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Know Your Enemy: Oakland Athletics

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The book on the team that wrote the book

How many GMs does it take to ... Even in Poland, the book got A’s.

Since the famed book about the Oakland A’s is called “Moneyball,” let us first do what you’re always supposed to do and follow the money. The Athletics have a payroll of $93.1 million, just barely more than the White Sox level in Spotrac of $91.5 million, and the only team close to the Sox. That makes Oakland 25th, the Sox 26th, both well below the major league average of $135.9 million.

The A’s, with an average strength of schedule, are 65-50 and very much in the AL wild card chase. The Sox, with the second-easiest schedule in MLB, are 51-62 and very much on their way to a seventh consecutive losing season. Guess who’s getting more bang for their buck.


A LOOK BACK

Philadelphia Athletics
This is from 1910. Connie Mack and his boater managed for another 40 years.
Photo by The Stanley Weston Archive/Getty Images

For the first half-century of the American League the A’s were in Philadelphia. From 1901 to 1950 the team image was of Connie Mack, sitting in the dugout in suit and boater. Mack had some terrific seasons (nine AL pennants and six World Series wins in an era of Yankee domination) and some terrible ones (10 years of three-figure losses ... in 154-game seasons).

Even in the terrible stretches, Mack didn’t have to worry about the GM firing him, because he was also the GM. And as GM he didn’t have to worry about the owner firing him, because he was also the owner. All that ended when he got ill and retired at the end of a dismal 1950 season, at the tender age of 88. His sons took over, but the team was heavily in debt, and they had to sell to Arnold Johnson, who moved the team to Kansas City.

The Kansas City Athletics never had a winning season. From 1953 until the next move, to Oakland in 1968, the franchise had 16 losing years in a row. This would not be a good blueprint for the White Sox to copy.

Part of the reason is the cheapness of owners and, as Bill Veeck put it, “Until Arnold Johnson died, Kansas City was not an independent major league baseball team at all, It was nothing more than a loosely controlled Yankees farm club.” The number of excellent players they shipped to New York is too long to go into, but Roger Maris is a good example.

Johnson did die in 1960, and heirs sold the team to Charlie Finley. Finley may have been very widely despised — “irascible” might be the kindest adjective ever applied to him — but he terminated the highway to the Yankees and, while the team continued to stink, improved the farm system, acting as his own general manager most of the time. The draft came along in 1965 and the A’s got the very first pick, choosing future All-Star Rick Monday.

1973 World Series - Oakland Athletics
Charlie Finley wasn’t real popular in Kansas City.

Finley, being Finley, promised to keep the team in Kansas City, but really shopped for a new host city pretty constantly, often getting shot down by the other owners. In 1967 he finally got permission to move, and the Pacific breezes in Oakland must have appealed to the players, because the team then had nine straight winning seasons, including a World Series three-peat, the only team besides the New York Yankees ever to accomplish that.

Whatever Finley’s negatives — and they were legion — he was willing to pay to get good players. And what players he got — from Catfish Hunter to Reggie Jackson, Rollie Fingers to Rickey Henderson, and on and on. The team stayed good through his tenure, which ended in 1980.

That was the end of the good A’s for several years, because new owner Walter A. Haas indulged in a little salary dumping, a commonplace term before some PR flack came up with “rebuilding.” Even at that, they only had six losing seasons (anybody you know with more than that lately?) before getting back to .500 and soaring upward from there.

The A’s had a few down years in Oakland, but mostly were a powerhouse into the ’90s. Then came Billy Beane.

Film Independent At LACMA: “Moneyball”
Billy Beane [left] sitting next to some guy who played him in a movie.
Photo by Alexandra Wyman/WireImage

Beane was a disappointment as a player, but definitely not as an executive. He started with the A’s as a scout, became assistant GM in 1993, GM in 1998.

And all he did was reinvent the game.

Bill James and others may have created modern baseball analytics, but Beane was the first to put it into practical use in the big leagues. His changes ranged from getting rid of bunting to forgetting about stolen bases — though he later said he was wrong on the steals front — but the gist was that what really counts is getting on base.

That may seem pretty obvious, but a whole lot of teams have yet to get the hang of it, perhaps one that plays in a stadium with a down arrow logo near you. The A’s payrolls have shrunk dramatically in a relative sense since Finley’s day, but they remain extremely competitive, usually with the word “surprising” in front of their winning records.


END OF HISTORY, BACK TO TODAY

To look at the difference Beane’s stress on on-base percentage means, let’s compare two teams with almost identical payrolls. Luckily, we have two handy.

The MLB average batting average is .253. Thanks to Detroit Tigers pitching, the White Sox are now a hair better than that, at .254, while the Athletics are a below-average .247. But when you get to OBP, the A’s are a hair below average at .322, while the Sox are 25th, at .308. That’s because the A’s have walked 396 times, while the Sox are 29th with 267 BBs.

So what? So look at what actually counts — runs. The A’s have scored 587, the Sox 467. That’s a huge difference, more than a run per game. Certainly, a good part of that is long balls — the A’s have an amazing 10 players in double figures in homers, led by Matt Chapman with 24 and Matt Olsen with 22, and 180 dingers in all, compared to 124 for the White Sox ... but that’s a 56 difference in homers, 120 difference in runs, despite a lower team batting average.

Oh, yes — despite all that power the A’s have struck out an MLB 5th-best 910 times, compared to the 1,077 K’s for the team that won’t take a walk. Maybe some day the White Sox will learn what Beane taught decades ago.

Position players for Oakland have a combined bWAR of 20.4, led by Marcus Semien (remember him?) at 5.1 and Chapman at 4.8, compared to a White Sox total of 8.3.

Oakland Athletics v Chicago Cubs
Marcus Semien has rated 16 bWAR since being traded by the White Sox in 2014, basically as part of a group for Jeff Samardzija — who then led MLB in hits, homers, and earned runs allowed.
Photo by Stacy Revere/Getty Images

Not that the difference is all in OBP, or in batting at all. The A’s have a team ERA of 4.08, eighth in the majors, compared to 4.94 for the White Sox (improving, but still 23rd). The pitching edge in bWAR is closer, at 12.8 to 9.0. Oakland’s fielding is also far superior, with six defensive runs saved, compared to the terrible -39 of the Sox (you really don’t want to even peek at White Sox dWAR).

So the Sox have their work cut out for them. Good thing they picked up some momentum in Detroit. Both teams should be rested, with a travel day off Thursday and the A’s facing the arduous Red Line trek from Lakeview.

As usual, though, it will come down to pitching matchups, which are expected to be:

FRIDAY: Mike Fiers vs. Ross Detwiler

Righty Fiers is 10-3 and hasn’t given up more than three earned runs since April 7, so the Sox have an uphill battle in this one. Lefties hit him at .243, righties at .217, and he can have control problems. That didn’t happen against the Sox on July 12, though, as he threw shutout ball for 7 23 innings. As for Detwiler, the lefty faced Oakland July 13 and lasted only 3 13 innings , giving up five runs, four earned. He did manage to last 5 23 in a loss to the Phillies last time out, but his 5.72 ERA is not an illusion.

SATURDAY: Tanner Roark vs. Reynaldo López

Much a better chance for the Sox in the second game. The A’s picked up righty Roark from the Cincinnati Reds at the trade deadline, needing some help in their wild card drive with star Frankie Montas on a drug suspension. The 32-year-old spent most of his career with the Washington Nationals, with a career-best 16 wins in 2016. Roark had been fairly meh with Cincinnati, 6-7 with a 4.24 ERA, but threw five innings of one-run, six-strikeout ball against the St. Louis Cardinals in his sole appearance for the A’s so far. López had a terrific game against the A’s on July 14, giving up one unearned run in six innings and striking out seven. He has pitched well since then, so, unlike in Detwiler’s case, his 5.41 ERA is mostly of historic interest at this point.

SUNDAY: Chris Bassitt vs. Lucas Giolito

This should be a goody. Bassitt is only 7-5, with a 3.80 ERA, but the one-time White Stocking, who was part of the group with Semien traded for Jeff Samardzija, shut out the Sox for six innings, giving up just four hits and two walks on July 13. Though he’s a righty, the 6´5´´ Bassitt has held lefties to a .194 average this year. Giolito needs no introduction (maybe in the world of politics — go, Lucas!), and his 12-5, 3.44 ERA record is plenty impressive. He didn’t face the A’s out in Oakland. Lucas has had some pretty rough starts since July 1 — six earned to the Chicago Cubs, seven to the Minnesota Twins who got to him for four homers — but If he can keep all that Oakland power in the park, should be a nifty pitchers’ duel.

The weather for the weekend looks terrific, with little or no chance of rain. Friday has an unusual 2:10 CDT start (Field of Dreams to follow), Saturday goes at 6:10, Sunday at 1:10.