Why doesn't Moneyball work in the playoffs?
The baseball Gods once again smite the Oakland Athletics
"My shit doesn't work in the playoffs. My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is fucking luck." — Billy Beane, Oakland A's general manager.
The Oakland Athletics are headed for another early offseason after losing Game Five of the American League Division Series Thursday night. For Oakland, the loss continues a well-known trend: The A's just can't win in the postseason.
Since 2000, the A's have made the playoffs seven times; they've lost in the first round in six of those trips. In the lone exception, they swept through the first round, only to be promptly swept out one round later. Not really much of an improvement.
In five of those first round losses, the A's went down swinging in a winner-take-all Game 5. It gets worse.
In the most memorable failing, the 2001 A's, winners of an incredible 102 games during the regular season, went up two games to none on the Yankees in the ALDS. Trailing by one run in the seventh inning of Game Three, Oakland's Jeremy Giambi raced for home on a line drive to right field. Then Derek Jeter did a very Derek Jeter thing, since immortalized in postseason lore as, simply, "The Flip"
That, more or less, is every recent A's postseason condensed into one play. The Yankees would hold on to win the game, and then storm back to win the series, too.
So why can't the A's win when it counts? A few theories.
Strong pitching is paramount in the playoffs, and the A's haven't always had it.
The Moneyball-era A's — with the trifecta of Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, and Tim Hudson — were outstanding on the mound. The 2013 team, though, ranked a pedestrian 15th in FIP (fielding independent pitching), leaving them vulnerable to opponents with better arms and high-powered offenses — the Tigers, basically.
Low payroll may also shoulder some of the blame.
Beane and the A's are notoriously crafty at juicing production from every piece on the team. Over the past five years, their opening day payrolls ranked, out of 30 teams: 29th, 29th, 21st, 28th, 26th. Their Moneyball 2002 team, meanwhile, ranked 27th.
While the A's can creatively assemble winning teams in the regular season — taking advantage of scrap heap castoffs and plateauing players to hide their weaknesses against unfavorable matchups — the playoffs blunt those edges. Winning the lottery on the unheralded Brandon Moss is one thing; having $214 million to sign Prince Fielder is, more often than not, better.
Likewise, the 2002 Yankees were hardly pushovers. They won 103 games with a strong, well-balanced lineup in which almost every starting position player and pitcher was, statistically, at or above average. Those Yankees also, unsurprisingly, had the highest payroll in the game.
This raises another point that elucidates Oakland's postseason woes. Playoff pitchers are simply better than the run-of-the-mill regular season competition. And, specifically, they don't tend to walk batters quite so often.
Here's Steve Shymanik writing in the baseball digest Elysian Fields Quarterly on that point:
In the postseason, however, Beane's A's cannot feast on the bottom dwellers of the league. It becomes more difficult, from a Darwinian perspective, to take advantage of others' weaknesses when facing only the top teams and the top players. In the playoffs, teams shorten their bullpens and use only their best starting pitchers — pitchers who typically don't walk a lot of hitters, thus minimizing the advantage the A's gain from their emphasis on patience at the plate. [Elysian Fields Quarterly]
Yes, the A's love to walk. From 2000-04, they ranked second in the league in walk rate, taking a free pass in exactly one-tenth of their plate appearances. The same is true of the 2013 A's, who ranked third in walk rate and, buoyed by their power hitters, ranked third in OPS, (on-base plus slugging percentage) as well.
Taking away that central piece of the A's offensive strategy is a surefire way to reduce their odds of winning.
In the end, though, the biggest problem for the A's has likely been an obvious one they cannot control: Luck.
Since the start of the Wild Card playoff format, the best team in baseball in a given year has won the World Series just 16 percent of the time. The playoffs are, by design, basically crap shoots. The 116-win 2001 Seattle Mariners didn't win the World Series; the 83-win 2006 Cardinals — with the 13th-best record in baseball — did.
Jeter flipping the ball home to nail Giambi was a perfectly executed bit of luck. If Giambi slid, or Jeter flipped the ball high, the A's would have scored, changing the entire dynamic of the game — and the series.
Baseball can be cruel like that. It's certainly been cruel to Beane and his A's.