OAKLAND -- The A’s were snoozing through a mediocre season, wins with losses in equal amounts, when they snapped awake in mid-June, putting boots to backsides, barging into the playoff picture, forcing Major League Baseball to take note and wonder.
Is Billy Beane still in Oakland?
This was, given the quiet despair of recent A’s seasons, not an unfair question. The answer, yes, has been ringing through the halls of baseball in recent weeks but is incomplete without elaboration.
Back in October 2015, shortly after the A’s finished at the bottom of the AL West, Beane was promoted from general manager, a job he held for 18 seasons, to executive vice president of baseball operations. His longtime assistant, David Forst, was elevated to GM. The A’s then repeated their last-place finish in 2016 and made it three straight in 2017.
The A’s never made three straight trips to the cellar while Beane was GM. No matter the payroll restrictions imposed by ownership, he wouldn’t stand for it. He so detested losing that he committed to finding creative new ways to win, spawning enough success to generate a book and a movie.
But now Beane was rolling into middle age. He and his wife had toddlers at home. He’d received a small share of A’s ownership, was making speeches here and there and feeding his passion for soccer. The perception among some was that the game’s hungriest wolf might be distancing himself from the action.
Well, no. Billy was laying low, plotting and planning, positioning himself to pursue a prey within reach. The prey materialized last month in the form of a potential postseason berth, and he has been sprinting after it ever since.
“I don’t think it’s fair to say that he wasn’t engaged before,” Forst says of Beane. “I don’t subscribe to that narrative. He’s been just as engaged as since the day I got here. There’s this myth out there about him not watching games, or doing soccer or whatever. A lot of that is nonsense.”
A “lot” of it was nonsense, but not all of it. After spending his early GM years continuously sprinting at burnout pace, Billy had dialed it back and become more judicious about those moments of blowtorch intensity.
Then came morning of June 16, when the A’s leapt out of bed and responded to a four-game losing streak that dropped them to 34-36 by winning 12 of 14 over the rest of the month. As they prepare this weekend for the defending champion Astros, who led the division by two games over Oakland, the A’s have won 38 of 51.
The activity on the field has been impressive, as has the action upstairs, where the big chair still belongs to Beane. There may be nothing in any front office in American sport more fascinating, at least from the outside, than Billy finding inspiration in midseason. He is in his element, prowling, scouring the landscape for talent, and capturing it.
Beane went straight after pitchers, mostly relievers, specifically closers. On July 21, he snagged Mets closer Juerys Familia. Two weeks later he grabbed Nationals reliever Shawn Kelley, and then trapped Tigers starter Mike Fiers the next day. Three days later, Beane hauled in Twins closer Fernando Rodney.
“The opportunity is precious,” Forst says. “We just went through three years where we didn’t have that opportunity. And you know Billy’s personality. As soon as he sees it, he’s going to jump on it.”
Several contenders needed bullpen help, but Billy’s raid, over 19 days, emptied most of the field and did so without immediately giving up even one major leaguer.
Beane refashioned a decent bullpen into the deepest in baseball. Adding Familia, Rodney and Kelly to a ’pen anchored by filthy Lou Trivino and filthier closer Blake Treinen effectively allows manager Bob Melvin the comfort of bringing his hook to the mound anytime a starter shows the slightest sign of faltering.
“The bullpen has been so good, and now it’s even deeper, the starters know they can just go out and pitch,” Melvin says. “They’ve got a lot of arms behind them.”
The Kansas City Royals rode bullpen depth to back-to-back World Series appearances in 2014 and 2015. The New York Yankees once had John Wetteland and Mariano Rivera as a devastating 1-2 combo.
No team relied on its ‘pen more than the 1990 Reds, whose World Series sweep of the A’s featured “The Nasty Boys” -- Norm Charlton, Rob Dibble and Randy Myers -- in starring roles. The seventh, eighth and ninth belonged to them.
“We didn’t invent this formula,” Forst says. “ We’re using a blueprint that has worked. It doesn’t work for every team, but we’ve got starters who can give us five or six innings. We know the script.”
The A’s under Beane have yet to reach a World Series, much less win one. But questions about his gusto fading are answered. He still knows how and when -- and what -- to chase. The 2018 A’s are ahead of schedule, yet it didn’t prevent him from taking a few days to modify it in the fly.