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The 2012 A’s: Stop Calling it Moneyball

In Baseball, Long form on October 18, 2012 at 1:40 pm

Despite their first-round loss to the Detroit Tigers, the Oakland Athletics surprised the baseball world with a new take on old-school baseball

Even broken clocks are right twice a day.

The Oakland Athletics, a team many considered broken after the Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill trades, were right exactly 94 times this season, just enough to steal an American League West title from the Texas Rangers.

Unfortunately, it all came to an end last week when Oakland fell victim to a complete game shutout at the hands Justin Verlander and the Detroit Tigers. The team’s many weaknesses finally overtook its contagious enthusiasm. Inexperienced pitchers gave up six runs to one of the American League’s most feared lineups, and their own bats failed against a generous strike zone and Verlander’s own vicious efficiency.

If you watched the A’s at any point this season, you know that Oakland was playing with house money in the playoffs. The 2012 squad was, for lack of a better phrase, really stupid. Their batters set a single-season record for strikeouts. They stole bases constantly. They reinvigorated a gloriously terrible dance song from 2010.

All of that misses the point, however, because despite their wonderful stupidity, the A’s were really f*cking good this year — probably better than they had any right to be, and certainly better than anyone expected.

While Detroit spent $214 million on a nine year contract for Prince Fielder over the off-season, the A’s captured lightning in a bottle with career-making performances from junkyard finds like Josh Reddick, Brandon Moss and Johnny Gomes — none of whom would be caught dead mumbling a Chevy jingle on their way to the plate.[i]

And while the Tigers’ potent rotation, anchored by Verlander, strikeout specialist Max Scherzer and wouldn’t-be-a-third-option-anywhere-else Doug Fister, was undoubtedly favored over the cast of rookies and Brett Anderson Oakland threw on the mound for the division series, outings like this proved that the A’s were absolutely capable of matching up with their Motown counterparts.

This came as a surprise to many. It also inevitably led to more lazy comparisons to the 2002 Moneyball team than I’d care to count. Because even though the A’s were broke and fielding lineups where Coco Crisp had the greatest name recognition, 2012 was nothing like 2002.

The 2002 A’s were dirt poor (as far as millionaires go), and they weren’t about to get any richer playing to barely-there crowds at Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum — a concrete mausoleum that may or may not be haunted by the jaundiced ghost of Al Davis (he was still alive at the time). The now-familiar money woes cost them three of their best players prior to the start of the season. All-Stars Jason Giambi, Jason Isringhausen and Johnny Damon accepted better offers than the A’s were willing to match by way of free agency.

This put general manager Billy Beane in a bit of a pickle — a pickle that ostensibly led to the Moneyball phenomena that set the baseball world on fire (an uber-nerdy statistical fire).

The A’s 2002 philosophy was built around finding value in underutilized stats like on-base percentage and OPS (on-base + slugging percentage). The team’s reliance on advanced statistics and analysis led to the acquisition of cast-offs like Scott Hatteberg and David Justice, as well as an elevated role for perennial party boy Jeremy Giambi. Beane’s belief, as reported by Michael Lewis, was that, although players like Hatteberg were never going to match the production of stars like Yankee-traitor Jason Giambi, their comparable, collective on-base percentage would create just as many opportunities for the rest of the line-up to drive in runs.

The strategy ultimately worked. The A’s placed third in the American League in walks (609) and sixth in OPS (.771.). Those stats were bolstered by a fifth-place finish in OBP (.339) and a slugging percentage that beat the AL average by eight points. Most importantly, those above-average statistics put the team’s stellar pitching staff, anchored by Mark Mulder, Mark Hudson and Cy Young-winner Barry Zito, in a strong position to win games. The A’s went 103-59 to take the division title[ii].

That strategy also eschewed traditional statistics and tactics such as batting average (in which the team finished with a slightly below-average of .261) and stolen bases (in which they ranked dead last, with 46 on the year). It was a data-driven, semi-boring approach to baseball; one that drew the ire of older baseball scouts who maintain more of a “Trouble With the Curve” view of the game.

The current Athletics vintage is, as I already said, really stupid.

Their primary offensive weapon is a Cuban defector whose workout video is a 20 minute exercise in unintentional comedy. Their second-best offensive weapon barely cracked .240 and has a lovably bizarre infatuation with professional wrestling. And perhaps most notably, their third most effective offensive weapon is Coco Crisp.

Even though Yoenis Cespedes put up Rookie of the Year caliber numbers this year — an award he’d be in serious contention for if it weren’t for the historic performance of Mike Trout — his .292 BA/.356 OBP/.505 SLG should not be the centerpiece of an American League offensive attack. The A’s sported some solid power threats in Reddick, Moss, Seth Smith, Chris Carter and Johnny Gomes, but none of those players’ stats jump off the page next to Cespedes’s,  particularly when it comes to OBP.

The team still managed to accrue the fourth most walks in the AL (550), but its free swinging tendencies led to more strikeouts than hits: 1315 H to 1387 SO[iii]. To compare, the Texas Rangers struck out approximately once for every 1.5 hits they accrued. This propensity for striking out has driven down the team’s batting average to the point where their proficiency at drawing a walk was the only thing keeping them afloat. Their .310 OBP was only above Seattle’s for worst in the American League.

Furthermore, they steal bases. A lot of bases. 122 of them this year, to be exact. That’s well over the league average of 107. And according to Moneyball, stealing is really dumb. It’s an unnecessary risk with a steep downside — a wasted base runner and an out.

Then again, maybe it’s not so stupid after all. According to Total Baseball, players must succeed on 67 percent of their attempts in order to justify the strategy. As a team, the A’s finished the year with a 79 percent success rate. Crisp led the A’s with 49 steals on 54 tries, nabbing an extra base on 90.7 percent of his attempts.

Despite Oakland’s free swinging, fast-paced, stupid-fun ways, the team rode quality pitching and 14 walk-off wins into an AL West title and a five-game run against the scary good Detroit Tigers. More importantly, it was enough to fill the stands of the Coliseum.

Maybe this team had more in common with Moneyball than I thought.

[i] He’s one of the most feared power hitters in baseball, but the thought of Prince Fielder humming any jingle that doesn’t end in “you can have it your way” or “I’m lovin’ it” is ridiculous.

[ii] Attributing the success of the 2002 A’s to players like Scott Hatteberg does a disservice to the performances of third baseman Eric Chavez (.275 BA/.513 SLG/34 HR) and shortstop Miguel Tejada (.308 BA/.508 SLG/34 HR), who went on to win the MVP that year. The book and film also largely ignore the team’s starting rotation

[iii] That’s a single season record – mind you.


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