Billy Beane, the executive VP of baseball operations and resident mad scientist of the Oakland Athletics, is back disrupting American League powerhouses, safely ensconced beneath 50 feet of crap.
After four losing seasons the ballyhooed Beane, made famous around the globe thanks to his portrayal in Moneyball, has his A’s on the brink of bringing Hollywood storylines back to the Bay Area. And only now, after nearly two months of piling up victories, is the baseball world finally taking notice.
Back in March, who would have targeted 17 August on the calendar for this season’s most compelling series? Now, the reigning World Series champion Houston Astros, who had been expected to flirt with baseball’s regular-season win record of 116, are getting set for a three-game series against a dangerous Athletics team that were all but irrelevant just eight weeks ago.
Incredibly, the Astros, playing without top stars like Jose Altuve and Carlos Correa, are just two games ahead of Oakland in a divisional race that could have a major impact on how things play out in October.
Yes, Beane has somehow returned his A’s to the forefront, with the usual bottom-barrel payroll, this time roughly $79m. That total is sandwiched between the Miami Marlins and the Chicago White Sox, two teams with zero interest in winning ballgames, and about $150m south of the Boston Red Sox, a team that only wins ballgames.
It all seemed unlikely, or so we thought. After all, the last time most people even glanced at Beane’s A’s was four years ago, when the the Kansas City Royals ran Oakland out of the AL wild card game via bunts and base stealing: unenlightened dreck, left over from baseball’s pre-sabermetric dark ages.
Beane, frustrated by an inability to reach the World Series despite seven playoff appearances in 14 seasons, had gone all-in on 2014 with a series of un-Beane like moves that compromised the A’s immediate future. Some of Beane’s leanest years followed, and it was fair to wonder if we’d seen the last of his small-market magic in Oakland. Perhaps an overextended Beane had been distracted by his many endeavors, which include owning a share of Barnsley FC. Perhaps the Beane era in Oakland was overblown. And maybe it was time to break up the band – the band being Beane, his long-time assistant David Forst and his trusty manager, Bob Melvin, serving his eighth season and without a contract for a ninth.
That was the speculation in mid-June anyway, back when the A’s were 11 games out of a wild card spot. Now, such issues have been tabled indefinitely, which is what happens when your once-floundering franchise rips through a schedule at a 38-13 clip, going 50-0 while leading after seven innings and losing just one of 17 series.
The offense was always the strength of Oakland, but the evolution of Matt Chapman has brought a collective leap forward for the lineup. The third baseman, whose defense drew comparisons to his high-school teammate Nolan Arenado, now has the bat to match the glove in what has been a breakout season: Chapman’s WAR of 6.7, has him in the AL MVP mix.
Then there’s designated hitter Khris Davis, who came to Oakland in 2015 thanks to one of Beane’s biggest heists. Beane, an English soccer fanatic, dealt two players, Bubba Derby and Jacob Nottingham (you can’t make this stuff up), to Milwaukee for Davis, a steal who has pitched in 109 home runs in less than three seasons.
You’d be pressed to pick the rest of their talented order out of a lineup, but generics such as Jed Lowrie, Stephen Piscotty, Matt Olson and Marcus Semien more than stand up to the store brand.
So yes, these A’s can score with the best of the AL, but the real trick has been to create a functional pitching staff from a group that hadn’t sniffed the upper half of the league’s ERA leaderboard since the club were last competitive in 2014.
And despite the fact that Oakland’s current rotation consists of ace Sean Manaea and a group that didn’t even break camp with the club in March, the charmed A’s rotation is well above water, thanks to unexpected contributions from pitchers like Edwin Jackson. Picked up off the scrap heap in July, somehow the journeyman’s first nine starts in green and gold have added up to his best ERA since he was a rookie in 2003.
That the A’s starters are successful makes little sense until you discover that Beane and company have gone to great lengths to limit their exposure. Of AL teams currently in playoff position, only the Yankees have pitched their starters less. Beane has stockpiled closers, dealing for Jeurys Familia from the Mets, and Fernando Rodney from the Twins, to join a deep pen including rookie Lou Trivino, who is 8-2 with a sub 2.00 ERA in relief, and closer Blake Treinen, who has 32 saves and an ERA under one. There’s depth, and a plan to shorten the game and keep their mediocre rotation from throwing more than five innings a start.
But what’s not working is the A’s attendance.
Despite exceeding all realistic expectations, the product on the field is not putting bums on seats. Old Oakland Coliseum, with it’s homage to Al Davis in the outfield, sewage-filled clubhouses and low-fi fan experience isn’t exactly a welcome wagon. Still, considering all these A’s have achieved there should have been more than 10,400 to see the playoff chasing Seattle Mariners in the series opener on Monday.
It has A’s players practically begging fans to come on down.
With a potential to steal the division and upset the once pre-determined power dynamic of the American League, all this baseball story is missing is fans to watch it.