Philadelphia, PA – Moviegoers who weren't necessarily hardcore baseball fans were introduced last year to the story of Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane and the principles of "Moneyball."
Making personnel decisions for a small-market Oakland team with an extremely limited budget in 2002, Beane was able to piece together a roster that produced well enough to qualify for the American League playoffs.
If Beane and the Athletics won some new fans as a result of the movie that was Oscar-nominated for best picture, those people probably have smiles on their faces these days.
Despite a minuscule payroll, as well as low expectations from their own fans and reports that the team is trying to move out of Oakland, the Athletics are 51-44 and right in the thick of the AL playoff chase.
In typical Beane and Athletics fashion, the team came into this season with the lowest payroll in the American League ($55,372,500 on Opening Day, according to USA Today) - more than $5 million less than the Opening Day payroll of the Kansas City Royals, who ranked next to last in the AL in that category.
To put it in perspective, the AL West Division-leading Texas Rangers' Opening Day payroll was $120,510,974, and they added to that total by signing free- agent pitcher Roy Oswalt in June. The second-place Los Angeles Angels' payroll was even higher on Opening Day -- $154,485,166.
The four AL teams most likely to get to the playoffs - the Yankees, Tigers, Rangers and Angels - have four of the five highest payrolls in the league. That lends credence to the argument that you essentially get what you pay for.
As baseball fans - as well as some moviegoers and now some Brad Pitt fans - have come to realize, though, is Beane has made his reputation by getting more than the Athletics pay for.
It's happening again.
If the season would end right now, Oakland would be the AL's second wild card. The Athletics' position in the standings has been the result of a recent hot streak; Oakland has won nine of its last 10 games and 14 of its last 16.
It hasn't been easy for the Athletics to stay in contention. They've had to do it with an offense that ranks last in the AL with 362 runs scored (3.81 per game).
The "Moneyball" philosophy focuses on offensive stats like on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS, which is the sum of on-base and slugging percentage. The Athletics, despite their surprising status as playoff contenders, rank 13th among the 14 AL teams in on-base percentage and OPS, and they're 12th in slugging percentage.
It's been all about pitching for Oakland, which leads the AL with a 3.37 earned run average.
Oakland's neighbors across the Bay, the San Francisco Giants, pay almost as much for their three highest-salaried pitchers (Barry Zito, Tim Lincecum and Matt Cain) as the Athletics pay for their entire 25-man roster. Yet, the pitching staffs' stats are similar, with the Athletics enjoying a slight edge in overall ERA - 3.37 to 3.44.
Even if Oakland doesn't get the most bang for its buck overall, it certainly gets the best return on its dollar when it comes to pitching.
The most expensive starting pitcher Oakland employs is Brandon McCarthy, who will make $4,275,000 this season. He is 6-3 with a 2.54, but he is sidelined with a shoulder injury that will probably keep him on the shelf for at least another week. The next highest-paid starting pitcher, Brett Anderson ($3 million) is hoping to make his season debut sometime in August as he battles back from Tommy John surgery.
Currently, the five Oakland starting pitchers are veteran Bartolo Colon, journeyman Travis Blackley and youngsters Tommy Milone, Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin.
Colon is proving to be well worth Oakland's $2 million investment. The 39- year- old former Cy Young winner is 6-8 with a 3.97 ERA. Those aren't vintage Colon numbers by any means, but it looks like he's going to throw 200 innings, provide leadership in a young rotation and finish with his best win total since he posted 21 victories en route to his 2005 AL Cy Young Award with the Angels.
Milone, who was one of the four players Oakland acquired from Washington in the trade that sent Gio Gonzalez to the Nationals, has posted a 9-6 record and 3.34 ERA. He makes a mere $480,000.
Parker, a one-time top prospect in the Arizona Diamondbacks' system, underwent Tommy John surgery in 2010. His star faded a bit after that, and Arizona dealt him to Oakland, along with pitcher Ryan Cook and outfielder Collin Cowgill, in exchange for pitchers Trevor Cahill and Craig Breslow.
Cahill has been dependable for Arizona (8-8 with a 3.77 ERA), and Breslow has been a solid left-handed specialist in the Diamondbacks' bullpen. Still, this trade has to be considered a win for Beane and the Athletics, because Parker has recaptured his pre-surgery promise (7-4 with a 3.00 ERA in 16 starts), and Cook (4-2 with 14 saves and a 1.70 ERA) has become an All-Star closer.
When the Diamondbacks made the trade, they took on Cahill's considerable contract. Parker and Cook will combine to make a fraction of what Arizona is paying Cahill, and both will remain under team control for a couple more years.
Blackley, at 29, is the second oldest member of the starting rotation. He was claimed off waivers from the Giants in mid-May. When San Francisco called him up earlier this season, it was his first appearance in the majors since 2007.
The journeyman has been a pleasant surprise, though, posting a 2-2 record and 3.36 ERA.
Griffin, meanwhile, has taken the injured McCarthy's place in the rotation. He's made five starts, going 2-2 overall with a 2.70 ERA.
The only high-salaried member of the bullpen on Opening Day was jettisoned; Brian Fuentes was waived and since picked up by the St. Louis Cardinals. The Oakland relief corps hasn't suffered in his absence, though. Their overall bullpen ERA of 2.74 leads the American League.
As well as Oakland has played recently, let's face it: Three things work against the Athletics' playoff hopes.
First, the pitching staff is unlikely to maintain a 3.37 ERA for the whole season. As much promise as the young arms have shown, the pressure of a pennant race could take its toll. Remember, before the recent hot streak, this team was 37-42 at one point earlier this month.
Second, the MLB trade deadline is July 31, and Oakland is unlikely to be a big spender. In fact, it's even possible that the Athletics will be sellers. Some of the teams they are competing against for a playoff spot (the Angels, White Sox and Orioles, etc.) are much more likely to add talent at the trade deadline.
Third, Oakland has to figure out a way to improve its offense. The Athletics have scored 25 fewer runs than the AL's next-worst offense (Seattle).
While the Athletics getting to the postseason still has to be considered a long shot, it would be fun to see a small-market team with a low payroll find a way to do it. It would also be nice to see Athletics ownership allow Beane to add a bat or two at the trade deadline.
Even if Oakland is unable to add anyone at the deadline, and even if Oakland ultimately fails to get to the playoffs, it will still be fun to watch its hungry players try to beat the odds and compete with the big boys.
Jeff Saukaitis is a former Sports Network writer/editor who has been a professional sportswriter since 1985.