In 1995, the owner of the Oakland Athletics, Walter Hass Jr., died. Successors Stephen Scott and Ken Hofman had watched Hass spend an abundant amount of money on players, and they wanted to go into an entirely different direction.

The duo immediately implored then-general manager Sandy Alderson to become cost-effective—to slash payroll, focus more on the farm system’s development, and abide by sabermetric principles in obtaining relatively undervalued players.

Alderson did what they said, but it didn’t translate into success. The Athletics had losing records from the time the new mindset was put in place until his departure after the 1997 season.

Billy Beane took over for his mentor and did what he could not. He didn’t spend much money but saw a steady increase in wins. The team improved drastically from year to year, and it was all because of Beane’s drafting, infatuation with their minor league system, and desire to continue the thriftiness.

He especially excelled in the pitching department, which was my focus in this 2009 piece praising his genius:

“He was behind the drafting of right-hander Tim Hudson in 1997, and wasted no time in his first year at the helm stocking the minor league system with more prime pitching talent, drafting left-handed pitcher Mark Mulder out of Michigan State with the second overall selection. His pick was a wise one; starting his minor league career in Triple-A, Mulder became the Athletics’ top prospect…second-ranked in all of baseball, and was in the majors to start the 2000 season.

“On June 7th, 1999, the day before Tim Hudson struck out 11 San Diego Padres in his five-inning debut, and while Mulder was in the midst of his fast track to the major leagues, Beane selected left-hander Barry Zito with the ninth overall pick. Zito, a UC-Santa Barbara product, nearly beat him to the majors despite being drafted a year after Mulder, and like Mulder, as well as Hudson before him, he flourished immediately. So, watching his team from his suite, Beane saw his three draftees, three immediate aces, take the mound every fifth day.”

The trio of aces led the A’s to four straight playoff appearances from 2000-2003; in 2001 and 2002, the team won 102 and 103 games. But then the three were gone. In line for big contracts, they left. Beane couldn’t afford them. It was as simple as that.

The rebuilding would begin, right? Surely the A’s couldn’t keep up their winning ways with such formidable pitchers elsewhere.

Beane found a way: The A’s won 91, 88, and 93 games from 2004-2006. And he’s still finding a way, growing a new crop of young arms to pick up an offense that is unflattering statistically yet somehow effective enough to put the Athletics in the playoff hunt.

From ’04-’06, the A’s were led by third baseman Eric Chavez before his career came to a sad, injury-plagued end; up-and-coming Nick Swisher, who is now extremely valuable for the New York Yankees; and in the latter of the three seasons, Frank Thomas, who amazingly hit 39 homers in just 137 games as a 38-year-old, clubbing the most per plate appearance of his Hall of Fame career.

Oakland didn’t manage winning records the next three seasons, but considering their payroll sat near the bottom of the league, the 75, 75, and 76 wins they did collect weren’t all that bad. This year, they are on a better pace, with 65 wins and 32 games remaining.

That .500 record has them just 7.5 games behind the Texas Rangers in the American League West. Now, unless the Rangers have a Metsonian collapse, the A’s won’t make the playoffs. But an 80-win season is in their sights. This is hard to fathom.

But not entirely unbelievable when the following is considered: Their pitching staff is among the best in baseball and, obviously then, the main reason behind their success. Their team ERA, even after allowing 11 runs to the New York Yankees, is 3.48, which is second in the major leagues.

Trevor Cahill, their 22-year-old ace, leads the team with 14 wins and has a 2.82 ERA, and as a result is in the Cy Young conversation. He has allowed just 119 hits in 158 innings, and that is after surrendering eight runs on nine hits in just four innings against New York.

Twenty-four-year-old Gio Gonzalez, who was acquired a few years back from the White Sox for Swisher, is 12-8, and Dallas Braden, 27, who tossed a perfect game earlier this season, is 9-9 with a 3.28 ERA.

There is a new trio of aces in town—and that’s not all that has Oakland buzzing. Their offense is an eyesore statistically, but improbably it has done enough to back the pitching. The A’s don’t have a hitter hitting over .300. Catcher Kurt Suzuki is leading the team in home runs with twelve. Twelve. Think about that.

Their offense is 24th in the majors in runs, 19th in batting average, and 26th in RBI. Yet their offense is well versed in small ball, manufacturing just enough to back their pitching staff. Case in point: Oakland is 22-18 since the All-Star break despite batting .241. Why such a good record? Their team ERA is 2.64. In the A’s case, averaging four runs a game is enough.

Despite their poor statistics, the A’s offense has some productive hitters. Coco Crisp anchors their lineup and has hit .275 in the 58 games he’s played this year, while Daric Barton has been their best hitter, batting .294 with seven homers and 46 RBI.

Kevin Kouzmanoff is tied with Suzuki in the home run category, has a team-leading 65 RBI, and has been stationed in the middle of their order for all but two games this year. Yet he has a .260 batting average and an obscene .295 on-base percentage.

The team isn’t far behind in the on-base percentage category, and their batting average is worse than his mark. But an 80-win pace is what good pitching and good situational hitting can do.

It’s pretty much only their pitching, as they aren’t a particularly good fielding team, ranking 18th with 80 errors. Again, how in the world are they conceivably within range of Texas? Situational hitting and top-of-the-line pitching: two things the A’s, run by the genius that is Billy Beane, have always successfully and remarkably been built around.

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