“The pleasure of rooting for Goliath is that you can expect to win. The pleasure of rooting for David is that, while you don’t know what to expect, you stand at least a chance of being inspired.” — Michael Lewis, Moneyball
It's been 11 years since the publication of Michael Lewis' Moneyball, and three years since the release of the movie starring Brad Pitt.
That means everyone—fans, the media, rival GMs—knows the story, inside and out, of how the Oakland Athletics and their general manager, Billy Beane, became one of the great small-market Cinderella stories in all of sports. How David built his slingshot.
Predictably, other teams have mimicked Oakland's blueprint—using statistical analysis to identify undervalued players, then signing them on the cheap—with varying degrees of success.
But more than a decade after their secrets were laid bare, the A's are still the undisputed kings of the "moneyball" approach.
Since Oakland hired Beane—a failed ballplayer and savvy scout—as a 35-year-old wunderkind in 1997, it has won six division titles and made seven playoff appearances. During that span, the A's have signed or developed two MVPs, a Cy Young winner and four Rookies of the Year.
And they've done it with a budget that routinely ranks as one of the lowest in baseball.
This season is no exception. Entering play Monday, Oakland sat atop the American League West at a league-best 47-29, yet their $74.8 million payroll is richer than only three other clubs, all with losing records, per ESPN.com.
|Team||2014 Payroll||W-L Record||Division Rank|
|Oakland A's||$74.8 million||47-29||1st|
|New York Yankees||$209.4 million||39-35||3rd|
|Philadelphia Phillies||$176 million||34-40||5th|
To put things in perspective: In 2014, the New York Yankees will spend more on four players (Mark Teixeira, Masahiro Tanaka, Jacoby Ellsbury and Alfonso Soriano) than the A's will spend on their entire roster.
As per usual, Oakland is getting maximum bang for limited bucks.
Consider the catching platoon of John Jaso and Derek Norris (utilizing platoons to exploit matchups is another winning strategy Oakland has implemented on Beane's watch). If you add the stats of Jaso and Norris, whose combined salary is a modest $2.8 million, they rank first among AL catchers in home runs (10) and RBI (42) and second in batting average (.294).
And those are just their catching stats; if you include Jaso's numbers as a DH, the duo fares even better.
Or consider Josh Donaldson, acquired by Oakland in a July 2008 deal that sent Rich Harden to the Chicago Cubs. At the time, Donaldson was a 22-year-old catching prospect with middling A-ball numbers. The A's moved him to third base, and last season, he finished fourth in AL MVP voting.
So far this year, Donaldson has 18 home runs and an .815 OPS—and will earn $500,000.
Even when the A's spend more, they usually get more. In an offseason that saw pitchers like Ricky Nolasco and Ubaldo Jimenez sign hefty four-year deals, the A's took a chance on Scott Kazmir.
An oft-injured underperformer, Kazmir was coming off a quiet bounce-back season with the Cleveland Indians. Oakland inked him for two-years, $22 million.
So far, Kazmir has been a huge bargain—and one of the league's top starters—posting a 2.08 ERA and 0.95 WHIP.
Then there's Brandon Moss, signed on the cheap in 2011, bashing 17 home runs with an .874 OPS. Or Jesse Chavez, acquired for cash from the Toronto Blue Jays in 2012, posting a 2.71 ERA through 15 starts.
Are the Oakland A's still the kings of small-market success?
Taken in isolation, any of these moves could be mostly about luck, rolling the dice on a lowly regarded prospect or a dumpster-dive free agent and coming up snake eyes.
But this has been the A's, and Beane's, formula for too long, and it has worked too often, to dismiss it as anything less than a well-built, carefully calibrated slingshot.
That's not to say Oakland never misfires. There have been bad moves under Beane (he handed Carlos Gonzalez and Huston Street to the Colorado Rockies for a Matt Holliday rental). There have been losing campaigns. And there's the matter of playoff performance: For all of its regular-season success, Oakland has never advanced past the ALCS during Beane's tenure.
As Beane himself told Grantland's Jonah Keri in March:
Baseball, business, these are games of cycles. What you want is to minimize the down cycles. Some days you’re smart and some days you’re dumb. When you’re wrong, don’t let that freeze you. Keep going and continue to make what you think are the right decisions, even if they are tough decisions.
With a little more than half a season left to play, the A's hold a five-game lead over the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim in the AL West. For all of Oakland's overachieving, the deep-pocketed Halos, with their trio of ace-quality starters, are within striking distance.
It's still possible the Green and Gold could fizzle; they certainly weren't picked by many (if any) prognosticators to own baseball's best record.
In typical style, the A's are relying on players outperforming their preseason projections, which means the threat of regression looms. Will Kazmir keep pitching like a Cy Young candidate? Will Donaldson and Moss remain among the league's top sluggers?
And what about the playoffs? A's fans are familiar with division titles; they're also all too accustomed to postseason heartbreak. (Say the words, "Yankees, ALDS, 2001, Jeremy Giambi, Derek Jeter" in the presence of an Athletics die-hard and watch his spirit sink.)
Then again, defying and exceeding expectations is what this club has always been about under Beane.
Other small-market teams (see: Tampa Bay Rays) have produced results in recent years, and the Oakland method has been successfully duplicated by big spenders (see: Boston Red Sox). Really, all of baseball has been turned on to the value of analytics and advanced statistics to some degree.
Yet here are the A's, still at the head of the pack. Still setting the standard.
Still taking "moneyball" all the way to the bank.