The Oakland A’s are atop the AL West, and coming into Saturday’s games, are tied with the Boston Red Sox for the best record in the American League overall. The A’s might not be the Cinderella story they were a year ago, when they outlasted the Texas Rangers and Los Angeles Angels to win the division, but Oakland is still a team with a lot of no-names. So our MLB coverage takes a closer look at how Billy Beane’s team is still doing it in 2013.
A MONEYBALL FORMULA
Brad Pitt can be proud of this year’s A’s, because the model for success in 2013 comes straight out of the playbook used in the Moneyball era of the early ‘00s, that was eventually made into a movie, with Pitt playing Billy Beane. It’s called drawing walks. Oakland is fourth in the American League in on-base percentage, allowing a lineup with subpar power and playing in a pitcher-friendly park, to still be fifth in the league in scoring runs.
Coco Crisp continues the career revitalization he started on last season and the centerfielder has a .384 OBP. Seth Smith, Jed Lowrie and Josh Donaldson all have solid on-base percentages, as does part-time catcher John Jaso. Even players who are having really rough offensive seasons—Josh Reddick in rightfield, and fourth outfielder Chris Young—have each managed to get their OBP’s nearly 100 points above their batting averages. Now if they could only hit better than .200, Oakland would have some more weapons.
Eric Sogard has been steady, if unspectacular second baseman, while Brandon Moss is tolerable at first base. One thing to note is that Yoenis Cespedes, the team’s most heralded offensive player in left field, is the least Moneyball-oriented of anyone in the lineup. Indeed, it seems that Cespedes does everything well except draw walks, and that’s kept his OBP at a poor .302.
But Cespedes does hit home runs and with his 13 blasts, and .481 slugging percentage, he helps ensure that the high OBPs don’t just mean two walks amidst a scoreless inning. Donaldson is also driving the ball for power and slugging .500, while Crisp has inexplicably found the power stroke he lost about nine years ago, and is driving the ball to the alleys to the tune of a .505 slugging percentage.
Does “inexplicably found the power stroke” amount to a euphemism for some medical enhancements? I hope not, and have no evidence to suggest so—except for the fact that as fans, we’ve had to learn to take late-career surges with a certain amount of caution.
STRONG RELIEF; TROUBLESOME STARTING
Once Oakland gets a lead, they become a tough team to handle in the later innings. There’s no one arm back here that makes you go “Wow”, and in that regard it’s a microcosm of the team itself. Because all they do is get the job done. Grant Balfour has closed all 17 save opportunities with a 1.26 ERA. Jerry Blevins, Pat Neshek and Ryan Cook have ERAs in the lower 2s. Sean Doolittle is pitching reasonably well, and Jesse Chavez has only worked nineteen innings, but has a 1.83 ERA.
Collectively, this is a group whose bullpen ERA ranks them third in the American League, and whose 75% closing rate on save chances is above the league average. If you’re going to beat Oakland, you have to do it early.
Which brings to the one disappointment of the early season, and it’s the starting rotation. The quartet of Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin, Tommy Milone and Dan Straily took over the stretch drive last year, but the early portion of 2013 has been a rockier road. Oakland’s starters’ ERA is 8th in the American League, and only veteran Bartolo Colon has an ERA under 3—a definite disappointment given how pitcher-friendly the home park is.
Furthermore, Colon is decidedly *not* the future, and he might not be able to be the present, given his ties with the Miami Biogenesis Clinic, and the PED scandal that is engulfing other players, notably Ryan Braun and Alex Rodriguez. Colon is among the group of 20 players that MLB wants to suspend. Unlike my comments further up about Crisp, which are purely speculative, there’s no doubt that Colon has got problems. And those problems might end up impacting the Oakland rotation.
The good news is that some of the younger pitchers are coming around. Parker’s ERA might be 4.45, but his last six starts have been very sharp. Straily has had very good outings in four of his last five trips to the post. Milone and Griffin remain respectable in any case. There’s a good chance Colon won’t be needed.
THE LONG HAUL
It may have taken Oakland a long time to make believers out of people in 2012, but that won’t be the case this year. I’m not sure if I’m sold they’ll end up winning the AL West again, but that’s more out of my regard for Texas, than anything the A’s are or aren’t doing.
What we do know is that so long as Oakland’s young starting pitching comes around, they’re going to have a great top-to-bottom pitching staff, a lineup that grinds out walks, and just enough power to make it hurt. That’s a formula that will have them squarely in the middle of both the AL West and/or wild-card discussions to the very end, and makes them a viable threat to win the World Series in October.
AROUND THE AMERICAN LEAGUE
AL EAST: Tampa Bay has slipped five games back, a point that represents my artificial baseline for when a team has to play with some urgency, especially in a four-team race where making up ground is going to take time. The Rays are getting the offense, fourth in the AL in runs scored, but are having problems with their pitching. David Price has started his rehab and will be back this month.
AL CENTRAL: Kansas City has gone through a wild up-and-down year already and we aren’t even halfway done. They looked like contenders early, then collapsed, and now have played their way back up to 32-33, five games back of Detroit and running roughly even with Cleveland for second place in the AL Central. The Royals have the best ERA in the American League.
AL WEST: Neither Seattle or the Los Angeles Angels can get anything going, and each remain closer to Houston in the standings than they do of getting into the Oakland/Texas dogfight for first place.