First of all, a mea culpa: I wrote a first trimester review for the Giants, but not for the A’s. I intended to, but didn’t for a simple reason: I’ve had hardly any time to watch baseball this season, and at that point in the year, while the two teams had similar records, I had managed to watch at least a couple of Giants games, but hardly any A’s games. I didn’t feel knowledgeable enough about the team to do a review. Of course, in the last two months the Giants have hit the skids, but the A’s have accelerated their pace, playing outstanding baseball and establishing themselves as a World Series contender. With the trade deadline and the two-thirds poll of the season both passing yesterday, now’s the perfect time to take a look at the A’s.
A lot has gone right for the A’s this season. First and foremost, their pitching has been outstanding. Despite his low strikeout rate, his extreme reliance on his fastball (as in, throws basically nothing else), his advanced age, and his resemblance to Shrek, Bartolo Colon has been one of the most valuable starting pitchers in baseball, going 14-3 with a 2.54 ERA (I know, pitcher wins don’t mean anything, but I’ll take 14-3).
After Colon, the team has seen generally solid, though not necessarily spectacular performances from its rotation, with A.J. Griffin, Jarrod Parker (who struggled mightily for the first month of the season before righting the ship), Tommy Milone, and Dan Straily all putting up ERAs right around 4. The bullpen, meanwhile, has picked up right where it left off last year, with Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook, and Grant Balfour absolutely dominating. Balfour is my favorite of the trio, not so much because he broke Dennis Eckersley’s streak of consecutive saves or because he made the All Star team, but because after every pitch he throws he lands on the infield grass and begins striding toward the plate like he’s going to fight the batter if he even dares to think about swinging the bat. Maybe it’s because he’s Australian.
At any rate, the combined efforts of the rotation and the bullpen have resulted in the A’s giving up the second-fewest runs in the American League, while mostly being without Brett Anderson, their presumptive ace, who got hurt because that’s what Brett Anderson does. Playing in the cavernous Oakland Coliseum certainly helps the pitching staff, but there’s no doubt that, as a team, they’ve thrown the ball very well this year.
There have been bright spots in the lineup, as well. Josh Donaldson has emerged as a down-ballot MVP candidate who wasn’t an All Star only because third base is the most stacked position in the AL; Jed Lowrie, who Billy Beane shrewdly picked up in the offseason, has cooled from his scorching start but is still putting up a very solid .292/.357/.422 line while splitting time at second base and shortstop. John Jaso’s putting up a .387 OBP as a catcher. Yoenis Cespedes won the home run derby, which for some reason means he gets a WWE-style championship belt.
The Coliseum is undoubtedly a pitcher’s park, but that doesn’t totally excuse the numbers being put up by much of the lineup. Cespedes (.232/.300/.435) and Josh Reddick (.214/.293/.344) have both battled injuries and then struggled even after getting into the lineup. That’s especially worrisome for Reddick, who slumped badly in the second half last year, meaning he hasn’t hit well in a full calendar year–even if he still has the best beard in baseball (pending Brian Wilson’s possible return from injury).
Chris Young’s numbers are so bad I won’t even type them here. Coco Crisp really cooled off after a hot start. Brandon Moss and Seth Smith haven’t produced at the levels they did last year, and the non-Lowrie middle infielders have struggled so much that GM Billy Beane dealt Grant Green, a legit (if slightly overrated) prospect for the underwhelming Alberto Callaspo. Despite all this, the A’s have scored 481 runs, which is middle of the pack for the AL but is actually the most by any team in the AL West.
The combination of outstanding pitching and middling offense has worked for the A’s: They’ve posted a 63-45 record, third best in the AL and good for a 4-game lead on second place Texas in the AL West. Their run differential of +64 is fourth best in the league. They’re on pace for 94 wins (the same total that won them the division last year), and given the way Texas has struggled of late, it’s not a stretch to say the A’s are prohibitive favorites to repeat. The question is, can they improve on their playoff run from last year, when they were slayed by Justin Verlander in Game 5 of the ALDS?
Right now I’m a bit skeptical. On the plus side, shutdown bullpens are always good to have in the playoffs, and the A’s definitely have one of those. Cespedes is the kind of hitter who could get hot and carry the team in October. The team really catches the ball. But right now, the offense feels a bit thin, and the starting rotation doesn’t have the front-line power arms that Tampa Bay and Detroit do. Beane picked up Callaspo at the deadline, but didn’t add a big bat or an ace that would be a playoff difference maker (not that I blame him–there was nobody out there worth giving up major prospects for, except maybe Cliff Lee, who has a ginormous contract–but the fact remains, he didn’t get anybody of consequence).
I’m probably being too negative here; the A’s are a wonderful, well-balanced team that’s probably going to win the division, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see them go on a tear in the playoffs. But as far as I’m concerned, the playoff nightmare scenario is to end up with a 2- or 3-seed and have to play the Tigers–with Verlander and the 15-1 Max Scherzer–again. I don’t see how that would go better for the A’s this year than it did in 2012. And if the playoffs started today, that is exactly the matchup they’d be facing.