The 2002 Oakland A’s: The Moneyball Year

The 2002 Oakland A’s entered the season coming off two consecutive playoff appearances. Both times they’d drawn the New York Yankees in the opening-round Division Series, both times the best-of-five series had reached a decisive game…and both times the A’s had lost.

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Then in the offseason the Yankees raided them in free agency to get their best player, Jason Giambi, while the Boston Red Sox stepped in and helped themselves to centerfielder Johnny Damon. It was Oakland’s attempt to replace these players on a shoestring budget, and the innovative methods applied by GM Billy Beane that provided the basis for the movie Moneyball.

Moneyball  was a great movie and accurate in the limited scope a film can undertake, but it did leave one perception that has to be corrected. It’s the perception that the entire team was a bunch of misfits.

In fact, Oakland had three outstanding young starting pitchers in Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Barry Zito. They had an elite shortstop in Miguel Tejada, a third baseman in Eric Chavez who hit 34 home runs and was a whiz with the glove. Oakland had a talented young rightfielder in Jermaine Dye and a good closer in Billy Koch.

By year’s end, Zito would win the Cy Young Award, Tejada the MVP and Koch led the league in saves. So give Beane credit for advancing the use of statistical data in replacing two big guns in Giambi and Damon, but realize that was but one small part of the overall story. The A’s started the season by sweeping Texas three straight, ended April by sweeping the Chicago White Sox and were 15-10 after the first month of play.

May was a struggle. Losing two of three to the Yanks triggered a terrible stretch where they lost eight consecutive series and were eventually saved only by sweeping lowly Tampa Bay twice. Oakland fell ten games back of Seattle, who’d won 116 games the prior year and resurgent Anaheim was in second place. But eventually the A’s stabilized and reduced the deficit to three games by the time interleague play concluded on June 23. At the All-Star break Oakland was five out and trailed both the Angels and Red Sox in the race for the wild-card.

It was mid-August, with a record of 69-51, but still slightly behind in the playoff race that the A’s made history. On August 13 they won the middle game of a series with Toronto. They didn’t lose again until September 6. The 20-game win streak set a major league record that still stands. By the time it was over, they were in first place, 3 ½ up on Anaheim, and more importantly, the playoffs were all but assured, as both Seattle and Boston had faded.

The race with the Angels provided some cosmetic interest in the final month and Anaheim briefly led by a game in mid-September, but a strong finish moved Oakland to a dazzling 103 wins—their second straight year at a 100-plus—and clinched both the division and the best record in baseball.

New York was in the playoffs again, but this time it was the Angels who would have to deal with them. Oakland would draw the Minnesota Twins in the Division Series. The Twins were even more a Moneyball team than the A’s, and perhaps it should’ve been GM Terry Ryan who got the chance to be played by Brad Pitt on the big screen. Dealing with a similarly small budget, Ryan’s team had a good outfield, with Tori Hunter and Jacque Jones, who hit 27 home runs and was the team’s only .300 hitter. And the designated hitter was someone who would eventually make his mark on MLB postseason history—David Ortiz. As a Twin, he hit 20 home runs and slugged .500, although by the next season the Twins would release him and the Red Sox scooped him up.

Mostly this was a team where no one individual scared you, but there were no weak points. The same was true of the pitching staff. 23-year-old Johan Santana would one day be the best pitcher in baseball, but in ’02 he was doing shuttle duty between the rotation and the bullpen. Rick Reed and a 23-year-old Kyle Lohse were the top two pitchers on the staff. Minnesota was an easy team to respect, but they were also beatable.

Hudson got the ball for Game 1 and was staked to a quick lead, as the A’s led 5-1 after two innings. But he didn’t have his stuff, giving up home runs to Cory Koskie and Doug Mienkiewitcz, letting the Twins back in it and giving way to reliever Ted Lilly, who promptly surrendered a game-tying double to Jones. The Twins won the game 7-5.

One day later it was up to Mulder to square things and he did just that. Once again, the A’s offense started fast, with Chavez hitting a three-run shot in the first and this time the lead stood up, as Mulder coasted home to a 9-1 win.

Oakland needed to win one game in Minneapolis to force the series back home for a fifth game and they got their win behind Zito in Game 3. A’s designated hitter Ray Durham led the game off in a memorable way, with an inside-the-park home run, and Scott Hatteberg—the first baseman whose plate discipline made him a focal point of Moneyball  went deep right after. Zito wasn’t dominant and the Twins tied the game 3-3 in the fifth, but Dye led off the sixth with a home run, the A’s scored two more in the seventh and the bullpen closed out the 6-3 win.

Hudson got a chance to clinch on Saturday, but once again he had nothing. Tejada staked him to a 2-0 lead with an early home run, but the Twins answered in the bottom of the 3rd and then fourth was an absolute train wreck if you were an A’s fan. Four hits, a walk, a hit batsman, two errors and two wild pitches translated into seven runs and the game was blown open. It ended 11-2.

Sunday, October 6, saw Mulder facing Minnesota’s Brad Radke. In the top of the second the Twins loaded the bases with one out. Mulder got a popout and was on the verge of escaping, when he gave up a single to center.

The A’s trailed 2-0 in the third, but in the bottom of that inning, Durham homered to cut the lead in half. Then Mulder and Radke got locked in. The Twins threatened in the fourth, but didn’t score. The A’s could do nothing offensively. The game went to the ninth still 2-1. Mulder was finished and the A’s went to Koch, just wanting to keep the game close. The closer couldn’t handle this job.

A.J. Pierzynski, then the Twins’ catcher, hit a two-run homer and Ortiz came up with an RBI double. At 5-1, the Twins brought in their own closer Eddie Guadardo to protect the comfortable lead. A single and double set up a three-run home run by Mark Ellis and with one out suddenly the score was 5-4 and Oakland had hope. With two outs, a short single to right brought the winning run to the plate in Durham, but he popped out and the dream was dead.

The A’s made another playoff run in 2003 and suffered another heartbreaking five-game loss, this time to the Red Sox. They got past the first round in 2006, sweeping these same Twins and reaching the American League Championship Series, but were swept out by the Detroit Tigers. After falling on hard times, Oakland won the AL West in 2012 and 2013…but lost decisive Game 5s in the Division Series to Detroit both times.

Beane is still on hand and struggling with the low budgets. His best chance to win had been 2002. With Giambi and Damon things would surely have been different. Money can’t buy everything, but Beane and the A’s can surely identify with the words George Bailey spoke to the angel Clarence in It’s A Wonderful Life—“It comes in pretty handy down here bub.”