On rebuilding

By Jason Wojciechowski on August 26, 2011 at 10:30 AM

Joseph Lopez over at Swingin' A's had some stuff to say about Billy Beane's recent history and the A's roster decisions that I think need a response. Here's the core of the problem:

Beane, to me, made a critical error during this rebuilding: the Matt Holliday trade. I'm sure a lot of A's fans will agree when I say that the Holliday trade is one of Beane's biggest mistakes, and further suggests that perhaps one of baseball's greatest minds doesn't know how to evaluate young hitting prospects. Carlos Gonzalez, now nicknamed CarGo of the Colorado Rockies, is the main reason why most people call the Holliday trade as one of the worst ever made by Beane.


Smack dab in the middle of their rebuilding phase, in 2009, the A's introduce Holliday as a member of their outfield. Holliday often looked disconnected with Oakland, and was probably really happy once he was traded to the Cardinals during the trade deadline that season.

The fact that Beane, who also signed veterans Jason Giambi, Orlando Cabrera, and Nomar Garciaparra that year as well, brought high-profile names to the team in the middle of a big rebuilding process tells me that he was a little off in his evaluations of Oakland's youth movement. I guess he wanted to surround the young core of pitchers, including Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, and Gio Gonzalez, with a reliable offense. Even so, the Athletics finished 75-87 that season, 22 games out of first-place.

First, "doesn't know how to evaluate young hitting prospects"? Where's the evidence of that? Everyone, the A's and Rockies included, knew that the A's were giving up talent to get talent. Trash-for-treasure, as much as we'd like it to be the case, isn't what happens in the major leagues, certainly not in the last five to seven years.

Second, since joining Colorado, here's Carlos Gonzalez away from home, in wRC+, an offensive measure based on linear weights1 scaled so that 100 is average and numbers above and below 100 represent percentages above and below average: 104, 100, 88. Gonzalez has been an absolute monster at home, even accounting for the high run environment of his park, so his overall value has still been very high, but it's worth asking whether there's something in his skillset that is particularly suited to an environment like Colorado. (You'll notice that the A's do not play in a park like Coors.)

Third, I'm completely sick of this "looked disconnected" stuff about Holliday. To stay with wRC+, Holliday posted a 125 (i.e. 25% above-average on offense) in his exactly 400 plate appearances with Oakland. This was below his career norm (by a fair distance), but he was still the A's best hitter by a long shot, and I see no reason at all why he would not have picked it up for the last 60 games just as he did in St. Louis. (His superficial numbers wouldn't have been as strong -- nobody's going to post a slugging percentage of .600 in Oakland -- but adjusting for context, a 164 wRC+ for the rest of the season even if he'd stayed in Oakland doesn't sound crazy to me.) This "looked disconnected" is the kind of psychoanalysis-from-the-outside that makes up the worst of sports analytics. And yes, I watched the games that year, too. I saw a baseball player.

Fourth, and I saved this for last because it's egregious, the A's were not rebuilding in 2009. If a team trades a top hitting prospect for a free-agent-to-be (who plays the same position, no less) and signs veteran free agents to fill positions of need rather than run with younger fill-ins from the AAA ranks, the team is trying to compete.

Put another way, the last paragraph basically says this: "The A's failed at rebuilding in 2009 because they made a bunch of moves that are inconsistent with doing a rebuild." This makes no sense. Beane saw his good young pitching staff, saw a mediocre AL West, and saw an opportunity to acquire an all-world hitter (Holliday) who could drive them toward the relatively low number of wins it would probably take to win the division. He went for it. When that didn't work out (because Holliday hit a little worse than might be expected and Rajai Davis (!) was the A's second-best hitter (!!!) by wRC+, among other reasons), he pivoted mid-season. Criticizing Beane for a failed rebuild that wasn't actually happening is completely silly.

  1. I briefly explained linear weights here in the context of describing Baseball Prospectus's TAv.