The Oakland A's can't stop winning, but they're winning in a much different way than we might expect.
2002 has been coined as the "Moneyball" season. That year, Michael Lewis detailed the Oakland Athletics and their front office's innovative ways. Using undervalued statistics to find market inefficiencies was the goal of the Athletics organization and was the main premise of the book. Billy Beane and his team used many different techniques to gain an edge on their higher-spending competition, but the one idea that has stuck with the book the most has to be the importance of on-base percentage (OBP).
Searching for players who had high on-base percentages (and replacing the high OBPs of Johnny Damon and Jason Giambi) was not even close to the entire Moneyball story, despite what the movie may lead one to believe. At the same time, OBP is a vastly important statistic and major component of run scoring; it's very difficult to make the playoffs without having a high team on-base percentage.
In 2002, Oakland had an above-average team OBP (.339), but they failed to win the AL pennant, let alone the World Series. The Anaheim Angels went on to win it all that year, and in fact had a higher team OBP (.341) than Oakland.
The Athletics haven't reached the playoffs since 2006. At the same time, OBP and Oakland's other strategies are no longer market inefficiencies, which has made Beane's job that much more difficult.
The 2012 version of the Oakland Athletics weren't supposed to compete for the postseason, but they've come out of nowhere and currently sit in playoff position.
Much has been written about this being a different Oakland Athletics team, and from an OBP standpoint, that is very true. The Athletics' team OBP is .304, which is well below the league average of .320. These aren't the same Oakland A's who got on-base at an incredible clip from 1999-2002; they're even known as the "Swingin' Oakland A's" on MLB Network.
Jay Jaffe noted that this team shares more similarities to the old Moneyball teams than their OBP lets on:
Yet the top A’s hitters do reflect a link to Beane’s Moneyballing ways, which were always about more than just emphasizing on-base percentage. They represent the unconventional routes by which the team has acquired players given the difficulty of matching wealthier clubs with draft or international signing bonus money, or luring them to a decrepit ballpark that the team is trying desperately to replace.
Sure, the team has been assembled in an unconventional manner. At the same time, reaching the playoffs with a below-average OBP is an unconventional route.
Since 1995, when the MLB expanded the playoffs to from two to four teams reaching from each league, only 26 teams have reached the postseason with a below-average team OBP. That's roughly 19.1 percent of playoff teams.
The 2012 Athletics team OBP is 5% lower than average, or when scaled with 100 as league average, their OBP+ is 95. Only one team, the 1996 Los Angeles Dodgers, made the playoffs with a lower non-park adjusted OBP+ -- they had an OBP+ of 93.24.
While that rate does not adjust for the fact that the O.Co Coliseum is a fairly extreme pitchers' park, it should be of note that five Oakland teams who played in that stadium are included in the sample. Of those, only one had a lower than average OBP, that being the 2003 team. The Athletics' OBP on the road (.311) is still well below-average. While the Coliseum does benefit pitchers, the fact that Oakland is one of only three teams with an OBP below .300 at home is pitiful. Also, teams such as the Seattle Mariners and San Diego Padres, who made the playoffs while playing in extreme pitchers parks, did not have adjusted OBP's nearly that low.
So, I looked at the top 5 playoff teams with the lowest OBP+s in the Wild Card era, to find if there were any similarities between those teams and this 2012 Athletics team.
5. 2003 Chicago Cubs (97.00 OBP+, 88 wins, won the NL Central):
The '03 Cubs will never be remembered for their hitting. Steve Bartman and the dominance of Mark Prior and Kerry Wood is all that will be left. Sammy Sosa and Mark Grudzielanek were the only two high-OBP guys on that team. Their pitching staff was very good, ranking 4th in the NL in team ERA- (89) and 2nd in FIP- (87).
They also may have gotten a little lucky as a team. The Cubs beat the Astros out for first place by just a game, and beat the Cardinals by three games. The Astros' record was seven games worse than their run differential (and associated pythagorean record) would indicate, and the Cardinals' record was three games worse than their pythagorean record. At the same time, the Cubs' record was two games better than their pythagorean record. Run differential would indicate that the Cubs probably weren't the best team in the 2003 NL Central, despite the fact that they won the division.
4. 1995 Atlanta Braves (96.45 OBP+, 90 wins, won NL East):
The 1995 World Series Champion Atlanta Braves had Ryan Klesko, Chipper Jones, David Justice and Fred McGriff, all of whom posted high OBP's. They also had an incredible rotation led by Greg Maddux, Tom Glavine and John Smoltz. Their pitching staff led the league in both ERA- (82) and FIP- (84).
The '95 Braves also had a pythagorean record (84 wins), much lower than their actual record. But their division was nowhere close to competitive; every team other than the Braves finished below .500
3. 1998 San Diego Padres (95.65 OBP+, 98 wins, won NL West):
The '98 NL Champion San Diego Padres played in one of the most pitcher-friendly parks in baseball, which partially accounts for heir low team OBP. Tony Gwynn, Wally Joyner, Quilvio Veras and Greg Vaughn all had high OBPs.
Their pitching staff was above average, ranking 5th in ERA- (92) and t-8th in FIP- (94). Their pythagorean record was five games worse than their actual record (it only accounted for 93 wins), while playing in a fairly weak division.
2. 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks (95.54 OBP+, 90 wins, won NL West):
Only Conor Jackson and Orlando Hudson had high OBPs for this team. That's right, Conor Jackson and Orlando Hudson. Their offense was awful, despite playing in the hitters' haven that is Chase Field. Their pitching staff was good, though: they were tied for 2nd in ERA- (88) and tied for 6th (95) in FIP-.
The '07 D-Backs beat out both the Padres and Rockies (who played that incredible Wild Card play-in game) by a game in an extremely close division race. Arizona's pythagorean record (79 wins) was 11 games worse than their actual record, a significant difference. Both the Padres and Rockies had much better run differentials, but for whatever reason the Diamondbacks were able to beat both of those teams out for the division.
1. 1996 Los Angeles Dodgers (93.24 OBP+, 90 wins, won NL Wild Card):
Mike Piazza had an extremely high OBP, but the rest of the Dodger lineup hovered around league average. Their pitching staff was very good, ranking fifth in ERA- (90) and tied for eighth in FIP- (97). The '96 Dodgers were above average defensively, ranking sixth in team DE (defensive efficiency) and fifth in team PADE (park-adjusted DE).
The '96 Dodgers also played in Dodger Stadium, which was the most extreme pitchers' park that season. ERA- adjusts for league and park factors. When looking at raw ERA, the Dodgers had the best staff ERA in baseball that season. So while Dodger Stadium negatively affected their offense, that effect was offset by the benefit their pitching staff gained.
What does this say for the 2012 Athletics?
How does a baseball team with a bad offense succeed?
The obvious answer is pitching and defense. The common factors that propelled these five teams to the playoffs were great pitching and above-average defense (each team was above-average defensively, except the '03 Cubs who were almost exactly average) -- as well as a fair amount of luck.
Thus, the formula that would make the 2012 Athletics successful would be to have a good pitching staff, above-average defense, and the ability to outperform their pythagorean record.
They have the good pitching covered, ranking third in ERA- (87) and ninth in FIP- (96). Also their defense ranks first in DE, and sixth when adjusted for park factors. The Athletics lead the majors in walk-off victories (13), which has led many to claim that they've had a fair amount of lucky wins so far. Interestingly, Oakland is only outperforming their pythagorean record by a game, and has been only slightly better than their opponents in one-run games, with a record of 18-13 in those contests.
However, there is a factor that makes the 2012 Oakland A's very different than the five teams I discussed above.
All of those teams played in the National League.
The lowest OBP+ of any AL team that made the playoffs in the sample, was the 2005 World Series Champion Chicago White Sox, with an OBP+ of 97.58. The NL teams were all hurt by having a pitcher in their lineup, instead of having the benefit of a DH's OBP.
This difference could be offset by a fair amount thanks to the playoff structure set out by baseball's new CBA. Oakland gets the benefit of a second wild card spot, which significantly increases any team's chances of making the postseason.
There are still 54 games left in the 2012 season, but it seems like the Oakland A's might just have what it takes to make the postseason. And honestly, has there ever been a better oxymoron in baseball than this next sentence?
"The 2012 Oakland Athletics had the lowest OBP of any American League team to make the playoffs in the Wild Card era."
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