The race for the American League West title hasn’t been much of a contest for most of the season, until recently that is. At the All-Star break the Rangers had a comfortable 4 game lead on the surging Los Angeles Angels while nobody thought too much of the A’s, who were sitting 9 games back with a strong pitching staff. The Oakland A’s have been on fire since , posting the best record in baseball at 41-18 (.695 win %), while eating up 7 games in the standings. It’s not like the Rangers have been slouches either, as they have played .576 baseball (34-25) since the break.
All of that good baseball by the bay has put Oakland in the driver’s seat for the 1st Wild Card spot, owning a 5 game lead over 3rd place Los Angeles and a 3 game lead over Baltimore that may shrink by a game if the A’s drop today’s game. But as everybody knows, you don’t want to play in that play-in Wild Card game, because anything can happen in a single game series. No, the A’s have the sights set on something a little bigger: the AL West crown. The only question is: can the wrestle it from the two-time defending American League champion Texas Rangers?
It’s no secret that Oakland’s biggest strengths as baseball team are their excellent, young pitching staff, their superb defense, and a classic Bill Beane staple: the ability to draw a walk. The A’s rank 4th in the American League in walks drawn as a team, despite the fact that they are one of 9 teams in baseball who don’t have a player who has drawn more than 60 walks. Most teams in baseball in that situation (Seattle and Boston are two examples), both rank in the bottom third of the league in walks drawn as a team. It’s just a testament to a deep lineup that has embraced the organizations approach to working pitch counts and really looking for the best pitch to hit. And when Oakland hits, that deep lineup tends to do some damage.
Oakland has 8 hitters with more than 10 homers this season (only the Yankees have more with 10), and impressive feat for a team that was projected to have absolutely no offense. Chris Carter, who’s hit 14 homers in 57 games, has provided a big boost. Josh Reddick’s play has hit the next level as well. His 28 homers and 76 RBI lead rank first on the Athletics, and the young left fielders play in the spacious confines of O.Co’s outfield should earn him a gold glove this year.
Billy Beane’s one big signing in the offseason, Yoenis Cespedes, has been absolutely money thus far. Cespedes, who has struggled a bit to stay on the field due to his vicious swing and all-out style of play, is crushing the ball. In his first 112 professional games in America, Cespedes has hit .288/.348/.488 with 19 homers, 71 RBI, and 16 steals in 19 attempts. Beane knew his team wouldn’t be able to attract the sort of offensive star who could front a playoff lineup any other way, so he took the risk on Cespedes, paying the 26-year-old $36 million for 4 years of what could be his prime. So far the deal has worked out brilliantly.
Beane’s pitching staff has also been extraordinarily effective this season, using the enormous amount of playing space at O.Co to their advantage. The staff’s 3.39 ERA ranks as the 2nd lowest in the American League, almost in spite of the fact that the A’s rank 3rd to last in strikeouts and K rate. That doesn’t mean this is a fluke however, because youngsters like Tommy Millone, Jarrod Parker, and AJ Griffin have used their world-class defense brilliantly.
The A’s have the 3rd most efficient defense in baseball at turning balls put in play into outs. They convert 70.7% of all balls in play into outs, which is excellent and allows pitchers to go out and throw strikes with the confidence that hits are going to be taken away. Oakland has the lowest ground ball-to-fly ball rate in the American League, meaning that the team generates more fly ball contact than any other. But that’s not a problem like it could potentially be in New York or Philadelphia, where seemingly everything escapes the park. However O.Co, the home of the A’s, is extremely tough on hitters, with its acres of foul territory, a football field’s worth of outfield space, and ginormous walls that take even the mightiest of blasts away.
Couple all that space with a fantastic set of outfield defenders in Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick, and Yoenis Cespedes. Reddick has one of the best outfield arms in baseball,ranking 2nd in the AL with 14 outfield assists, and Cespedes is using something of a high-caliber himself. Crisp may not have that type of arm strength, but he more than makes up for it with the swaths of territory he can cover.
With the pickups of guys like Brandon Inge early in the year and Stephen Drew a month ago, Billy Beane was able to fortify the right side of his infield defense as well. Drew was an immediate upgrade both in the field and at the plate for Cliff Pennington and Brandon Hicks, Oakland’s alternatives at short. Inge has provided a nice dose of walk-off magic to go along with his usual plus defense.
Oakland’s schedule over the next 3 weeks is going to be very tough, but it does set up nicely if the A’s want to knock the Rangers down to the AL Wild Card round because the 2 go head to head 6 more times this year. Oakland also has to play at Detroit and New York, both of whom are fighting for a playoff berth, which means both of those series will be difficult. The Rangers don’t have it easy either, playing a pair of series against the Angels, who are trying to claw their way back into the race. Both teams will see Seattle one more time this year as well. Can Oakland make up the 2.5-3.5 game difference, depending on what happens in today’s action? It’s going to be tough, but if the A’s can win both series against Texas you’ve gotta like their chances. These guys play hard and fight until the last out, so I wouldn’t count them out until then.