Thursday, July 31, 2014

Moneyball's Jackpot Season

World Series or Bust: Billy Beane's A's Are All In

I’ve been on somewhat of a poker binge recently, so I watched Rounders the other night in search of some gambling-fueled inspiration.

It was my fifth time watching it, but it felt like the first. 

If you haven’t seen it, you’re missing out. Matt Damon, Edward Norton, John Turturro, and John Malkovich—enough said.

And right now (if you’ve read this far), you’re probably thinking, “That’s great and all, but what does this have to do with Billy Beane and the A’s?”

I’m getting there.

My favorite scene from Rounders is the one in which Matt Damon’s character, Mike McDermott, watches a rerun of the 1988 WSOP Main Event finale between Johnny Chan and Erik Seidel. (It’s epic. Watch the video. Do it. Do it.)

Anyway, getting to the point:

The second-longest tenured general manager in the bigs resides in Oakland: Moneyball’s Billy Beane. (Some of you may know him as the guy Brad Pitt played.)

2014 is Billy Beane’s Main Event—and he’s all in.

This much is clear after Beane gave up the future (2012 first-round pick Addison Russell and 2013 first-round pick Billy McKinney) in a trade with the Cubs on July 4 for a washed-up Jason Hammel and a season-and-a-half rental of Jeff Samardzija (had to triple spell-check that one).

Then, in one of the more shocking trade-deadline deals in recent memory, the Beanster traded the A’s middle-of-the-order-home-run-derby-champ Yoenis Cespedes to the Red Sox for a few months of Jon Lester’s left arm.

Yes, the man has balls the size of the Bay Bridge. 

But will Beane be the sucker Erik Seidel falling for the bait?

Or will he be Johnny Chan The Master showing the winning hand and taking the championship?

The Oakland A’s (and their now scary-good pitching rotation) have three months to find out.

Billy Beane Becomes Erik Seidel If...

Two Quarters Don’t Make a Half Dollar
It seems as if the words “middle-of-the-order bat” mean about as much to Beane as A-Rod means to the Yankees. (Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. The wound is still fresh.)

Beane doesn’t think in terms of star-power and physical specimens. He thinks in terms of on-base percentage—a “Moneyball” staple.

So to Beane, that means replacing “The Cuban Missile” is as easy as picking up a couple of sparklers.

In addition to Lester, the A’s received the death-cheating Jonny Gomes from the Sox in the Cespedes deal. You may remember Jonny Gomes: man of recent Boston postseason lore (with a strong penchant for army helmets).

And to complete the platoon, Beane dealt a promising, young, left-handed starting pitcher, Tommy Milone, for OF Sam Fuld (big glove, fast legs, small bat) in a trade with the Twins. (The Billy Beane of old never would have made this trade. But, like a hyena stalking its pray, Beane knows his chance to feast on a championship is now.)

But Gomes and Fuld won’t even come close to replacing Cespedes, you say. I’ve never even heard of Sam Fuld, you say.

Well, check out this golden nugget from’s David Schoenfield:

Cespedes versus LHP, 2013-2014: .262/.347/.492
Gomes versus LHP, 2013-2014: .264/.370/.440

Cespedes versus RHP, 2013-2014: .241/.278/.436
Fuld versus RHP, 2014: .250/.343/.340

But, if Beane is wrong, and two beat-up quarters don’t translate into a Kennedy-emblazoned half dollar, then Oakland’s offense is going to have a problem.

Sonny Grays
The A’s 24-year-old phenom, Sonny Gray (12-4, 2.59 ERA), has thrown a career-high 153 innings this season. The most innings Gray had ever thrown in a professional season (before this one) was 152 in the minors during 2012.

This means that Gray will be entering new territory for the rest of the way, and there are no guarantees that his arm will hold up long enough to be dominant into and through October.

Without Sonny, the only things that will be shining in October are Detroit’s World Series rings.

Price Is Right and Lester’s Wrong
At the trade deadline, the Tigers saw the A’s their Lester and raised them one David Price.

When I first heard about the Lester trade my first thought was: Wow, the A’s aren’t messin' around. 

Then, a few hours later, when the Tigers traded for Price, my first thought was: Wait, did the Tigers just one up the A's?

Look, Oakland’s rotation is now a four-headed monster to be reckoned with, no doubt. But, with Price, Detroit’s rotation is even filthier (and, oh by the way, their monster is five headed).

The Tigers’ rotation now features the 2011, 2012, and 2013 Cy Young Winners (Justin Verlander, Price, and Max Scherzer), a guy having a career year (Rick Porcello, 12-5, 3.24 ERA), and Anibal Sanchez, who’s thrown a no-hitter and owns a career 3.55 ERA.

And the craziest thing? Justin Verlander (who is suddenly mortal) looks like the odd-man out in the playoff rotation! (But, hey, I don’t feel bad for the guy. Dude goes home to Kate Upton every night.)

If Price shines for the Tigers, and Lester flops for the A’s, Billy Beane’s huge gamble will have little chance of paying off.

Billy Beane Becomes Johnny Chan If...

The Shark Swims in October
Jeff Samardzija (4-8, 2.92 ERA) hasn’t so much as sniffed the postseason. He was on the Cubs his entire career, remember?

This season, all that is about to change for “Shark.”

The A’s are making the playoffs—there are no doubts about that. But there are some doubts about Samardzija’s ability to pitch in big games in the chill of October, namely because he’s never gotten the chance.

But he’ll get his chance this year. And if the pressure of the postseason proves too much for Samardzija to handle, the A’s will be left looking more like Flipper than Jaws.

Moneyball Keeps Cashing In
The “Moneyball” offense requires that its players walk more, strike out less, and hit for more power in lieu of stealing bases and creating runs, which, in theory, should result in a higher club on-base and slugging percentage.

And where do the 2014 A’s stand in the American League in these categories?

Exactly where Billy Beane expected them to be:

Walks: 1st (399)
Strikeouts: 14th (728)
HR: 4th (112)
SB: 8th (60)
Sac Bunts: 15th (8)
OBP: 3rd (.329)
SLG: 6th (.405)

The A’s also have baseball’s best record (66-42) and run-differential (+161; the next closest team is the Angels at +92).

The only way Beane hoists his first Commissioner’s Trophy is by Oakland’s offense keeping the dough rolling through October.

Beane’s “Shit” Finally Works in the Playoffs
Billy Beane has been famously quoted as saying, “My shit doesn't work in the playoffs. My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is fucking luck.”

By getting a playoff-proven World Series champ in Jon Lester, Beane is trying to minimize the luck factor.

If luck (and good pitching) is on Beane and the A’s side this October, then maybe Billy can finally win that last game of the season. (And get his daughter to shut up.)

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