October 17, 2013
Last week, the Oakland Athletics’ season came to an end at the hands of the Detroit Tigers for the second straight year. The loss was just another chapter in a decade-long tradition of playoff failure that seems to prove how money beats “moneyball” when it matters.
The 2013 A’s won the second-most games in the league but had the fourth-lowest payroll. They essentially paid $645,463.54 per win, the lowest price in baseball. None of the four remaining playoff teams— including the Tigers — paid less than $1.2 million per win.
But as A’s fans know, this is nothing new.
Michael Lewis’ 2003 book “Moneyball” and the 2011 film of the same name both focused on the uncanny ability of the A’s to win games despite having one of the lowest payrolls.
On one level, it seems too good to be true. How can a team with the fourth-lowest payroll in baseball win more games than any of the three richest teams during the regular season? On another level — the playoff level — it is too good to be true.
While the A’s have made a habit of getting into the playoffs, they are a feeble 1-12 in clinching postseason games since 2000. Is it bad luck? Is it some sort of fluke? Or does “moneyball” only go so far?
Billy Beane, the A’s general manager, squeezes as many wins as he can out of his payroll by sniffing out players that the rest of the league undervalues. Invariably, these are players in the twilight of their careers, such as 40-year-old pitcher Bartolo Colon, or promising yet unproven players like Sonny Gray and Josh Donaldson.
The rest of the team is made up of journeymen with flaws that have caused them to bounce from one team to the next. Instead of looking for big power numbers or the impressive batting averages, the A’s covet on-base percentage and depth. Established players in the prime of their careers are simply too expensive.
While this strategy clearly works during the regular season, something else happens during the postseason.
With nationally broadcasted games and larger crowds, the playoff stage is where highly-paid veteran players prove their worth. Players like Detroit’s Justin Verlander ($20 million per year) and Miguel Cabrera ($21 million) turn it on in ways that almost defy statistics.
The Tigers were able to win the five-game sprint thanks to a great pitching staff. The A’s, whose sabermetrically-based style of play needs a large sample size to produce results, were left in the dust trying to employ a brand of baseball better suited for a 162-game marathon.
That’s the advantage of having veteran baseball players. That’s the advantage that the A’s can’t afford. And that’s why “moneyball” doesn’t win championships.
Andrew Metzger is a senior music and environmental science double major.