With so much parity in baseball, any extended period of dominant play from a team is guaranteed to draw attention. Up to this point in the 2014 season, the San Francisco Giants and the Oakland A’s have captured a lot of attention for just that.
It is easy to dismiss hot starts from lesser-covered and lesser-known teams as fluky and unsustainable. After all, the 2013 Toronto Blue Jays captured the hearts of sports media with an 11-game winning streak and a 17-9 record in the month of June, and proceeded to crush any hopes of a Cinderella postseason run by finishing dead last in the American League East with a 74-88 record.
This season’s Giants and A’s teams are different. Along with their stranglehold on the NL West and AL West, the Giants boast a league-leading 37-21 record and the A’s are tops in the American League at 36-22. Both teams will sustain their early-season success, and both will win their divisions.
Perhaps the most telling piece of evidence indicative of sustained success is run differential. That is, not only how many games is the team winning, but how convincing are those wins?
The A’s have been the most convincing team in all of baseball this year, boasting a plus-118 run differential. The Giants rank second in the major leagues with a run differential of plus-54. Last year, the Blue Jays were plus-5 after the month of June—a sign that they were pretenders rather than contenders.
The Giants and A’s are also more well-rounded than the 2013 Blue Jays were.
Led by Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir and Jesse Chavez on the mound, the A’s rank first in team ERA at 2.91. The Giants are close behind at third, as Madison Bumgarner and 38-year-old Tim Hudson lead a staff with a 3.11 team ERA. Furthermore, both teams are in the top five in both wins by starters and opponent batting average.
Offensively, the A’s have proven to be one of baseball’s most potent lineups. Third baseman Josh Donaldson leads the team in nearly every offensive category, as ESPN documents here. Perhaps he had a chip on his shoulder after being snubbed in last year’s All-Star Game. With a 4.52 WAR—second only to Troy Tulowitzki—he will not be this year.
But don't let Donaldson’s monopoly on team-leading offensive statistics fool you. The A’s are deep. Brandon Moss and Yoenis Cespedes both have double-digit home runs, and both are on pace to reach 100 RBI with ease. Derek Norris and John Jaso both have five home runs, and have obviously not been fazed by the platoon system in place at the catching position. Josh Reddick has been placed on the 15-day DL with a hyperextended knee, but the A’s will not miss a beat in right field, as Craig Gentry and his nine steals will slide into the starting lineup.
While the A’s offense may be the most productive in baseball, the Giants are the only team to rough up Adam Wainwright and then earn his respect when he referred to San Francisco’s offense as “murderer’s row.”
Of course, that has not been the case.
Pablo Sandoval has picked up a bulk of the slack, as the slimmed third baseman saw his batting average skyrocket nearly 80 points in May (.176 in April to its current .248). Sandoval has also found his power stroke again, as the Panda has slugged six home runs in his last 11 games and has recorded an RBI in 10 of his last 12 games.
Offseason addition Michael Morse has been the biggest surprise for a team that had the league’s 21st best offense a year ago. Morse leads the Giants with 11 home runs and 38 RBI.
One criticism of the Giants that has caused many to label their hot start as unsustainable is the team’s lack of depth. After all, few Giants fans would entrust Gregor Blanco or Juan Perez to pinch hit in the postseason.
But what goes unstated is the fact that the Giants’ lack of depth is due to a rash of injuries, and thus the team has yet to get fully healthy.
Despite the offense’s production without Brandon Belt in the lineup, his bat will be critical in the coming months. Belt had surgery on May 13 and is expected to need between six and eight weeks to recover, according to Andrew Baggarly of CSN Bay Area. Giants fans should expect his potent bat back by the end of June.
Second baseman Marco Scutaro has been out all season with a back injury, and Matt Cain missed two starts after slicing his finger making a sandwich (a la 2011 Jeremy Affeldt) and two more starts after straining his hamstring. Cain is scheduled to return from the DL Friday to start against the Mets.
The return of Belt, Scutaro and Cain will add much-needed depth to the bench. Brandon Hicks (eight home runs) and Tyler Colvin (.260 BA) will assume pinch-hitting duties and push Blanco and Perez down in the pecking order. Cain returning to the rotation means that Tim Lincecum’s starts will no longer carry as much weight—great news for Giants fans, as Lincecum’s ERA has ballooned to 5.01 after his latest lackluster outing against the Reds.
The atmosphere around the Bay Area has always been that the Giants are the “haves” and the A’s are the “have-nots.” The Giants are the team with the new stadium and the team that normally gets most of the media attention, while the A’s are forgotten.
But the reality is, from a national perspective, both teams are “have-nots” in terms of star power.
The A’s do not have a household name at the heart of their order—though Josh Donaldson is changing that. Their pitching staff is led in ERA by Scott Kazmir, who was in the minor leagues just two years ago.
The Giants do not have a name mentioned in the MLB WAR Leaders other than Angel Pagan at No. 37. The next Giant is Hunter Pence at No. 74. Buster Posey is the biggest name for either team, however, the Giants have found success without Posey at his best, as the catcher is only hitting .264.
Some might argue that success hinges upon the star power that a team features. Both Bay Area teams continue to prove that this is not the case.
The Giants and A’s are two of the most well-rounded teams in all of baseball. Both teams are the real deal, vastly different from the pretending 2013 Blue Jays, and for the second time in three years, both teams will be crowned division champions.
Follow Jacob Garcia on Twitter @Jake_M_Garcia