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Friday, August 25, 2006
There's no figuring out these A's

By Tim Kurkjian
ESPN The Magazine

Two of the brightest general managers in baseball, Oakland's Billy Beane and Cleveland's Mark Shapiro, were speaking to each other recently.

"Billy told me we were giving the sabermetricians fits,'' Shapiro said with a smile.

Indeed. The Indians were on a pace to become the first team in history to finish 10 games under .500 despite outscoring their opponents by 50-plus runs. And the A's, well, their numbers don't make much sense, either.

Through Thursday, the A's lead the American League West by 5½ games. They are 17 games over .500 and have outscored their opponents by only 24 runs. Run differential always has been a leading indicator of a team's effectiveness: The 1927 Yankees outscored their opponents by 376 runs, an astounding 2.7 per game. Only two teams in history -- the 1997 Giants and 1984 Mets -- won 90 games in a season in which they were outscored. The A's have an outside chance to become the third team to do that.

Frank Thomas
Frank Thomas leads the A's in home runs (27) and RBI (75).
The A's are last in the majors in slugging percentage, doubles and batting average with runners in scoring position, are tied for last in batting average and are 21st in runs scored.

"And we're first in [hitting into] double plays,'' Beane said, laughing. "Usually you have to have a lot of baserunners to do that. We are a complete freak show.''

So how are they in first place? Pitching and defense. Through Thursday, the A's are fifth in the majors in ERA and fourth in fielding percentage.

"The numbers tell me that (a) our defense is that good, and (b) it must be really good in situations, also,'' Beane said.

The A's have a deep, versatile bullpen that holds the AL's lowest percentage of inherited runners scored -- and that's having all their best relievers healthy for about only one week this season. Closer Huston Street is on the disabled list with a mild groin strain, but the return of Justin Duchscherer and Joe Kennedy from the DL has helped stabilize the pen again.

The A's starting pitching is among the league leaders even without Rich Harden, who has been on the disabled list most of the season. He has encountered no setbacks throwing off flat ground, and plans to throw off a mound on Sept. 1 for the first time since getting hurt. Beane says the hope is to get Harden pitching in a game this year. If he somehow can make it back and be an effective starter by October, the A's could enter the playoffs -- if they make it -- as a dangerous team.

It's the Oakland offense that has been disappointing and confusing, says Beane, "because we have guys with track records.''

Third baseman Eric Chavez has played injured most of the season; he's hitting only .241. Shortstop Bobby Crosby is hitting .229. It's possible that the A's will win the division without a 100-RBI man, and with only two players with as many as 75 RBI. The A's are, however, getting more production lately, including from DH Frank Thomas, whose 27 home runs lead the team.

And since coming off the disabled list to begin the second half, outfielder Milton Bradley has given Oakland a switch-hitting presence in the middle of the order. No one has ever questioned Bradley's ability, which is tremendous; the only question is whether an implosion is soon coming.

So far, no problems in Oakland. Bradley hit .406 with 17 RBI in 64 at-bats in July. In August, he has fallen off a bit as he's batting just .227. The A's, however, are 38-24 when Bradley starts games and 34-31 when he doesn't, a difference of 84 percentage points. Last year, the Dodgers were 36-37 when Bradley started, and 35-54 when he didn't, a difference of 100 percentage points. Coincidence? More likely, it's that there's no figuring out the A's.

"When the season is over,'' Beane said, "we should do a study for the Indians and for us, and see why this happened. There is data from both sides, and they don't make any sense.''

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.