If asked to name organizations that have been most influenced by the so-called Moneyball philosophy, few people would name the Braves. The Braves Way™ is generally seen as being very traditional--almost the opposite of the paradigm-shifting thinking of Billy Beane, Bill James, and their disciples. While the Braves use advanced metrics, they don't advertise that fact, preferring instead to publicly focus on their excellent scouting and player development team*.
But here's the thing: The Braves Way has evolved over the past 5-10 years. The change has been neither sudden nor obvious, but the Braves have adapted their actions in response to the ideas described by Michael Lewis' best-seller. In fact, I'd argue that the Braves organization has fully absorbed the most important observation in Moneyball: that free agency is an inefficient means of acquiring talent.
This idea has had numerous repercussions. Here are just a few:
- Most obviously, a decrease in the number of major free agent signings by small- and mid-market teams (who can't afford to spend inefficiently).
- An increasing willingness to trade away top players before they hit free agency (or even late-year arbitration) and become too expensive.
- A new emphasis on building from within using homegrown, cost-controlled talent and young players acquired in trade (often for the soon-to-be-expensive players mentioned above).
- An increase in long-term extensions for young players, which allow teams to sign players at sub-free-agency (and often sub-arbitration) rates.
After the jump, I analyze how the Braves have adapted to the post-Moneyball world by both embracing and playing off of these trends.
Before the 2002 season that is chronicled in Moneyball, the A's lost Jason Giambi and Johnny Damon in free agency to the two richest clubs in MLB--the Yankees and Red Sox, respectively. They also lost their closer (Jason Isringhausen) to the Cardinals, not quite a rich club at the time, but certainly richer than the A's.
The A's not only didn't have the money to compete for those players, they didn't particularly want to spend the kind of money that those players ended up getting. In the A's view, major free-agent signings had become too risky for the potential rewards. Basically, in the best-case scenario, a player earns his contract; in the worst-case, the team gets no return on a huge investment. In response, the A's sought alternate, lower-risk means of acquiring talent (at least, lower risk as far as money is concerned).
Focusing on Smaller Free Agents
The simplest adaptation for the A's was to set their sights a little lower in free agency. This required them to make some creative moves, such as the signing of a catcher (Scott Hatteberg) as a budget first baseman to replace Giambi. They also filled out the back end of their bench and bullpen with ultra-low-cost free agents.
The Braves have in recent years adopted a similar strategy as they transitioned from the upper-echelon payrolls of the '90s to more middle-class budgets. Did you know that the last time the Braves signed a hitting free agent to a major multi-year deal was in 2002, when they gave Vinny Castilla a rather ill-considered 2-year, $8 million deal. Even that wasn't a huge commitment.
The Braves did hand out big contracts to Derek Lowe and Kenshin Kawakami in the '08-'09 offseason, but that is looking increasingly like an anomaly. All of the Braves' free-agent deals since then have been either for role players (like Eric Hinske, David Ross, George Sherrill, etc.) or for just one season (Billy Wagner, Troy Glaus, Takashi Saito, etc.). Some of those signings fit both criteria.
The Braves, like the A's, have also been creative. The Glaus addition before the 2010 season mirrors the A's signing of Hatteberg in 2002: a veteran signed for very little money and asked to move from his traditional position to first base to fill in for a departing free agent (in Glaus' case, Adam LaRoche).
In addition, the Braves have made excellent use in recent years of the waiver market (where they found Eric O`Flaherty and Cristhian Martinez) and the minor-league free agent pool (Brooks Conrad and Jose Constanza, among others, were added this way). They even signed Peter Moylan off the Australian WBC roster, which is the very definition of a creative, low-risk move.
Taking On Other Teams' Expensive Players
To fill the gap left by Damon, the 2002 A's moved Terrence Long to center field and traded for ex-Braves slugger David Justice. Justice was due a fairly large salary ($7M), but he was in the last year of his deal and still had some good baseball left in him, so the A's took the risk. It was clearly less risky than giving a multi-year deal to a similarly talented free agent, and all it cost the A's in players was a LOOGY (Mark Guthrie) and a mediocre bullpen prospect (future Brave Tyler Yates).
That sort of "expensive veterans for mid-level prospects and role players" trade has since replaced free agent signings for the Braves and many other teams. Since they have more room in their payroll than the A's, the Braves have been able to make many more of these types of trades, including these major deals from the last 6 years:
- Pre-2005 season: Tim Hudson for Dan Meyer, Juan Cruz, and Charles Thomas.
- Pre-2006 season: Edgar Renteria for Andy Marte.
- Mid-2009 season: Nate McLouth for Gorkys Hernandez, Jeff Locke, and Charlie Morton.
- Pre-2011 season: Dan Uggla for Omar Infante and Mike Dunn.
- Mid-2011 season: Michael Bourn for Brett Oberholtzer, Paul Clemens, Jordan Schafer, and Juan Abreu.
All of these trades were motivated by salary. (Others, like the trade for Mark Teixeira, were more talent-for-talent type deals, though it's obviously a gray area, and you might not include the McLouth deal as a salary dump.) The Braves didn't give up any true top prospects, unless you count Dan Meyer, and in return they got some key contributors.
It's appropriate that the Braves acquired one of the key players from the Moneyball A's (Hudson). Billy Beane seems to have been smarting from the free-agency losses of Giambi, Damon, and later Miguel Tejada. He was right to try to get some value out of Hudson rather than just take the draft picks, but as is usually the case with these salary-motivated deals, he didn't get any players back of Hudson's caliber.
In this case, the Braves have not so much embraced the Moneyball strategy as reacted to it. Since they are not a truly poor team, they can afford to take on some highly-paid players and even in some cases grant them big-money extensions. Still, though, this is consistent with the A's strategy in that it enables the Braves to acquire top talent without resorting to free agency. Even the Uggla and Hudson extensions likely saved the Braves millions compared to what they would have had to spend in free agency.
Using Homegrown Players... and Locking Them Up
Even with Giambi gone, the top 5 players on the 2002 A's were all homegrown: shortstop Miguel Tejada, 3rd baseman Eric Chavez, and the "Big 3" starting pitchers (Hudson, Barry Zito, and Mark Mulder). Without that homegrown, relatively cheap core of players, the A's could not have competed with the Yankees and other rich teams.
In the years since, the value of young, cost-controlled players--not just prospects, but pre-arbitration players, too--has risen noticeably. Many teams--including the Royals with their heavily Braves-influenced front office--have placed added emphasis on player development. Even some established contenders (like the Braves) have become much less likely to trade away these highly valuable commodities. This past trade deadline, Braves GM Frank Wren refused to deal any of the Braves' top pitching prospects. For a team that was never shy about trading prospects during its run of division titles, this is a notable change in philosophy.
Five of the eight current Braves regulars are products of the Braves' farm system, as are 5 of the 8 starting pitchers the Braves have used and their 2 most important bullpen arms. Many of these homegrown players are just beginning their careers, so they will be extremely cheap for the next few years.
Another baseball-wide reaction to the increasing value of young players has been the spate of extensions for players far away from free agency. The Braves have their own shining example of this trend in Brian McCann's team-friendly contract, which not only prevented the contentious arbitration process but also allowed the Braves to buy out some of McCann's free agency for a relatively cheap price. The McCann deal almost certainly won't be the last of its kind for the Braves, either. With so many talented young players on the roster, you can bet the Braves will try to gain some cost certainty in the future by giving out more such extensions.
The effects of the ideas that were popularized in Moneyball have spread far beyond the Oakland Athletics. Firstly, in the obvious sense that many former A's executives (and similarly minded people) have brought their ideas to other teams. But more importantly, in that these ideas have permeated the culture of the sport to such an extent that it has changed the way that every team does business, even if that team does not fully embrace sabermetrics.
In fact, I'd argue that the A's aren't even a particularly good exemplar of the Moneyball philosophy anymore. Other teams, most notably the Rays, have not just embraced the ideas described in the book, but extended them and found new ways of overcoming the system. Even seemingly traditional teams like the Braves have clearly adapted to the post-Moneyball world by focusing less on free agency and more on timely trades and player development. Indeed, if it were not for this evolution, the Braves would likely be in a far worse position, both in the present and looking toward the future.