By Benjamin Hoffman
Oct. 2, 2012
The Athletics celebrated in Oakland, Calif., after beating the Texas Rangers to clinch a playoff spot on Monday.
The Oakland Athletics were the inspiration last year for a surprising Hollywood hit: “Moneyball,” a movie about baseball economics, one that, through astute casting, made the geeky world of advanced player statistics seem sexy.
The A’s are back this season as ripe material for a sequel, though not to “Moneyball.” Instead, think of “Major League,” with Charlie Sheen, not Brad Pitt. In that 1989 movie, a team desperate for a new stadium has traded away most of its high-priced players and allowed others to leave through free agency. The roster is filled with mostly rookies and a few lesser-known veterans, and they start the season playing to tiny crowds. There is even a mysterious Cuban slugger with a propensity for long home runs.
The A’s are certainly on script. Before the season, in a sell-off of talent aimed at stockpiling young players whose promise might help the club relocate to a new stadium in San Jose, the A’s traded their best pitcher and their star closer; they fielded a team that has so far seen a record 99 games started by rookie pitchers; they have been ignited by a young Cuban slugger who was previously known to much of the world only through his YouTube video clips; and they’ve played in a stadium that is more an embarrassing contraption than a ballpark — with a third of its seats permanently closed off because of poor attendance.
Through it all, they have won ballgames at a remarkable rate, qualifying for the playoffs in a run far more unlikely than those pulled off by the teams depicted in “Moneyball.” They have done it with strong pitching, superb defense, timely hitting and a great deal of youthful swagger.
“They play with no conscience,” said Ron Washington, the former A’s coach who now manages their rivals the Texas Rangers. “They’re not afraid of nobody right now.”
“Moneyball” told the tale of Billy Beane, the team’s brilliant general manager, who found novel ways to define how and why players are valuable and then acquired valuable players on the cheap. With his cutting-edge methods, he built a winning team and annoyed the sport’s establishment along the way.
Beane, played by Mr. Pitt in a performance that drew an Academy Award nomination, is still in charge of the A’s, and he has not abandoned his beliefs. But the team’s success this season, to be frank, was not supposed to happen. The Athletics, entering the season’s final two games, could finish with the best record in the American League.
“This is a team that knows it can do a lot of things,” Jarrod Parker, one of the five rookies in Oakland’s starting rotation, told reporters Monday after a victory that clinched a playoff spot. “It’s no surprise to me. It might be a surprise to everybody else.”
Michael Lewis, the author of the book “Moneyball,” on which the movie was based, said of the 2012 team: “The spirit of the thing still feels kind of the same. I still feel like they look different from other teams. There is this misfit-toys quality to them.”
If the Athletics lacked outsize ambitions at season’s start, they have had plenty to overcome to mount their outsider’s run. The team’s top two starters were both lost for the season, one of them struck in the head by a line drive on Sept. 5. The other, Bartolo Colon, was suspended for 50 games after testing positive for a banned substance. (It might be noted that Charlie Sheen’s character in “Major League” was never drug-tested.)
Through Monday, the team’s offense had provided enough runs to win games despite producing the fifth fewest hits in the majors. Relying on home runs to make up for a dearth of base runners, Oakland was just 15th in runs scored.
The modest offensive output was not unexpected, for the Athletics’ theme heading into the season had appeared to be capitulation rather than triumph.
Beane raised eyebrows by trading away the team’s top starting pitchers, Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill, and the team’s closer, Andrew Bailey, in cost-cutting moves that yielded 10 prospects. He also let Josh Willingham and David DeJesus, two-thirds of the 2011 starting outfield, leave via free agency.
Gonzalez has won 21 games for the Washington Nationals and could well win the National League Cy Young Award. Willingham has hit 35 home runs for the Minnesota Twins.
Beane’s moves were designed for the future. The club, long beleaguered by meager attendance, wants badly to relocate to San Jose, to draw fans, and, yes, make and spend money.
“That place is a pit,” Mr. Lewis said of the club’s current home, the Oakland Coliseum. “It’s a horrible place to try to run a baseball team from. But it makes his life more interesting. Operating with constraints, in a lot of ways, is more energizing than not having them. It forces him to think about things differently. In some weird way, I bet it makes Billy better at his job.”
Beane’s decisions, made with an eye on the horizon, have certainly affected the present in a fantastic way.
Most significant has been the production of the team’s rookie pitchers. Parker (acquired in the Cahill trade) and Tommy Milone (acquired in the Gonzalez trade) have led the way. The bullpen has been excellent as well, with Ryan Cook (also acquired for Cahill) being one of the team’s best relievers.
Outfielder Josh Reddick, acquired from the Boston Red Sox as part of the Bailey trade, had 32 home runs through Monday, the most on the team. Yoenis Cespedes, the mysterious Cuban, was signed to a four-year, $36 million contract that seemed incongruous with Beane’s other moves. He has rewarded the faith by batting .290 with 23 home runs and 16 stolen bases.
As a result, the Athletics have been among the most exciting teams in baseball, winning 14 games in the team’s final at-bat, tops in the majors. That late-game magic, combined with the ability of starting pitchers Parker and Brett Anderson to dominate batters, has the Athletics poised to be one of the teams most feared in the postseason.
“We’re just a bunch of young guys having fun,” said Coco Crisp, one of the team’s few veterans. “You wouldn’t think all these rookies would be doing things like this.”
Not even Beane. Certainly not Mr. Lewis, his co-conspirator on “Moneyball.”
“They are still very data-driven,” Mr. Lewis said of the Athletics. “But this team required enormous luck.”