The Year of the White Elephant

Foresight is 20/20

Human beings tend to assign meaning to events retroactively. Our brains like nice tidy stories, even when the picture is fragmented and evidence is unclear, if it's there at all. With or without it, we construct a narrative in our collective brain; the signs were there all along.

When the Giants knocked off the undefeated Patriots in Superbowl XLII, everyone knew the Pats were due for a loss. We could feel it. Likewise, it was obvious that Obama was headed for victory in 2012. Just ask anyone in the mainstream press.

Thrillers and murder-mysteries are the best antidote for intellectual self-doubt. We all knew who done it all along.

But I'm going to try to help you avoid this hindsight bias, AN, so you really can claim to have seen it coming all along:

The 2014 Oakland A's are going to win the World Series

I know, I know, you like this year's team, you love them, in fact. But doubt is seeping in. The Rangers added Prince and Choo (and Choice), the Mariners added Cano, the Yanks added everyone else. The Tigers are still there.

While the race looks tight right now -- especially in the wake of Jarrod Parker's Tommy John -- the league, in reality, is primed for a moneyball franchise to win the title and the #Nerdpower A's are better positioned than ever to pull it off.

I. A Rising Tide

A deep postseason run by the A's wouldn't be so much a new phenomenon as it would be the continuation of an ongoing trend. After all, the nerds are already winning.

It just hasn't gotten much attention because the nerds who are winning happen to have money. In fact, if you analyze every World Series champion this decade, you'll see that they all have employed a variety of sabermetric strategies to succeed.

The 2013 Red Sox won, in part, because of some incredibly successful platoons. They also decided not to dump their ample capital into a few big free agents and instead spread that money amongst several guys with good character and complementary skill sets.

And, as much as we may hate to give them credit, when you look at those Giants teams, they've won predominately with a cast of undervalued non-stars with great peripherals. While everyone likes to focus on Posey and the occasionally-fit Sandoval, it's guys like Brandon Belt, Marco Scutaro, Gregor Blanco, and Angel Pagan that formed the bedrock of the lineup.

Then there's the Cardinals, they... well, frankly I have no idea how the Cardinals put up those other-worldly BA w/RISP numbers, seem to survive every personnel mistake, and continuously turn average prospects into All-Stars. Not to mention, they're the only team to ever fleece Billy in a trade. If someone can figure this one out, please let me know.

But this trend can be seen beyond the fall classic. Last year's playoff field was remarkable in that it featured not one but three crafty, small-revenue, ball clubs. The shift-happy Rays and Pirates joined the A's in crashing the typically big-money playoff party. Perhaps this was an anomaly and 2014 will revert to the same big-payroll teams dominating the post-season, but the Rays and A's have both demonstrated sustained success, and the Pirates seem equipped to start their own lengthy run. Add to that, Cleveland and Kansas City coming off strong seasons, put together with bottom ten payrolls, and it suddenly looks realistic that half of the 2014 playoff field could be made up of small-revenue clubs.

Of course, none of this guarantees an Oakland pennant, but it does demonstrate that the state of baseball might be more prepared for a small-revenue World Series champ than most of us assume. Or, more accurately, it demonstrates that the state of quantitative, evidence-based approaches to managing a team may be more prepared for a World Series championship than many of us assume. Moneyball used to be the exception, but it's quickly becoming the rule and that's good news for the guys who invented it.

II. Refining the Design

First there were the super-platoons, then the move toward high FB ratios. Now, it appears that holds are the new market inefficiency. While I haven't seen the statistical evidence to suggest that this is an essential part of building an October contender, anyone who watched the 2013 squad barrel down the stretch last August realized that the teams only glaring hole was that 7th 8th and 9th inning arms were worn out from a season of over use. This, of course, came to a head in the late innings of game 4 of the ALDS.

By the way, can we just take a second to acknowledge that that team was only 9 outs away from knocking out a squad with a) the 2013 Cy Young and MVP, b) hands down the best pitching staff in baseball by any significant metric, and c) a top 5 payroll.

All that got in the way were some admittedly tired arms.

This off-season the response was to patch the whole... with Kevlar. Instead of spending those precious few dollars on a big righty bat or extending a 40 year old starter, the A's decided to do something most of us never would've thought we'd see: they opted to pay for saves.

That's because, like diligent scientists, Billy & Co. continue to refine and tighten the design, to add exceptions and layers to their Jamesian foundation.

Last year's model was 1 win away from having the best record in the league and is returning virtually every significant player from the 25 man roster. On top of that its added a top flight closer, the MLB single-season record holder for holds, and a younger and better LOOGY, and if this group starts to wear down, they've got mid season help coming in the form a guy who has the second best ERA in baseball since 2010.

This the third year of a young and experienced core with an increasingly nuanced system built around it. The design is better than ever and while this team might not have the strengths of some of the previous models, it has virtually none of the weaknesses that plagued those teams.

III. But What About Those Pesky Tigers?

Sometimes a weakness can be strength. The inability sign top-dollar free agents means you're constantly searching for useful parts on scrap heap, the waiver wire, the Rule 5 draft. But this also means your constantly refreshing your stock of available weapons. Conversely, the need to add big names, to "get the fans excited" can lead to spending huge sums on already established, and potentially already declining, all-stars.

These acquisitions become burdensome for a team when the need to add that one star that'll get them over the hump, suddenly turns into a whole cast of aging veterans. Whats more the massive amounts of money spent on these players, inhibits the team from being able to patch areas where they're thin.

Miguel Cabrera turns 31 this year and his mobility is so poor that he's being moved to 1B. Newly acquired Ian Kinsler turns 32 this year. Victor Martinez is 35. Torii Hunter turns 39.

Every year since 2010, the velocity of Justin Verlander's fastball has lost about .5 MPH. If that trend continues, in 2014 he'll be averaging less than 94 MPH on his fastball for the first time since 2008, the year he led the league in losses.

All of this is not to suggest that the team that's knocked the A's out of the last three postseason appearances is suddenly going to fold up faster than a bitcoin trader who misplaces his wallet. But as a team gets older it gets less durable, and MLB seasons are a war of attrition. So while the A's fantastic depth enables them to weather the loss of just about any single player, if the Tigers lose Cabrera or a rotation anchor like Verlander, they are suddenly very vulnerable.

As each year goes by, the Tigers become more stagnant while the A's become more versatile. Detroit may still be the AL's juggernaut but Oakland is rapidly becoming the AL's hydra. And this isn't only applicable to the Tigers, all those teams still operating on the old paradigm, the Yankees, the Rangers, the Angels, they stay the same predictable force while A's seem to have something new up their sleeve every year.

That's great, you say, but Verlander still only needs to be Verlander for 2 starts in October for it to be a problem for the A's. After all, why doesn't this shit work in the playoffs?

Well, for one, doesn't and hasn't are two different things and, often times, the difference between doesn't and hasn't can be a matter of inches. A bases-loaded line drive off Max Scherzer that lands 1 foot foul, a routine pop fly that a veteran center fielder bobbles and drops. Which leads me to... wait for it... wait for it... 5 games is an incredibly small sample size. Randomness and chance break both ways and just like a hitter with an unusually low BABIP, the numbers are bound to correct themselves sooner or later.

All the way back in 1902, Connie Mack's A's famously turned an insult into an avatar and went on to win the AL Pennant. In 2014, derided by the baseball establishment for their reliance on statistics, the A's turned the joke around on the everyone converting their non-traditional "nerdy" second baseman into a team icon. How's that for a sign and a narrative?

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