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The Tampa Bay Rays are winning with innovation. Sound familiar, A’s?

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The A’s are traditionally used to being the team that out-maneuvers their opposition. The Rays put them on the other side of things during the AL wild card game.

Wild Card Round - Tampa Bay Rays v Oakland Athletics Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Even though they had to deal with over 54,000 loud and raucous fans on the other side of the country in Oakland, the Rays never seemed to struggle or feel any sort of serious resistance from the Athletics as they pulled off the 5-1 victory on the road and punched their ticket to Houston. Any elimination game is always a big deal but if you got to enjoy ESPN’s Statcast AI Edition of the game on ESPN2, you would have come away from the game thinking that the Rays were arguably the smartest team in baseball.

There were multiple times where the trio of Jason Benetti, Eduardo Perez and Mike Petriello half-jokingly suggested that the Rays should be the last team that anybody trades with. This was probably fueled by former Cleveland player Yandy Diaz going from being a fringe player in Ohio to mashing two homers in Oakland to help push the Rays to the ALDS. The broadcast team was convinced that the Rays had the Midas touch to polish the infielder and the third eye to even see the potential that Diaz had.

Then there was the strategy that the Rays deployed during the course of the game. When Matt Olson came up to bat with nobody on and two out in the third inning, the Rays responded by shifting into a four-man outfield. The Statcast broadcast came off as gleeful that they were lucky enough to see the Rays do this right in front of them. They even explained that Tampa Bay was willfully inviting Olson to do what everybody at home was surely screaming at him to do, which was to just lay down a bunt. Olson eventually walked, but the Rays got what they wanted — Olson didn’t hit a homer or any other extra-base hit and Tampa Bay got out of the inning in the very next at-bat.

The Statcast crew was just genuinely impressed with how the Rays got to where they were and how they were winning this game as well. The righty-heavy lineup smacked four homers at the expense of Sean Manaea, who had only given up three homers in a game at the most before this year’s wild card game. The pitching that the Rays had leaned on throughout the season pulled off another gem, as they tossed 12 strikeouts and held Oakland to just one run and that came via a sacrifice fly. Tampa Bay never really looked in danger of losing, while the A’s just seemed to be bereft of any sort of confidence at the plate.

If you were listening closely to the Statcast crew, a lot of the things that they were saying about Tampa Bay sounded familiar if you’ve been following Oakland over the years. For the A’s as an organization, this had to have felt like an out-of-body experience or a “trading places” moment. Instead of being the team that seemed to be on the forefront of innovation and finding a way to succeed with the leftovers of other teams, here they were in the postseason getting beat soundly by a team that was doing mostly the same things that they had done. For this game at least, the Rays had out-Moneyball’ed the organization that had invented Moneyball. The approach that saved the A’s during their time of need back in 2001 had been used against them and used to eliminate them in 2019.

It’s not like the Rays are the only team that’s operating intelligently. You could argue that teams like the Astros and Dodgers are examples of the juggernauts that can be created if and when a team that actually has money decides to get smart about how they play ball. It’s just that the Rays appear to be in exactly the same position that the A’s were back in 2001. They were in the cellar when it comes to payroll and due to the financial constraints, they both needed to get creative both on and off the field in order to take down the other teams across the sport and they both eventually made it into the playoffs using the approach of outsmarting the other teams.

So given the circumstances, it’s understandable to see why the Statcast broadcast crew came away so impressed with what Tampa Bay was doing. They were the better team and they deserved to advance, but the way that they did it was absolutely worth talking about. The A’s now find themselves in the foreign position of being out-maneuvered in a situation where they had already out-maneuvered the rest of baseball just to make it into the Postseason. How do you react when one of your many students not only surpasses the teacher, but one of those students also comes through and takes your exact job and role as well?

Oakland might be both the literal and spiritual home of Moneyball, but it’s been clear for years now that the wave has spread across the rest of the baseball landscape. The concept seemingly came full circle when the Rays entered the Coliseum during the wild card game and became the new Moneyball team in the eyes of the ones who were clearly seeing what was really going on.