In Motion: The Rise of the Rays and Fall of the A's, 2001-2010

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(Click to enlarge)

I am a big fan of interactive visualizations, as I am sure you've already surmised. As a social scientist, I love Hans Rosling's Gapminder. Visualizing data is one thing, but being able to watch the motion of change over time provides an entirely different level of understanding to the game.

I thought I'd take a crack at this by looking at all MLB teams over the past decade. Using the same data set I used for my original visualization, I created a motion chart using Google Gadgets. Like Rosling's Gapminder, you can watch and track the change in different variables over time for each team.

The graphic above depicts all teams in terms of their runs scored (x-axis), runs allowed (y-axis), whether or not they made the playoffs and how (color), and the size of their payroll (bubble size).

For my first motion viz, I wanted to take a look the changing fortunes of the Rays and Athletics during the past decade. Both of these franchises have become synonymous with the sabermetric approach to management. They don't spend a lot of money, but rather make very efficient use of the draft and under-priced talent to compete. And both have been the subject of fantastic books--Michael Lewis' Moneyball and Jonah Keri's The Extra 2% (which drops today).

For the better part of the decade, the A's were one of the elite teams in baseball. From 2001 to 2006, they made the playoffs four times while posting an average run differential of 120--all for the average yearly cost of $51M in payroll. After 2006, however, the A's became an average team. They posted three straight seasons of negative run differential and failed to make the playoffs all four years.

The Rays, on the other hand, began the decade as one of the biggest lost causes in the league. From 2001 to 2006, they posted an average run differential of -180. The Rays averaged 63 wins per year and a payroll of $34M.

After 2006, however, the two teams essentially switched roles.

Both teams slogged through a lackluster 2007, but in 2008 the Rays broke through with a 97 win season, winning the AL East with a 103 run differential. The A's? They managed only 75 wins in 2008.

If we look at how these team's reversed fortune over that time we see that the Rays managed a remarkable change in terms of their runs allowed between 2007 and 2008. While maintaining a solid batting line (770+ runs scored), the Rays decreased their runs allowed from 944 to 671. The next two years were essentially the same for the Rays--they never gave up more than 754 runs and increased their run scoring every year.

The A's, on the other hand, failed to hit after 2006. Their runs scored fell below 760 every year. Even with two fantastic runs allowed years in 2008 (646) and 2010 (663), the Athletics could not muster enough offense to create a significant run differential.

I've embedded the motion graph below. Feel free to alter the variables and play around. I will be writing a number of columns based on the visualization, but don't wait for me--explore away!

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Full version of the visualization can be found here.

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