Monday, May 19, 2014
A's have potential to win 100 games
By David Schoenfield
Over their past 10 games, the Oakland A's have won nine and outscored their opponents by a staggering 71-18. They pitched three shutouts, scored double-digit runs three times and hit 18 home runs while giving up eight. They are 28-16 with a run differential of plus-95 and lead the American League in most runs scored per game and fewest runs allowed per game. They just destroyed the Indians in Cleveland over the weekend by a combined tally of 30-6. Josh Donaldson leads the AL in WAR. Sonny Gray, Scott Kazmir and Jesse Chavez all rank in the top 10 in the AL in ERA. Brandon Moss is tied for third in the majors in RBIs. The A's lead the AL in walks and on-base percentage. Their catchers are hitting a combined .318/.403/.484.
And somehow, the A's are only No. 2 in this week's Power Rankings.
OK, they don't have the best record -- that belongs to the Tigers, the No. 1 team in the Power Rankings, at 27-12 -- but no team has dominated like the A's. Since the wild-card era began in 1995, only two teams have a bigger run differential through 44 games than the A's: the 2010 Rays (plus-102) and the 1998 Yankees (plus-101).
Does this run differential early on mean anything? After all, you could argue that a few blowout wins can skew the numbers. Well, two points there:
1. Good teams have more blowout wins. Yes, winning close games is important, but mediocre teams can have good records in one-run games.
2. Oakland has a 40-run spread over Detroit, the team with the second-largest run differential.
But here's a more interesting factoid. I checked the past 10 seasons to see which team had the biggest run differential in the majors after 44 games. Nine of those 10 teams won at least 92 games and made the playoffs, the lone exception being the 2011 Indians, who were 29-15 with a plus-66 differential after 44 games but finished 80-82.
Are the A's the 2011 Indians? No. This team has a playoff pedigree with division titles the past two seasons, while that Cleveland team had come out of nowhere. That team had a rotation that was largely smoke and mirrors early on, and the offense couldn't sustain its hot start. These A's don't look just like a possible playoff team but a possible powerhouse, one that is capable of winning 100 games in a division that features the Astros, Mariners and beat-up Rangers.
How can that happen? A few reasons:
1. Josh Donaldson wins the AL MVP Award.
Donaldson is hitting .280/.362/.520 with 10 home runs and 35 RBIs and leads Mike Trout in WAR, 3.5 to 2.8. It's time to acknowledge that 2013 wasn't a fluke, that Donaldson plays a terrific third base and that he is one of the best all-around players in the game. He has a wingman this year, however, in Moss, who continues to improve. Moss has cut his strikeout rate from 27.7 percent to 18.3 percent, helping him hit for a .301 average to go with his power. He's also been hitting left-handers, meaning manager Bob Melvin is starting to erase the "platoon player" tag next to Moss' name.
2. The rotation holds up.
This is perhaps the biggest question. Gray, Kazmir and Chavez have been great, but they also combined for just 279 1/3 innings in the majors last year. Can they hold up late in the season as they get past 150 or 175 innings? Oakland's rotation depth was thinned out by the season-ending injuries to Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, but they just added Drew Pomeranz, another Billy Beane reclamation project of sorts. The fifth overall pick in 2010, Pomeranz was traded by Cleveland to Colorado in the Ubaldo Jimenez trade, and the A's got him in December for Brett Anderson. After starting in the bullpen, Pomeranz has made two starts, going five innings both times without allowing a run. He's a fastball/curveball guy, relying on good movement and low 90s velocity, essentially ditching an ineffective changeup he used with the Rockies. It's a simpler approach, but he's locating the fastball and it's working.
3. Yoenis Cespedes is a threat again.
A more disciplined approach at the plate -- more walks, fewer strikeouts -- has helped Cespedes improve his triple-slash numbers. Maybe he's sacrificing some home runs, but he's already hit 13 doubles (hit 21 all of last season) and this Cespedes is a more valuable middle-of-the-order hitter.
4. They haven't gotten much from Josh Reddick or second base.
Reddick had a two-homer, six-RBI game Friday and two more hits Sunday. He's still hitting just .237 with a .299 OBP and four home runs, but he’s showing signs of breaking out. It could be that his 32-homer season in 2012 was a fluke. Still, the potential is there. The other area that could improve is second base, where the A's are hitting a collective .212/.281/.258. What this means is possible regression from the likes of Derek Norris (hitting .354) or even Moss may be balanced out by better results from right field and second. Really, though, outside of Norris, nobody on the offense is that much over his head.
5. The bullpen is fine.
The A's are 20-5 when leading after seven innings, which isn't anything special. The major league average is a .900 winning percentage, so an average team would be 22-3 or 23-2 in 25 decisions when leading after seven. But the A's are fifth in the majors in bullpen ERA and first in runs per nine innings. Their weaknesses have been inherited runners (33 percent have scored, worse than the MLB average of 28 percent) and Jim Johnson. But if Sean Doolittle ends up with the closer job -- getting the lone save last week after Johnson gave up two hits -- he'll be fine: He hasn't walked a batter since August.
Will the A's win 100? FanGraphs projects them to win 92 -- in part because its projections view the Angels, Mariners and Rangers as .500 or better teams, meaning the AL West won't be a cakewalk. Maybe 100 is optimistic in a year where parity may reign supreme, but the A's look like a 92-win lock to me -- and I'd say 95 wins is very realistic. And that will be enough to print their postseason ticket.