For the fourth time in the last decade, and the first since the release of the film Moneyball brought popular attention to the team’s uncanny ability to wring a playoff appearance out of a noticeably limited budget, the Oakland Athletics have once again accomplished a rarity in Major League Baseball—they have finished the season playing far above their budget. The A’s are champions of the American League West, but with a total player payroll of just over $55 million in 2012, they’re spending 33 percent less than the next poorest team in the league to make the playoffs, the Baltimore Orioles. They’re spending almost 75 percent less than the richest team in the playoffs, the New York Yankees.
The ownership for the A’s, whose marketing slogan is currently “Green Collar Baseball,” has been fighting over the past few years to move the team out of Oakland, where they say a baseball team is unable to make a profit. But somehow, despite being the second poorest team in the Major Leagues by revenue according to Forbes.com, they find themselves on the top of the heap in the standings. On Wednesday, in the final game of the regular season, they defeated the Texas Rangers, a team with a $120 million player payroll that can afford some offensive firepower.
On Monday, coming into the final three games of the season, the A’s found themselves two games behind the Rangers. The Rangers, American League champions in 2010 and 2011, had been heavily favored to win the division since day one of the 2012 season. In the series that began on Monday, the Rangers had to win only one game out of three to keep their spot atop the AL West.
After winning the first two games of the series, the A’s found themselves trailing 1-5 in the fourth inning of Wednesday’s game, and it seemed clear the Rangers were on their way to another division title. But by the ninth inning, a series of timely Oakland hits and costly Texas mistakes had set the stage for the nearly impossible—the Oakland A’s closing out the season with a 12-5 victory over the reigning AL champs.
On Saturday, the A’s will fly to Detroit to begin a best-of-five series with the Tigers and their $132 million in player payroll. It’s an unexpected place to be for an Oakland team whose season began with the trading away of their two most accomplished players, All-Star pitchers Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez, whose salaries were about to become too expensive for Oakland. These players had been paid less than $500,000 a year by the A’s, but when their contracts were up for renewal, they had statistics impressive enough to garner seven-figure yearly salaries. After the 2011 season, Cahill was traded to the Arizona Diamondbacks, Gonzalez to the Washington Nationals. With their new teams, according to ESPN, Gonzalez earned $3.3 million, and Cahill earned $3.7 million in 2012. This is the math of Oakland baseball—if a player plays too well, they are likely to seek a higher salary in the free market.
In these and other trades after the 2011 season, Oakland cut its spending on players by nearly 20 percent, down from $66 million to $55 million in 2012. They spent the first half of the 2012 season alternating with Seattle for dead last in their division in wins. Now, the A’s record sits at 94-68—best in their division, and second-best in the whole American League, one game behind the New York Yankees and their $200 million worth of headline players.
But while there is a well-known financial disparity between the game’s poorest and richest teams, it’s not always clear to the non-economist baseball fan how significant spending is within the game, nor what exactly it means that the A’s have made it into the playoffs in 2012.
In baseball, salary spending is public information, and is regularly aggregated and updated by outlets like USA Today. In the last decade, three-quarters of the teams to win the World Series have had budgets over the league average, which has risen over the past 10 years from $67 million in 2002 to $98 million in 2012. This is true of World Series champions despite the fact that the majority of Major League teams have budgets under the league average.
In other words, the majority of dollars spent—and the majority of World Series appearances in the past 10 years—have gone to the few richest teams in baseball: the Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies and Rangers. The average player payroll of World Series champions in the last decade is over $100 million. The Yankees, who have led the league in spending every year in the last decade, have had three World Series titles in that time. The Baltimore Orioles, who have spent less than half what the Yankees have spent in the last decade, have had three World Series titles in the last century.
But by now, the complicated honor of being the poorest team in the playoffs is one Oakland fans are used to, having made it into the post-season six times since 2000.
Baseball commissioner Bud Selig often called Oakland’s success in the early 2000s “an anomaly” when the team routinely met juggernauts like the Yankees in the post-season. Michael Lewis’ 2003 book Moneyball was born out of an investigation into this success, which he attributed in part to A’s general manager Billy Beane’s use of “Sabermetrics”—an alternative method of mathematically evaluating player performance. This method allowed Beane to sign players other teams had passed over, and whom the market had undervalued.
The A’s had 4 consecutive playoff appearances from 2000 to 2003. But the A’s success has been less consistent since 2006. Lewis said in an afterward to Moneyball, published with the paperback release of his book, that this could be attributed to the publication of Moneyball itself, and because Beane’s strategies for getting more out of every dollar spent on player salaries have been picked up by other franchises, effectively taking away whatever edge they provided to Oakland. If Lewis is correct and Beane’s strategies are being used throughout the league, then the A’s good standing can no longer be attributed entirely to Sabermetrics.
Instead, A’s fans sometimes attribute it to “heart,” “spunk,” or simply “Billy Beane.”
Whatever the reason for the success, the Oakland Coliseum has been unusually packed over the past week, and fans have made their presence known in the famously half-full ballpark. “This is a good sign for baseball owners around the whole league,” said one born-and-raised Oakland resident who brought his own batting helmet to the Coliseum for the game on Tuesday night. “We don’t have to spend all this money. We can put things together.”