As the Oakland A’s clipped the two-time-defending league champion Texas Rangers for first place on the last day of the season, and then as they continued a team tradition by kicking away the first two games of the playoffs, you had to think of the old Moneyball A’s, the ones that even people who don’t watch baseball know all about. “Moneyball II!” Sacramento’s ABC affiliate cried. “A’s Write A Script As Good As Moneyball,” the AP proclaimed. The New York Times went to Michael Lewis, the man who coined the phrase, and conveyed his bestowal of blessings. “The spirit of the thing,” he said, “still feels kind of the same.”
It didn’t. The A’s of a decade ago were less a team than a universal constant, a variant on a theme that’s always being played somewhere: Several brilliant young talents come together, smart operators with novel theories fill in most of the right pieces around them, and the thing never quite comes off. Like Johan Cruyff’s Dutch national side or the Leeds punk scene in the late 1970s, the concept behind the A’s made names and money for a lot of people once it was jacked. And like the Dutch and the punks, the Moneyball A’s ended up getting distorted beyond all recognition.
Billy Beane’s actual A’s, who starred an assortment of bizarre California types out of The Long Goodbye—alternative-spirituality zombies, dead-eyed mannequins, lifers in their early years—didn’t play in the pages of Lewis’ book, or on the screen in the Brad Pitt production. Their presence would have run counter to method. Lewis, who managed to write a book about the 1996 presidential campaign without really discussing Bill Clinton, didn’t journey to the end of the East Bay to write about Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson. Those obviously great players aren’t much fun to write about—they looked good in jeans, after all. Furthermore, focusing on the likes of Mulder and Hudson would have revealed the tautology at the center of Moneyball, both the book and the Gladwell-esque branding exercise.
Removed from a narrative that suggests that the obscure and unloved likes of Chad Bradford—and by proxy, Beane’s shrewd evaluations—were responsible for the old A’s success, it amounts to this: You should value things that are worth more than they cost. As morals go, this is one of Lewis’ better ones. Not as good as Doing work you dislike just because it pays well will make you unhappy, but above Japan is about to take over the world, it’s probably on par with his campaign book’s conclusion that politics would be better if dissenters like Pat Buchanan and Ralph Nader got more votes, and has been equally vindicated by events. This year’s A’s not only have nothing to do with Moneyball, as some wags have noticed, but were actually built almost exactly counter to the ideas touted by Lewis.
The 2002 A’s were a mix of touted prospects who’d developed well and made little money, minor stars acquired in trades, and veteran role players—not very different from, say, the formula used by the Minnesota Twins teams of the same era. What made them unique was that Beane had picked them on principles of efficiency. Specifically looking, in the famous example, for a hitter who worked deep counts and got on base, skills which math told him were valuable, he plucked backup catcher Scott Hatteberg from the dustbin and installed him to replace departed first baseman Jason Giambi. It worked!
That this philosophy wasn’t, in retrospect, very novel—the U.S. government adopted cost-benefit analysis in 1939, and the idea that one should buy low and sell high dates back even further—didn’t change the fact that it had been tied in to the good and well-told story of a team of likable castoffs, thus inspiring middle managers everywhere to claim they were applying Moneyball principles when working over such boring problems as production chains and editorial budgets. Some even worked in major-league front offices, loudly advertising that they used Beane-like methods while working with budgets two or three times as large.
To his credit, after a series of dubious moves such as signing the brittle Eric Chavez rather than the lively Miguel Tejada to a long-term contract and inadvertently trading Hudson for a burlap sack filled with doorknobs, Beane stopped applying any such principles himself. As his team careened through a series of increasingly uninspiring campaigns—from 2007 to 2011, they failed to post a winning record—he worked through a series of increasingly arcane trades. Talented pitcher Dan Haren and a nondescript minor leaguer were shipped to Arizona in exchange for six prospects; Carlos Gonzalez, the best of the lot, was eventually sent off with closer Huston Street for star outfielder Matt Holliday; Holliday was soon enough traded for three more prospects. It all seemed like an elaborate rehearsal of the old joke about making up for losses with volume.
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.