Funny thing, just six years after Michael Lewis' seminal Moneyball came out there isn't really a small-market team that looks to be playoff bound. Yes, the Minnesota Twins are hanging in there, of course, because the division is so flawed and because the Minnesota Twins always hang in there.* The Florida Marlins have the lowest payroll in baseball and are only five games out. The Tampa Bay Rays are still in the chase.
*Ever since I announced my man-crush on Ron Gardenhire, I get almost daily updates from various Twins fans who point out some utterly incomprehensible move Gardy made in the previous game. This, of course, only bolsters my admiration for the guy. He makes strange moves and the Twins STILL are always in contention. I mean, seriously, how good is that guy?
But, as others have noted, the teams likely to make the playoffs are all big spenders. The Phillies, Dodgers and Cubs -- each with their $100 million payrolls -- are leading their divisions in the National League. The Yankees, Tigers and Angels -- all of them spending at least $113 million -- lead the American League. The Red Sox ($121 million) lead the AL wild card chase.
The NL wild card race -- with Colorado leading San Francisco by a half game and the Cardinals and Cubs by a game and a half -- is right now the only race that isn't led by one of the really big spenders. And a big part of that is that the Mets (with their $149 million payroll) have just been destroyed by injuries and, you know, by being the Mets. In any case, none of those clubs are "small-market teams" either.
The point here is not to write again about the disparity between big markets and small markets -- nobody cares anymore -- but only to say that just a few years after Lewis' wonderful book about the Oakland A's described "the art of winning an unfair game" well, it looks like the art is dead. Or, more to the point, the art has been bought out by large corporations.
There were many points to the book* -- but probably the biggest point is that for a baseball team to win with fewer resources than other teams, the people running the disadvantaged team have to find inefficiencies in the market. That is, they have to find angles and bargains. They have to prize certain facets of baseball that others don't appreciate. It's never especially bright to compare real baseball to fantasy baseball, but I've long thought that a good way to think of trying to win as a small market team is trying to win a fantasy baseball league when you have half the money that other owners have. The worst thing you could do, in that scenario, is use the same fantasy baseball lists or fantasy baseball magazines they are using. That's the one sure way to certain defeat.
*One of my odder but more rewarding jobs the last couple of years has been to discuss Moneyball with prospective military leaders at the University of Foreign Military and Cultural Studies at Fort Leavenworth. It's always fun to be involved in conversations that involve Afghanistan, Art Howe, the viability of tank warfare and how important it is to have a good defensive outfielder.
So, the small-market GMs and executives have to value things that the big guys don't value as much -- and, even more important, those values need to lead to baseball victories. One of the more specific examples in Moneyball was on-base percentage. The Billy Beane Oakland A's -- and they weren't the first to do this, only the most celebrated -- didn't just appreciate walks more than other teams did, they actually built a system to encourage and reward walking. They tried to find players who got on base rather than players who only hit for good averages. They led the American League in walks in 1999, were second in 2000, led again in 2001, were third in 2002 -- and they won a lot of games.
The A's fully realized that walks -- for many reasons -- are a devastating offensive weapon. Getting on base leads directly to runs. Scoring runs leads directly to victories. It wasn't that other teams didn't know this, it's that Oakland believed in it a little bit more and was willing to build its entire team around that belief. And it works.*
*These days, whenever I hear a general manager talking about batting average or talking about how he doesn't want his players to walk and "lose their aggressiveness" -- I think about writing a play called "Inherit the Walk" where I would put that general manager on the stand and have a brilliant lawyer cross-examine him.
Well, of course, the big-market teams figured it out. They hired their own Ivy League consultants. They bought even better computers. Walks is only one tiny aspect in it ... but who leads the American League in walks this year? The New York Yankees. Last year? The Boston Red Sox. The year before that? The Boston Red Sox. And so it goes.
Now, six years later, it seems to me that the small-market teams are really grasping and trying to find some loophole, some opening that will allow them to win in this tough financial environment.
And it seems like the market inefficiency they have all come up with is this: time.
Here's what I mean: The big-payroll teams want to win right now. More than that, they HAVE to win now. They are spending too much money not to win now. They are leveraged. But most of the low-payroll teams -- say teams with payrolls of less than $75 million -- have come to the conclusion that they are NOT going to win now. The one thing they have is time. And so, they're trading time.
Take the A's -- in the midst of their third consecutive losing season. They (again) are trading away veteran players like mad -- Matt Holliday, Jack Hannahan, Orlando Cabrera and so on. Their plan (again) is to stockpile young players, to deal a little now in the hopes of getting a lot later. It certainly could work. The key is, they have to be right about those young players. And, to be honest, it's hard to be right when you are predicting a distant and hazy future.
The Kansas City Royals are trying to predict an even more distant and hazy future. Their plan is to spend their money and resources on the front end -- they spent more money on the draft last year than any other team and will be one of the biggest spenders again this year. They have become big players in Latin America. They are putting their future in 16- and 17-year-olds. Sure, it's frustrating for fans who have been watching mostly terrible baseball for 15 years to be patient -- especially when the Royals have Zack Greinke, one of the franchise players in the game, right now. But the on-the-cheap big-league moves the Royals have made have ranged from shaky to frightening, and the Royals are on pace to lose 100 games again. The future is later, much later.
The Pittsburgh Pirates, meanwhile, seem to be trying to make up for the sins of their fathers. You probably know that the Pirates have not had a winning record since 1992 -- an astonishing feat of incompetence and bad luck -- and now they're trading off every player anyone has ever heard of. I would reserve judgment, though -- it's not like Jack Wilson, Freddy Sanchez and Ian Snell were going to win the Pirates any championships. They are breaking away from a haunted past; and it's messy right now.
The Washington Nationals? Well, that's a whole other saga.
Point is, things are fuzzy right now for most of the small-market teams. Florida is the only one that seems to have a working plan. The Marlins have the lowest payroll in baseball but they are playing pretty well. They got Hanley Ramirez in a trade, drafted Dan Uggla as a Rule 5 pick, drafted Josh Johnson in the fourth round and, even beyond Johnson, have a very young and talented starting rotation that could at some point emerge.
And the Marlins have the small-market dance down. Win a World Series, then (just when things start getting expensive) trade off everybody, lose for a while, wait for the new young players to emerge and repeat. It's not all that romantic or fun for the fans -- and the Marlins are second-to-last in baseball in attendance. But in this new world where the rich teams' owners all read Moneyball and all know how to play around with spreadsheets, it might be the best the little guys can do for now.