Extending Hatteberg a definite head-scratcher

To the Oakland A's front office, Hatteberg was a deeply satisfying scientific discovery. The things he did so peculiarly well at the plate were the things only science -- at any rate, closer than normal scrutiny -- could turn up. He was, in his approach to hitting, Billy Beane's opposite, but he was also Billy Beane's creation ...

    -- Michael Lewis, Moneyball

OAKLAND, Calif. -- Last week, the Oakland Athletics made two big moves. One of them -- the one that's going to cost the A's a lot of money – hardly anybody noticed. The other -- the one that cost the A's very little -- hardly anybody missed.

The move hardly anybody missed came last Thursday, when GM Billy Beane pulled off yet another of his %#@&-A trades, sending minor-league pitchers Aaron Harang and Joe Valentine to Cincinnati for outfielder Jose Guillen. While Harang and Valentine are both decent prospects, Harang is 25, Valentine's a career reliever, and anyway the A's have no shortage of talented minor-league pitchers. Guillen, meanwhile, was hitting .337 with 23 homers in only 91 games with the Reds.

The only thing that makes you wonder: as great as Guillen's playing, he has only 17 walks all season.

"And you know what's funny about that?" Beane asks. "People said, 'He doesn't walk! I thought you guys liked walks!' Well, he's got a .385 on-base percentage!"

True, but Guillen's never had a .385 on-base percentage before. Entering this season, Guillen's career OBP was just .305, and his best OBP for a single season was .320 back in 2000. So what's more predictive: the last four months, or the last six years?

Beane is banking on the last four months.

"At some point," Beane explains, "we just have to take things at face value. You don't want to get too subjective, but there's a lot of things ... in Jose's case, you're talking about a guy whose career path was really interrupted. He was a Rule 5 guy, I think. So you're talking about a 21-year-old who's leapfrogged like that, and his development was completely interrupted. And he's still young, 27 years old, so part of his own development was the fault of Baseball.

"There's no question, you have to ask yourself about the track record. There's no question, this is one of the best years he's had. (ed. -- It's actually the best year that Guillen's had, by a huge margin.) But if we're going to take it at face value, in our minds he's hitting as well as any outfielder in the major leagues, this side of (Barry) Bonds. And we have him at the minimum (salary) for two months. If there is such a thing as the 'hot hand' -- and I know there are people who don't believe in that -- this is the kind of guy to get. And I don't think we've ever acquired a guy with his kind of numbers at the trade deadline since I've been here."

But why is Guillen doing so well, after so many years of struggling?

"Whoever I've talked to," Beane answers, "guys who've seen Guillen, say he's a different player now. He's hitting to all fields, staying inside the baseball; whatever it is, he seems to have gotten it."

Not many 27-year-olds wait so long to "get it," but maybe Guillen's one of the exceptions. Either way, considering the "production" the A's have gotten from their right fielders this season, they almost had to acquire Guillen (or someone like him).

What the A's didn't have to do was sign first baseman Scott Hatteberg to a contract extension that guarantees him nearly $5 million over the next two seasons. This was the move that hardly anybody noticed, but it's going to cost the A's a lot more than the trade for Guillen.

And Hatteberg's extension was, to put it mildly, something of a shock to those of us who think of Billy Beane as The Smartest Man in Baseball. At this moment, Hatteberg's .353 on-base percentage ranks seventh among the dozen American League first baseman with enough plate appearances to qualify for the lead. Not bad. But his .399 slugging percentage is last among those dozen, and overall his hitting stats would place him 10th, better than only Scott Spiezio (one of the league's biggest disappointments) and Ken Harvey (one of the league's worst players).

Last year, Hatteberg's OBP was seventh among AL first basemen, and his slugging percentage was 10th. Considering the difficulty of hitting in Oakland's Coliseum, along with Hatteberg's $900,000 salary, and the A's had themselves quite a bargain.

Oh, and we've not even mentioned that Hatteberg was third among all American Leaguers with 4.1 pitches per plate appearances. Billy Beane likes that.

Unfortunately, Hatteberg's fallen off in that area, too. This season he's seen 3.9 pitches per plate appearance, which is good for just 15th in the league (granted, 3.9 isn't appreciably fewer than 4.1). Oh, and one more thing ... Hatteberg turns 34 this winter.

So why on earth would the A's commit $4.65 million over the next two seasons to such a player?

Or rather -- and this is how I phrased the question to Beane -- "What do the Oakland A's know about Scott Hatteberg that nobody else does?"

"First," Beane says, "we're not looking at just a three-month period, we're looking at a two- or three-year period when we're evaluating Hatteberg. And we're also looking at who will become available, and what will be the cost of this player or that player. And if you're talking about free agents, you have to factor in the age of those free agents, and who could potentially be a non-tender."

This wasn't really going anywhere, so I tried to hurry the conversation along.

"So," says me, "you look at all the players out there who could play first base, and you have an Excel file, or whatever (assistant GM Paul) DePodesta uses, and you plug in how many runs they're going to save on defense, how many runs they're going to add with their baserunning and their hitting, and you're factoring in how many pitches they take ... all that stuff? And you figure nobody better than Hatteberg will be available for less than what you're going to pay him?"

"Yeah," says Beane. "The only thing I will say is that the methodological argument might be, 'Well, what about Player X in your own system, playing in Triple-A.' A fan of your or my ilk might ask, 'Why not Jason Grabowski?' And that one I can't really answer."

I can. Grabowski's playing first base for the Sacramento River Cats, and his numbers -- .373 OBP, .484 slugging percentage -- are not great for a 27-year-old first baseman in the Pacific Coast League. On the other hand, Grabowski was better last year, and wouldn't be a terrible choice for a team in need of a cheap first baseman.

"But let me get subjective for a minute," Beane continues. "Scott deserves this, because he's a major part of the fabric of this team, from a subjective standpoint."

And does he get a little bit of extra credit for being a known quantity (and, just maybe, for being one of the supporting characters in a certain best-selling book)?

"Yeah, he has to. He gets extra credit for what he means to this team, to the players and the people around him."

The bottom line, for Billy Beane and the people who work for him?

"We have our reasons."

I believe it. But do you remember the last time the A's did something that looked as strange as this? It was in 2001, when they signed Terrence Long to a four-year contract extension. And the last time I checked, that's looking like $11.6 million thrown into a bottomless sinkhole.

Meanwhile, Scott Hatteberg's new deal is for half the years and less than half the millions. So at least this sinkhole -- if that's what it is -- has a bottom.

Senior writer Rob Neyer writes four columns per week during the baseball season. His new book, "Rob Neyer's Big Book of Baseball Lineups," has just been published by Fireside. For more information about the book, visit Rob's Web site.