Narrative vs. Reality: Defending Billy Beane

Posted by Taylor Nigrelli on September 18, 2014 · 7 mins read

On July 31, the Oakland A’s and Boston Red Sox engaged in one of the most prominent and unexpected player-for-player trades in MLB history. While other players were involved, the focus was on a single player on either side of the deal.

The A’s, who owned the best record, offense and run differential in baseball at the time, gave away clean-up hitter and former Cuban sensation Yoenis Cespedes. In return, Oakland received Jon Lester, who was having a career year in a contract season.

Some hated the move, some loved how bold it was. At first, it worked out well. The A’s kept winning; they had a 72-44 record on Aug. 9 — on pace for 100 wins.

Now it seems Oakland will struggle to win 90 games. So what happened?

I understand the desire to blame Oakland’s free-fall out from first place on the trade, and neatly summing up their losing ways as “they traded their clean-up hitter” is easier. But it’s just not true. In fact, that trade is one of the few areas that has worked out for Oakland.

The pre-Aug. 9 A’s were the best team in baseball by a wide margin. They had a two-game lead in the A.L. West and a +162 run differential. The offense was the best in baseball and the pitching was third in runs allowed. Since then, the A’s are 11-24. They’re 11.5 games out of first place in the A.L. West and are struggling to hold on to a wild card spot.

So, what has changed?

Before Aug. 9, the A’s scored 4.9 runs per game and allowed just 3.4. Since then, they’ve scored 3.5 runs per game and allowed 3.7. While the pitching has gotten slightly worse, the offense has fallen off a cliff. Depending on your view, this could be categorized as a team-wide slump or simply regression to the mean. It seems to be a bit of both. And much of it seems to have happened in August. None of the hitters that made Oakland an offensive juggernaut the first half of the season kept their respective paces.

For example: Josh Donaldson. One of the team’s better hitters (and a great defensive player throughout) had a .563 OPS and a .309 slugging in September. Aside from a five-hit game against Chicago, he’s been putrid.

Derek Norris. Great in April and June, where he posted 1.000 + OPS’s in both months. Since then he’s .760 in July, .560 in August and .603 in September. He’s gone from hitting like a superstar to sub-replacement level.

Coco Crisp. Solid for the first four months, but .592 OPS in August and .643 in September.

Brandon Moss. Once considered a quad-A lifer, Moss reinvented himself as a legitimate power threat in Oakland. As of June 3, his batting line was .280/.369/.598, good for a .967 OPS. His OPS has dropped each month, all the way done to .777. While he’s hit homers in consecutive games as of Wednesday, he went 33 games without a homer before that. He has just six extra base hits in August and September combined.

John Jaso. He had started to cool off after a great start before suffering a concussion that has kept him out for nearly three months.

Stephen Vogt. Through July 28, he was rocking a .931 OPS. He hit .212/.247/.376 in August and went on the DL in September.

This slump is a team-wide epidemic. Its roots are unclear, but it may just be a case of terrible timing. While this offense wasn’t going to keep hitting like the 1927 Yankees forever, every important player in the offense going sour at the plate wasn’t expected either.

So trading Cespedes, a known commodity who could be counted on, was a mistake, right? Not exactly. The case that the team had enough pitching but needed some more reliable bats in the lineup makes some sense. But it’s not 100 percent accurate.

For starters, the pitching has gotten worse in spite of Lester’s dominance. Sonny Gray started off well but has wilted under the pressure of his first full major league season, posting ERA’s of 4.38 and 4.50 in August and September, respectively. Jason Hammel hasn’t worked out at all, posting a 4.76 ERA since arriving in mid-July. Jeff Samardzija has been solid, but not great. Jesse Chavez was incredible in April and May, but pitched so poorly since that he’s been moved to the bullpen. Scott Kazmir almost pulled off a Bartolo Colon-esque return to prominence before posting a 7.80 ERA in August.

It’s realistic that Beane looked at the dominance of Gray, Kazmir and Chavez as not bound to last. Meanwhile, Lester has been incredible. He’s started nine games, all of them quality starts. Lester has struck out 57 and walked just 14. He has a 2.30 ERA and a 1.07 WHIP.

Oh, and Cespedes hasn’t been dominant. He’s batting just .259/.292/.422 for Boston, despite playing in a more hitter-friendly park. That’s not enough evidence to prove he would have carried this Oakland lineup through the snow-storm cold streak its been on.

If Billy Beane didn’t make this trade, the A’s would be worse off. Lester has been excellent; Cespedes has not been. In fact, he never has been. Since the start of the 2013 season, Cespedes has been a barely above-average player. His on-base hovers below .300 and while he’s a pretty good fielder, his power is highly overrated. He’s never hit more than 26 home runs or come close to leading the league in extra-base hits. Despite whatever narrative exists, a good baseball mind would still make that move 10 times out of 10.

So, what do we make of this collapse? We don’t make anything of it just yet. It could be an extended hiccup, a poorly-timed team-wide slump. Oakland is still up two games in the wild card. The team is more than capable of winning the pennant. And there’s a precedent for that.

The 2006 Detroit Tigers started 76-36, even better than this Oakland team. They stumbled to the finish line with a 19-31 finish to earn the wild card spot. They went on to defeat Oakland (!) in the ALCS to win the pennant.

It can happen. It might happen. And if it doesn’t happen, don’t blame the trade.