|Monday, September 9
Updated: September 10, 3:31 PM ET
The A's are smart ... and lucky
By David Schoenfield
The small-market, revenue-impaired, quit-complaining-and-just-play-ball Oakland A's are screaming toward a third consecutive playoff trip ... and the congregation at the Church of Beane continues to grow larger by the day.
General manager Billy Beane, the director behind Oakland's spectacular show, is receiving much of the praise for the continued prosperity of the A's. Barring a late-season collapse, the team that began the year with the 28th-highest payroll will once again make the postseason. Beane's smarts and Oakland's record are being hailed as proof that a low-payroll team can compete on a yearly basis with the big boys.
That's true; Beane is smart, probably the best GM in the game. And they may finish with a better regular-season record than the Yankees for a third straight season. However, there is one significant portion of luck behind this success story: Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson.
Luck? The three pitchers, all drafted by the A's, are freaks. Not freaks because they're good, but freaks because they're good and young all at the same time. Because of this -- Hudson is the veteran of the group, debuting in 1999, a year before Mulder and Zito -- Beane is paying the threesome a combined $1.97 million this year (the Yankees are paying 10 different pitchers more than that sum). And because of that, Beane can spend his limited payroll in other directions.
How unusual is it for one team to produce three starting pitchers of this quality all at the same time? The results are so shocking that, while Beane and his scouts obviously deserve credit for drafting and developing the Big Three (Hudson was a sixth-round pick in 1997 from Auburn, Mulder a first-round pick in 1998 from Michigan State and Zito a first-rounder in '99 from USC), luck has to be considered a large part of the label behind Oakland's success.
Here's what I did:
1. For each team (excluding the four recent expansion franchises), I found all pitchers since 1980 who won at least 15 games and had an ERA under 4.00 in the same season.
This established a basic level of quality somewhat comparable to what Hudson, Mulder and Zito have accomplished the past couple of seasons. Most of the pitchers who met the standard are good pitchers, with a couple of one-year flukes (Jeff Ballard, Dave Fleming) mixed in. But you get three of these guys on one team and you can win a division title.
2. I then sorted out the pitchers who first appeared in the majors with the team on which they met the 15 wins/4.00 criteria. (In some cases, this meant I had to go back before 1980.)
This system isn't exactly perfect as some young pitchers -- like David Cone, Randy Johnson, Mike Hampton and Pedro Martinez -- obtained success after first appearing, sometimes briefly, for another team. Also, sometimes a player may have been drafted or developed by another team, such as Freddy Garcia, but never appeared in the majors with them. Seattle gets credit for Garcia, not Houston. The system may miss on a couple decent pitchers (Kerry Wood, for example, has never won 15 games) and doesn't include future pitchers who could do it, like Mark Prior or Josh Beckett.
Still, this provides an excellent list of true, "homegrown" talent. Here are the amazing results, broken down by each franchise, with total number of 15-win/4.00 ERA seasons since 1980 (not including 2002) and the last three "homegrown" pitchers to achieve those totals. The year listed for the pitchers is the year they first pitched a significant amount of innings in the majors, not the year they first achieved the 15/4.00 criteria.
Wow. The A's produced three star starters in a two-year span; no other team has done that and only the Braves with John Smoltz, Tom Glavine and Steve Avery did it in a three-year span. The Red Sox haven't produced a homegrown quality starter since Roger Clemens in 1984. And the Phillies, remarkably, are even worse: we have to go back 42 years to find three good homegrown starters.
What does all this mean? Quick generalizations:
1. Building your pitching staff around cheap homegrown starters is an extremely risky idea. As the Braves and A's have proven, it happens successfully about once a decade.
2. Teams like the Royals or Padres who are trying to duplicate the Oakland method aren't likely to achieve the same results. Some young pitchers don't pan out, they get hurt or they get traded and then develop.
3. Small-revenue teams are at a huge disadvantage since a team will have to eventually invest in some high-priced pitching (either their own or free agents) in order to win.
Billy Beane is a rare mastermind. He'd be the first GM I would hire to run a team.
But Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder -- a trio of freaks -- are even more rare.
David Schoenfield is the baseball editor at ESPN.com. Lee Sinins' baseball encyclopedia was helpful in finding the pitchers for this article.