Moneyball, take two?
Exactly a decade after the Oakland Athletics inspired the book that became a major motion picture starring Brad Pitt last summer, baseball's most frugal franchise is becoming a must-see attraction again. The A's are a majors-best 14-2 in July and coming off a stunning four-game sweep of the high-priced New York Yankees to move into a tie for the final American League wild card spot.
With a little more than two months to play, general manager Billy Beane's new bunch of no-names and up-and-comers are starting to turn the Oakland Coliseum into the real-life "Moneyball" sequel.
"I think Billy's really good at finding eager players to be able to produce," third baseman Brandon Inge said. "Kind of the opposite of high-maintenance players. They're not all caught up in selfish stats. They want to come in and they want to be a part of a winning organization, and that makes the difference in everything. We really don't have any high-dollar guys who are prima donnas. That's probably the key. We're more of a blue-collar team."
On a budget
Still saddled with the same ballpark issues, Oakland traded away its three best pitchers — all-stars Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez, and 2009 rookie of the year closer Andrew Bailey — last winter in the latest payroll purge. Oakland began the season with a league-low $53 million (US) payroll.
To put that in perspective: the $200 million Yankees have two stars — slugger Alex Rodriguez ($30 million) and ace CC Sabathia ($24.3) million — making more money combined this year than the entire A's roster.
Sweeping the big, bad Bronx Bombers for the first time in a four-game series at the aging Oakland Coliseum sent a clear message across the American League: Wins aren't coming cheap against the A's anymore.
"It definitely feels good to battle and be victorious against the best teams, on paper, in the game," said centre-fielder Coco Crisp, whose two-out RBI single in the 12th inning Sunday capped Oakland's major-league leading 11th walk-off win. "You can look up and down a lot of lineups like Detroit, or the Angels, the teams with high payrolls. Obviously, they have high payrolls for a reason, because the players on the team deserve it. When we battle against those guys and come out with wins, it's definitely a great feeling."
When the season began, nobody figured Oakland could contend. Most thought the A's would lose around 90 games. Some guessed 100.
New class emerging
Instead, a new class of youngsters emerged: outfielder Josh Reddick, catcher Derek Norris and pitchers Tommy Milone, Jarrod Parker and Travis Blackley. The arms have carried the club more than anything, even while Oakland's three best remaining starters in the rotation — Brandon McCarthy, Brett Anderson and Dallas Braden — are rehabbing from injuries.
The A's lead the American League with a 3.37 earned-run average, almost a third of a run better than Tampa Bay and New York, who are bunched in the pack trailing Oakland. Oakland also is on pace to shatter last year's mark of 114 home runs, already having smacked 101 long balls in what is becoming a sudden surge of power at the plate, offsetting a majors-worst .228 batting average.
"It's the same formula when I was here and we were winning," said Yankees third baseman Eric Chavez, who played for the A's from 1998-2010.
The comparison to those A's of old might still be premature.
Beane bucked the trend of relying on the common trio of statistics — batting average, home runs and RBIs for hitters; wins, losses and ERA for pitchers — and instead turned to hard numbers over subjective scouting to fuel his team's successful runs in the early 2000s. Every team now uses some level of "sabermetrics," and all with more money than Oakland.
The A's also have only won five straight and 14 of the last 16 games heading into Tuesday's series at Toronto. Those 2002 Athletics chronicled in Michael Lewis' bestselling book won an AL-record 20 consecutive games, with the last coming in September, not late July.
There have still been some thrilling moments, with 10 different players accounting for Oakland's major-league leading 11 wins on a game-ending RBI. And after every one, players toss whipped-cream pies and a sports-drink bath at the hitter in a celebration that has become so routine concession workers behind the dugout already have them prepared in the late innings.
"Those games are hard to win," A's manager Bob Melvin said. "It means you're scrappy and you won't take defeat and you'll battle till the last out."
Ballpark an issue
The surprising run hasn't washed away Oakland's biggest problem: an aging ballpark the team says drains money and forces the franchise to shed stars for salary relief each off-season.
The latest rebuilding project came as a result of Beane and owner Lew Wolff's insistence that they expected to hear from Commissioner Bud Selig about whether the franchise would be allowed to build a new ballpark some 40 miles south in San Jose, even though the San Francisco Giants own the territorial rights to technology-rich Santa Clara County. More than three years since Selig formed a committee to study the issue, no resolution seems to be coming soon.
Oakland's only All-Star representative was rookie closer Ryan Cook, who has a 1.70 ERA and 10 saves. Reddick leads the team with 21 home runs and 46 RBIs. The highest-paid player is outfielder Yoenis Cespedes, who signed a $36 million, four-year contract after coming over from Cuba.
Cespedes is batting .299 with 13 home runs and 45 RBIs this season, even after he was sidelined for about a month with a strained muscle in his left hand. While his back-loaded contract makes many wonder how long Oakland will be able to afford him, it's clear how much Cespedes has helped the A's latest "Moneyball" movement.
Oakland is 39-24 with Cespedes in the lineup and 12-20 without him.
"If the playoffs started tomorrow," Cespedes said in Spanish over the weekend, "you better be careful against the Oakland A's.