The Oakland A’s Playoff Games, 2002: Win Some, Lose Some

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What happened in the Oakland A’s playoff run in 2002? Did the Oakland A’s Moneyball strategy pay off?

The Oakland A’s playoffs were a chance for them to show what their team, put together by data, could do. The Oakland A’s playoffs were also a critical test for Billy Beane and Sabermetrics; with baseball insiders saying they’d never work, the playoffs were the A’s chance to prove everybody wrong.

The Oakland A’s Playoff Crapshoot

The Oakland A’s playoff opportunity shocks the baseball world by winning the AL West Division, with a record of 103-59. They have one of the best regular season records in all of baseball, second only to the Yankees (the team that poached Jason Giambi). Going into the season, the media and old guard of baseball had believed the A’s barely stood a chance of making the playoffs at all, let alone of winning their division. Their success is a testament to Beane and DePodesta’s value investment strategy in building the team and a stunning rebuke to decades of conventional wisdom about what makes a winning ballclub.

One of Billy’s favorite proof points is the fact that the Minnesota Twins have scored 32 fewer runs than the A’s, despite having a team batting average that is 11 points higher. Billy explains to his team and to the media that this disparity is due to the fact that the Twins’ on-base percentage is lower, and on-base percentage matters far more for run production than batting average. The Twins also squander outs by making foolish plays like attempting to steal bases and hitting sacrifice bunts at a rate far higher than the A’s.

This is a major point of contention between the A’s and the baseball traditionalists, particularly television and radio commentators like former player Joe Morgan. Morgan argues that teams must “manufacture runs” to achieve success in the playoffs, i.e., trade outs for runs through stealing bases and hitting sacrifice flies and bunts. Billy thinks this argument betrays a deep ignorance of the game. Why would a team treat outs as anything other than a precious resource to be preserved at all costs? And why should the process for winning a baseball game be any different in the Oakland A’s playoffs than it was during the regular season?

Billy knows that much of the baseball commentariat is actively rooting against his team in the playoffs. They seem to not so much disagree with his club’s ideas about how to win baseball games as to be outright offended by them. Winning games without flashy home run sluggers or lighting-speed pitchers, to these keepers of baseball’s conventional wisdom, is a violation of the natural order of things, a perversion of the noble tradition and spirit of America’s national pastime. But that’s not the Oakland Athletics playoff strategy.

Unfortunately for Billy and the A’s, the Joe Morgans of the world get their wish when the Oakland A’s playoff run ends in the first round, losing three games to two in a best-of-five divisional series to the Minnesota Twins. The naysayers believe that this proves Billy Beane wrong: the Twins, with their high slugging percentage and team batting average, have beaten the sabermetric, on-base percentage-obsessed A’s. The old school of subjective baseball commentary is right; the new school of data analysis and number crunching is wrong.

But is this really true? Can such sweeping inferences be drawn from a five-game playoff series, which the A’s barely lost? To Billy Beane and Paul DePodesta, the answer is a resounding “no.” The A’s poor playoff performance relative to their stellar regular season record is entirely explained by the small sample sizes of the playoffs, in which random on-field events have an outsized impact on the outcome of a series. As Billy points out, “My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is fucking luck.”

DePodesta notes that during the regular season, the A’s had allowed an average of only four runs per game, but that they allowed 5.4 during the series against the Twins. If a key player has a few bad games in a row during the regular season, it matters little, because the consequences are negligible in the context of 162 games. But in a five-game playoff series, poor player performance can doom a team. This is precisely what happens to Oakland Athletics playoff run: Tim Hudson, who had been a rock-solid pitcher all season, pitches two awful games against the Twins. This is entirely anomalous for him and couldn’t have been predicted. The A’s have been hit with bad luck.

The Insiders Club

While the outcome is obviously frustrating, the playoff flameout does little to undermine the soundness of the team’s overall approach. That Joe Morgan is out in public claiming that the Oakland Athletic’s playoff loss is due to their inability to “manufacture runs” says more about the absurdity of his critique and his ignorance of how baseball actually works than it does about the A’s.

Morgan is part of an insiders club of pundits, writers, scouts, and ex-players, one almost entirely immune to accountability. No matter how inaccurate their predictions, no matter how wrongheaded their analysis of the game, they are never drummed out of professional baseball circles. The members of this clique always seem to find ways to make a living in the world of baseball, despite their often poor performances and recycled cliches. This situation contrasts with that of active players, managers, and GMs, who are unceremoniously traded, demoted, or fired for the most capricious reasons.

This state of affairs would never exist in a functioning market. In a rational labor market, people who were bad at their jobs, whether commenting on baseball or scouting future players, would be fired. But as we’ve seen, baseball is one big market failure, one in which salaries rarely correspond with actual value. It is less of a business than a social club, one that values loyalty over competence.

The Oakland A’s playoff run shocked the baseball world. Even though the Oakland A’s playoffs ended in a loss in 2002, the team’s performance and its use of Sabermetrics changed baseball.

The Oakland A’s Playoff Games, 2002: Win Some, Lose Some

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Carrie Cabral

Carrie has been reading and writing for as long as she can remember, and has always been open to reading anything put in front of her. She wrote her first short story at the age of six, about a lost dog who meets animal friends on his journey home. Surprisingly, it was never picked up by any major publishers, but did spark her passion for books. Carrie worked in book publishing for several years before getting an MFA in Creative Writing. She especially loves literary fiction, historical fiction, and social, cultural, and historical nonfiction that gets into the weeds of daily life.

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