“My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is f***ing luck.”
That’s a quote attributed to Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane in Michael Lewis’ 2003 best-seller “Moneyball: The Art Of Winning An Unfair Game” and over the years, Beane has been proven right. Since the turn of the century, the A’s have made the playoffs seven times, including each of the last two seasons. They’ve won exactly one playoff series, in 2006, and haven’t been to the World Series since all the way back in 1990. They’ve been one of the most successful regular season teams around — despite going from 2007 to 2011 without a winning season, only four other teams have won more games this century — but in the coin flip world of short playoff series, it hasn’t worked out.
This year, that’s going to change. With approximately six weeks left in the regular season, the A’s are once again the best team in baseball. But this time, they’re built for the playoffs, too, and they’re better positioned to take home a title at any since Jose Canseco and Dennis Eckersley were wearing the green-and-gold.
Here’s why (all stats as of July 31):
Because they’re simply the best team.
Run differential isn’t everything, but it’s very hard to have a positive mark and not be a good team. Twenty-five of the 30 teams in baseball have a run differential of plus-50 or fewer. Four teams had outscored their opponents by a margin of between 50 and 90 runs. The A’s? A massive 145 runs.
That’s what happens when you have an extremely deep roster that doesn’t really have a true weakness. Only three teams have a lower ERA. Only two had a better defensive rating, per FanGraphs, and only three had a better overall wRC+, which is an all-inclusive park-adjusted offensive stat. No offense walks more; just one offense strikes out less, and that’s despite Coco Crisp’s injury concerns and Josh Reddick’s down year.
Other than third baseman Josh Donaldson, there’s not a true superstar here, but there’s also possibly not a deeper roster in baseball. The A’s have nine hitters worth at least one WAR, tied with the Angels for the most in the sport, and seven different pitchers worth one WAR, behind only Washington, and that’s of course not even including newcomers Samardzija, Hammel, and Lester. No team can boast of a roster that gets contributions from every corner like Oakland can.
Because they owned the trading deadline.
When the A’s traded three players to the Cubs for starting pitchers Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija in early July, no one thought they’d done so at a bargain price. (Stud shortstop prospect Addison Russell, the centerpiece of the deal, is considered a consensus top-10 talent in the minors.) But when the A’s made that deal, it ended up being about more than simply adding talent.
First, the additions reinforced an Oakland rotation that was already good, but full of question marks. Scott Kazmir hadn’t pitched even 160 innings in a season since 2007, and had been essentially out of baseball in 2011-12. Jesse Chavez, 31 in August, had made exactly two starts in the previous six years of his career. Ace Sonny Gray, 24, was less than a year into his big league career. Brad Mills, a journeyman plucked from the Milwaukee minor league system for $1 (!), actually made multiple starts.
Hammel and Samardzija added instant depth and obvious skill, but by getting both of them at once, and so early in the trading season, the A’s also put their competitors in a bad spot. Just about every other team in the American League with playoff dreams, with the possible exception of the Tigers, could have used another starting pitcher, and with two of the top options gone, suddenly everyone else had to fight over the same very limited pitchers available.
But even then, they weren’t done: on July 31, they traded Yoenis Cespedes to Boston for Jon Lester and Jonny Gomes, then flipped the mediocre Tommy Milone to Minnesota for useful backup outfielder Sam Fuld. Beane’s moves landed the A’s three of the top starters on the market, prevented their opponents from getting any of them, and added further depth to the outfield. Suddenly, a rotation that was fine for the regular season looks like a beast for October. The A’s didn’t get the trio cheaply, but the value added was obvious, both in what it brought them, and in what it prevented everyone else from getting.
Because the competition is surprisingly weak.
Think about the traditional powers of the American League. For most of the last decade, the path out of the AL has been nearly impossible, with teams like the Yankees, Red Sox, Rays, Rangers, and Tigers all posing massive roadblocks to success. (By themselves, those five teams have represented the AL in 10 of the last 11 World Series dating back to 2003.)
But now look at what’s happened to that group in 2014. The Yankees, Red Sox, and Rays make up the bottom 60 percent of the AL East. The Rangers, absolutely destroyed by injuries, might actually end up with the No. 1 overall pick in the 2015 Draft. The Tigers remain dangerous and are likely to win their division, but have also received less production than they are used to from their two long-time pillars, Miguel Cabrera and Justin Verlander.
That’s not to say it’s going to be an Oakland cakewalk to the World Series, of course, because the Angels have the best player in baseball (Mike Trout), an emerging ace (Garrett Richards), and several veteran additions to their rebuilt bullpen (Huston Street, Joe Thatcher). And, of course, even a team like the Orioles can get hot over the course of a few days. But if you’re trying to get through the AL gauntlet and into the World Series, this is the right year to be doing it, and Beane has made it clear that he’s seen that window of opportunity, and nothing is going to stop him from exploiting it.
Follow Mike on Twitter at @mike_petriello