After Moneyball came out, and after some of the strategies outlined within became more widely accepted throughout baseball, many thought Oakland's window of strategic arbitrage had come to a close.
But this article at Baseball Prospectus (normally behind a paywall, available for free today and tomorrow as a sitewide holiday preview) about Oakland's 2013 team shows they might still have some cards up their sleeve. Oakland finished the season with the 4th lowest payroll but the 4th best offense. How, given that many teams now understand the importance of walks and on base percentage, did Oakland manage that?
This time, Beane spent more to fill premium defensive positions. Their commonality is unmistakable: while fly balls around the league grew rarer, Beane stocked his lineup with air-inclined hitters. As a result, 60 percent of Oakland's plate appearances last season were taken by “fly-ball hitters” (defined as a hitter whose ground ball rate is one standard deviation below the league mean).
Let’s contextualize Oakland’s outlier ways: 60 percent of their plate appearances were taken by fly-ball hitters, who by definition compose 16 percent of the league. No other team in the past nine years has touched 45 percent. Beane’s roster was so ground-allergic that only 0.8 percent of their plate appearances were taken by “ground-ball hitters.” That’s not just a concentrated effort to target fly balls. That’s a mission statement.
The 38 percent of their fly ball hitters’ plate appearances against neutral pitchers resulted in a .282 True Average. That’s better than the solid league TAv in that matchup (.276)—and it occurred for the Athletics four times as often!
Moreover, Oakland fly ball hitters hit .302 against GB pitchers, a matchup occurring nine percent of the time. Another way of putting that: In 547 plate appearances against ground-ballers, fly ball-hitting Athletics (such as low-salary acquisitions like Jed Lowrie and Brandon Moss) hit like $16-million Matt Holliday. The rest of the time—over 90 percent of PAs—they hit like Chase Headley.
The Book claimed that managers weren’t using this platoon advantage enough. It appears that Billy Beane has, effectively transforming his batting roster into 12 Chase Headleys and a Matt Holliday.
The marginal return of innovative thinking hasn't diminished in Oakland after all. Maybe if the A's can pull off a World Series win one of these years Brad Pitt can come out of retirement to play Beane in the triumphant sequel to Moneyball.
[Footnote: if you're a fan of the cognitive side of sports and you enjoy baseball, an annual subscription to Baseball Prospectus is a no-brainer. Also, The Book mentioned above is The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball. It collects a lot of what's come to be accepted wisdom among the geeks about optimal baseball strategy and is a great reference on the topic. I've long thought about writing a book like this about business strategy. Maybe someday when I don't have a day job.]