Sunday, September 2, 2012
Oakland A's have become best story of 2012
By David Schoenfield
I don't yet know if 2012 will be considered a baseball season to remember. We tend to appreciate the great teams and memorable moments -- last year's dramatic final day of the regular season or the World Series Game 6 for the ages -- more than the beautiful, long grind of surprises and melodrama that is played out over 180 days and 162 games per team.
But I'll say this: 2012 has a chance to be one of those years, doesn't it? You can't start wherever you want -- the perfect games and no-hitters, Mike Trout and Bryce Harper, Josh Hamilton's four-homer game or Derek Jeter's continued excellence, R.A. Dickey's knuckleball, Aroldis Chapman's fastball and Felix Hernandez's changeup -- and the list goes on and on. At the top of that list right now: The Oakland A's, everybody's spring training joke, now co-owners of the second-best record in the American League.
The other day I wrote that the Baltimore Orioles are starting to look like a team of destiny, and they didn't disappoint over the weekend, taking two of three at Yankee Stadium to claw to two games behind the Bronx Bombers. The same can be said of the A's. Like the Orioles, we waited through June and July and August for the fall to come. Well, fall is right around the corner and the A's are not only still here, they're getting better and breathing down the necks of the Texas Rangers, three games out of first place after winning their ninth game in a row on Sunday.
The A's absolutely destroyed the remnants of the Boston Red Sox over the weekend -- 20-2, 7-1 and 6-2 -- and have outscored their opponents by the dominating total of 72-22 during the winning streak. Here's a fun stat: Ten days ago the A's ranked 13th in the AL in runs scored, just 10 runs ahead of the Mariners. Now they rank ninth, after hitting .307 during this streak with 20 home runs and 29 doubles. OK, a 20-run game will inflate those numbers (thanks for showing up, Red Sox), but Oakland's lineup has steadily been improving all season:
How do you explain something like this? We can start with Chris Carter and Brandon Moss, who have turned into a powerful platoon at first base. A season ago, A's first basemen hit .219 with seven home runs. Led by Carter (.272/.375/.580 after his June 29 recall from Triple-A), A's first basemen are hitting .232 but with 26 home runs. You can start with Josh Reddick (28 home runs) and Yoenis Cespedes (.297/.356/.493) or Coco Crisp (.288/.354/.550 since the All-Star break) and Jonny Gomes (.942 OPS since the break).
AROUND THE SWEETSPOT NETWORK
Capitol Avenue Club
Chipper Jones produced an .872 WPA on the game-winning home run, which is probably the highest WPA play I've ever seen. To compare, Brooks Conrad's grand slam against the Reds in 2010 was worth .803. It nearly doubles Chipper's previous high WPA play going back to when FanGraphs starts recording the data in 2002. If you're choosing a signature moment in Chipper's final season, you could do a lot worse than tonight's home run.
It's Pronounced 'Lajaway'
While I'm sad to see summer go, for the Indians sake I'm thrilled to be done with the month of August . The Indians went 5-24 in August, tying a franchise record for losses in a month -- a record which had stood for nearly a century. Not since July, 1914 had the Indians managed to lose 24 games. And since moving into Progressive Field in 1994, the Tribe had lost over 20 games in a month only once (September, 2009). The Indians also posted the worst winning percentage in a month in which they played at least 25 games (out of 506 such months) -- once again breaking the record set in July, 1914.
A team that was hitting .208 on June 1 is now contending for the league's best record. A season for the ages? Maybe.
Brett Anderson was the winning pitcher in Sunday's 6-2 win, his third win in three starts since returning from last year's Tommy John surgery. I think his quote says it all about this club from nowhere: "It's crazy. Who would have predicted that [on Sept. 2] we'd be tied with the Yankees for the same record? Everything's working right now -- offense, defense, pitching. When that's happening, special things are going to happen."
Most amazing is the complete transformation from last year's squad that won 74 games.
Of the 12 players with the most plate appearances on the club in 2011, only four are in top 12 in plate appearances in 2012. And one of those, catcher Kurt Suzuki, was traded several weeks ago.
The team's two best hitters by OPS a season ago were Josh Willingham, who left as a free agent, and Scott Sizemore, who tore his ACL in spring training and will miss the entire season.
General manager Billy Beane traded away the two starting pitchers who pitched the most innings in 2011, Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill. The one holdover from the rotation, Brandon McCarthy, spent time on the DL and has made just 17 starts. Oh, Beane also traded away the team's closer.
Speaking of injuries, are you hearing a lot of complaining from Yankees and Red Sox fans about the injuries their teams have suffered this year? Besides Sizemore and now Brandon Inge, the A's have run through 10 different starting pitchers (not including Dallas Braden, out all season with a shoulder injury), missed their best hitter (Cespedes) for a spell and Bob Melvin has used five different starting shortstops, including Stephen Drew, acquired from the Diamondbacks on Aug. 20. Drew, one of the few players on the team with postseason experience, went 3-for-4 on Sunday with his first home run.
Bartolo Colon, one of the starters who remained healthy and in the rotation, was suspended for the rest of the season after a positive PED test.
Executive of the year? Beane basically lost all his best players from 2011, rebuilt an entire team and on Sept. 2 the A's and their $55.3 million Opening Day payroll (29th in baseball) have the same record as the mighty Yankees and their $198 million payroll.
The A's of a decade ago -- the "Moneyball" A's of book and movie fame -- were a different sort of team. In reality, that was a team of stars, not a patched-together roster of youngsters, castoffs, reclamation projects and one-more-chance guys. When I think of surprise teams and great seasons, I think back to 1991, when we saw the Atlanta Braves and Minnesota Twins both go from last place to the World Series. But in retrospect, those teams were in a far different position than these A's. The Braves were a young team that came together all at once -- Tom Glavine, John Smoltz, Steve Avery, David Justice, Ron Gant and so on -- while the Twins were more of a veteran team (Kirby Puckett, Kent Hrbek, Greg Gagne) that added reinforcements in free agents Jack Morris and Chili Davis plus rookies Chuck Knoblauch and Scott Erickson.
There was absolutely no way to predict this team would be in the pennant race as we head into September. Maybe the carpet ride will stop short of the postseason -- of Oakland's 29 remaining games, 23 are against teams with winning records and the other six are against Seattle, which is tied with Baltimore for the second-best record in the AL since the All-Star break.
"We're not looking too far ahead," Reddick said. "I don't think we're going to worry about who we're tied with right now. All that matters is when that last game of the year comes along, where we're at at that point."
We'll get to that last game of the year ... but I already can't wait. I have a pretty good feeling we're in for something special.
PHOTO OF THE DAY
Derek Norris applies the tag to Podzilla, but the Red Sox are no longer the 'it' team.