You’d think that Moneyball would have a happy ending. I suppose that, in a way, it does: Brad Pitt’s daughter sang him a cute metaphorical song, Billy Beane told John Henry to suck it (something Dave Dombrowski should have taken notes on), and Jonah Hill laughed at a fat catcher tripping over his shoes but managed to spin it into an inspirational lesson that acted as the thematic backbone of the film. But the Oakland A’s still lost. They always do.
Since 2000, Oakland has made the postseason nine times. Their sole ALCS appearance in 2006 resulted in a sweep; the other five times they’ve played in the Divisional Series, they’ve lost (each time in heartbreaking five-game fashion); and their two most recent forays into October baseball have yielded defeats in the Wild Card Game. First it was the Yankees teams of the early 2000’s, then the Tigers in the 2010’s, but someone always manages to ruin the fun at the O.Co Coliseum. All told, Oakland has gone 1-8 in playoff series since those Moneyball teams. With yet another date with the Wild Card Game (baseball’s mysterious, merciless mistress) looming, the Swingin’ A’s are in danger of another excellent season reaching an anti-climatic end.
But this year is different. This year, the Oakland Athletics are the team that nobody wants to play. This year, the Oakland Athletics are the team built for October. This year, the Oakland Athletics are going to the World Series.
There’s plenty of reasonable evidence that backs this suggestion. We live in the era of the superteam, and accordingly, much of the attention is given to those dominant squads. In the American League, that means that the Yankees and Astros – and to a lesser extent, the Twins – are the darlings of the 2019 season. But Oakland has already proven that they belong in the same breath as the powers of the American League:
- The A’s have a run differential of +145, the fourth best mark in the American League, and the fifth best in all of baseball. They’re only a stones throw away from the Twins’s mark of +163 (especially if Matt Chapman gets to throw the stone, because that boy has an arm), and within relatively reasonable striking distance of the Yankees’s +180 mark. If Oakland turns in a few more of those 21-7 victories like they had over the Astros on Tuesday, they have a legitimate chance to finish the year with the third best run differential in baseball, and with three games against the Mariners coming up, I like those odds.
- Oakland already has 88 wins, and FanGraphs projects they’ll finish the year with a 96-66 record (one win lower than their 97-win campaign a year ago). This seems awfully low to me; the Athletics have 14 remaining games, none of which are against a team with a record above .500. They won’t win 100 games, but they’ll be awfully close. And, using their runs scored (787) and runs allowed (642) values through 148 games, Oakland has backed up their excellent .595 winning percentage with an expected record that perfectly matches it. The Twins and Yankees, on the other hand, have both over-performed. In fact, expected wins and losses pegs the A’s as a game better than the Twins, and only two games behind the Yankees in the win column. They might be the Wild Card team, but that’s more of a reflection on how insanely terrifying the Astros are than it is on a gap existing between Oakland and the rest of the American League division leaders.
- For those of you who are into that sort of thing, 538’s MLB Elo rankings have Oakland as the fourth best team in baseball (behind the big three Dodgers, Astros and Yankees, respectively).
- Finally, Oakland has an outstanding 35-27 record (.565 winning percentage) against teams with a record above .500. Only the Yankees have a higher winning percentage (.589) against winning teams. However, I’d argue that Oakland’s is actually more impressive. Against the expected postseason teams in the American League, the Athletics have produced outstanding results; a 4-2 record against the Yankees, where both losses were one-run walk-offs; a 4-3 record against the Twins, with another walk-off loss, and a 12-inning loss; a respectable 8-11 record against the Astros, including a 6-2 record in their most recent two series; and winning records against both the Rays (4-3) and the Indians (5-1), their prospective Wild Card opponents. All told, that’s a 25-20 record against postseason teams, which is really good. The A’s will only need to win eight playoff games against American League teams to make it to the World Series, and they’ve already done that 3.167 times in 2019. Child’s play.
Look, I’m not trying to attack you for overlooking Oakland. I get it. They’re not “hip” or “sexy” like Aaron Judge. They don’t hit home runs like the Twins. They don’t have a collection of Hall of Fame level starting pitchers having Hall of Fame level seasons like the Astros. The Athletics are not a team that runs on star power. Their top 12 WAR earners on Baseball Reference include a guy that got suspended several months ago, Brett Anderson (somehow), Chris Bassitt AND Chad Pinder, and Matt Olson, whose photo looks so much like former A’s fourth outfielder Sam Fuld that I instantly accepted that Billy Beane coaxed Fuld (who last played in 2015) out of retirement, gave him a bat, and turned him into a 4.5 WAR player, because Oakland has done even stranger things than that before.
Oakland does have star power, of course, but Marcus Semien (132 wRC+, 6.5 fWAR) and Matt Chapman (126, 5.5) aren’t the household names that they ought to be. But what the Athletics do lack in name recognition, they make up for with their play a thousand times over. Chapman, Semien, the ghost of Jed Lowrie and his dual-flap helmet, and Matt Olson (139, 3.8) are the best infield in baseball in all three categories: offense, defense, and handsomeness (Matt Chapman is literally Josh Hutcherson, and if you don’t think I was team Peeta, then you don’t know me). Ramón Laureano (122, 3.1) has blossomed into a star, and with Mark Canha (143, 3.6) playing every day and Khris Davis finally showing that he might be healthy again (7 for 19, 3 HR, 8 RBI in last five games), Oakland’s lineup runs deep.
Then, there’s the pitching. Perhaps Mike Fiers and his 5.11 FIP isn’t exactly who you’d want starting a game seven, but Oakland doesn’t need much from its starting pitching to make a deep run. Liam “From Australia” Hendriks (1.61 ERA, 1.81 FIP, 114 strikeouts in 78.1 innings) has been the best reliever in baseball in 2019, and if even just one of Lou Trivino or Blake Treinen has a hot October (a la Joe Kelly and Ryan Brasier in 2018), the Athletics’s bullpen will be able to turn every postseason game into a four or five inning affair. And Oakland’s pitching staff is built for this: they only give up 1.26 HR/9, tied for the 6th lowest mark in the MLB, which will play well against teams like the Yankees, Twins, and Astros who score a lot of their runs on the long ball.
Billy Beane has often been criticized for building rosters that are only designed to win in the regular season, but lack some sort of quality that is “necessary” to be successful in October baseball. This team is different. They have the offensive firepower. They have the bullpen. They have the narrative (imagine how CATHARTIC it will be for Oakland to beat the Astros and Justin Verlander in the ALDS, avenging their losses to those old Tigers teams, then beating the Yankees in the ALCS to make up for the Moneyball losses, and finally besting the Dodgers in the World Series to make everyone finally forget about 1988). They’re underrated, elite, incredible, however you want to say it. This team has it. This team is the Oakland Athletics.
And Moneyball will finally get its happy ending.
Featured Image Credit: https://www.flickr.com/photos/keithallison/46660599825