I root for both Chicago baseball teams, but I have Oakland A's envy. I'll bet a lot of other baseball fans suffer from the same syndrome, especially now that the A's are one of the biggest surprises in baseball this season.
It isn't that the A's win more than any other team. They don't. It's just that when the A's win, they do it with such flair. The early '70s team, which won three straight World Series, '72-'74, were emblems of the individualist spirit of their time. The players had facial hair, which was about as radical, in that era of Nixonian law and order, as opposing the Vietnam War.
In the early '80s, the A's had a brief moment as a playoff team, with an overachieving bunch of athletes managed by the ever-intense Billy Martin. Then in the late '80s, the Bash Brothers team of Mark McGwire and Jose Conseco, the fleet Rickey Henderson and a bunch of savvy veterans like Dave Stewart and Dennis Eckersley led the A's to three straight World Series.
Around the turn of the millennium, the A's had another winning run with the "we're smarter than you are" bunch captained by general manager Billy Beane (later the subject of the bestselling book "Moneyball" by Michael Lewis). That team used sophisticated statistical analysis in its talent evaluation to build a lineup that held its own against opponents with far bigger personnel budgets.
The A's are winning again, but this time it seems so un-Oakland-like. As of Thursday afternoon, they were 22-14, tied with the Los Angeles Angels and the Boston Red Sox for the best record in the American League. It's no fluke; in fact, the A's run differential suggests that they are actually underachieving. However, in contrast to previous winning Oakland teams, there's very little swagger to this bunch.
Perhaps they are surprised themselves. This figured to be a rebuilding year for the A's. After a second-half collapse last year when they went 34-47, Beane traded his best pitcher, Danny Haren, and one of his best hitters, Nick Swisher, for a bunch of young prospects with promising résumés but little or no major league experience. In addition, the A's had made a decision to rebuild the team around third baseman Eric Chavez, shortstop Bobby Crosby and starting pitcher Rich Harden. None of the three has been healthy for a full season in years. This seemed like time to start over.
In addition to the on-field inducements to rebuild, the team is working toward building a stadium in Fremont, which would likely add the San Jose area to the A's East Bay base. The consensus among the analysts was that the A's were packing it in and rebuilding for the big welcome and bounce in revenue that accompany the opening of a new stadium.
This was logical, but it didn't feel right. Oakland GM Billy Beane isn't a "wait till next year" kind of guy. Although he's smart enough to critique our instant gratification society, he's a man who knows what he wants and who wants it now. In the late '90s, most baseball teams with revenue comparable to Oakland's played aimlessly, as if a title was an unrealistic goal (it was the World Champion '03 Florida Marlins, a team with a payroll even lower than Oakland's, that finally disproved that notion). Beane was intent on competing with whatever he had. Even though the A's had a payroll that was less than half that of the New York Yankees, they came within a game of eliminating them from the playoffs in '00 and '01.
That A's team did it by exploiting market inefficiencies. At that time, the ability to draw a walk was undervalued by many teams, so the A's built their team around players with high on-base percentages. It was a big success and inspired Lewis' book. Now almost every team uses on-base percentages in their talent evaluations. That forced the A's to find and exploit new inefficiencies to build a low-budget winner.
I think they've found it in finesse pitchers. Pitchers are constantly being measured by the speed of their pitches. The A's have gone in the other direction and built a pitching staff around guys who don't throw particularly hard but who have pinpoint control and hardly ever walk anyone. Their pitching staff's stingy 104 walks this season are among the fewest allowed by any team. Also, when opposing batters hit the ball, the A's fielders catch it: Defensive Efficiency measures the percentage of batted balls turned into outs, and the A's, at 72.4 percent, are in the top five. Think of it as an old formula, pitching and defense, updated for the new millennium.
In contrast to 10 years ago, when Beane seemed interested in screaming from the mountaintops that he'd found the way to be the baseball David amid the Goliaths of big-budget teams like the Yankees and the Red Sox, this time he's keeping quiet about Oakland's new winning formula. Discretion doesn't seem like a part of the Oakland tradition, but savvy is, which is why I will probably continue to envy the A's.
Martin Johnson is a regular contributor to The Root.