Saturday, July 10, 2004

Littlefield Playing "Moneyball"?

I just found this article on the Pirates' minor league system, in which Chris Kucharski wonders whether the high on-base percentages of various players in the low levels of the Pirates' minor league system means the Pirates are trying to emulate the low-priced, efficient Oakland franchise.

If this is what the Pirates have been trying to do, they've completely missed the point of the lessons Oakland's example has taught. Kucharski writes:

Michael Lewis's best selling book Moneyball spawned a new line of thinking when it comes to how baseball teams are built. Oakland GM Billy Beane, the subject of the book and pioneer of the thought process, believes that hitters with high on-base percentage and pitchers that get ground balls were the key to winning in a more affordable fashion.

First of all, Beane wasn't a pioneer of the "thought process" that has led the A's to success. The real pioneers would be writer Bill James and many thinkers before him. Secondly, the keys to the Athletics' success are not high OBPs and groundball-to-flyball ratios. While high OBPs are obviously nice, the A's have not been a high-OBP team for a while now, and they've still won. The real key to Oakland's success has been finding inefficiencies in the market. When the rest of baseball caught on to on-base percentage, Beane forgot about OBP and built one of the league's best defense. For the A's or any other smart team, the key is winning as much as possible with as few dollars as possible, not on-base percentage.

Is Littlefield's handling of Pittsburgh's minor league system likely to produce a efficient lineup in the future? Let's look at some of the players mentioned in Kucharski's article to see how much they're likely to help:

NASHVILLE
Tony Alvarez
J.R. House
Luis Figueroa
Rich Thompson
Carlos Rivera

Alvarez, House and Rivera are Cam Bonifay acquisitions. Thompson is already 25 and has no power; he isn't going to help. Figueroa's a journeyman. Littlefield doesn't get any points here.

ALTOONA
Jeff Keppinger
Chris Duffy
Nate McLouth
Brandon Chaves
Yurendell De Caster

All these guys are Bonifay acquisitions.

LYNCHBURG
Brad Eldred
Jorge Cortes
Rajai Davis
Taber Lee
Chaz Lytle

Every one of these guys is at least 23, which means they're old for their level. Move them to AA, and their numbers will drop. Eldred has the most potential of the five, but at 24, he's going to have to move quickly to have a career.

HICKORY
Adam Boeve
Jon Benick
Mike McCuiston
Craig Stansberry
Nyjer Morgan

Boeve, Benick and Morgan are all 24. They're beating up on younger competition, and they're not prospects. McCuiston is a Bonifay acquisition. Stansberry, an infielder, might turn out to be a marginal prospect.

Kucharski writes, "As you go lower in the system, the OBPs are higher." Yes, but more telling is the fact that as you go lower in the system, the ages don't get lower. These Class A 24 year-olds don't have OBP skills that will transfer to the major league level; they're posting those high OBPs because they're facing 20 year-old pitchers with crappy breaking balls.

Kucharski concludes, "The newer hitters acquired the past couple years fit the Moneyball profile." No, they don't. Of the twenty guys here, Eldred and Stansberry are the only Littlefield acquisitions that have a snowball's chance of doing anything meaningful in the big leagues. The rest are just filler, high OBPs for their own sake.

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