Another read, though, is that Beane was embracing indeterminacy. Better baseball men than he have utterly failed to predict which young players will develop into stars. Some get lazy, some develop drinking problems, and some just never improve. Acquiring them in bulk and then waiting to see which ones pan out is the precise antithesis of Moneyball, which is premised on the auteur’s ability to pick up specific assets at below-market prices. It’s also a clever way of making the inherent randomness of baseball work for you: Collect enough B-grade prospects and eventually some of them will do interesting things.
Thus the 2012 Oakland A’s, a team that’s immensely charming even though it can be accurately described as “a faceless group, full of random white guys reminiscent of the computer-generated prospects in baseball video games.” Even the much-touted fact that more than 100 of their starts were taken by rookies doesn’t get at their sheer anonymity, and the obscurity of their origins. The 2012 Oakland squad includes former top prospects picked up in the 2007 Haren deal, dead-end free agents, and any number of players who came off the waiver wire or as filler in large deals. Consider one of the team’s best relievers, Sean Doolittle. In 2007, the A’s took Doolittle with the 41st pick in the draft. Four years later, after a series of injuries had derailed his prospects as a hitter, Oakland tried him out on the mound. After just 17 career minor-league pitching appearances, Doolittle was called up to the bigs, where he averaged more than 11 strikeouts per 9 innings this season.
As the example of Sean Doolittle shows, these A’s aren’t—as the turn of the century A’s or the 2008 Tampa Bay Rays were—a team that succeeded because a lot of well-regarded young players bloomed at once. Rather, this is a collection of players who hard-core fans barely knew existed but played like the best team in the league for three months for no discernible reason. If the exemplar of Lewis’ A’s was Barry Zito, a top draft pick who’d been groomed since childhood to star in the majors, this year’s archetypal Athletic is Brandon Moss, a sluggish 29-year-old first baseman on his fourth team who hit 21 home runs in 296 at-bats this year, six more than he’d hit in his previous 678.
Even the team’s one true star, glamorous Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes, is an aberration. While he turned out to be a crusher of 450-foot home runs and a surprisingly heady baserunner, the decision to sign a 26-year-old outfielder of unknown baseball skill to the biggest contract on a team widely considered to be a candidate for a 90-loss season represented little more than a roll of the dice (and perhaps a concession to central baseball’s insistence that teams spend revenue-sharing money on players rather than just pocketing it).
This team is, in essence, a refutation of Moneyball’s central thesis: the idea that the world makes sense and that someone who’s smart or at least attentive can figure it out. The 2012 A’s are not performing as anyone could have predicted, and they validate nothing other than the idea that Billy Beane and his staff, while highly imperfect and as occasionally prone to overthinking as anyone else, are pretty damn good at running a ballclub on the cheap, which should have been evident all along. They will inspire no TED talks and probably no Brad Pitt vehicles. Win or lose, this is a team that makes no sense, and that’s why they’re fun as hell.
TODAY IN SLATE
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Forget Oculus Rift
This $25 cardboard box turns your phone into an incredibly fun virtual reality experience.