How Do the A’s Keep Winning?

A few weeks ago in this space, I asked how the Orioles keep winning, and concluded that baseball’s randomness was more responsible for Baltimore’s success than any tangible factor. Today, I ask the same of the Athletics, but for very different reasons.

Baltimore is a team that scores more runs and yields fewer than its underlying numbers would suggest, and then wins far more games than its runs scored and yielded would suggest. I’d be remiss not to note that the team that put up a lot of those awful numbers is not the team the Orioles will put on the field every day in September. Jake Arrieta, Brian Matusz, and Tommy Hunter have been exiled from the rotation in favor of the far superior Chris Tillman and Miguel Gonzalez, with Jason Hammel due back from injury soon. Manny Machado has moved Mark Reynolds off of third base, and Nate McLouth has plugged the gaping hole in left field.

Oakland, on the other hand, has a pythagorean record even stronger than its 76-57 win-loss record, and has underlying numbers nearly as strong. Put simply, the A’s are winning games with average offense and exceptional defense- both from its pitchers and its fielders.

Why, then, is it worth the time to question how the A’s keep winning? Well, for one, I picked them to win 72 games this year, the same total I gave the Orioles. Dan Szymborski’s ZiPS projections were not even that high on them. And I invite you to scan the names on Oakland’s roster and tell me if you’ve heard of more than a handful of them (if you’re a Red Sox fan, you’re probably familiar with the five ex-Sox, but not many other guys). It’s not that the numbers don’t add up- it’s that no one would have guessed these guys were capable of playing like this.

Last year’s A’s went 74-88 and were outscored by 34 runs despite one of the best pitching staffs in baseball. The triumvirate of Gio Gonzalez, Brett Anderson, and Trevor Cahill seemed primed to take the throne from the Hudson-Mulder-Zito staff that led Oakland to so many playoff appearances. When Anderson was hurt, Brandon McCarthy stepped up admirably into the third spot. Billy Beane, though, is of course famous for trading major league talent for prospects, often years before his players reach free agency, and this past offseason was no exception. Gonzalez was traded to the Nationals for pitchers Tommy Milone and Brad Peacock and two other prospects. Cahill was shipped to Arizona for pitchers Jarrod Parker and Ryan Cook and outfielder Colin Cowgill. Anderson may have been exiled as well if he hadn’t undergone Tommy John surgery, forcing him to miss most of the 2012 season.

Oakland also let Josh Willingham, its best hitter in 2011, walk via free agency, and let the Cubs sign David DeJesus, using the savings to sign Cuban defector Yoenis Cespedes. Closer Andrew Bailey was traded to the Red Sox for Josh Reddick, a reserve outfielder who was forced into action in 2011 and wasn’t a part of Boston’s outfield plans in ’12. Aside from McCarthy, no one who played an important role for the 2011 A’s, and played it well, was still on the roster in 2012. To say the 2012 season looked bleak in the East Bay would be quite the understatement.

Yet here we are, a summer later, and the A’s have the second-best record in the American League. They’ve won nine straight games, including a sweep in which they outscored the Red Sox 33-5. Reddick, for whom ZiPS predicted an 85 OPS+ (15% worse than league average) and 15 home runs, has a 126 OPS+ and 28 homers with a month to go, and is on the fringe of the MVP discussion. Cespedes is hitting .300/.359/.499, good for a team-leading 139 OPS+. Seven A’s have been above average hitters in significant roles this season. ZiPS, which is based entirely on historical data and trends, predicted that no Oakland player would even be average.

On the mound, it’s less shocking that the A’s have been successful, particularly given the park they play in, but on an individual basis, almost every Oakland pitcher has outpitched expectations. Parker, who’s 23, has a 3.72 ERA and a 3.56 FIP. Milone, a 25-year-old rookie, has a 3.73 ERA and leads the team with 11 wins. Fill-in starters AJ Griffin and Travis Blackley are a combined 9-3 with 103 strikeouts and just 34 walks. Perhaps most surprisingly, Bartolo Colon has a 3.43 ERA, which he accrued by not walking anybody (1.36 per nine innings) before he was suspended for steroid use last month. The bullpen, led by Cook, Grant Balfour, and Sean Doolittle, has a 2.80 ERA and is averaging nearly a strikeout an inning.

It’s easy to chalk up Oakland’s pitching success to the ballpark, which has suppressed scoring by almost 13% and home runs by over 13% this year. It’s true that Oakland’s team ERA is almost a run better at home (2.98) than on the road (3.94), but that road ERA is still in the top ten in baseball. Is it possible that young pitchers become so confident working in pitcher-friendly O.co Coliseum that they attack hitters on the road, limiting walks and keeping pitch counts down because they’re not traumatized by the home runs they might give up if they worked in Arlington or New York?

On the flip side, Oakland’s hitters have to deal with the unfriendly confines in which its pitchers thrive. While the A’s have scored just 4.04 runs per game at home this season, they’ve scored 4.50 per game on the road, the 10th best mark in baseball. This team isn’t just winning because of Parker and Milone. It’s winning because of Seth Smith and Coco Crisp and Jonny Gomes and Brandon Moss. Everyone is playing his part.

I’ve heard speculation that building a team around an extreme ballpark is the new market efficiency, like OBP in the early 2000s and fielding later in the decade. While I’m sure there’s something to this, I wonder if the new market efficiency isn’t something simpler- young pitching, and lots of it. It’s been proven that young pitchers are unlikely to improve as they age and the unnatural act of pitching starts wearing down their arms. For every Roy Halladay, who succeeds into his 30s, there’s a Mark Fidrych, who flames out early. It seems that, while other teams hold onto their pitching talent and expect that their pitchers will continue to develop into their late 20s, the A’s are more than willing to toss the veterans, even the 24-year-old veterans like Cahill- aside for younger pitchers with less mileage on their arms and smaller contract demands.

With amphetamines banned from clubhouses, older players have no easy cure for the grind of the long season. Rather than putting all their eggs in a few veteran baskets and hoping one or two injuries don’t derail a season, the A’s are willing to take a chance on a Milone or a Parker. If he doesn’t work out, or if the team would like to spare his young arm a few innings, they’ll call up a Griffin or a Blackley. If he isn’t the answer, there’s always a Dan Straily or a Graham Godfrey waiting in AAA.

This is a little too simple, of course, since there’s no guarantee that the guy waiting in AAA is going to succeed in the majors. The A’s have been dealt a few lemons this year, with Godfrey and Tyson Ross failing to strike hitters out and carrying ERAs over six. But for the most part, Beane and the A’s have done a great job of picking up multiple promising young arms every time they’ve dealt an older one away, and those arms have the team poised for its first playoff appearance since 2006.

On the offensive side, Reddick fits the “young and cheap” mold, but most of the other players hitting over their heads are older veterans who were cast off by teams who grew tired of waiting for them to break out. Moss and Gomes have played everywhere. Brandon Inge and George Kottaras were no longer useful in Detroit and Milwaukee, respectively. But in Oakland, where it often only takes a run or two to win a game, these misfits and castaways found that they were winning some games before the bats took off, and since they did, hitting has been contagious. They scored the third-most runs in the American League in August and don’t appear to be slowing down.

Oakland is succeeding not because of dominant performances from a few superstars (the Angels model), but by focusing on, say, the 7th through 40th roster spots, where they don’t face the same economic disadvantage they face in the top six spots, where players might tie up $100 million in payroll on another team. Youth and volume in the rotation and flexibility in the lineup are carrying Oakland past the richer, more marketable Angels, Tigers, and Red Sox.

Oakland’s schedule gets tougher once the Red Sox leave town. They’ll be on the road a lot and face the Rangers and Angels 14 more times. It’s very possible that some of this magic will wear off over the next few weeks and they’ll miss the playoffs. But as of today, the A’s are 3 1/2 games clear of the next contenders for the second Wild Card spot, and they’re playing like they’re the best team in baseball. Who’s going to tell them they’re not?

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