on how to oppose sabermetrics. The bonus is, that I also happened to throw a little political analysis into the article, just on a lark. So as Nate-Silverism started spreading in the political industry, frightened political professionals turned to Google for help, and found my article. It has spread like wildfire inside the Beltway.

Sunset by the PotomacAs a result, last week I went to Washington DC. I spent over eight days in our nations capital. I met all sorts of fascinating people, of both parties. I even had dinners with lobbyists, while watching a beautiful sunset over the Potomac.

I visited the White House, and went inside the US Capitol and the various office buildings nearby, and had all sorts of interesting conversations. It became clear to me that the Moneyball problem for the political industry is a fully bipartisan issue. Both parties can agree: the sabermetric way of thinking is a threat to the traditional way American politics has worked for two centuries now. It’s a threat to the livelihood of many good people, on both sides of the political aisle.

After much discussion, an agreement was reached. I will be heading the newly formed National Bipartisan Commission for Intuitive Statecraft. Our mission will be to preserve, protect and defend the time-tested methods of political reasoning against the cold, deductive arts that are coming into vogue. We shall provide counterintelligence against the likes of Nate Silver and Jonah Keri and Billy Beane, to slow and even turn back the spread of their ruthlessly efficiencies and deductive philosophies into the political landscape.

Office View, Washington DCNeedless to say, I am extremely proud, honored, and excited about this opportunity. I get a nice corner office just a few blocks from the White House. I get to take my words, and put them into action. And to take arms against terrible scourge that most of our fellow citizens are not yet even aware of, but could soon overtake America’s very way of life.

And so I dedicate myself to this great task before me, that the men and women who dedicated their intuitions for political success shall not have pontificated in vain, and that the political profession and the media that covers it shall have a new birth of profitability, and that bullshit by the people, of the people, and for the people, shall not perish from this earth.

Thoughts on Tucson

I just posted a series of tweets about the Tucson thing, which probably would have read better as a blog entry. So I’ll cross-post them here.

* * *

Sweden has little violent rhetoric in its political discourse. Yet, two Swedish politicians have been assassinated in past 25 years. Prime Minister Olof Palme was shot in 1986; Foreign Minister Anna Lindh was stabbed in a dept store in 2003, both in Stockholm. This sort of thing happens even absent of violent speech, or a violent culture.

That said, even if violent speech does not lead to violence itself, it is not harmless to society. IMO, violent rhetoric is a form of corruption. It’s not as bad as violence itself, or bribes, but it’s on the spectrum. Violent rhetoric makes people hesitate to participate, to speak their minds, to present ideas.

Suppressing truth is corrupt. America became #1 because we’ve been best in the world at letting ideas have an opportunity to compete in the marketplace of ideas. When ideas are afraid to test themselves, or they find it’s more trouble than it’s worth to try, that’s a loss for society.

* * *

Couple of non-tweeted points:

  • My sister-in-law and brother-in-law live very near to the site of this shooting in Tucson. That made the emotional impact of this a bit more personal.
  • If you want to see what the extreme end of the corruption spectrum looks like, watch ESPN’s 30-for-30 documentary The Two Escobars, about soccer in Colombia in the 1990s. Chilling stuff.

Happy Rickey Day

The setup is to see Rickey sized up by the choir invisible hand have really worried. Walks off the teams, get the best hitter, Rickey stole second straight Outta Town.

~ From a randomly generated Catfish Stew article

The paragraph above, I think, sums Rickey Henderson up quite well.  Like the splotches in an impressionist painting or the words in a Rickey Henderson speech, it makes no sense if you look it at too closely.  But let it flow over you, and you can comprehend it–the divine talent, the opposition’s fear, the walks, the hitting, the stolen bases–Rickey Henderson was a Hall of Fame baseball player like no other.

And today, it becomes official. Here’s my best old Rickey story: watching an aging Rickey as a San Diego Surf Dawg.  I wish I had some great new story to tell about him, but all I can think of are snapshots.  Going to a game with an out-of-town friend and betting him that Rickey would take the count to 3-2 in the first at-bat, and winning the bet.  The way he’d freeze and stare straight down at the ground and mutter if he disagreed with an umpire’s strike call.  Watching him lead off both ends of a doubleheader with home runs.  The fingers dangling as he eyed a pitcher, waiting to steal second.  The headfirst slide, through the bag, not to the bag, as if he were trying to steal second straight Outta Town.

Jason Giambi Returns To Oakland

Ken Rosenthal says the deal is done, pending a physical.  Buster Olney says it’s for $4 million in 2009, with an option for $6.5M in 2010, or a $1.25M buyout. 

It sounds like a bargain for a free agent who hit over 30 home runs last year.   Keith Law agrees.  It gives the A’s positional flexibility:  if Daric Barton struggles as he did last year, Giambi could play first base, with Jack Cust DHing.  If Barton hits, but Cust or Travis Buck struggles, Giambi could DH while Barton covers 1B, and either Cust or Buck roams the outfield.

It’s almost a perfect fit…except…it’s kinda like taking back the old girlfriend who dumped you for the richer, handsomer guy so many years ago.  You loved her so much while you had her, then you hated hated hated her after she betrayed you.  And now, taking her back?  There may be some benefits, but I can’t imagine that it wouldn’t be healthier for the soul if everybody had just moved on, for good.

That is, if baseball teams have souls.  Maybe they don’t.  In which case the analogy is flawed.  And so is our fandom.

Furcal No Longer Athletics’ Top Priority

First, I confess I am writing this post mostly to tease Jon for his wishywashyness.

I suppose I need to say something about Rafael Furcal, then.  He was obviously Billy Beane’s Plan A for fixing the shortstop hole, but Plan A failed, even though Beane offered more money and years to Furcal than any other team.  I suppose it’s hard to sell a player on moving in to your city when you’re working really hard to move out.

Wolff/Beane:  Move to Oakland, it’s great!

Furcal:  If it’s so great, why are you trying to move to San Jose?

Wolff/Beane:  Umm…uhh…

The question now is, is there a Plan B that would bring the A’s back to competitiveness in 2009, or are we back to the old 2010-12 target date now?  Orlando Cabrera is the only other significant free agent shortstop left, but he will cost a 2nd-round draft pick, and he’s not nearly the upgrade over Crosby that Furcal would have been.  The Braves could presumably make Yunel Escobar available in a trade since they now have two shortstops, so we’ll look at him, and the perpetually trade-rumored Jack Wilson.

(I love that Fangraphs now has +/ numbers for offense and defense, so we can compare.  I’ll use the 2009 Marcels wRAA for offense and the career UZR/150 for defense.)

Player Offense Defense Total
Crosby -19.3 +3.7 -15.6
Wilson -7.6 +2.2 -5.4
Cabrera -9.9 +7.2 -2.7
Furcal +1.2 -3.4 -2.2
Escobar 7.8 +4.9 +12.7

Marcel dings Furcal because he missed large chunks of 2008 and played hurt in 2007. If he’s healthy, he probably performs more like a +10 to +15 player offensively.  So I’d group the talents like this:

Escobar
Furcal
— big gap–
Cabrera
–small gap–
Wilson
–big gap–
Crosby

With Furcal or Escobar, you’re looking about a three win improvement over Crosby.  Cabrera gets you about half that.  Does it take all three wins to improve the A’s enough to compete in 2009?  If so, should the A’s give up good prospects for Escobar?  If it only takes a win or two, should the A’s go after Cabrera or Wilson?  Sorry, I’ve got no answers.  I don’t have time to do that kind of math, that’s what I pay Billy Beane for.

I Have Outsourced All My Worries To Billy Beane and Barack Obama

Today, Billy Beane officially traded three lemons for an overripe, spotted banana.

Greg Smith is a lemon, because his peripheral stats suggest his 4.16 ERA probably should have been about a run higher than it was. Carlos Gonzalez is a lemon because while he is young and graceful and lovely to watch both at the plate and in the field, he has no clue how to control the strike zone, and probably never much will. Huston Street is a lemon, because he is a reliever with "closer" on his resume who is becoming increasingly expensive, increasingly injury-prone, and decreasingly effective. Matt Holliday is an overripe banana, because the A’s are building around a core of players who will mature in about 2012 or so, but Holliday, with only one year until free agency, needs to be consumed long before the maturity date of the other fruit in Billy Beane’s basket.

Aren’t you supposed to turn lemons into lemonade? Perhaps lemonade demand is high these days, and banana bread is the new market inefficiency. But even if that’s true, Billy Beane is still two cups of flour, a scoop of sugar, and a stick of butter shy of assembling all the ingredients in any known banana bread recipe. Matt Holliday probably makes the A’s about 4 wins better or so, but eating that banana raw still leaves the Athletics 5 to 8 wins shy of a playoff spot in 2009.

All of which is another way of saying, I have no idea why either the Rockies or the A’s made this trade. And, ladies and gentlemen, I have an important announcement to make: I don’t really care, either.

Oh, getting all high and mighty, eh? Fresh fruit not good enough for you, eh? Well, I’ll tell you something, my lad. When you’re walking home tonight and some great homicidal maniac comes after you with a bunch of loganberries, don’t come crying to me!

So be it. Loganberries be damned, I have decided, at long last, to stop trying to imagine myself as Billy Beane or Bob Geren or George Bush or Arnold Schwarzenegger trying to make all the great and important decisions of the world, and instead to just be Alfred E. Neuman. I shall no longer worry about being attacked by pomegranates or grapefruits or plums or lingonberries or mangoes in syrup. My life had become such a burden, what with all the guns and 16-ton weights and tigers I’ve been hauling around to protect myself from the outrages of mistaken decisions by those wielding the fruits of power. It is time to outsource those responsiblities.

In Billy Beane and Barack Obama, the A’s and the US of A’s leaders are seemingly both intelligent, pragmatic men who will avoid quick reactions from their guts, carefully consider all the empirical evidence, and make their decisions as rationally as they can. I may disagree with elements of their overall philosophy and with their individual decisions, but I believe I can finally say in both cases that I don’t think I could, on the whole, do a better job than they could.

Therefore, with relief, I hereby outsource my worries about the A’s and the USA, to Billy Beane and Barack Obama. The job is yours, guys, I’ll let you do it. Go ahead and trade for a slugger who won’t be sticking around to help the A’s win their next championship. Go ahead and send gazillions more dollars to General Motors and their incompetent management. Go ahead and overhaul the health care system using the advice of a man who sends scouts the world over and somehow can’t manage to find 25 healthy young men. I probably won’t understand any of those decisions in the slightest, but I’m fairly confident that you’ve thought it through, so I’ll trust your judgment. I’ll probably check in from time to time to make sure you’re not burning the toast, but mostly, you’re on your own from now on.

I shall now return to my life, to focus on bringing home the bacon from the fruits of my labor, and on enjoying more time with my wife and three daughters, the apples of my eye. Bon appetit, my friends.

Mark Ellis To Sign 2-Year Deal

Mark Ellis will be back, according to ESPN.  It’s a 2-year deal, with a team option for a third, at about 5 to 6 million/year.  That sounds fair to me.  It doesn’t block their best 2B prospects, Jemile Weeks and Adrian Cardenas, who are both a couple years from being ready.  With the youth movement, the vast majority of the team will hold pre-arbitration salaries, so there’s plenty of room in the budget for this modest salary.  Assuming Ellis fully recovers from his minor shoulder surgery and stays somewhat healthy, this is a good deal.

Please Fill In This Joke

There’s something funny about these two consecutive pictures I took today, one minute apart. There’s a setup and a punchline, but I can’t figure out the middle.

So, three cops are sent to investigate a mischievous duck.
Untitled

… (insert body of joke here) …

Untitled
"Wow", said Jeff Baisley, "that’s the first hit I’ve ever had!"

The Vacuous Season

All the players I like are now gone.  Rich Harden was traded.  Justin Duchscherer is probably lost for the year.  Eric Chavez is out for the season, and may never grace the hot corner again.  Frank Thomas is out for the season, and may never play again.   Mark Ellis is out for the season, and may never return to Oakland.

Who is left to watch?  The Oakland A’s have been drained from my soul.  I feel empty. 

What is left to say?  Meaningless talking points, nothing more.

I never presume to know what Billy Beane’s will is, and I would never presume to know Billy Beane’s will or to speak Billy Beane’s words.

But let us not pray that Billy Beane is on our side in a pennant race or any other time, but let us pray that we are on Billy Beane’s side.

And I do believe, though, that this rebuilding in the face of wealthier AL opponents is the right thing. It’s an unfortunate thing, because rebuilding is hell and I hate rebuilding, and, this Sunday is the day that I send my wife and three children in our Honda Odyssey minivan to the Coliseum one last time to root for our team, for the East Bay, and for statistical methods of evaluation.

Those are evaluations that too many of us just take for granted. I hate rebuilding and I want to see rebuilding ended. We end rebuilding when we see victory, and we will see victory in sight in the AL West.

I believe that there is a plan for this team and that plan for this team is for good. I believe that there is great hope and great potential for every prospect to be able to play and be developed with inalienable talents that I believe are God-given, and I believe that those are the talents for hitting for average, hitting for power, running speed, arm strength and fielding ability. That, in my world view, is a grand — the grand plan.

QuickLink

The A’s had two of the biggest coups in the draft, according to Jim Callis at Baseball America.

Biggest Coups, Rounds 1-10

2. Brett Hunter, rhp, Athletics (seventh round, $1.1 million, No. 51 on BA Top 200)
Elbow problems kept him from being a possible top-10 pick, but he’s a steal if healthy.

Biggest Coups, Rounds 11-50

4. Dusty Coleman, ss, Athletics (28th round, $675,000, No. 185th on BA Top 200)
An all-star season in the Cape Cod League earned him second-round money.