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The new Moneyball: How the A's built a surprise contender

Their on-base percentage is their worst in more than three decades, and they'll try to steal a base when they do reach. In other words, these aren't your older brother's A's from yesteryear.

A decade after the book Moneyball was published and a year after its movie was released, the A's are telling their greatest underdog story yet.

After the Angels and Rangers re-stocked their rosters with stars this winter, Oakland traded away three pitchers with All-Star credentials, each between the ages of 23 and 27 and each returning multiple prospects.

The A's got even younger and were, in the words of assistant general manager David Forst back in February, "resetting the clock" on the major league club.

Yet we're days away from flipping the calendar page to October and Oakland holds a two-game lead for the second wild card spot which, if not also for Baltimore's grasp on the other wild card, would make for the season's singularly spectacular story of a team emerging from nowhere.

"Our clock sped up," Forst said with a smile this weekend in New York.

As has been noted many times before, Moneyball wasn't about the particular skill of on-base percentage so much as it was about exploiting market inefficiencies that undervalued some players.

With this thought in mind, SI.com has tried to reverse-engineer Oakland's success this season in an effort to shed light on where the Billy Beane-led front office has found value.

Platoon advantages

By baseball payroll math, two halves don't make a whole. In other words two half-time players cost less than one full-time player.

It's something the Rays ($64 million payroll) have done effectively for a few years, but no team platoons like the A's ($55 million), who currently have four everyday time-shares at catcher, first base, second base and designated hitter.

"When you have the resources that we have or the Rays have," Forst said, "you don't get the opportunity to put someone at every position who's going to be able to do a little bit of everything, and that maybe includes hitting both right and left. You try to micromanage the roster to the point where you give [manager Bob Melvin] the right weapons."

As a result, the A's have had 3,840 plate appearances in which a righthanded batter faced a lefthanded pitcher or a lefty batter opposed a righty on the mound; that's the second-largest total of opposite-handed plate appearances in the majors behind only the Giants and accounts for 65 percent of Oakland's total PAs.

Oakland has benefited from these favorable matchups. Among lefthanded bats, Brandon Moss has 17 home runs and a .958 OPS in his 215 PAs against righthanders, Seth Smith has 12 home runs and an .823 OPS in his 349 PAs and George Kottaras -- who hit a game-winning homer Tuesday night -- has six HRs and an .803 OPS in 65 PAs. Conversely, Jonny Gomes has 10 HRs and a .938 OPS in 184 PAs against southpaws, Chris Carter has five HRs and a .921 OPS in his 103 PAs and Collin Cowgill has one homer and an .844 OPS in 51 PAs.

So while players would prefer to play every day, the A's have bought in, almost universally repeating a certain buzz-phrase.

"It's something most of us haven't done," Carter said, "but I think it's putting hitters in a position to succeed."

"Every team would love to have a set nine," shortstop-turned-second baseman Cliff Pennington said. "That's kind of the goal, but we've got a good thing going here playing matchups. Bob Melvin puts us in a position to succeed, and that's been working for us."

Pennington added that sometimes a righthanded pitcher will be most vulnerable against a righthanded batter or vice versa and, "if the guy's splits are reversed, [Melvin] plays that too. Any matchup that's in our favor, we're going to try and play it."

Gomes noted that "it's hard to keep everybody happy" but that Melvin has done an "outstanding" job with his regular player rotations. Gomes said that in past platoons on other teams, if he had a hot bat, he might see additional playing time, even against righty pitching.

"Bob hasn't done that," Gomes said. "If he crosses over with one of his platoons, then it might make the other guys upset. He hasn't crossed over with any of them."

Moss, for instance, had two home runs one day and didn't start the next. Gomes drove in five runs and was out of the lineup the following day.

Such fastidious adherence to the plan requires managerial restraint but the success of the system depends upon it.

"I think we've been pretty good about that all year, communicating with our guys," Melvin said. "They know when they're going to play. They know potential pinch-hitting situations over the course of a game, and they've made it real easy on me to do this type of thing. They are very aware of the situation, and it's worked for us to this point of the year."

Even some of the everyday players were essentially acquired below-cost. The A's traded for Stephen Drew after he had fallen out of favor with the Diamondbacks and signed Brandon Inge after the Tigers released him. And, most importantly, the club signed international free-agent outfielder Yoenis Cespedes after he defected from Cuba, making a more affordable investment in a player with less of a known track record.

Pitching in at any age

As the A's make their final playoff push, they do so with a staff ERA of 3.48, which ranks fifth-best in the majors, and with what might be an unprecedented all-rookie rotation of Tommy Milone, Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin, Dan Straily and Travis Blackley. Only Milone has been a starter in the majors all year.

"The difference between this team and some of the past few years," Forst said, "is that the second line of defense has really stepped in and done an outstanding job."

Only one pitcher, Parker, was drafted before the 10th round -- in contrast to the Moneyball rotation of Mark Mulder (first round), Barry Zito (first round) and Tim Hudson (sixth round) -- and another one, Blackley, is a so-called journeyman rookie who entered the year with 34 2/3 big league innings split between 2004 and '07 and interspersed with stints in professional leagues in Korea and Australia.

Straily and Griffin were offseason sneaker salesmen just last winter; this year they are a combined 8-2 with a 3.06 ERA in 109 big league innings.

Reliever Sean Doolittle, who has a 3.21 ERA and 5.6 K/BB ratio in 42 innings, was a first baseman until 2009. After two years of rehab from knee and wrist injuries it was suggested that give a pitching another try. A former ACC Player of the Year as a two-way player at Virginia, Doolittle began his throwing program with a cast encasing his right, non-throwing elbow, which meant he needed someone to catch return throws for him. He raced through three minor league levels in two months last season with a 0.72 ERA in 25 innings, not staying anywhere longer than three and a half weeks in the Texas League, where he slept on an air mattress in a teammate's living room.

This wasn't quite the team's intended rotation, but attrition via injuries (Brandon McCarthy and Brett Anderson) and a suspension (Bartolo Colon) has rendered it so. Of course, the A's previously relied on only one pitcher, 28-year-old McCarthy, in the expected prime of his career and, relatedly, in his arbitration years; two years ago they acquired a flyball pitcher coming off a major elbow injury who rehabbed and reinvented himself as a groundball pitcher.

Colon, meanwhile, is a 39-year-old who missed two full seasons before returning to the majors last year following an experimental surgery; he signed this winter for one year and $2 million.

Oakland is tapping both ends of the age spectrum -- including position players, the A's have 14 active rookies and have used 18 this season, second-most in the majors only to the Cubs.

Trading's multiplier effect

Dealing a proven player for prospects can be a search for fool's gold without good scouting and evaluation techniques, and the A's have seemingly hit the jackpot with their trade bounties. By trading players who have already had success in the majors, they are able to turn them into multiple prospects by assuming the risk of the unknown of how the younger players will fare in the big leagues.

The trades of Bailey, Cahill and Gonzalez netted two starting pitchers (Milone and Parker), an everyday rightfielder (Josh Reddick), a dominant reliever (Cook), half the catching platoon (Derek Norris) and a lefty-mashing reserve outfielder (Cowgill). That's just the list of those who have contributed this season and doesn't include the other prospects still on the horizon, such as pitchers A.J. Cole, Brad Peacock and Raul Alcantara or infielder Miles Head.

"We valued them high, and we did expect some of those guys to contribute in 2012," Forst said, noting a previously stated expectation that Reddick would be their everyday rightfielder and on-the-record predictions about a few of the arms.

"With young pitchers, you never know. You expect there's a learning curve, but Jarrod and Tommy and Cook had done enough in the minor leagues to make us think that they were ready for the big leagues. Whether they'd step in and perform at a high level right away, you never know, but they had done enough in the minor leagues to make you think they were ready for their shot."

For this plan to work, of trading players for prospects, one needs a certain faith and fortitude to trust that talent will contribute, regardless of its age.

All defense is local

Absent the ability to field a defense with Gold Glovers at every position, a club should cater to its two local interests -- its ballpark and its pitching staff -- which are two things the A's have done exceptionally well.

The A's play their home games at spacious O.co Coliseum, which annually ranks among the stingiest ballparks for home runs. As such, the club has stocked their outfield with good defenders; Reddick and Coco Crisp both receive excellent ratings by the advanced defensive metrics, while Cespedes has the physical tools to grow into a strong fielder with more experience.

The A's pitching staff has the second-worst groundball-to-flyball rate in the majors and the fourth-worst strikeout rate. Combined, those two statistics mean there are a lot of balls in play, but especially in the outfield.

Other than a few injuries, the outfielders have been a relative constant this year, whereas the front office has worked on improving the infield defense mid-season with trades for Inge and Drew and the recent implementation of Josh Donaldson as the everyday third baseman.

"We've put an emphasis on defense for a number of years now," Forst said. "It's one of those things, if you can't afford guys who hit homers or guys who get on base, then you try to find guys who catch the ball and, instead of creating runs, take runs off the board.

"The everyday outfield with Reddick, Coco and Yoenis, we knew was going to be good at catching the ball, and we've had to manipulate the infield defense to the point where we got good production."

Much of Oakland's success seems to be tied up in these factors -- from favorable matchups at the plate to a defense catered to their particular needs -- and that amalgamation has helped propel the A's into the thick of the playoff picture. There won't be a book about this year's club, but their success is no less impressive.

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