Moneyball, Part 2: The 2012 Oakland Athletics
What makes the Athletics different? Well, they sported a league-low $53-million payroll on opening day, which is more than $100 million fewer than their divisional rivals, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim. Plus at 76-57, the A’s control the lead in the Wild Card and currently stand three games out of first place in the West, with an average attendance under 20,000 a night.
This offseason, Oakland made a concerted effort to look for more power and doubles-hitters instead of walk-centered OBP guys who have thrived for this franchise in the past. A’s general manager Billy Beane made a big splash in February by signing Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes to a four-year, $36-million deal.
The A’s also made one of the best trades of the winter by dumping struggling closer Andrew Bailey to the Red Sox for what became Josh Reddick. Then, Oakland signed free-agent journeyman Jonny Gomes and outfielders Seth Smith and Coco Crisp in an effort to add instant power and experience.
In addition to the offensive maneuvering, the front office looked to radically improve its rotation by swapping ace Gio Gonzalez to Washington, for notable prospects Tommy Milone and Derek Norris. In another surprising move, Oakland allowed its 2011 leader in OPS, Josh Willingham, to leave for Minnesota. This season Willingham has blasted 33 home runs and 96 RBI’s and would appear to be a big loss for the A’s offense.
No matter how you look at it, the Oakland A’s took a radical, and at first glance, rebuilding approach to the 2012 season. As the season began, it looked like that plan would work perfectly into place. To culminate a wild offseason, the A’s took a chance on Manny Ramirez, who needed to serve a 50-game substance abuse suspension.
Better pitching and an overall higher fielding percentage have been integral to the A’s success this year. Last season, the A’s ranked second-to-last in fielding percentage (.978). This season, they have drastically improved, now ranking right in the middle of the league at .983.
When it comes to pitching, the A’s are using no-name prospects and a stitched together bullpen to limit opponents’ run production. Comparing 2011 to 2012, the A’s have allowed 89 fewer runs and boast a 20-15 record in one-run games. These stats may seem insignificant but in baseball, the difference between winning and losing is microscopic, and these adjustments are leveling the playing field for the underpaid/underfunded Athletics.
What has been amazing about the A’s has been the development of their pitching staff. Milone, Brandon McCarthy, Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin and Bartolo Colon, another free agent signing, make up the starting rotation.
Milone, a former Trojan, is 11-9 this season with a 3.73 ERA. McCarthy has posted a career-best 3.10 ERA, resulting in a 8-5 record and a spot as the number two. Parker, a player sent to Oakland for Trevor Cahill in 2010, is 9-7 with a 3.72 ERA, posting quality starts in 16-out-of-23 outings.
Another aspect that has been sensational for Oakland has been its bullpen, especially rookie All-Star Ryan Cook. Cook, also a USC alum, is 6-2 with a 2.35 ERA and 13 saves.
Much like the A’s run in their Moneyball season, the bullpen needed to step up, as Grant Balfour provided that spark for this team. Balfour has a 2.64 ERA in more than 60 innings pitched out of the pen. Other contributors have been Sean Doolittle (1.17 WHIP), Pat Neshek (0.87 ERA) and Jerry Blevins (exactly my point), a bunch of no-name contributors who have stepped up for Oakland.
What makes Oakland special is their surprisingly powerful offense, which has exploded in the second half of the season, hitting a season-high .258 in the month of August with a .454 slugging percentage. Josh Donaldson hit three home runs last week and is one of the many surprises in this lineup.
Brandon Moss, Seth Smith, Chris Carter and Gomes are supplying pop for a team that struggled to hit the long ball last season. These three have combined for 66 home runs, mainly in the DH role this season.
The one-two punch of Reddick and Cespedes has solidified the offense. Cespedes has become the vocal leader on the team, delivering clutch hits on the season, as the only hitter over .300.
Reddick, meanwhile, may be lacking in the average department, but has made huge contributions with his power and arm. Reddick’s 28 home runs and 74 RBI lead the team, and he is second in the AL with 13-outfield assists.
In order to enter the conversation of playoff contention, the A’s needed to go on a 19-5 run in the month of July. During that magical run, the A’s won eight games via walk off and swept the Yankees in a four-game series for the first time since 1972.
On Aug. 23, pitcher Bartolo Colon, (10-9 3.43 ERA) was suspended 50 games for using performance-enhancing drugs, sending a should-be crushing blow to the rotation. But none other than Brett Anderson stepped for the team. In three starts since returning from the DL, Anderson has gone 3-0 posting an outstanding 0.90 ERA, while recording 15 strikeouts in that span.
Not only has Anderson responded, but so has the entire team by going 9-0 in that stretch, shrinking the Rangers’ lead to three games in the AL West. Now the A’s are in prime position to continue their second-half surge all the way to the 2012 postseason.
The A’s may not play the prettiest style of baseball, but they are playing together as a unit under the direction of Bob Melvin and have greatly exceeded expectations. In a recent matchup, they concluded one of the greatest offensive series of the season, sweeping the Red Sox by a combined score of 33-5, while popping nine home runs over the three-game set.
In 2002, the Oakland Athletics shocked the world all the way to the AL West Divisional crown. The schedule may be daunting for Oakland down the stretch, with games against New York, Texas, Los Angeles, Tampa Bay and Baltimore. But this season’s brand of under-appreciated, low-average, home run-hitting players are playing their way towards rewriting the MLB history books.