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The Lonesome Crowded West
2005-08-12 00:22
by Ryan Wilkins

(With apologies to Modest Mouse.)

April and May were tough months to be a seamhead in California's East Bay. Home to the worst team in the American League West and an offense that would make the '03 Dodgers scoff in disgust, it looked as though the cynics might have had a point: the nucleus of young hitters Billy Beane & Co. had assembled were largely injured or ineffective, the young pitchers acquired for Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder were performing erratically at best, pitifully at worst, and the team's record reflected this combination of frustrating events. On May 29, as SportsCenter has since hammered into our brains, the A's stood 15 games below .500 and in last place in their division.

Date          Record     RS    RA
Thru May 29    17-32    186   258

And then something happened.

Or maybe it didn't. One of the most tired clichés in sportswriting is the notion of a "turning point"—the idea that 25 grown men can, collectively, have their entire world turned upside-down in a moment of mystical brilliance, thanks to some vague noun like "focus." Where yesterday scoring more runs than that other group of guys across the diamond was a Sisyphean ordeal, today it's like taking candy from Maggie Simpson? Right. Alcoholics might refer to this as a moment of clarity. Serious sportswriters call this "mailing it in."

Whether something special happened that day is really beside the point, however. What is important is the A's started winning. Four straight victories against the Tampa Bay Devil Rays morphed into 10 out of 15 against the Blue Jays, Nationals, Braves and Mets. Yet on the morning of June 16, everyone's second-favorite Internet baseball columnist listed the A's among a group of nine teams "who can clearly be considered sellers at this point" in the season. They weren't there yet.

But they were coming like a freight train. The A's would lose only twice from June 17 through the end of the month, outscoring their opponents 73-29 in that period. By the close of Fourth of July weekend, Oakland stood one game over .500 and closer to second place in their division than fourth. That's not a turnaround; that's a rebirth.

Obviously it didn't stop there. As of this writing on August 8, the A's are 64-47, 14 games over .500 with one hand on first place, and winners of 80% of their contests over the last 50 days. No team in baseball has played better since Madagascar hit theaters across America, and it hasn't been particularly close.

What's driven this success is also obvious: you can't play .758 baseball for two months without getting support on both sides of the ball. Some of these gains were a long time coming, others appeared out of nowhere. What is fortunate is they came all at once, and with a vengeance. Let's break it down, however simplistically:

               April       May          June       July
Hitter        OBP/Slug   OBP/Slug     OBP/Slug   OBP/Slug
M. Kotsay    .382/.444  .319/.330    .304/.412  .275/.425
J. Kendall   .333/.292  .314/.298    .394/.333  .381/.391
N. Swisher   .274/.372  .276/.308    .324/.489  .364/.575
B. Crosby       ---        ---       .394/.586  .336/.406
E. Chavez    .276/.312  .276/.321    .440/.699  .333/.489
B. Kielty    .293/.278  .448/.481    .365/.458  .360/.395
M. Ellis     .323/.328  .358/.367    .373/.435  .368/.481
D. Johnson      ---     .364/.235    .367/.447  .429/.612
E. Durazo    .315/.345  .293/.397       ---        ---
S. Hatteberg .323/.349  .377/.385    .412/.431  .315/.292
M. Scutaro   .383/.406  .281/.341    .352/.431  .289/.324

Though I don't have the time, or access to Keith Woolner anymore, to parse the data perfectly and get some aggregate numbers together, I think this tells the story well enough. Oakland was obviously powerless in April, with only two regulars slugging better than .400. May was better overall, but in a strict sense the number of regulars slugging above .400 dropped to one. Team OBP would decline in May, however, largely neutralizing the difference. As Henry Hill laments in the third act of Goodfellas, "these were the bad times."

The June/July data renders some interesting observations. First, while nearly everyone in the lineup apparently found his stroke at the same time, the huge gains came from places one would expect: the first being Eric Chavez, the second being the upgrade from Ellis/Scutaro to Bobby Crosby, and the third being Nick Swisher. Collectively, these three bested their May OPS by more than 35 percent. Couple that with the fact that these three are often clustered together in the lineup and it shouldn't be a surprise that the increase in run-scoring has been non-linear.

The second observation is that the A's acquisitions and call-ups have worked out unbelievably well—much better than any reasonable person could have expected. Dan Johnson has posted the highest MLVr (.326) among AL first basemen since his call-up and Jay Payton has slugged .563 (more than 100 points higher than his career mark of .446) since being swapped for Chad Bradford. It's hard to underestimate the impact of these additions, considering they're replacing everyday PAs that originally went to replacement-to-average hitters Scott Hatteberg, Erubiel Durazo, and Eric Byrnes. Irony of ironies, the A's biggest on-field problem over the last two years has been getting next to nothing in the power department from their respective corners—the place where Freely Available Talent™ grows on trees. Suffice it to say, this hasn't been an issue for the team since May, thanks in large part to roster moves that looked small at the time of execution.

Date           Record     RS    RA
After May 29    47-15    365   206

Which is not to say that Oakland's had a lot of trouble keeping runs off the board...

                  April       May         June       July
Pitcher          ERA/WHIP   ERA/WHIP    ERA/WHIP    ERA/WHIP
R. Harden       2.10/1.21  3.72/1.14   0.75/0.42   2.77/1.23
B. Zito         6.60/1.43  3.49/1.22   3.05/1.20   2.51/1.00
D. Haren        4.11/1.37  4.54/1.46   3.09/0.92   6.35/1.69
K. Saarloos     5.33/1.42  4.13/1.46   2.08/1.23   4.59/1.29
J. Blanton      2.67/1.15 13.25/2.45   2.06/0.82   4.44/1.48

J. Duchscherer  0.57/0.89  2.16/1.20   1.56/0.87   3.21/1.21
H. Street       2.84/1.26  1.20/1.07   0.00/0.72   1.20/0.80
K. Calero       0.00/0.96 81.00/9.00   2.25/1.13   1.98/0.95
O. Dotel        1.80/1.20  3.77/1.47      ---         ---
K. Yabu         0.87/1.26  5.40/1.62   5.00/1.44   4.05/1.20

They are, after all, second in the AL in ERA. But the data, broken down on a component level, makes the facts more clear. First: April was a huge month for the A's. They were tops in MLB for that stretch in ERA—and by a country mile, if memory serves. Though the staff's performed well since then, their dominance over that 30-day stretch skews the data a bit, making them look better than they've been overall. Second: While the front of the rotation is solid, the back is really a balls-in-play experiment gone right. Whether Blanton and Saarloos' success is sustainable is yet to be seen. I, for one, am highly skeptical. Together, in 243.3 combined innings, they're striking out just 4.2 men per nine while walking 3.0. For those of you just tuning in, those numbers are about as encouraging as a knee to the groin.

What is encouraging, however, is Oakland's aptitude with the leather. For all the acknowledgment that the Chicago White Sox have been getting this year for their stellar defense, the A's currently lead them (and the rest of MLB) by a nominal amount in non-park-adjusted Defensive Efficiency. Say what you like about the reliability of non-PBP fielding data, Oakland is obviously one of the best defensive teams in baseball, and one that has converted better than 71 percent of balls in play into outs. Who said anything about needing strikeouts?

All of that being said, the real question is how Oakland will perform from here on out. Logic dictates that the team's "true" level of ability probably isn't in the stratosphere, where it's resided for the past nine weeks; even the most optimistic analysts pegged the A's for 90 wins (.556 W%) before the season started. But at the same time, it's probably not in the depths of Hades, either, where it dwelled for every hour of the month of May. The truth lies somewhere in between.

It's a boring conclusion, but sometimes that's reality. While Zito, Harden and Haren have all been good, their runs-allowed figures lead their peripherals by a slight degree. I've already expressed my skepticism on Blanton and Saarloos. And anytime an offense goes through a stretch where they score six runs a game, you know they're due for some regression to the mean. Only the bullpen can be expected to hold its performance, with the recent additions of Jay Witasick and Joe Kennedy and the continued dominance of Huston Street. Damn, that guy's good.

So let's say the A's play .556 ball the rest of the way, which I think is reasonable. With 111 games in the bank and 51 left on the schedule, that would translate into roughly 28 more wins, putting them at a total of 92. Is that good enough for a trip to October?

At this moment, the A's look to be paired against one of two teams for a playoff birth between now and the end of September. The first is the New York Yankees, who are currently 3.5 games out of the Wild Card chase, 14-10 so far in the second half, on pace for 87 wins, and harbor a moderate schedule in September—with a total of 15 games against the Red Sox, Blue Jays and A's, with the rest of the month devoted to the floundering Orioles and directionless Devil Rays.

The second is the Anaheim Angels, who Oakland faces this week in a pivotal three-game series at home. Anaheim has played well all year, but not well enough to keep the A's from grabbing a share of first place in the AL West. The Halos are just 12-11 since the All-Star break, but have a slightly easier schedule than the Yankees in September, fielding 10 games against White Sox, Red Sox and A's, interspersed with two weeks of Devil Rays, Tigers and Mariners (oh my!).

These won't be easy adversaries for Oakland, to say the least. Ninety-two wins is right on the border of what they're going to need to make the playoffs, and their competitors get a leg up by fielding slightly easier schedules down the stretch (14 of the A's September contests will come against the likes of L.A., Boston and the not-dead-yet Cleveland Indians). Even factoring this into account, Clay Davenport gives the A's a 76 percent chance of playing October baseball—23 percent better than their division-mates down south. That's significant, but far from insurmountable. With so many head-to-head matchups coming in the last 50 games (10 LAA/OAK by my count) the pendulum could swing in either direction with ease.

As someone who bleeds green and gold, it's hard not to be excited by Oakland's two-month resurrection. Even more so than the second-half surges of 2001 and 2002, this team's return to relevance has been particularly sweet—perhaps because of the way the front office was so heavily doubted by the mainstream press over the off-season. It's been a vindication of the highest order.

Thing is, the A's aren't there yet. And for as much as I hate to finish an essay on a wishy-washy note, it's yet to be seen what will happen, as fate is a fickle mistress. There are many long days ahead in the lonesome, crowded American League West.

Ryan Wilkins is a freelance writer living in the SF Bay Area who will be appearing occasionally here at The Juice. You can contact him via e-mail by clicking here.

2005-08-13 00:14:07
1.   Plate O Shrimp
You admit that you blean green and gold, so do the same for another team that you don't blead for.... there are plenty of people and blogs who support the A's. Especially since money ball....what makes your commentary any different??

I say 'big deal' to your joining the toaster.


2005-08-13 15:10:36
2.   chris in illinois
Plait 'a' shrimpe,

Wel sed. Hoo needz uhnuther dum guy hoo bleans gold 'n' greene??

Welcome Ryan, hope you enjoy yourself.


2005-08-19 09:57:05
3.   Tangotiger
It's about time Ryan is back for everyone.

Re: Oakland's DER, Oakland is a fielder-friendly place (from 99-02 anyway... has the foul territory dimensions changed this year?):

I figure the seasonal-adjustment should be 6 points, which makes Oakland go from best to one of the three best. Still pretty good.

My question: what's Oakland's DER been month-to-month?

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