The Oakland Athletics and Moneyball
Recently I saw an opportunity to become a writer for “Swingin’ A’s” on FanSided Daily. I submitted an application, and I feel fortunate that I was chosen to contribute to a most excellent website. As a way of introduction to, hopefully, thousands of A’s fans, I thought I would share my thoughts on the strategy of the Oakland Athletics.
My readers should know that I have been an A’s fan since Rickey Henderson’s rookie year in 1979. As a child, I was a big fan of Carl Yastrzemski and the Red Sox, but in my freshman year at Cal, I decided to switch my allegiance to the A’s. It was one of the better decisions I’ve made in my life. Currently, I live in San Leandro, and I teach history at San Francisco State. For the last four years, I have been teaching a class on the History and Literature of Baseball. (Let me know if you want a syllabus!) Michael Lewis’ book, “Moneyball” is required reading in my class. That leads me to some thoughts on baseball strategy in general, and the A’s approach in particular.
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If you study the history of the game, you will find that it is constantly evolving. In 2002, Billy Beane and the A’s revolutionized the game by focusing on relatively new statistics like “on base percentage” while ignoring older statistics like batting average. A’s hitters had great success by being selective at the plate, waiting for their pitch, and then walloping the ball. The rest of baseball paid the A’s the great compliment of copying their style of play. Hitters had an advantage when there was no shame in striking out. During the first decade of the 2000’s, the whole idea of hitting was to pull the ball hard. As always, however, the game evolved.
For the last three or four years, more and more teams have been looking at computer-generated hitting spray charts. It has become obvious that if a hitter has trained himself to pull the ball, an infield shift can neutralize his greatest strength. The best hitters on every team are facing the shift all the time now. Offense is down, as every team’s best hitters are consistently ripping balls into the teeth of the shift and being thrown out pretty easily. It is time for the hitters to evolve. It is time for power hitters to learn to bunt the ball the other way.
I know what you’re thinking. “That’s just what the other team WANTS the hitter to do! Give up his power and settle for an infield single. The hitter must keep swinging hard and hit a rocket to the second baseman playing in short right field!” Look, this is how I see it. Suppose it is the bottom of the ninth, the tying run on third and the winning run on second with first base open and the A’s best hitter striding to the plate. The opposing manager waggles four fingers and signals for an intentional walk. What would happen if the hitter swung at the first three pitches that were six feet off the plate? After the game he would say, “They WANTED to walk me and take the bat out of my hands. I was trying to cross them up.” Would you applaud that hitter and encourage him to do the same thing every time he was facing an intentional walk? Of course not! You take what the other team gives you. It’s time for hitters to take back the other side of the infield.
I will admit bunting is a lost art. Most power hitters are afraid of embarrassing themselves by popping up a bunt to the pitcher. I would counter that the world’s best hitters are being paid millions of dollars to play a game. The infield shift is limiting their value. Bunting is a skill hitters should acquire and perfect. And fans everywhere can watch the game evolve again.
That’s what I think – what do you think?