There are no high first-round draft picks in the lineup. There are no sticker-shock free agents. There are, in fact, only five players making more than $5 million; the AL East champion Red Sox, by contrast, have 12 on their roster. There's never been a Billy Beane team that has better exemplified the Moneyball ethos than the 2013 Oakland A's, a 96-win club that waltzed away with the AL West, and did so with the 27th-highest payroll.
It's fitting, then, that the A's player receiving AL MVP consideration is 27-year-old Josh Donaldson, who entered the season with 306 career at bats. The catcher turned third baseman was acquired by Oakland as a throw-in to the 2008 trade that sent righthander Rich Harden to the Cubs. A year ago Donaldson was a fringe prospect, but after his stunning breakout season in Oakland—he hit .301 with a .384 on-base percentage and 24 home runs—he finished second in the AL only to Mike Trout in Baseball Reference's Wins Above Replacement metric. Donaldson led an offense that was fourth in the majors in runs scored (despite declines from Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes), he played elite defense at third (he ranked 20th in the league in defensive runs saved) and had a monster September (.337/.454/.596) when the A's overtook the Rangers atop the division for a second straight year.
How to explain Donaldson's breakout? He cut down his strikeout rate and took more walks; the once free-swinging A's have done the same. After leading the majors with 1,387 K's last season—they whiffed 50 times over five games in their Division Series loss to Detroit—the A's cut their strikeouts down to 1,178 this season and should fare better against the power arms of the postseason. Under Beane's leadership, Oakland has gone to the playoffs six times but never to the World Series. This team—with a deep rotation, a powerful but disciplined lineup and an unlikely MVP candidate leading the way—is built to change Oakland's hard luck.