Michael Lewis’ 2003 best-selling novel Moneyball has redefined the legacy of Oakland Athletics manager Billy Beane. In movie form, Beane had the dubious honor of being played by Brad Pitt (Peter Brand, who was played by Jonah Hill, wasn’t so lucky) but has seen his team struggle since the rest of the league caught up to his tactics. The lessons of statistics guru Bill James that Beane used as an advantage over the rest of the league have been popularized. Terms like Weighted On-Base Percentage (wOBA), Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), and Wins Above Replacement (WAR) are popular not only in league front offices but in ESPN discussion forums, as the statistical revolution has redefined the lexicon of the average fan. ERA and batting average are now considered archaic terms, replaced by the more modern metrics of OPS+ and FIP.
For the first time since 2006, Beane’s team won its division this year. Down by four games in the standings with five to play, the Athletics swept the Rangers in the last three games of the season to take the crown in thrilling fashion. This Athletics team has redefined the definition of Moneyball, and a closer look at this team shows that it epitomizes the Beane small-market philosophy better than any other, including all of his previous teams.
The 2012 Athletics opened the season with a payroll of $55.3 million, the second lowest in the league and nearly a quarter of the New York Yankees, whose $197.9 million payroll dwarfed the rest of the league. In 2002, the $39.6 million of the Athletics seemed like less, but after adjusting for inflation is about $50.7 million, meaning that over the ten year span the team got an additional $4.6 million to work with. By contrast, after adjusting for inflation over the same time frame, the Yankees added $36 million, the Red Sox $35 million, and the Phillies added $100 million to their payrolls.
This coincided with an increase in average player salary of nearly $1.1 million dollars, meaning that over a roster of twenty-five players a given team was expected to contribute nearly $28 million more to its roster. Consequently, to adjust to the modest increase he was given in payroll by his owner, Beane had to pursue bigger bargains and find more inefficiencies in a market that saw him competing against smarter, better educated general managers.
Looking at the rosters of those two teams, we can similarly see the talent discrepancy between that team that won twenty games in a row in 2002 and the team that featured five rookie starters for the stretch run in 2012. In 2002, the team featured Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, Ted Lilly, Aaron Harang and Tim Hudson—who have 695 career victories between them. This year’s September rotation (Travis Blackley, A.J.Griffin, Tom Milone, Jarrod Parker, and Dan Straily) had a combined one win between them coming into the season. 2006 stalwarts Miguel Tejada, Carlos Pena, and Eric Chavez have all been the best players on their respective teams at some point in their careers. The 2012 Athletics starting nine didn’t even have a player who had made an All-Star game.
The best players on this year’s team may have been Yoenis Cespedes—a Cuban baseball player for whom Beane bid almost $3 million a year higher than any other team—and Josh Reddick, a player that the Boston Red Sox thought was worth a reliever in Andrew Bailey who had a 7.04 ERA this year and managed only 19 starts. No player on the list had a batting average of over .290, six struck out at least ninety times, and none had over ninety RBIs. These aren’t your Moneyball Athletics, who never give away an out and work the pitchers until his arm is dead. These Athletics club homers (six hit at least fourteen) and stifle their opposition (no pitcher who played in more than thirty games had an ERA over 3.74).
Logistically speaking, the job Beane has done this year in crafting a winner is more important than in any other stage of his career. He has rotated arms in and out of a starting rotation hit hard by injuries (Brandon McCarthy) and even suspensions (Bartolo Calon) in a division with the Rangers and the Angels, who are loaded top-to-bottom with household names and star talent. He did this all with a team that wasn’t a fluke—a team whose +99 run differential was fourth in the American league and who won both at home and on the road (50-31/44-31 home/away splits).
Down two games to none to the Tigers as of the writing of this article, the Athletics will need a miracle to pull their season together. As Beane admits, “my s*** doesn’t work in the playoffs.” They head home for the final three games of the series—where they will most likely need to beat Scherzer, Verlander, and capable starter Doug Fister to emerge victorious. The odds are stacked against them but this team can never be counted down and out. They aren’t the Orioles—whose record is buoyed by a 29-9 record in one-run games and a streak of 16 straight wins in extra innings that defy common held perceptions of luck and regression to the mean in the sabrmetric community. They aren’t the Tigers—carried by a few star players and using flotsam to fill in the rest of the roster. They aren’t the Rangers or the Yankees—teams loaded top to bottom with proven, well-known talent.
But they are Billy Beane’s latest miracle, and this latest collection of unknowns and castoffs will always have a chance.
Photo Credits: Flickr, The Guardian