The Oakland Way - NBC Sports

The Oakland Way
How the A's continue to thrive more than decade after 'Moneyball' was published
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June 2, 2014, 3:45 pm

OAKLAND, Calif. -- So few people got the biggest lesson of Moneyball. Yes, on-base percentage is a more valuable tool than batting average. True, some of the old scouting techniques are more nonsense than wisdom and smart statistical analysis can help you overcome biases and see the game more clearly. Right, a team like the Oakland Athletics that cannot spend as much money as other teams must think differently.

But the biggest lesson? Funny how everyone missed that.

The biggest lesson: Nobody's that smart.

* * *

By almost every regular-season measure, the Oakland A's have become the best team in baseball. Don't be embarrassed if you missed it: Most people have. The A's have the best record in baseball since the beginning of the 2012 season. This year, at last check, Oakland did not only have the best record in the American League but also had scored more runs than any team in baseball while giving up fewer runs than any team in baseball.

The last team to score the most runs in baseball and give up the fewest? Right: The 2001 Seattle Mariners. That team won a record 116 games.

The A's are dominating the game with a group of players so unknown to the general baseball population that when I arrive at the Coliseum, I'm met by several bemused people saying, "Oh no, this isn't going to be one of those 'Who are these Oakland A's' stories?" And it is not that sort of story, not exactly.

Instead, this is one of those, "How in the heck are Billy Beane and company doing this again?" More than a decade has raced by since Michael Lewis wrote his revolutionary "Moneyball," subtitled: "The Art of Winning an Unfair Game." The game is no more fair to Oakland now than it was then. The game I attend, Memorial Day, 35,000 people stuff into a stadium equipped, at best, to handle a small-to-moderate bachelorette party. The consensus in our section is that it takes an hour to get a hot dog. But, like they say, your mileage may vary -- it took a guy in the next section more than an hour and a half.

The stadium crumbles in real time, attendance is bottom five as usual, and there's little to no money to spend on salaries. Status quo. The city of Oakland and the A's are not exactly at war, but they're not exactly at peace. Major League Baseball seems unwilling to make any decisions about the A's future (in Oakland or San Jose or anyplace else).

There's something else, too: Many people believe that the A's lost something after Moneyball became a national phenomenon. It has been said again and again that Lewis and GM Billy Beane spilled many of the A's secrets, inspring richer teams to hire statistical gurus and use better metrics. The result, many believe, has been Oakland getting priced out of once undervalued markets, like the one for on-base percentage.

Here they are, though, doing it again, Moneyball II, only this time the A's learned the key lesson from the book: "We're no smarter than anybody else," Oakland's Director of Baseball Operations Farhan Zaidi says. "We're not trying to be smarter than anybody else. We're just trying to stay true to our philosophy of building a baseball team."

* * *

Look, the A's are smart. Very smart. Zaidi will grimace and protest at that point, but facts are facts. The A's are playing 2014 baseball while so many other teams are, as my kids say, so five years ago. And Zaidi is a big part of it. Zaidi is brilliant in and out of baseball. He studied economics from MIT and got his PhD in economics from Cal Berkeley; someone with some sense is going to make him their team's general manager very soon.

So, yes, the A's are smart. But it's not about being smart ... not exactly. What is it about? Zaidi sits with me in the sun at the Memorial Day game, and we talk about that for a long time. It is clear as we talk that the A's are not sitting on three or four or five brilliant baseball ideas that nobody else understands. Almost every point he makes about the A's success he punctuates with a comment like, "This is something everyone in baseball knows," or "Other teams do this too."

No, it's not about KNOWING things others don't. It's about ACTING differently from other teams.

There is a wonderful book out right now by Daniel Kahneman called "Thinking, Fast and Slow." Zaidi insists that I read it. He does not say that it will give me insights into the Oakland Way, but as I read the book it becomes clear that, yes, it does. One of the core ideas of the book is that there are two processes that drive our decision-making -- for vividness, Kahneman calls them "System One" and "System Two." System One is fast thinking; it takes in input very quickly and spits out a decision in an instant. You can call it gut reaction but System One is much bigger than that. Kahneman says that people use System One more than they would ever believe.

System Two, meanwhile, is much more deliberate and slow thinking -- multiplying 17 x 28 would (for most people) is something only System Two can handle. A big problem with System Two, Kahneman writes, is that it requires a lot more energy and is lazy; System Two would often rather rely on System One decisions than dig in and go deeper.

In talking to Zaidi, it's clear that the A's, best they can, are a System Two team. It's not that they are immune to snap judgments or incorrect first impressions. They are not immune. But they work very hard to keep those reflexes in check and dig in to make the more difficult and less obvious decisions.

Take Josh Donaldson. He's easily the best-known player in this era of Moneyball II; he was fourth in the MVP voting last year, and he leads the American League in WAR this year. He's a fantastic defensive third baseman who hits with power and gets on base. Donaldson did not exactly come out of nowhere -- the Cubs took him with the 48th pick in the 2007 amateur draft out of Auburn. The A's liked his minor league numbers enough to have him included in a deal for the immensely gifted pitcher Rich Harden.

The A's called Donaldson up for a trial in 2010 ... and he bombed. It was only 34 plate appearances, but he looked helpless at the plate. He hit .156 and left indelible images in the minds of the A's decision makers.

Of course, it was only 34 plate appearances. The A's are too shrewd to put too much stock in that; most teams are. They gave Donaldson another chance at the start of the 2012 season ... and their image of Donaldson being overmatched was confirmed. After 100 plate appearances through June, Donaldson was hitting .156 with one walk. That would be: ONE WALK. It was over. The A's sent Donaldson down and, at age 26, there seemed no reason to believe he would be back.

"One of the things that people forget about Billy," Zaidi says of Beane, "is that he played in the Major Leagues. People refer to his failings as a player a lot, but he reached the Major Leagues a few different times; you have to be a great player to get to the Majors. People forget that, and I think one of the most misunderstood parts of Billy is that he still sees the game as a player. That is a part of him."

In other words, Billy Beane's first reaction to Donaldson is the same reaction almost anyone around baseball would have: Donaldson can't play. But then something happened -- Donaldson went back to the minor leagues and, in 2012, killed the ball for two months.

System One might ask: So what? You saw the kid with your own eyes -- he can't play. And baseball history is littered with players who destroyed Class AAA pitching and could not hit at the Major League level -- it has happened so often that those players have their own name, Quad-A players.

But here's the point: That A's try not to believe in fuzzy concepts like the Quad-A player. True, some great Class AAA hitters failed multiple times in the Major Leagues. But the A's think many more were simply written off too soon. "Billy has us ask one question all the time," Zaidi says. "In this case: If Josh Donaldson were on another team, would he be the sort of player we would really want to trade for? The answer was yes."

MORE: Donaldson leads AL All-Star voting

The A's called Donaldson back up in August and made him the everyday third baseman. He hit .290 with power the rest of the way ... and he has been one of the best players in baseball ever since.

Are the A's the only team in baseball smart enough to put away personal feelings and popular groupthink and trust in overwhelming Class AAA numbers? No. Other teams would have been smart enough to give Donaldson another chance. But only they can answer the simple question: Would they?

* * *

Take Tommy Milone. He's a 27-year-old left-handed pitcher who the A's picked up in the Gio Gonzalez deal with Washington three years ago. Milone's fastball tops out at about 86 mph. That's EIGHTY-SIX, you know with an eight in front of it. Milone had put up consistently wonderful minor league numbers. The A's decided to take a chance.

Here is another thing about running the Oakland A's -- they figure there's no point in being shy or half-hearted about decisions. It's not like they have limitless options. In Class AAA, Milone had struck out 155 and walked just 16 -- the A's look hard at strikeout-to-walk ratio for both pitchers and hitters. They liked Milone a lot, so they started Milone in the Major Leagues.

And, in return, he pitched 190 innings, had a 137-36 strikeout-to-walk, and the A's went 20-11 in the games he started. He has been a staple in the rotation. The Oakland front office is well-aware of Milone's lack of velocity. They are as vulnerable to the thrill of a 98-mph fastball as any other team. But they choose to believe in Milone's performance more than they believe that a pitcher with an 86-mph fastball cannot get out Major League hitters.

"I would say there are three or four things that we concentrate on when it comes to pitching," Zaidi says. He then lists off what he readily admits are relatively basic things that you will hear from most teams -- stuff like command and intelligence and a proven track record of performance (and building a strong defense that can help a pitcher prevent runs). He talks about the talent A's pitching coach Curt Young has for helping pitchers find effective ways of getting batters out.

Are there Moneyball II secrets in such things? Not really. But the A's have given up fewer runs than any team in the league the last three years combined. And it hasn't been because of consistent performance by a handful of pitchers. They have had 13 different pitchers start at least five games the last three years. They have shuffled the bullpen continuously. They have boldly experimented at closer -- in 2012, they gave the job to a 34-year-old Australian named Grant Balfour, who had been kicking around the majors and minors for a decade. This year, they traded for established closer Jim Johnson, who had 101 saves for the Orioles the last two seasons, and when he struggled they just gave the job to 27-year-old Sean Doolittle, who has walked one batter all year.

MORE: A's rally around Johnson with unusual fervor

Through it all, though, they get the same consistent performance.

 "We want pitchers who throw strikes," Zaidi says. Again -- no genius there. Every team wants pitchers who throw strikes. But the A's, more than any team perhaps, are willing to sacrifice other things, like fastball velocity or dominant stuff, for strikes. Sure, when they can develop a pitcher like their young ace Sonny Gray -- who throws his fastball in the low-to-mid 90s and throws a curveball that breaks hitters' spirits -- they are thrilled.

But they understand that Sonny Grays are rare talents ... and the A's can rarely afford rare talents. Instead, they look for pitchers who play to their ballpark. Oakland-Alameda has more foul ground than any ballpark in baseball. It is one of the tougher places to hit home runs. "It just makes sense for us," Zaidi says, "to try and find pitchers who don't hurt themselves by putting runners on base. Let the ballpark help you."

This year, they did spend good money signing 30-year-old Scott Kazmir. Why? For one thing, he was looking to sign a two-year deal -- that's something that fits in the A's philosophy. They can't afford to go long-term with anybody. Also, even though he cost $22 million for two years, Kazmir was potentially underpriced, in the A's estimation. Kazmir had pitched two big league innings from 2011 to 2013 -- nobody seemed to know if he was hurt or burned out or simply finished. His comeback with Cleveland last year became one of baseball's most remarkable stories. Signing him to a pretty big money deal -- even a two-year deal -- demanded risk.

I like how Zaidi put this: "We chose," he said, "not to be bothered by his history." It seems that phrase -- "we chose not to be bothered" -- perfectly describes the A's. They actively choose not to be bothered by lack of velocity or a poor first impression or a scary history. They saw Kazmir's 2013 performance (162 strikeouts, 47 walks) and chose to believe in that more than anything else.

So far this year, Kazmir is 6-2 with 2.36 ERA and a 4-to-1 strikeout-to-walk ratio.

* * *

No team uses its bench quite as much as the Oakland A's. Zaidi talks about how manager Bob Melvin is the best in the business at using the entire roster while managing to keep the team together mentally and emotionally. That is trickier than it sounds. Every day off wounds egos. Every time a someone is substituted for a pinch-hitter hurts feelings.

The A's lead the league in total plate appearances -- as you would expect from a team with the most runs -- but only Donaldson ranks in the Top 20 in plate appearances among players. Everybody shares time.

This A's have loose platoons at catcher (Derek Norris and John Jaso), at second base (Eric Sogard, Nick Punto and Alberto Callaspo) and in center field (Coco Crisp and Craig Gentry). Platooning and substituting is a way of life for the A's -- this is at the heart of how the A's win. And, when you talk with the players, this is also at the heart of how the A's view themselves.

Look at two players: Brandon Moss and Kyle Blanks. That A's picked up first baseman Moss as an under-the-radar free agent three years ago -- he had been a good prospect, but he was not a prospect in 2011; he was a lifetime .236 hitter and looked to be on his way out of the game.

The A's liked what he had done in Class AAA (of course) and signed him and tried to use him almost exclusively against right-handed pitching. It was a good strategy. Moss hit 19 home runs in just 234 plate appearances against righties in 2012. In 2013, Moss emerged as a star. He hit 30 home runs -- 26 of them against righties.

This year, Moss in on pace to hit 40 home runs and, here's the crazy part: Now, he's also crushing lefties. In 40 plate appearances against lefties, he has hit .343 and slugged .657.

So does that mean Moss is an everyday player? Well ... maybe. But as Zaidi says -- and now we're getting to perhaps the most significant  point of Moneyball II -- the A's do not take anything for granted. They do not go into the season believing that ANYBODY will get 600 plate appearances or make 35 starts or will have as good a year as last year. Billy Beane makes it clear: They will not make decisions based on what they hope will happen. Optimism is not a strategy.

The A's went through a five-year struggle from 2007-2011, but perhaps the most important point is that none of those teams lost 90 games. The A's never stopped trying to win. They struggled with injuries and they made some mistakes, but Billy Beane refused to let the A's collapse for the high draft picks or to save what little money they could. The Astros, the Cubs, the Royals, the Pirates, the Mariners, the Marlins and others have bottomed out in an effort to bounced back up. The A's do not believe in that way of running a team.

So, yes, they are thrilled that Moss has developed into a terrific power hitter. Still, two weeks ago, they sent a promising 19-year-old pitching prospect, Ronard Herrera, to San Diego to get a 27-year-old right-handed behemoth named Kyle Blanks. He is 6-foot-6, weighs 265 pounds and has hit .230 in 248 big league games spread out over the last six seasons.

Why? Well, Blanks has been pounding the ball in Class AAA, of course. And he has shown signs of an ability to crush lefties. This is what the A's do. In the last week, Blanks was given two starts at first base against left-handed pitching. He homered both games.

* * *

Everybody around baseball knows that players peak from ages 25 to 31 or so. The A's live by the rule. The A's are giving 86 percent of their plate appearances to players in that age group -- making exceptions for Coco Crisp because he's still effective, and Nick Punto because he makes the team more versatile.

By comparison, the Yankees give just 44.5 percent of their plate appearances to players between 25 and 31. The Red Sox, amazingly enough, give even less -- 38 percent of their plate appearances. The Tigers are at 44. The Angels give players at peak age 64 percent of the plate appearances.

Now, this can be misunderstood. The A's are not saying that all the best players are in that peak-age bracket -- heck, Mike Trout is not and Miguel Cabrera only barely makes the cut. They are saying that their best bet is to load up on players in their athletic peak. The A's make bets all the time. As Zaidi says, you will never see the A's draft a player with great tools who strikes out a lot more than he walks. They are aware that some of those toolsy players will figure things out and become stars. But they believe many, many more will miss. And so, they won't take that bet.

Everybody around baseball knows that on-base percentage is at the heart of scoring runs -- that was such a big part of Moneyball Version 1.0. But what team leads all of baseball in on-base percentage? Right. The Oakland A's. They do it by getting the platoon advantage when they can and by filling their roster with players who may not have good batting averages and may not always look good but who will find ways to not make outs.

Everybody around baseball knows that pitchers are getting hurt a lot and that overthrowing might have something to do with it. And yet, which team spends less time looking at the radar gun and more time looking at strikeout-to-walk rates? Right. The Oakland A's. The last three years, the A's have been well-below average in strikeouts per nine innings (which tends to reflect pitching velocity) and way above average in strikeout-to-walk ratio.

Everybody around baseball knows that teams are probably hurting themselves by going with strict bullpen roles that are followed to the exclusion of logic. And yet, what team is probably most versatile in the way they use their bullpen? Right. The Oakland A's.

And you can just keep on going down the list.

* * *

The last thing the A's want is for anyone to think they are smarter than anyone else. They went through that already. One of the unhappy consequences of Moneyball is that Beane and Company came across to many as if they were trumping just how smart they were -- this even though the Beane A's have never been to the World Series.

But that was missed lesson. You know, when Moneyball the movie came out, it told the story of a general manager who was smarter than everybody else, especially his out-of-touch scouting director Grady Fuson.

GRADY: You're making it impossible for yourself to get another job once (the owner) fires you after this catastrophic season you're setting us all up for. And you're gonna have to explain to your wife and your kid why you work at Dick's Sporting Goods.

BILLY: I'm not going to fire you, Grady.

GRADY: Go F--- yourself, Billy.

BILLY: Well ... now maybe.

That was movies. Here's real life -- Grady Fuson wasn't fired. He left Oakland for a good job with Texas. He was deeply hurt by the portrayal in the movie; everyone understands that he has one of the great scouting minds in baseball. Do you know who understands that better than anyone? Billy Beane. When Fuson was let go by San Diego a couple of years ago, Beane was the first one to call. These days, Fuson is a Special Assistant to Billy Beane, and one of his most trusted advisors and one of the key people in A's success.

Because ... in real life, Moneyball II is not about being smart. Everybody in baseball can be smart. Moneyball II is about doing smart things. There's a big difference. The A's face the same pressures, the same groupthink, the same visual cues as everyone else. They have the same gut reactions to events, and they initially want to respond in the same way as everyone else. To say that they are smarter than everyone else misses the biggest point.

The biggest point is this: Nobody's that smart -- not even the A's. They have to work just as hard as anybody to avoid the traps, address their weaknesses, overcome the silly flaws in their System One thinking. They have to call up Josh Donaldson when brains tell them not to call him up. They have to pitch Tommy Milone even though they see that nothing fastball and can't figure out how he can get anyone out.

See, the A's are not a testament to genius. They are a testament to doggedly stopping themselves from making the mistakes everyone else makes. In other words: Everybody knows. The Oakland A's do.

Joe Posnanski is the national columnist for NBC Sports. Follow him on twitter @JPosnanski


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