If the book and subsequent film “Moneyball” taught us anything, it’s that there are a lot of ways to build a winning baseball team. When I meet people and they ask about my baseball writing, they usually end up mentioning the prolific work of Michael Lewis and if they were paying attention, they describe it as “the movie where all the walks were a good thing.” I usually tell them “yes,” but that isn’t necessarily the main takeaway of Lewis’ work. Walks were merely the means to an end for Billy Beane and his Oakland A’s. The base on balls was the market inefficiency of the time, but what Beane really taught us was that there are things that can be exploited in the game. At it’s core, the lesson’s not merely about OBP but about building a winning team in an untraditional way.
Fast-forward to the 2013 offseason. Kevin Towers and the Diamondbacks brass continued on a path that they had set forth in the years proceeding. They shifted out several young players, especially those who did not jive with manager Kirk Gibson and his vision of a tough, gritty team. Adam Eaton seemed to personify this as he was slammed by anonymous clubhouse sources for not toting the party line and acting “selfish.” Eaton, if you don’t recall, had been an OBP monster in his time in the minors and was tabbed as an important piece of the franchise heading into the 2013 season as the team’s presumable leadoff hitter. Less than a year later, he was gone.
If this sounds familiar, it’s because this had happened before, most notably with Justin Upton, one of the game’s rising stars. Although his offensive production had waxed and waned some during his time in Arizona, he was just 2- years old when he played through a thumb injury that limited his ability with the bat. Why did he play through the injury? Manager Kirk Gibson wanted a tough presence in the middle of his lineup and Upton’s superstar status didn’t necessarily mesh. Rather than sitting out with the injury, Upton tried to appease his bosses and slumped. He grew frustrated with leadership as they publicly grew frustrated with him. That winter, a 24-year old MVP candidate, former first overall draft selection, two time all star and silver slugger winner was shipped off.
The Diamondbacks haven’t reserved their short leash for outfielders. Former third overall selection Trevor Bauer, who’s been known to have his quirks, fell out of favor with the Diamondbacks front office and coaching staff almost immediately. Throughout his prep and college career, he’d been known to have a very unique warm-up and training routine. This was hardly a secret when Arizona used it’s first pick in the 2011 MLB draft to select Bauer, who had the results to warrant his unusual ways. When he refused to scrap the routine upon his arrival, which had just gotten him to pro baseball, the team became frustrated. Bauer wanted to do things his way, and after all, his way was working out pretty well. The D-backs disagreed and traded him early in the 2012 offseason, a year and a half after drafting him.
Tyler Skaggs was considered a top-1o prospect in baseball by some heading into the 2013 season. The left-handed starter had been acquired by the Diamondbacks as the centerpiece of a 2010 mid-season trade with the Angels that shipped out franchise staple Dan Haren. Skaggs made his big league debut late in 2012 as a 20-year old, then reappeared in the majors early in 2013 at the tender age of 21. He scuffled, as many kids do upon entering The Show, but when the Diamondbacks weren’t seeing the growth they wanted, they began an attempt to fix his mechanics that ultimately failed. After messing with his stride length and robbing him of velocity, which couldn’t have helped his raw stuff, they gave up on the former top prospect and sent him packing this last December.
Before we proceed, let’s take a quick inventory of these four players. Here, in this space, we’ve seen four franchise cornerstones traded. Three were former first-round selections and three were largely kicked out due to clashes with management. Eaton wasn’t drafted highly and we’ve never heard a bad word about Tyler Skaggs, but there’s something going on here.
Following the Mold
Now let’s move back to the Moneyball example. Rather than build the team in a unconventional, Billy Beane-esque, way, Kevin Towers has decided to create his team in a gritty, stereotypical mold that follows (old) convention. Let’s place some of the players he’s acquired into a few buckets to help identify a few of his targets:
- Power Hitters: Jason Kubel, Mark Trumbo, Eric Hinske
- Role Players: Aaron Hill, Cody Ross, Martin Prado
- Innings-Eaters: Trevor Cahill, Joe Saunders, Bronson Arroyo, Brandon McCarthy
- Closers: JJ Putz, Addison Reed, Heath Bell
Rather than look for unconventional ways to build a team on a budget, Kevin Towers has insisted on obtaining players that fit particular labels, labels that aren’t used frequently by those in the advanced metric community. He’s paid high prices for closers, who are known for being overpriced commodities. Tower should know this better than anyone as this is how he made his reputation in San Diego: by flipping mediocre relievers who were purposely allowed to pitch the ninth inning and collect saves, then traded for other players. He’s flopped on power hitters who were supposed to either drive the offense or, more recently, protect Paul Goldschmidt. The innings eaters acquired to fill out the rotation have been anything but productive and continue to plague the rotation. He’s perhaps done best in the role-player category, but that’s not necessarily the biggest compliment aside from Aaron Hill as Prado and Ross have been more “acceptable” than “good.”
This has been one of my biggest rubs with the team-building that’s taken place: Kevin Towers has sought out the label rather than the production when building his team. He wants “sluggers” and “aces” and “veteran arms” rather than players who have shown solid peripherals that backup long lasting, consistent production. These players tend to be good at one aspect of the game, such as Mark Trumbo can hit some serious homers and Bronson Arroyo can chew up innings, but these aren’t the kind of players that offer balanced, well-rounded production. Instead, it all becomes a series of trade-offs where you give up defense for offense, positional flexibility for production or a quantity of innings for quality of innings. The end result is series of bets that carry huge risk, because if that one trait you’re paying for doesn’t significantly outweigh the cost elsewhere, you bust.
Perhaps even scarier, the players he’s acquired aren’t the kind of players you build a team around. In an almost comical fashion, he’s instead traded the young, grow-your-own assets in exchange for these often aging, one-sided players. Rather than having a young, cost-controlled nucleus to build around, the Diamondbacks have allowed personal clashes and an over-aching narrative to define their team. Instead of adults being adults and professionals being professional, we’ve seen several instances of “I don’t like you, goodbye,” when it comes to promising, highly-drafted, highly-rated young players. This fatal flaw is almost so basic, it’s a wonder we didn’t see dreadful results coming sooner.
A Place in History
Rather than getting into the “what ifs” and projecting the roster as if these moves hadn’t been made, let’s get back to Billy Beane. He saw a way to build a club in a way that was forward-thinking and affordable. The Diamondbacks have moved away from a young, cost-controlled, talented club to a traditional, aging, more expensive one. I’m not about to say that everything Beane has ever done is baseball gospel, but eleven years after the book’s publication, it appears as if Kevin Towers and Billy Beane are on opposite ends of the spectrum. Which end would you rather be on?
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