The quote for which Moneyball might be best known lies on page 275 of my soft-edged, creased-spined paperback copy. Author Michael Lewis asked Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane why it was that, after a long season during which he seemed ready to spontaneously combust nearly all the time, he seemed so relaxed in the wake of the A’s being eliminated in the first round of the playoffs.
My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs. My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is fucking luck.
While I suspect that if had he known the line would go viral, Beane would have softened his language a bit, it’s clear that he holds no overly romantic notions of what October means. It’s clear he sees the outcome of a baseball game as a product of too many unseen variables and too much random chance to carry much significance. Maybe 162 games means you’re really better, but in one game, or in five, or in seven, there’s just no telling.
That worldview must make it very difficult to process days like today and nights like Thursday. Not because it’s untrue—I think it’s more true than false—but because surely, the visceral reaction to the sudden end to Oakland’s season must be at war with Beane’s insistence that the outcome doesn’t signal weakness or failure. The A’s have won just one playoff series during Beane’s tenure, despite seven trips to the postseason.
Justin Verlander became the knife’s edge for Oakland for the second year in a row. He took a perfect game into the sixth inning, a no-hitter into the seventh. He lost steam a bit beginning in the sixth frame. He had been hitting 98 miles an hour early on, but pitched in the lower 90s throughout his final nine outs. He got them, though, turning over an eight-inning shutout to Joaquin Benoit. Benoit held it, and the Detroit Tigers knocked out the A’s, 3-0.
I openly doubted Verlander more than once this season. I still doubt that he is capable of another full season to rival his transcendent 2011-12 run. His stuff is not quite as consistent as it once was. Famous a mere few months ago for being able to ramp up his velocity as the game progressed, Verlander now manages his effort more conventionally, showing his best stuff while it’s there and maintaining what he can into the late innings.
Clearly, though, I was wrong to suggest his powers are faltering, that he’s in some sort of inexorable decline. Two things about my evaluation, in hindsight, seem silly:
- Pitchers’ performances fluctuate all the time, usually quite widely. Verlander had a rough couple of months, but I (and I’m not alone here, but I studied the facts and drew conclusions myself, so I’m not going to point fingers) shouldn’t have assigned permanence or predictive value to that stretch, or any similar small sample.
- Guys as good as Verlander don’t suddenly lose their edge. In my mind, because it’s been about a decade since a Hall of Fame pitcher was at their peak in the Majors, I was putting Verlander into a bin with clearly inferior pitchers. Not hugely inferior: Roy Halladay, Dan Haren, Tim Lincecum, these are very, very good pitchers. They’re only a half-step below Verlander, in terms of peak value over a short span. The differences, though, should have stood out, and should have led me to conceptualize Verlander differently than those guys.
Verlander throws much harder than Halladay or Haren ever did. He’s tall, lanky and has clean mechanics, three standards no one of the other three meet. Verlander is also only 30, which sets him apart from Haren and Halladay. Both of them met their decline at a meaningfully more advanced age than that.
It’s the time of year when players tend to be either lionized or vilified. Narratives run toward the extremes. Verlander’s and Miguel Cabrera’s inability to finish what they started with this Tigers team surely would have led to conversations, long on into the winter, about whether they were finished, whether they had failed to pace themselves and fallen short. Now, since Verlander was so masterful during this series and Cabrera hit the home run that broke the scoreless tie in Game 5, they’re likely to be trumpeted. Verlander will get reverential tongue-baths from reporters the world over after that performance. Cabrera will be hailed as a perseverative hero.
Neither narrative is fair or accurate. The truth, as it nearly always does, lies in the middle. Verlander is a true ace, not far past his peak, but past it, slowly losing his supernatural abilities and being forced to learn a more conventional way to use what is still a strong repertoire. He’s not suddenly crafty, trying to fool people with subpar junk. He’s not broken or breaking. He’s also not God in size-too-small pants. He’s just a very good starting pitcher, in perhaps the most interesting phase of a very good starting pitcher’s career.
Cabrera still doesn’t look right, exactly. He did homer Thursday, and he did pull it, but he’s not magically cured. It’s fair to both expect more from him than he gave Detroit during the ALDS, and question whether he will regain something like full health any time before the offseason. Even if he does get right physically, it’s easy to imagine that he might not return to the once-in-a-decade offensive form he took for the first five months of the regular season. That was a level of performance almost no one maintains for any length of time, so it could well be gone for good now. Even so, if the fairly forgiving October schedule is letting Cabrera feel better, not worse, he should be a productive member of the lineup as Detroit heads into the ALCS against Boston.
These two guys were the story of the deciding game, and they’re what separates Billy Beane from October glory, I think. I don’t fault him for this; nothing is harder than obtaining top-end talent while fielding consistently competitive teams in a difficult market. Still, the absence of true star power on the A’s roster—Josh Donaldson and Yoenis Cespedes being the closest approximations of stars, but clearly a level down from the likes of Cabrera and Verlander, or even Matt Carpenter and Adam Wainwright—makes it tough to win in an environment that doesn’t necessarily reward depth.
Maybe Beane just needs to hit the jackpot with a draft pick or two. He certainly seems to have a budding star on the way in shortstop Addison Russell. Maybe he can find a way to add a superstar via trade. Masybe he never will. Maybe, as the money quote from Moneyball suggests, he really is content with the relentless, reliable and rewarding process of building teams that can win over long seasons. That’s a perfectly valid viewpoint. It can deliver some hard nights, though, and for that matter, some bitter winters. That’s especially true when the other guys, with a roster just begging for October’s compression, get to celebrate in your house two years running.Next post: 2013 NLCS Preview: Top of Dodgers Roster Will Top Top of Cardinals Roster in Six Games
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