Luck only takes you so far...these A's are for real
Every once in a while, you get a story in sports that defies all methods of logic. I am hard pressed to find one more illogical than the 2012 Oakland A's.
Picked for last by most prognosticators and projected to lose anywhere from 85 to 100 games, the A's sit in prime position for not only a playoff spot, but possibly a run to the American League West title. The last time they were a playoff team as the month of September started, the A's went to the American League Championship Series in 2006.
However, that team had a superstar having one last hurrah (Frank Thomas), an ace (Barry Zito), a young gun to support the superstar (Nick Swisher), a budding stud pitcher (Dan Haren) and plenty of character guys who were not household names, but definitely had enough pedigree in the big leagues (Esteban Loaiza, Mark Kotsay, Jay Payton).
All that said, the rise of this edition of the A's is so improbable, that many have found ways to try and detract from it. There have been the labels of lucky, particularly after the A's finished their four game sweep of the big bad New York Yankees in late July.
Then many said it was just a fluky run in the month of July, which saw the A's go a franchise-record 19-5. Which would have been great, except they have followed that with an August record of 18-10 with Friday night's game against Boston ending the month.
And from the positive side of things, others have just claimed that the A's are destined. As of this writing, Oakland has 13 walk off wins, by far the most in the Majors and just five short of the MLB record of 18 by the 1959 Pittsburgh Pirates.
Currently, the A's are 9-3 in extra innings, 20-15 in one-run games and 19-10 in games decided in the last at-bat. So they have only played in 12 games of free baseball and still managed 67 additional wins. But how? Well let us count the ways...
Chris Carter and Brandon Moss, one of four regular A's platoons
Unlike most lineups in the American League, the A's routinely platoon players on a nightly basis. Three prominent positions (first base, second base, and left field) have been platoon spots as well as the designated hitter. This has worked because Oakland has a roster of players best suited in specific situations.
A prime example has been Jonny Gomes. Notorious for being better against lefties, the numbers have backed that up in 2012. Gomes has splits of .273/.377/.530 against lefties and much less impressive splits of .213/.336/.404 against righties.
Up and down the roster, men like Seth Smith and Brandon Moss make up a team that has proven to be much better as a whole than the sum of its parts.
Slight of frame, Reddick packs a larger man's wallop at the plate
135, 109, and 114.
Those are the home run totals for the A's in 2009, 2010, and 2011. In each season, they finished last, second to last, and third from last in the American League.
After 133 games, the A's have 155 home runs. That is good for seventh in the league. More impressively, they have done this after hovering around the .210 mark as a team as late as May 20th.
Obviously, the biggest power surge has come from right fielder Josh Reddick, who leads the club with 28 home runs on the year. But overall, the A's have six players with at least 11 home runs.
To put that into perspective, the A's had seven players reach that mark in 2010 and 2011 combined. This surge has enabled the A's, who still languish with a .237 team batting average, to score in more unconventional ways.
As such, their 447 walks, good for third in the American League, have had more direct impact on the scoreboard.
Crisp has been a consistent base stealing threat in 2012
Even as the A's have become a team with more thunder than lightning in its lineup, there are still bona fide threats on the base path.
Notably, five players (Coco Crisp, Cespedes, Reddick, Pennington, and Jemile Weeks) have swiped double-digit bases thus far in 2012. Crisp leads the team with 31 and in total, the A's have stolen 108 bases on the year, good for fifth in the American League.
Beyond that, the team's success has been very good, with only 29 stolen base attempts unsuccessful, a rate of 78.8 percent. Some of this has been muted with the A's inability to consistently drive in runners in scoring position, but it is another example of the well-rounded approach this team does take to winning.
For now, Balfour is once again the A's stopper
For all of the well-deserved hype about the A's being a team that wins late and in walk-off fashion, the team's bullpen is fourth in the American League in saves with 36.
What this means is, even with the A's going through a rough patch of blown saves a few weeks ago, the bullpen has been shutting down many games in timely fashion, a sign of a true successful team.
Credit has to be given to Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook, Jerry Blevins, Jordan Norberto, Evan Scribner and even Brian Fuentes who was castoff July 3rd by the team. They have not been completely lights out, but the A's bullpen has been consistently good in 2012.
McCarthy is still the A's de facto ace
By far, the biggest reason that the Oakland A's are more than just a late-inning team is their starting pitching.
While the bullpen ERA of 2.80 certainly sparkles, the starters have a combined ERA of 3.74, second best only to Tampa Bay in the American League and seventh in all of baseball.
Obviously, you are not a team of end-game heroics if you have great starting pitching. But that is more of a semantics rationale. The real reason I think the A's pitching demonstrates the soundness of the ball club is that they have used 10 different starting pitchers in 2012.
When the season began, Tyson Ross, Graham Godfrey, and Bartolo Colon were 60 percent of the starting rotation. Right now, none of them are even on the current 25-man roster (with Colon effectively finished due to his suspension).
The A's starters have been the microcosm of the team as youngsters A.J. Griffin, Jarrod Parker, and Dan Straily as well as surprise journeyman Travis Blackley have helped turnover the rotation. More importantly, they improved it. With the addition of Brett Anderson, they are primed to finish the season strong and help push Oakland all the way into October.
Melvin can't be credited nearly enough for the job he has done as Oakland skipper
There are many reasons for the current success of this Oakland A's team. But ultimately, the A's are winning because...they have proven to be a good baseball team.
The narrative is nice when a team wins late or even in extra innings. But the truth is, many of those games went late because the A's have great pitching and often times, lack timely hitting.
As September begins, the American League has the usual suspects (Yankees, Rangers, Tigers) but also a couple of really good stories (Baltimore and the A's). You do not get to this position by simply having one good element to your team.
Oakland has proven that good pitching and just enough hitting could be enough to go deep in the postseason...if you can make it in. For that, Billy Beane and Bob Melvin deserve more than their share of credit.