Last week the Oakland A’s, sporting the best record in baseball, arrived in Detroit to face the Tigers. Three days later they left town having been swept by the Tigers. Still, both teams are in first place and seem destined for another shot at each other in the postseason.
If so, it would be the third consecutive clash in October for the A’s and Tigers. The last two ended with Justin Verlander mastering the A’s in Game Five, both times in Oakland.
That has to sting, right Oakland fans? Verlander thinks so, and after the A’s made a blockbuster deal to acquire starting pitching help right after being swept out of Detroit, he said so.
“Really, when I saw that trade, I thought that they made that trade for us. No doubt about it in my mind,” JV told reporters this past weekend.
“If they want to win the World Series, they’re envisioning that they have to go through us, and, even though it’s been two fantastic series, it’s been heartbreaking for them the last two years.”
The most important heart that Verlander has broken beats in the chest of A’s general manager Billy Beane. Beane is the brains behind baseball’s most successful “have-nots” playing against a league of billionaire owners willing to write checks to lure millionaire ballplayers. This season, Beane is working with the sixth lowest payroll in Major League Baseball, leaving him $72 million behind his division rival the Los Angeles Angels, who are doggedly chasing his A’s in the standings. Oakland is spending $53 million less than the Texas Rangers who are 16 games back of his club. And this is nothing new, Beane annually has less money to spend and less resources to use, yet he continually outsmarts his opposing GMs.
But Detroit GM Dave Dombrowski is no slouch himself. Now in his 13th year as the chief baseball man in Detroit, Dombrowski has reshaped the Tigers’ franchise into one of the most respected in the game, though he’s followed a different path than that of Beane. Team owner Mike Ilitch has not denied Dombrowski money — the Tigers’ payroll currently ranks 5th in baseball — and they’ve been aggressive in pursuing free agents. But unlike other modern GMs who only seem to pop out of their offices to pose for photo opps during free agent season (I’m looking at you, Brian Cashman) Dombrowski earns every penny of his salary through shrewd personnel moves, including some of the most lopsided trades in recent history. In a way, Dombrowski has the street cred of a “Moneyball” executive, fleecing other teams through trades, but he also gets to spend some of his owners cash too. As a result, Detroit has been to the postseason the last three seasons and four times in the last eight years.
But Dombrowski’s teams have twice navigated their way somewhere that Beane has never been — the World Series. And that’s why the events of the last eight months and Beane’s recent big deal are so interesting. The best two GMs in baseball are showing why they’re so good, and they seem to be on a collision course once again.
The A’s are on their way to their 8th postseason appearance since 2000. Only the New York Yankees (12), St. Louis Cardinals (10), and Atlanta Braves (9) have exceeded that total in the last 15 years. Still, critics point to Oakland’s 1-7 record in postseason series as evidence that “Moneyball” philosophy doesn’t work.
Of course that’s a blatant disregard of the facts. Beane has done the nearly unthinkable: taken a team with one of baseball’s lowest salaries and built them for the grind of the 162-game season. What his critics fail to understand (or refuse to acknowledge) is that you have to get to the postseason to be in a position to win in the postseason. The A’s have won 90 games or more in eight of the last 14 seasons and they’ve done that under three different managers. This is not Bob Melvin’s team any more than it was Ken Macha’s or Art Howe’s. This is Billy Beane’s team and the roster is s reflection of his brilliant grasp of how to win baseball games. In the postseason, just about anything can happen, it’s really a crapshoot played out in five-game and seven-game series where any team can win if they have a hot pitcher or hitter.
Make no mistake about it, if Beane could have a $200 million payroll like the Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers, he’d gladly take it. He’s sign free agents and stick his roster with the best he could afford/ But he doesn’t have that luxury, so he plays the insurgent game — fighting in ways that confound his enemies and staying one step ahead of them by identifying important trends. “Moneyball” baseball isn’t about numbers and computers and geeks played by Jonah Hill in blockbuster movies. “Moneyball” philosophy is paying as little as possible for tools that can win baseball games. While others pay way too much for a closer or a corner outfielder whose best seasons are well behind him, Beane finds gems where others see nothing. His best trick is making the other team think they got the best of him.
The A’s current roster lacks superstars, instead Beane has fit together bargain pieces, good young players, and castoffs into a winning machine. Despite the fact that some of his methods have been well-known for decades and his opponents have adopted them (like valuing the base on balls, slugging percentage, platoon advantages, and college pitchers), Beane still outsmarts most GMs. This season the A’s lead the league in walks and are second in fewest runs allowed per game thanks in large part to talented young pitchers and relievers who are used in situations that maximize their strengths.
The Beane deal mentioned by Verlander netted the A’s two starting pitchers, both of whom have pitched well for the first three months of this season. Though neither hurler (Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel) has a postseason pedigree that can match Verlander’s, they give Oakland a few more rocks to sling at the Tigers or any other challenger.
Last offseason after a third straight exit from the postseason without a World Series title, Dombrowski retooled his Tigers. It took a lot of guts to undo the Prince Fielder deal (which was orchestrated by his owner), trade a popular starting pitcher, and remake the lineup with more speed and versatility. Dombrowski also spent some of Ilitch’s money to gather in veteran closer Joe Nathan, shoring up a weakness that many felt had cost the Tigers a chance to defeat the Red Sox in the ’13 ALCS. Nearing the All-Star break, Dombrowski once again looks like a wise man. Ian Kinsler, the piece acquired for Fielder, is having a fantastic season at the plate and in the field. Rajai Davis, a swift outfielder signed as a free agent to give the team more speed, ranks third in stolen bases. As the July 31 trade deadline looms, it seems certain that Dombrowski will be back in the mix again, and given his track record (previous swindles by DD have netted a Cy Young winner and a two-time MVP), he’ll help his team.
Both the Tigers and A’s are in what legendary baseball announcer Red Barber used to call “the catbird seat.” Each team is in first place and each has the firepower to get back to the postseason. As it stands now, Oakland and Detroit would not meet in the ALDS again, but would have to advance to meet each other in the League Championship Series, fighting for a chance to win the pennant and go on to the Fall Classic.
You get the feeling that Dombrowski and Beane are very aware of that possibility.