After dealing away young ace pitchers Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and closer Andrew Bailey this winter, the Oakland Athletics appeared to be in full rebuilding mode heading into this season.
Most projection systems had the A's finishing with a losing record and no better than third place in the AL West.
Yet after their Oct. 1 4-3 win over the Texas Rangers, the A's have clinched a playoff spot. If they close out the regular season with two more wins over the Rangers, they'll win the American League West. At worst, they'll finish with 92 wins and play in the American League wild-card playoff game this Friday.
Five straight non-winning seasons, a murky ballpark situation and this winter's apparent rebuild had many commentators ready to pronounce Moneyball dead. Alas, Moneyball is alive and well on DVD, in the bookstores and on the baseball field.
Despite having the second-smallest payroll in the game, the A's have once again built one of the best teams in the business on their shoestring budget.
Rather than sticking with the script that Michael Lewis so eloquently laid out in the book Moneyball, general manager Billy Beane has adapted his methods even when it appeared the rest of the league had caught up to his original strategy.
A run prevented is just as important as a run scored, though saving runs is actually a cheaper strategy than trying to out-slug the opposition. The A's are third in baseball in defensive efficiency, which has helped propel a pitching staff that now has five rookies in the rotation to a 3.50 ERA, sixth best in the game.
Despite trading away Cahill, Gonzalez and Bailey, as well as losing Brett Anderson, Brandon McCarthy and Dallas Braden to injury (plus Bartolo Colon to suspension!), the A's have remained atop of the league in run prevention this season.
Rather than riding Gonzalez, Cahill and Bailey through some of their arbitration years as he did with Barry Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson a decade ago, Beane sold high on his big arms early, netting key 2012 contributors like Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, Ryan Cook, Derek Norris, Josh Reddick and a few prospects in the process.
Offensively, the A's are still practicing the patient and powerful approach that was preached in the book. The team's 8.9 percent walk rate and .166 isolated slugging percentage are fifth best in the game.
However, as other teams have started to value on-base and slugging percentage, the A's have had to find new ways to create value on offense. Beane has found that new value on the basepaths, where the A's rank as the sixth-best team at creating runs with their speed.
Another new way that the A's have found offensive value is through manager Bob Melvin's use of platoons at catcher, first base and designated hitter. Only the San Francisco Giants have had the platoon advantage more often than Melvin's A's this season.
The biggest new addition for the A's was the signing of Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes. With Cespedes, the A's gambled that they could find a star player at more reasonable cost given the uncertainty surrounding the closed Cuban baseball market. Cespedes has rewarded the Athletics' gamble by hitting .290/.352/.506 with 23 home runs thus far in his rookie season.
Many people mistakenly believe that Moneyball was simply about using statistics like on-base percentage to build a competitive advantage. While that was part of the book, the main lesson was the importance of finding hidden value in order to compete, given the Oakland's limited resources. The key for the A's was and remains adaptability—when the rest of the league zigs, Beane and the A's have to zag in order to remain viable.
Thus, rather than building a team of slow, patient sluggers, Beane has built a faster, more athletic team that can still walk and hit home runs, but can also create runs on the bases and prevent them in the field.
A decade after the famous Moneyball season, the A's are back in the playoffs despite their meager resources. Two more wins against the Rangers and an AL West crown would be the perfect icing on the cake.
No matter how the season ends for the A's, their return to relevance has been the best story of the season in Major League Baseball. Hopefully the sequel offers more postseason success than the original.
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