Winning Baseball Divisions On Thrifty Budgets

In 2002, the Oakland A's made the playoffs with a fraction of the budget of other clubs. The economics of the team became the foundation for Moneyball, the book by Michael Lewis and the film starring Brad Pitt. That same team is in the playoffs again, with perhaps an even thriftier roster. Host Arun Rath speaks with sports writer Allen Barra.

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ARUN RATH, HOST:

Once again, thanks for listening. This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. I'm Arun Rath.

Today is the last day of Major League Baseball's regular season. The playoffs start Tuesday. And among the teams still vying for a spot in the World Series is the club with the fourth lowest payroll in the game.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHEERING)

UNIDENTIFIED MAN: The American League's Western Division title belongs to the Oakland Athletics.

RATH: Now, if you remember, the Oakland A's are the same team that Michael Lewis profiled in the book "Moneyball." Brad Pitt played general manager Billy Beane in the movie. And Billy Beane is still there in Oakland, winning divisions on thrifty budgets.

Sportswriter Allen Barra wrote in The Atlantic that this year's A's are the real Moneyball team, not the 2002 squad. Allen Barra joins us from our New York studios to explain. Hi Allen.

ALLEN BARRA: Hi.

RATH: OK. So let's start with 2002, the Moneyball team that was portrayed in a movie a couple of years ago. For those of us who read the book or saw the movie, we know the story. It's the A's can compete with a big, wealthy teams to sign their marquee players, so they start using obscure statistics to find the best available players at rock-bottom prices, and it works. What's wrong with that story?

BARRA: Well, it's not true. For one thing, the big statistic they talk about, on base average, has been known for years. People have been talking about that for many years. The reason that they did win wasn't primarily these low-rent players they picked up. It was the near-superstar-level players that they had: Eric Chavez at third base, Miguel Tejada, who was, in fact, the MVP of the 2002 season. And they had great starting pitching, probably the best 1-2-3 starters in the American League and maybe in all of baseball. That is scarcely mentioned. Not even mentioned at all in the movie.

And you see the A's, in fact, lose in the playoffs in 2002 not to a big money team like the Yankees or Red Sox. They ended up losing to the Minnesota Twins, who, according to Forbes, were actually a smaller market team in 2002. So there's a lot of myths there to knock down.

RATH: OK. So let's take a minute. Can we give Billy Beane some credit? I mean, he did amazing things in Oakland, right?

BARRA: Oh, yes. No doubt. A very smart man and a very good GM. But it's a myth that baseball in recent years, in the last few decades, has been dominated by rich teams. It's true the Yankees spend an incredible amount of money. I think it was what, 190 this year, $190 million. But where are they at the end of the season?

RATH: But the, you know, the Yankees were - they've won 27 World Series. There have been two in the last decade, three in the '90s. They've been pretty routinely excellent, and they spend a ton of money. So does that kind of mean that money still wins games?

BARRA: Well, the Yankees - let's say from 1996 on when their streak started, only in 1998 were they really a great powerhouse team. It was in 2001 or 2002 they won their Playoff series against the A's. But during the season, the A's were a much better team. I think they won 10 or 11 more games than the Yankees did during the season.

RATH: So can you talk through how this year's team more closely resembles that myth, as you call it?

BARRA: Well, this year, the A's are doing very much what they were credited for doing, I think, back in 2002. This year's bunch, they're not even household names in their own households. Josh Donaldson, I think he's going to finish with 25 homeruns this year, and he's making less than $500,000. They've got a - an Australian player Grant Balfour, a 35-year-old, much-traveled veteran who is a terrific relief pitcher. Ryan Cook, a very good setup man making a little over $500,000. I mean, these guys are the real Moneyball team.

RATH: Allen Barra wrote about the 2013 Oakland A's for the Atlantic. Allen, thank you very much.

BARRA: Thank you.

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