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How Billy Beane's Evolution, Reinvention Is Taking A's Back to the Top

Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images
Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterJuly 17, 2014

To appreciate the Oakland A's, context really isn't necessary. If you can appreciate great baseball teams, there they are with an MLB-best 59-36 record and a run differential the size of the Bay Bridge.

But what the A's are doing is that much easier to appreciate with context. Specifically, with a sense of where they are on Billy Beane's Wild Ride.

The first stop was the fun one. Beane was hired as Oakland's general manager in 1998, and by 2000 he'd transformed the A's from a laughingstock into a superpower. They won 91 games that year, kicking off a run between 2000 and 2006 that would include five postseasons and a .586 winning percentage.

Only the New York Yankees did better in that span, and at a much higher cost than the small-market A's. While the Yankees hunted for stars, the A's hunted for, and found, undervalued players.

We discovered how when Michael Lewis published Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game in 2003, with the main takeaway being that Beane and his staff had the good sense to value on-base percentage. It was an exotic stat at the time, and other teams overlooking it was a huge market inefficiency.

But then came the second stop, in which it all came crashing down.

Seriously, they could be bro...Er, maybe cousins.
Seriously, they could be bro...Er, maybe cousins.Christian Petersen/Getty Images

After advancing to the American League Championship Series in 2006, the A's missed out on winning records each year between 2007 and 2011. When the Moneyball movie starring Brad Pitt as Beane was released in 2011, it celebrated what seemed to be a dying legacy.

"So much for the genius...He doesn't look so smart anymore, does he?" an American League scout told ESPN's Howard Bryant in 2010. "Let's see them make a movie out of that."

Actually, maybe they will. It can be about the currently ongoing everything-is-fun-again third stop on Billy Beane's Wild Ride.

The A's made their triumphant return with a 94-68 record and a postseason berth in 2012, and showed it was no fluke by winning 96 games and making it to October again in 2013. Add in what they're doing this year, and the A's are baseball's winningest team with 249 wins in the last two-and-a-half seasons.

For Beane, don't call it a comeback. Not without also calling it a reinvention, anyway. 

OAKLAND, CA - MAY 28:  Josh Donaldson #20 of the Oakland Athletics is met at home plate by teammates after hitting a three-run walk-off homer to defeat the Detroit Tigers 3-1 at O.co Coliseum on May 28, 2014 in Oakland, California.  (Photo by Thearon W. H
Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

Take a close look at the A's now, and you'll spot some familiar hallmarks of the old Moneyball A's.

For example, the A's are still interested in walks, one of the primary building blocks of on-base percentage. According to FanGraphs, their 9.2 walk percentage since the start of 2012 is second in MLB. Not surprisingly, they're also tied for 10th in OBP at .321.

They also still have a knack for turning other teams' trash into their treasure. To this end, you can think of guys like Josh Donaldson, Josh Reddick, Brandon Moss, Bartolo Colon, Stephen Vogt, Jesse Chavez and goodness knows how many others who were picked up for cheap and turned into productive players.

But it's not all about mining deep for hidden gold anymore. Beane suddenly doesn't mind aiming higher.

So far, the A's have gotten an above-average 117 OPS+ and 63 homers out of Cespedes.
So far, the A's have gotten an above-average 117 OPS+ and 63 homers out of Cespedes.Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

You can look at how he gave a $36 million contract to Yoenis Cespedes in 2012, a record for a Cuban defector and an open-market record for the A's. This past winter, Beane gave out their second-largest open-market contract: $22 million for Scott Kazmir.

There have been trades, too. The A's played against type when they went after high-priced closer Jim Johnson and caught everyone by surprise earlier this month when they traded two top prospects to the Chicago Cubs for starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel.

Cot's Baseball Contracts has Oakland's 2014 Opening Day payroll at over $82 million. That's about $30 million more than what the A's rolled into 2012 with. For some perspective, it wasn't until 2006 that the A's had an Opening Day payroll $30 million larger than their Opening Day payroll in 2000.

Not that more aggressive acquiring and spending is the only new approach Beane and the A's are using, mind you. They're working with a different philosophy on roster construction too.

Beck Diefenbach/Associated Press

Beyond the on-base percentage factor, another big takeaway from Moneyball was that stolen bases were too risky to be worth trying for.

Such was the simplified version, anyway, and the A's didn't do much to show the organization's perception of steals was more complicated. Between 2000 and 2011, they stole fewer bases than any other American League team.

But since 2012? The A's find themselves tied for eighth in the AL in steals, thereby turning a neglected part of their offense into a strength. Coco Crisp is responsible for a lot of that, but he's one of a handful of guys the A's have employed who can run.

And then there's the secret that's not so secret anymore: Oakland's platoon advantage.

Yeah, it's been noted that the A's have given manager Bob Melvin platoon-friendly rosters in the last few years, and that he's done a dandy of a job using these rosters. Even still, we can say this: Nobody's exaggerating about the good Oakland's platoon advantage has done.

If we look at which clubs have compiled the most platoon-advantage (either LHB vs. RHP or RHB vs. LHP) plate appearances since 2012 and how they've fared from an OPS perspective, we see:

MLB Clubs and the Platoon Advantage, 2012-2014
TeamTotal Platoon PAOPS as LHB vs. RHP RankOPS as RHB vs. LHP Rank
CLE114521014
OAK11020810
SEA104091930
SFG103612418
SDP99522925
NYY9907427
PHI97042524
MIN94892312
BOS931137
TBR9257128
HOU91473029
NYM91092121
BAL90531311
TOR89281417
LAA8560263
STL8489715
CHC84741820
DET843965
KCR82772728
WSN82751713
LAD80252016
ARI8002161
COL792624
ATL7773522
MIA77332826
PIT7658159
TEX760092
CIN7378123
CHW72621119
MIL6587226
Baseball-Reference.com

Only the Cleveland Indians have enjoyed more platoon matchups than the A's, but they don't rank in the top 10 in OPS in both righty and lefty platoon matchups. And the other (highlighted) clubs that share that distinction with Oakland haven't logged nearly as many platoon plate appearances.

"We do it because we kind of have to," Beane told Jorge L. Ortiz of USA Today. "We're rarely going to find the perfect all-around player all in one guy, so we try to piece them together. Instead of looking for the perfect player, we try to put together the best 25-man roster that fits."

But next to the platoon advantage is yet another advantage the A's are exploiting more quietly.

A staggering 49.0 percent of the batted balls Brandon Moss has hit in an Oakland uniform have been fly balls.
A staggering 49.0 percent of the batted balls Brandon Moss has hit in an Oakland uniform have been fly balls.Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Andrew Koo of Baseball Prospectus (subscription required) was the first to notice it: The A's have been targeting fly-ball hitters. Not so coincidentally, they've been hitting a lot of fly balls. FanGraphs has their fly-ball percentage since 2012 at 40.7 percent. No other team is even over 37 percent.

Fly balls do come with certain disadvantages, chief among them being that they easily turn into outs. But when fly balls land, they often go for extra-base hits. And for a team that puts as many runners on base as the A's, they help a team avoid double plays.

And when runners are on base, double plays are avoided and fly balls are hit, all sorts of goodness can happen:

Notable A's MLB Ranks Since 2012
Double Plays2B w/ Men On3B w/ Men OnHR w/ Men On
28593
Baseball-Reference.com

There's the beauty of an offense that puts runners on base and hits a lot of fly balls. An offense like that is much more likely to capitalize than it is to catastroph-ize.

By runs scored, the A's have MLB's fourth-best offense since 2012. Not the best, but certainly elite. Like the on-base percentage thing, Oakland's ideas for how to succeed on offense are working.

Of course, a good offense isn't worth much without good pitching. The A's have had that too, ranking fifth in baseball in ERA at 3.43 since 2012. So far in 2014, they're second in ERA at 3.09.

Which is baffling considering what happened before the season. The A's may have added Scott Kazmir, but they lost Bartolo Colon to free agency and then lost Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin to Tommy John surgery. Per Wins Above Replacement, they thus entered 2014 sans their three best pitchers from 2013.

You'd never know it. Before Samardzija and Hammel arrived, the A's survived largely because they got good stuff out of Chavez and Drew Pomeranz while also reviving Tommy Milone

If it feels like having quality pitchers at the ready just in case is the plan, well, that's because it is the plan.

This is according to one of Beane's top generals, assistant general manager/director of baseball operations Farhan Zaidi. At an event I attended in the fall of 2012, he said this of the organization's attitude about starting pitching depth:

We don’t build a five-man rotation. We build a 162-game rotation. These days, there are very few guys that you can just assume are going to make 34 starts and pitch 200 innings...There’s really no guy that you can plug in and say, "Alright, one out of five rotation spots is taken care of."

Are there similar philosophies out there? Absolutely. But perhaps not to such an extreme degree, and certainly not as well-executed.

It's saying a lot about the monster Beane and his staff have built that it feels like we've only scratched the surface. But we've definitely hit the main nerves: more aggressive transactions, stolen bases, platoons, fly balls and starting pitching depth done right.

That these things were not in Moneyball is another credit to Beane. It's hard enough to get ahead of the curve once. That he's done it twice is remarkable.

It won't last, of course. Teams will see what the A's are doing and follow suit, and quite a few will do so with more money. Just like what happened with the strategies outlined in Moneyball.

Between now and then, though, this new A's empire has an open window to flourish. And knowing how Hollywood feels about sequels...

Well, paging Brad Pitt.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked. Quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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