MoneyBacks: The Most 'Moneyball' Arizona players

Randy Johnson = Moneyball. Who knew...

Moneyball hits theaters tomorrow, and last week, we discussed the basic principle behind the book, and how Billy Beane had to fight conventional wisdomm in order to apply his model of constructing a baseball team in Oakland. It's relevance in Arizona should be fairly obvious: like the Athletics, the Diamondbacks are not a big-budget outfit, and so need to find 'value' in the market. Who are the biggest successes in this area? Let's look through team history and see who stands out. You might be surprised.[Albeit only if you don't look at the picture above...]

For the purposes of this discussion, I'm discounting players who were drafted by the Diamondbacks. Those are somewhere between a freebie and a crap-shoot: Justin Upton's success probably falls into the former category, while any success by a player like Mark Reynolds - picked in the 16th round - really should be considered a fortunate accident. Giving the team much 'Moneyball' credit for either seems a stretch. So, we're concentrating on players signed as free agents, traded for by the team, or otherwise accrued, and their results. Numbers are bWAR, and I'm valuing a win at a flat rate of $4.5 million.

Position Players

Luis Gonzalez (1999-2006). Salary: $47.56 million. WAR: 25.6. Surplus value: $67.64 million
Speaking to Jeff Summers earlier in the week, he suggested Karim Garcia as the most valuable player in team history, because we traded him for Gonzo and cash. Luis only got to start in 199 because Bernard Gilkey was hurt, and turned into the franchise's gem. Certainly, over his last few seasons, he was paid for past production, but from 1999-2001, he put up a total of 19 WAR, while being paid $8.2 million. That was more WAR than Chipper Jones and Jeff Bagwell over that period, both of whom earned over $19 million - and were well worth that. Definitely exploiting a market inefficiency.

Steve Finley (1999-2004). Salary: $32.75 million. WAR: 18.7. Surplus value: $51.76 million
Just to Gonzo's left in center-field for much of the time, was Finley, who brought us two and a half Gold Gloves [the third was in 2004, when he was traded to the Dodgers mid-season], and an All-Star appearance in 2000. Finley was not exactly cheap, but goes to show that value can be found at the upper end of the price spectrum as well. He was consistently good: 2001 was the only season where he didn't produce at a level above his salary, with a WAR of at least 3.6 in every other full year with the Diamondbacks. 1999 was his best year, reaching 5.1 WAR while costing us a very reasonable $5.375 million.

Craig Counsell (2000-03, 2005-06). Salary: $7.56 million. WAR: 11.2. Surplus value: $42.84 million
Yes, you might be surprised to discover Craig as among the most undervalued players in team history, but he was always very economical, with his biggest salary here barely $2.5m. Three-quarters of that WAR comes from Craig's defense, and he peaked in 2005 with a 3.1 WAR, while earning only $1.35m. We certainly got the best of Counsell: compare his time in Milwaukee, where he also played six years, but earned almost $12 million and posted a total WAR of only 4.7. While that remains decent value overall, it's far short of what he did here, where he still ranks fourth all-time in position player WAR for Arizona.

Chris Young (2006-current). Salary: $11.2 million. WAR: 9.9. Surplus value: $33.35 million
Worth reviewing the trade for Young. We got him, Orlando Hernandez and Luis Vizcaino from the White Sox in exchange for Javier Vazquez. In terms of total WAR, it worked out almost evenly for each team - but the White Sox had to pay Vazquez $36 million over his three seasons. Additionally, Young will be accumulating center-field WAR for us down the road, as he is signed through a team option for 2014. With back-to-back four WAR seasons, even the increasing cost there [the option is for $11 million] would not appear to be a problem, and barring injury, CY should continue to be well worth the money.

Damian Miller (1998-2002). Salary: $4.62 million. WAR: 6.7. Surplus value: $25.53 million
Snagged from the Twins during the expansion draft in November 1996, Miller was the ultimate blue-collar player - except for that whole non-union thing. And, as you'd expect from that, he produced over and above what you'd expect. The surplus value is likely a bit high, since he played at the beginning of franchise history, where one WAR wasn't worth $4.5 million, but there's no denying his surplus value, especially in a season like 2000: Miller had 2.3 WAR, while earning a mere $300,000. Like Counsell, he never barely got above $2.5 million, while giving Arizona at least one WAR every full year he was with the team.

Honorable mentions:
Erubiel Durazo (1999-2002). Salary: $1.095 million. WAR: 4.8. Surplus value: $20.50 million
Ryan Roberts (2009-current). Salary: $800,000. WAR: 4.1. Surplus value: $17.65 million

Pitchers

Randy Johnson (1999-2004, 2007-08). Salary: $104.95 million. WAR: 45.1. Surplus value: $98.00 million
Even Moneyball advocates would likely admit that there is no harm in paying top-dollar for a player - if the return is even more exceptional. That's what we have here, where Randy Johnson, particularly in the first stint which brought him four Cy Youngs [and it should have been five], was the best player in the majors. From 1999-2004, he got us 41.4 WAR; Pedro Martinez and sometime team-mate Curt Schilling were the only other pitchers above 28.4. Paying eighty million to the Big Unit for that level of performance was an absolute bargain. His return - $24.2 million for 3.7 WAR - not so much.

Curt Schilling (2000-03). Salary: $29.75 million. WAR: 20.9. Surplus value: $64.30 million
Slotting in just behind Gonzo comes Schilling, and much the same goes for him as Johnson: paying for quality is fine, when you get quality. Curt was considerably less well-paid than Randy, but would never be described as anything other than living up to his contract. The math is a bit tricky here, as he was dealt from the Phillies at the 2000 trade deadline; I've split his $6.5 million salary that year down the middle. The following season, he earned the same amount, and put up a monstrous 7.3 WAR - no pitcher in the league, except RJ, has matched that since Kevin Brown for the Padres in 1998.

Miguel Batista (2001-03, 2006). Salary: $10.65 million. WAR: 10.4. Surplus value: $36.15 million.
Everyone's favorite philosopher-poet-novelist pitcher has two spells in Arizona, and represented a good signing on both occasions. However, his first year was his most Moneyball-esque: as part of the World Series team, he gave us 2.8 WAR. Not included there, is any value from Batista's 2.49 ERA over six  post-season appearances, culminating with eight shutout innings in Game 5 of the World Series, plus a Game 7 cameo. He earned $400,000 that year. He was also worth 3.6 WAR in 2003 for Arizona, albeit that season earning rather more, at $3.375m, and his return in 2006 was both his best-paid ($4.75m) and least-successful (1.8 WAR) season in the desert.

Ian Kennedy (2010-current). Salary: $826,000. WAR: 8.0. Surplus value: $35.17 million.
Perhaps the most satisfying trade since Garcia/Gonzo for Diamondbacks fans, because sticking it to the Yankees in a deal is always a pleasure, never a chore. Kennedy has only been with Arizona for two years, and is already ranked sixth on our all-time WAR list for pitchers. This is another one whose surplus value looks set to go up significantly in the coming years, since he'll be at league minimum again next year, and arbitration eligible from 2013 through 2015. Even if we don't bother locking him in to a long-term contract, that WAR could be 25+ by the time he hits free-agency. And what did we directly give the Yankees for that? Nothing at all.

Dan Haren (2008-10). Salary: $15.68 million. WAR: 11.2. Surplus value: $34.72 million
As with Schilling, I've split Haren's salary in the middle, this time for his final year when he was traded to Anaheim. Also not included in the figure for Dan's surplus value is a true market inefficiency: his ability at the plate. During his 2 1/2 years with us, seems he had an offensive WAR of a remarkable 1.9; remarkable. Over those three seasons, that's almost the same as, say, Conor Jackson (2.1). I must admit, given Haren only got to bat every fifth day, I am inclined to wonder about the veracity here, but I also note Arizona's record for great hitting pitchers, and wonder if this is an area being deliberately targeted by the team.

Honorable mention:
Daniel Hudson (2010-current). Salary: $819,000. WAR: 5.7. Surplus value: $24.83 million

It's interesting to note that the players which gave the most surplus value are generally not absolute bargain basement pick-ups. Luis Gonzalez and Randy Johnson are not the first names that come to mind when you think of "bargains" - indeed, they are the two best-paid players in franchise history. But between them, their production was worth over $165 million more than they received during their time with Arizona. Otherwise, the bargains are a mix of mid-level players who regularly outperformed expectations, and prospects obtained in trade from other outfits, usually trading proven major-league players to roll the dice on future potential.

Of course, getting a steady flow of your own cheap, cost-controlled players from the minors should remain the foundation of any smaller-budget operation. But "value" does not necessarily preclude acquiring other players, elsewhere. While there might not be much chance of you picking up an All-Star for league minimum or thereabouts [hence referred to as "going for a Vogelsong"], spending wisely can be done at any level of contract, from the smallest to the largest. The dangers are certainly greater at the high-end, but as we've seen, the rewards are likely commensurate with the risks.

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