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Life After Moneyball

After a star turn, Billy Beane and the Oakland A's are still trying to win an unfair game

Jemile Weeks, the Oakland A’s second baseman, has the hips of a 15-year-old girl and a puny batting average, but he makes a sweet pivot on the double play and he’s a travel-size terror on the base paths. On May 11, he was at the center of an unusual little play that typified his team’s oddball season thus far. He took off too early on an attempted steal of second and the pitcher should have had him dead to rights with the pickoff attempt, but Weeks just kept going. As it happened, the first baseman dropped the ball — a bit of luck, badly needed — but Weeks couldn’t see that and chugged on full throttle. He seemed to be going into his head-first slide five steps early — no one was even trying to get him out anymore — and boom, his chest kicked up a cloud of dirt as he crashed into second. He overshot the base by a good three feet, but it all worked out. The whole sequence was goofy and totally inconsequential, but captivating anyway.

After Moneyball made an Oscar run in the offseason, reawakening debates about general manager Billy Beane’s true talents, Beane now turns up for work to face the painful fact that the A’s are a middling and widely ignored club, just as they have been for most of the decade that’s passed since the events depicted in the movie. Doing your dispiriting job every day after being lionized by a Brad Pitt movie — something of an unusual challenge. The A’s are once again struggling to play .500 ball on the cheap in front of small crowds at “a crappy stadium,” in Beane’s own words. It’s uncomfortably apt that the team plays in what is now called the O.co Coliseum, after Overstock.com’s domain name, since the A’s roster is made up of discounted off-brand merchandise. Last month they took on Justin Verlander with this lineup: Pennington, Cowgill, Reddick, Gomes, Smith, Donaldson, Barton, Recker, Sogard. If you consider yourself a baseball fan and you haven’t heard of half those guys, you are not alone in this world.1

Still, Beane has a plan, whether it makes sense to fans or not, and he is putting a charming and unpredictable crew on the field. Neither their approach nor their performance bears much resemblance to the A’s of the Moneyball years, but Beane’s thinking remains much the same. While hoping for a new stadium and angling to build a contender, he is trying to make the best of what he’s got, just like the players. After a spate of injuries and an awful stretch in late May, the A’s are a long shot to make the playoffs this season, to put it generously, but it’s fun to watch them try.

Billy Beane’s signing of Manny Ramirez in February turned some heads, since no other team was inclined to take the chance. After the 40-year-old slugger regained eligibility on May 30 following a second 50-game PED suspension, the A’s were taking their time calling him up to the big leagues, until last week when he was released by his own request. Which is regrettable if only because fans were robbed of the chance to see him play alongside Jemile Weeks. The young infielder sports the same dreadlocks-and-bandanna look as Ramirez but comes in at 160 pounds (if not less) to Manny’s 225 (if not more). Weeks looks the way Manny might have when he first hatched from an alien egg, before he hit 555 home runs, named two of his sons Manny Jr., and urinated behind the scoreboard during a pitching change.

But signing Manny was just taking a flyer; the A’s owed him only a month’s minor league salary. The most notable and surprising move of the team’s offseason came a week earlier. With a four-year deal worth $36 million, Beane emerged from nowhere to sign Yoenis Cespedes, trumping the Miami Marlins, who had vowed to pursue the Cuban defector “right to the point of stupidity” to land him in their new stadium in Little Havana. Apparently the Marlins thought $36 million was past the point of stupidity.

Baseball analysts didn’t know what to make of Cespedes, the most talked-about unsigned prospect of the offseason, and they certainly didn’t know what to make of his showcase video, which got forwarded around with remarks like “You’re welcome.” Alternately Velveeta-cheese embarrassing and seriously impressive, the video opens with a Star Wars text crawl (titled “A New Hope”) that puts the fortunes of Cuba entirely on Cespedes’s shoulders; employs a lot of special effects inspired by late-night local cable ads; and closes with Cespedes tending to a pig on a spit, for reasons unclear. Cespedes clubs beastly home runs in Cuban stadiums to the E-Z listening of Christopher Cross’s “Sailing” and he executes a ridiculous 45-inch box jump, landing in a squat on one of those step aerobics platforms, but propped up on way more risers than you’ve ever seen used at one time.

Beane took a big gamble with Cespedes — high risk, high reward — but still a calculated one. Despite their overall thrift, the A’s have been aggressive recently in the international market, where players lack the big-league track record that would make them as expensive as American free agents. Oakland had scouted Cespedes for four or five years, and they expected him to command a much higher price than he did — in the neighborhood of six years, $60 million. This year he will earn $6.5 million, which makes him the highest-paid player on the A’s but would rank him 11th on the Yankees. He’s in the pay grade of Bobby Jenks and Placido Polanco, and his average salary for the contract will come in under Michael Cuddyer’s price.

Many in baseball expected Cespedes to need some time in the minors, but he started playing on day one. With panache. Cespedes’s body recalls Barry Sanders in his prime, with the ripped upper half and thighs so thick with muscle you’d think they would slow him down rather than make him quicker. But when he gets a jump on a fly ball in the outfield, watch him eat up the ground — torso tipped forward, butt out — the way Rickey Henderson used to run through the same stretch of grass.

Cespedes has missed some time with injuries but has supplied a needed jolt when he’s been in the lineup, amassing 30 RBIs in 38 games. He hit home runs in three of his first four games, including a 462-foot cannon shot in the home opener. His body ended up entirely twisted toward third base. As he admired his work a bit too long, as he is known to do, he was actually backpedaling out of the box on the way to first base. Cespedes also hit a walk-off shot yesterday and a tying two-run homer in the bottom of the 14th inning on April 25, a we’re-not-done-yet salvo in the team’s most exciting win of the year. Of course, the paid attendance that day barely broke 13,000, and fewer than that remained at the walk-off finish, but the guys did the home plate bounce like they didn’t notice.

Beane hoped that the Moneyball movie would attract some more fans, but so far the A’s are second to last in home attendance — which is in fact an improvement, since they were 30th out of 30 in 2011. Watching a game on TV, occasionally you will quite clearly hear an infielder call for a pop-up: “IGOTIT-IGOTIT-IGOTIT.” More people follow A’s starting pitcher Brandon McCarthy on Twitter than showed up for Opening Day in Oakland, and really he deserves even more of an audience because he is hands-down the most intelligent and funniest big leaguer on Twitter. One example: “Siri, how do you get Josh Hamilton out?” A better one: “I think it’s hilarious that in the dead seriousness of courtrooms, there’s a person who sits on the side and gets to do drawings.” McCarthy uses the platform to publicly banter with his wife, the model Amanda McCarthy, who tweets a lot about how much she’s drinking or planning to drink.

Brandon McCarthy is long and lean — “some gangly white guy who plays baseball for a small market team,” as he once put it — and he lifts his hands over his head in the wind-up, in the pleasing old-fashioned style. He has battled injuries recently and throughout his career, but he has been a standout pitcher this year, often working deep into games with little run support and posting an ERA of 2.54.

McCarthy and the rest of the pitching staff have carried the team in many of their wins. The A’s have been shut out a league-worst 11 times — yeesh — but they’ve also shut out the opponent seven times and have allowed only 3.76 runs per game. This comes as a pleasant surprise in Oakland, given that Beane traded away three exceptional young pitchers over the winter — Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill, and Andrew Bailey — because they were too good and not quite young enough, and therefore did not fit within the A’s meager budget, the second lowest in baseball.2 Last year the three cost Oakland about $1.3 million total. This year they make more than eight times that amount with other teams, and their salaries will escalate quickly from there. Beane needed to swap them out for guys who weren’t that good yet, so that’s what he did.

But several of the prospects he received in the bargain have already paid off. Jarrod Parker, a 23-year-old acquired in the Cahill trade, started the season in the minors, but he has been superb in 10 starts with Oakland since being recalled, allowing two runs or fewer in eight of them and taking a no-hitter into the eighth inning against a potent Rangers lineup. The 24-year-old reliever Ryan Cook, also added in the Cahill deal, surrendered his first run in his 22nd appearance, and to date he has given up nine hits and two runs in 31⅔ innings. “His stuff is disgusting, with angry movement,” Brandon McCarthy told Jerry Crasnick. Parker and Cook would be on the front page if they played in Boston or New York.

The left-handed starter Tommy Milone, 25, came over in the Gonzalez trade with a fastball in the 80s and just five career starts. With the A’s this season, he picked up five wins in his first seven starts on a team that can’t hit, without perceptibly breaking a smile.3 Milone rarely gives up a walk, and when he’s on his game, he works the corner with his nice changeup in the Tom Glavine style, sending batters into helmet-flinging frustration or at least boring them to distraction.

Some nights the man leading from the mound is not quite so young. Bartolo Colón, 39, is now approximately cubical in shape, having grown progressively wider since he began pitching in the majors at the outset of Bill Clinton’s second term. (Jarrod Parker was 8 years old at the time.) The A’s made a modest bet by adding Colón for $2 million in the winter, when other teams were unconvinced by his unlikely comeback in 2011 with the Yankees, following a controversial surgery. Let the New York Times wonder if Colon’s surgeon crossed an ethical Rubicon, seemingly creating a more advanced human being than the one who walked in the doctor’s office — Oakland will take it.

Colón has had some rough outings and just strained his oblique muscle, but he has walked 16 batters total in 15 starts and allowed two runs or fewer in nine of them. During eight innings of scoreless pitching against the Angels on April 18, he threw 38 consecutive strikes. The data there goes back to 1988, and no one has matched that streak. Colón had no clue he’d done it. “You can’t get 38 strikes out of a pitching machine,” Oakland’s Jonny Gomes told the San Francisco Chronicle‘s Susan Slusser, a terrific reporter on the A’s beat. (Slusser recently got Brandon McCarthy to dish that Colón loves to listen to Adele before every start.)

Gomes is also new to the A’s and playing for less than he has made in the past. He grew up in nearby Sonoma County, and the fact that he wanted to play in Oakland was a welcome bit of news for the A’s. Players often agonize team executives by opting to go elsewhere even when the A’s are the top bidder (as with Adrian Beltre and Lance Berkman) or by putting Oakland on their no-trade lists, even when the list is only four cities long. It doesn’t help that Oakland offers up its least flattering angles to visiting players who make the drive in from their San Francisco hotels and end up at the Coliseum. But you get the feeling that Gomes, who resembles an Ultimate Fighter, does not much care how pretty the locker room is. As a teenager, he survived a car accident that killed a friend, and had a heart attack at age 22. In the batter’s box, Gomes has a Bagwellian compact stance and waggles the bat violently while he waits for the pitch, looking like a caveman gripping his club and staring down a mastodon: Come at me, bro.

Josh Reddick looks less imposing, and some chuckles could be heard in Boston when the A’s put him in the three spot in the order; in Fenway last year, Reddick shared time in right field with a thoroughly washed-up J.D. Drew. But Reddick, added in the Andrew Bailey trade, has in fact been a team leader at the plate, hitting 15 home runs while Bailey nurses a preseason injury. The entire Red Sox outfield has 15 home runs — chuckle about that, Boston. Reddick is also apt to peg out base runners on the fly from deep in the outfield, then chew his mouthguard in silent celebration.

The A’s swooped in to sign Brandon Inge to fill a hole at third after he was unconditionally released by Detroit in late April, when boos had been raining from overhead. Inge soon went on a preposterous five-game tear in which he drove in 16 runs, hitting two grand slams — one of them a walk-off, the other a raised middle finger against the team that cut him loose. It couldn’t last, and Inge still stands at .207 on the season, but he gave the O.co Coliseum something to see.

The crowd also gets to watch Oakland play the running game; the A’s are tied for first in the league in stolen bases. One night against Boston they stole third base four times. The A’s manager, the former catcher with the lunchbox name of Bob Melvin, said later that everyone has the green light until told otherwise — keeps them on their toes.

Readers and viewers of Moneyball may be wondering what’s going on here. Wasn’t attempting to steal supposed to be a fool’s game, a good way to rob yourself of a chance to hit? Oakland’s priorities overall these days wouldn’t seem to match the ones Michael Lewis described in the book. Oakland has selected some high school pitchers early in the draft in recent years (including Trevor Cahill), which Lewis portrayed as a no-no for Beane, since the numbers showed that college players were a more reliable bet. The A’s of 2012 have little power but their fielding is decent, a reversal since the Moneyball years. And what about cherished on-base percentage? The Oakland OBP is an ugly .303.

But as others have noted, contrary to the impression many readers drew from Moneyball, the A’s philosophy, then and now, is not to adhere to a specific approach to playing the game but simply to seek out value in building a team. You take your market inefficiencies where you find them. When the whole league began sharing the club’s fixation with OBP — a process accelerated by Michael Lewis, in the A’s view — Oakland was priced out of the kind of guys they used to collect. The team would love it if Kurt Suzuki would take some walks already, but if he took too many he’d be too expensive to play in Oakland.

Trying to game an inequitable system isn’t as fun as it looks on-screen. To listen to the A’s front office is to hear a steady undercurrent of frustration. Shopping for bargain players seems to be a lot like shopping at the discount store for anything else — it’s grim.

Beane does little to hide his displeasure, because he wants a new ballpark. “For us to compete,” he said in December, “we’re going to have to have a new stadium.” It’s a position that Commissioner Bud Selig also adopted as far back as 2003. But it’s a remarkable thing for a GM to say, when you think about it: This team is hopeless.

Talk of a new park — proposals, ballot measures, premature press conferences — has swirled around the city for years without yielding an outcome, but the momentum behind leaving the Coliseum continues to build. To the anger of the Oakland faithful, the leading option for a new venue is now 40 miles to the south, in San Jose, where slick stadium renderings have been on the table since 2010. San Jose is one of those stealthily large cities; in population it tops not only Oakland but San Francisco, too. It also has Silicon Valley wealth. To Beane and Lew Wolff, the A’s owner, that translates to higher attendance, luxury box revenue, richer cable contracts, and the ability to attract marquee players. They see the San Jose A’s being able to contend.

The problem is that the San Francisco Giants hold the territorial rights in San Jose and don’t want to surrender them. Selig has been reluctant to force the issue, and the logjam has tried everyone’s patience, though it could break at any time. Beane has invested his hopes in a new stadium before and gotten burned, but that isn’t stopping him this time around. He has said that he has no choice but to forge ahead as if the new park is coming, and he has made it clear that he’s building his team with that in mind, on “a three- to four-year plan.” He cites as a model the early ’90s Cleveland Indians, who finally managed to put together a contending club just in time for the move to Jacobs Field, and then sustained the success for some time. “We’re going to take the same approach,” Beane said in December, “and if there’s a little bit of pain in between, so be it.”

Looking at the Oakland box scores, you can see a little bit of pain. But perhaps a new underpriced core is emerging; Reddick, Parker, Milone, Cook, and Weeks each make less than $500,000 and won’t be eligible for arbitration until 2014 or later. The latest addition to the kids’ club is Sean Doolittle, a rookie who flamed out in the minors as a position player and started again as a relief pitcher — the Reverse Ankiel. He arrived June 5 after a rapid climb from Single-A, and struck out nine of the first 14 batters he faced. Lately, too, the team has been hitting, keyed by a torrid streak from Brandon Moss, who has hit seven home runs since his June 6 arrival, several of which were nowhere close to staying in the yard. The A’s may not be contenders yet, but watching them rebuild isn’t nearly as painful as it could be. With Weeks churning around the bases, Reddick and Moss hitting bombs, Cespedes roasting pigs, and Brandon McCarthy tweeting on his iPhone all the while, why wouldn’t you want to follow along?

Evan Hughes has written for New York Magazine, the New York Times, the New York Review of Books, and The Awl, among other publications. He is the author of Literary Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @evanhughes.

Filed Under: General topics, Moneyball, Oakland A's, Series, Teams