Winning in Baseball without Money
The Pittsburgh Pirates and the Oakland A’s are on the cusp of making the playoffs this season. Both are also in the bottom five in payroll. So how are these teams staying competitive with less cash to work with? Two things defense, and their ball parks.
In order for a team to win with a cash shortage they must play in a pitcher friendly ball park. I will explain this later…
Baseball’s free agency is basically a free market. Players go for market value without salary cap restrictions. What brings in the most money? Power. Power hitters and power pitchers benefit the most from this system because home runs and strike outs are easy to see, easy to measure, and put butts in the seats. This makes the price of a power player much higher. All of the players with the top 25 salaries, with the exception of Joe Mauer and Ichiro, are either power hitting corner infielders, outfielders, or a hard throwing strike out pitcher (when they signed their contracts.) So how do you create wins without being able to afford players that are valued the highest and are therefore PERCEIVED to be the best win generators? Go after players who are superior in undervalued attributes.
Defense is what low payroll teams should focus on because defense is cheap. The status quo is to get the best hitting position players in the batting lineup and figure out a way to fit them all of the field. As described before, this is costly. By designing a team around defense first, a team can cut their costs because they will be targeting players who are not as desirable in a market searching for sluggers. While their offense will be worse then the rest of teams in the league, it won’t make much of a difference. Without a competitive payroll the players a bargain team would be able to afford will not consist of strong hitters anyway. A low salary team can afford to go after the best defensive team they can, they will be better at one part of the game giving them a chance to have an advantage to exploit.
Pitching is the same way. Since hard throwing pitchers cost the most, don’t sign them. Instead focus on pitchers do not have the velocity that teams in the market are looking for. Find pitchers that rely on off speed pitches, and that pitch to contact.
Finding ways to win with qualities that SEEM less important is nothing new in sports. In basketball, the Princeton offense allows less athletic, undersized teams to use their superior discipline and patience to win games. In football the spread offense was created to give a team with a few fast players a chance to compete with bigger, stronger, deeper teams. Finding a single phase of the game where a team has a consistent advantage is the only way that overmatched teams can come away with “upsets.” Once that advantage is found, the next big step is to find a way to magnify the advantage.
How does a team magnify an advantage on defense? Build the biggest park allowable. Spread the game out so that the advantages of control pitching and superior defense mean more then they would in a smaller park. By building a large park, power become less important, and the ability to play within the field becomes imperative. When a team filled with over priced power hitting come into town their overlooked defensive issues will surface. They will struggle to get balls out of the giant field, and they will struggle even more to cover it. Yes their pitchers will still be affective, but a team designed around defense can win games without scoring many runs anyway.
Back to the Pirates and A’s…
It is possible to get into the postseason with a stellar home record, and a sub par away record. PNC Park in Pittsburgh is the third hardest place to score a run according to its Park Factor O.co Colosium in Oakland is eighth. As of today (8/24/12) Oakland is tied for a Wild Card spot, Pittsburgh one game back. They are in the positions they are in because of their home records. Pittsburgh has the fourth best home record in MLB, Oakland is eighth. On the road they are 18th and 17th respectively. Offensively the numbers for both teams are not impressive, Oakland is 24th in runs scored, Pittsburgh is 22nd. The strike out numbers are bad too, A’s are 26th Pirates are 19th. On the plus side, even without the strike outs, Oakland is fourth in the league in runs allowed, Pittsburgh tenth.
Both the A’s and the Pirates have found a way to win without spending. They have been able to acquire players with undervalued strengths, and use those strengths to the fullest. Low payroll teams need to follow this blue print to afford what is, and will always be priceless; winning.