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Everyone loves an underdog, and we’ve had some great stories this year. The Pirates were great while they lasted, and the Orioles… well, we project Baltimore to go 9-13 the rest of the way and miss the Wild Card entirely. But it was fun, wasn’t it?

And then there’s the Athletics. The lowly A’s, the least-valuable of the 30 MLB franchises at “only” $321 million. They of the skinflint ownership, endless stadium struggles, and ridiculously low ticket revenues. None of this is news, of course. We all saw that movie based on the book that Brad Pitt wrote about the guy from Parks & Recreation. That crafty Billy Beane always finds a way to do more with less! It’s the feelgood story of the year.

As of today, the Athletics are in first place in the AL Wild Card, we project them to go 11-11 the rest of the way. Barring some kind of catastrophic collapse, that should net them one of the two Wild Card spots, and we’ll find out whether or not Billy Beane’s shit works in a one-game playoff. And they’re doing it all with the second-lowest payroll in baseball, just behind the aforementioned Pirates.

According to BP’s Compensation page, the A’s total salary for 2012 is $53,475,00 for 31 players. And the A’s front office has trimmed that $53.5 million figure even further by shipping out Kurt Suzuki and Brian Fuentes, each of whom was owed $5 million for the season, for some marginal savings. (Moving Suzuki also saved the A’s an additional $6.5 million in 2013 salary commitments.)

(Aside: Didn’t trading Suzuki seem kinda crazy at the time? The A’s were still in contention, and here are the A’s, trading a guy who’s not only the face of the franchise (such as it is), but who’s also handling a very young and inexperienced pitching staff. But George Kottaras—a classic Billy Beane scrap-heap pickup—and Derek Norris—part of the Gio Gonzalez-to-Washington haul—have been more than adequate behind the plate. This (among myriad other reasons) is why I’m not a GM and Billy Beane is. But back to the premise of the article, which is how remarkable the A’s roster is.)

Disclaimer: This isn’t really analysis. There’s lots and lots and lots of cherry-picking going on. There are literal shit-tons of luck involved. Mostly I’m attempting to set some context so you can see just how remarkable (and lucky) this team (and front office) are.

With that in mind, here are a few observations about the A’s as they are currently constructed.

  • The average MLB team payroll is $100 million. The Twins have a payroll right at $100 million, and they’re 59-82 as of the afternoon of September 11th. We project their final record to be 68-94, while we believe Oakland will finish with a record of 91-71. That’s 23 more wins with 46 percent less money.
  • We assume that a team made up entirely of replacement-level players would go 54-108. (Please hold the Astros jokes.) So each win beyond 54 is considered a marginal win. If our projections hold up, the Twins will pay $7.17 million in salary per marginal win. The Yankees will pay $5.41 million per marginal win; the Red Sox, $9.21 million. The A’s will pay $1.45 million.
  • Andrew Bailey and Ryan Sweeney have posted a combined -0.05 WARP for the Red Sox this year. (Bailey, of course, was injured and has made only 10 appearances this season. Sweeney is currently on the 60-day DL, and spent time on both the 7-day and 15-day DL this year.) Josh Reddick, the centerpiece of the trade that sent Sweeney and Bailey to Boston, has tallied 2.6 WARP. Raul Alcantara and Miles Head, who also came over in the Bailey/Sweeney deal, were ranked the 10th- and 19th-best prospects in the A’s system in January by Kevin Goldstein. Head also posted a .333/.391/.577 line across two levels (High-A and Double-A) this season and still has some upside.
  • Josh Reddick is earning $189,054 per WARP. Vernon Wells is earning just shy of $49 million per WARP.
  • Alex Rodriguez and Mark Teixeira will make a combined $53,125,000 this year. The A’s will pay 31 total players and spend just $350,000 more than that—less than the major-league minimum salary for one player.
  • Yoenis Cespedes, the A’s big offseason free agent signing and the team’s highest paid player, will be paid $36 million over four years and has accrued 2.6 WARP this year. Alex Rodriguez will earn $30 million for 2012 alone and has posted 1.3 WARP.
  • The Yankees average player salary is $6.548 million, which is just slightly more than Cespedes will make this season. Theoretically, the Yankees could field a team of 32 2012 Yoenis Cespedeses (Cespedi?) for what they paid their current roster. Meanwhile, the A’s average salary is $1.725 million, and more than half (17 of 31) of their players are making the major-league minimum.
  • The A’s 2012 payroll is actually down more than 20 percent from their 2011 spending, a year in which they went 74-88. This year they’ve spent $13.88 million less —basically a year of Carlos Beltran or Ryan Dempster—and improved their record dramatically.
  • The Oakland rotation, which owns the fifth-best ERA in baseball (a percentage point behind St. Louis and one ahead of San Francisco) will earn $10,485,000 this year. Each member of the Los Angeles of Anaheim rotation earns an average of $12,290,000 ($61.45M total). The Angels rotation has the 14th-best ERA in the majors.  
  • Now that Bartolo Colon is off the roster, the oldest player on the A’s roster is 34, and the average age is 27.1, giving them the seventh-youngest team in the majors. The youngest team by average age is the Astros, at 26.2.

The Astros have a higher payroll, too, at $60.8 million. (Or at least they have higher payroll commitments for 2012, seeing as Luhnow et al. have sold off everything that wasn’t nailed down.) We project Houston to end the season with a 52-110 record, or $∞ per marginal win.

The Astros show that you can’t just “play the kids” and expect good things to happen—they have to be the right kids. While the 2012 A’s have enjoyed an incredible amount of luck, they’re not just lucky.

There’s not a pitching hydra in Phoenix—you don’t just cut off Bartolo Colon’s giant head and have Dan Straily and and A.J. Griffin sprout up in his place. Billy Beane and assistant GM David Forst and the rest of Oakland’s baseball operations staff have assembled this team, slowly but surely. They flipped Gio Gonzalez for Tommy Milone, Derek Norris, and two more arms. They turned Cahill and Breslow into Jarrod Parker, Colin Cowgill, and Ryan Cook. They traded Bailey and Sweeney for Reddick and prospects. They signed Bartolo Colon and Jonny Gomes on the cheap. They patiently developed Chris Carter into a productive big-leaguer (1.7 WARP in just 209 PA this year). This year, it seems, Beane can do no wrong.

Sell high. Buy low. Add a healthy amount of luck, and sprinkle in a pinch of Bernie. Ten years after the season chronicled in Moneyball, the A’s are doing it again, and it’s made for one hell of a story.

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MikeLHenderson
9/12
". . . literal shit-tons"? Go back to metaphor school.
HonusCobb
9/12
A friend informed me to how Kruk once responded to the A's success this year. Something about Beane finally ditching that Moneyball stuff. Really Kruk?
TheArtfulDodger
9/12
Not sure if it's been mentioned in another space but I'm assuming that Phoenix was meant to be Oakland here: "There’s not a pitching hydra in Phoenix..." If it was meant to be Phoenix I'm just missing something.
delorean
9/12
Probably a bit of a stretch on my part, but I meant to refer to the A's minor-league complex in Arizona. Sorry it wasn't clearer!
TheArtfulDodger
9/12
Ah, thought it might have been referencing a minor league area but then thought it would be Sacramento or something. Thanks for the clarification.
Vicmill1
9/12
Any writer who can use myriad correctly is welcome in my family. I have to say i truly admire the way you teach me stuff and make me laugh. I am ADHD before it was invented but you keep me going through all the percentages and image-pounding and I love it.
LynchMob
9/12
I've been an A's fan since moving to the area in 1974 ... lots of up's & down's ... a fun ride! Let's Go A's! Any talk of a Moneyball II movie?
delorean
9/12
At the very least, I hope someone covering the team is working on a book. Even if they don't go all the way, I would absolutely read a book about this bunch. And imagine if they *do* win it all!
Kreylix
9/12
I would be up for a decent book on the Rookies of the 2012 A's.
Kreylix
9/12
...Winning teams often have key players having Career Years. For the A's, it's a Career Rookie Crop of Non-A-Level Prospects.
lopkhan00
9/12
Yes. It will be titled "Weekend at Bernie's III". Go A's!
apbadogs
9/12
So where do the A's fall on the list of most unexpected playoff teams, assuming they get in? They have to be near the top, not?
delorean
9/12
A quick perusal of this page http://www.baseballprospectus.com/odds/ suggests "yes." From (essentially) 0 to 87%. No one else is even remotely close.
gweedoh565
9/12
"Vernon Wells is earning just shy of $49 million per WARP." My favorite stat.
BeplerP
9/12
What he said.
pobothecat
9/12
I'd be interested to know more about the A's success with pitching --- because this has been going on for, what, five, years now? Was it the spring of '08 when, suddenly, those nutty A's were actually going to fill their entire rotation with a bunch of clearly-not-ready double-AA arms --- Brett Anderson, Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and Dallas Braden? It can't all be scouting. There's a coaching thing going on in Modesto or thereabouts that is, very quietly, producing top-shelf young itching every bit the equal of Tampa Bay's --- and in a fraction of the gestation time.
JoshC77
9/12
And up until recently when Anderson returned, not one of those 4 pitchers threw a single pitch for this ballclub...(granted, Gonzalez's and Cahill's contributions to this team via trade have been quite valuable) Glad you said this though pobo....this franchise just keeps churning out young pitchers and then they sell them off for more young arms and other parts.... When it all comes together, it is a sight to behold.
nberlove
9/14
The aggregate WAR to date of all A's players is 23.7 games. At this point of the season, a team of replacement players should have about 48 wins (88% of 54). So, based on WAR, the A's should have 71-72 wins. Similarly, they are 10 wins above their expected Pythagorean total. It looks like they have been a very luck team.
CrashJones
12/28
Happy Holidays!!! I read this article(AND THIS ARTICLE HERE AT BP) today and the comment section was closed… http://mlb.sbnation.com/2012/9/26/3413498/oakland-athletics-rookie-starting-pitchers-record At the time of the article the A’s rotation was… Jarrod Parker Travis Blackley A.J. Griffin Dan Straily Tom Milone I was listening to Effectively Wild and in the episode I was listening to(episode 52) a topic was Ben and Sam discussing whether the A’s all-rookie rotation bodes well for their future. In the podcast they mentioned that the A’s held the roecord for starts by rookies in a season with 116 in 2009. Here are the pitchers that started in 2009… Trevor Cahill (32) * Brett Anderson (30) * Dallas Braden (22) Gio Gonzalez (17) * Vin Mazzaro (17) * Josh Outman (12) * Dana Eveland (9) Clayton Mortensen ( 6) * Edgar Gonzalez (6) Brett Tomko (6) denotes Rookie for 2009 These rookies also started a game for the A’s in 2009. Dan Giese (1), Chad Reineke (1), Brad Kilby (1). Now that totals 117 for rookies so I am missing something, but you get the idea. In 2009 the A’s finished 75-87, 4th in the west, 22 games back. How do you feel about this staff in comparison to the 2009 staff and do you think this staff will remain together longer?.. Better yet, do you think this staff(including Straily) has the makings of a “dynasty” staff? I have holiday things to take care of but hope to discuss when I return. In three seasons the WHOLE staff has changed except for Anderson, do you think it will be the same come the 2015 off-season? or do you think Billy Beane may hold on to more of this crop? I think a lot may hinge on a new stadium deal over the next 5 seasons. If we get a deal in next couple seasons(even thought A’s would have to stay until 2018 under new proposed deal with the O dot) the team may be in a position to extend Cespedes and a few of the pitchers among others.