The White-Hot Green and Gold

It’s a formula Oakland Athletics fans know well: scuffle through the first two months of baseball, and tear it up for the rest of the season. Less than a month ago, the A’s were 20-22, and it looked like they would continue the tradition of playing .500 ball well into June. Maybe it’s just more fun to chase than be chased. Not so fast. The A’s are a little early this year on their annual torrid streak.
In little more than the blink of an eye, the A’s have surged to 12 games over .500 at 37-25. Ladies and gentlemen, the Oakland A’s are 16-3 over their last nineteen games. That is reason enough for happiness. But the real rejoicing should come from the fact that this streak is no fluke.
Over the last 162 games, guess which baseball team has the most wins? The World Champion Giants? The runner-up Detroit Tigers? Blue-chippers like the Cincinnati Reds or Texas Rangers? No, no, no, no: the Oakland A’s are 104-58. Taking into account the fact that season endings and beginnings aren’t wholly arbitrary–players change teams, obviously–this is still pretty amazing, as you have to go back to the 2004 St Louis Cardinals to find a team that played that well over the course of a regular season. At this point, no one should be treating the A’s as a fringe contender.
You don’t go 16-3 without some luck. But you also don’t go 16-3 without some talent. What have the A’s done so well over the last nineteen games?

1. Starting pitching

Of course, it always begins with starting pitching. The A’s got away from that at the beginning of the year, as their pitching staff struggled to go deep in games and didn’t do particularly well even when they were in the game. The turnaround starts with staff “ace” Jarrod Parker. While he’s not yet a true ace, he is the guy in our rotation who gets slotted against the other team’s #1 most often–as with tonight, and his matchup against Chris Sale–and he’s certainly pitched like one recently. In the last month, Parker has 3 wins with a 2.41 ERA and a 0.89 WHIP. That WHIP is key, because it means he’s walking fewer batters than he was at the beginning of the year, when he couldn’t find the plate. There’s little indication of what might have changed to key his run of success, but whatever he’s done, it’s working. The other big contributor has been Bartolo Colon, who is probably driving Bud Selig mad with his age-defying success. Colon has won his last three starts, allowing only one run in 23 innings, including a complete game. Finally, Dan Straily has also become a key contributor, and appears to finally be comfortable at the major league level now that he’s had some time to acclimate. His start Thursday night against the White Sox, in which he settled down after a rough inning and managed to go seven, marked a turning point in his maturation–Melvin clearly must have trusted him immensely to leave him out there despite a difficult fifth.

2. Setting the table
While the A’s have endured a bizarre streak of solo home runs–earlier this month they had something like fifteen in a row, and yesterday they had four–they are definitely doing a good job putting baserunners on. The top of the lineup has been especially stellar in this regard. Shoutouts have to go to Coco Crisp, Josh Donaldson, and Jed Lowrie, all of whom have OBPs above .390–quite an elite level. With the acquisition of Chris Young, there was some thought that Coco would be the odd man out, but far from that, he’s become the bedrock of this offense, and since returning from injury has hit an otherworldy .340 AVG, with an .890 OPS. No one is suggesting his .200 ISO is going to persist, but in watching his at-bats it’s clear that he is never getting cheated out of an at-bat, and he fouls off 2-strike pitches like the consummate professional he must be at his veteran age. Jed Lowrie’s power is nowhere to be found, but hey, the average is nice; he has to be given serious consideration for the AL All-Star spot at shortstop, even if his arm has given me reason to think he should be playing more time at second. Finally, Josh Donaldson is the A’s MVP thus far, hitting .330 on the season with a team-leading 37 RBIs. He’s been especially hot during this recent winning streak, hitting an even .400. While I predicted a 4.5 WAR potential for him this year, no one seems to have expected quite this much out of Donaldson this soon–let’s hope it’s for real.

3. Bench contributors
Nate Freiman won the Rookie of the Month award for May, batting .351 with three doubles and a home run. True, he only had 37 at-bats, but he was great in those at-bats. Part of the A’s approach this year is to load up with bench contributors who can step up to give the A’s a platoon advantage throughout the game. Their approach, therefore, keys on guys who would typically be overlooked. It may seem like a little thing, but I really believe the improved hitting of Eric Sogard has had a good deal to do with their recent success–his average is now up to .250, which isn’t great except that when they were losing he was only hitting .200. Finally, his platoon partner Adam Rosales last night became the first player since 2004 to have two game-winning home runs in the 9th inning or later while batting out of the nine spot (Rod Barajas was the last). A random statistic, sure, but an indication that we’re getting contributions from every man on the roster.

3 Things I Like
1.    Bartolo Colon has not been fazed by the steroid controversy, and early reports suggest that this may be because the Biogenesis documents linking him to Tony Bosch’s “anti-aging” steroid business are from June 2012–in other words, they’ve caught him for the same crime they caught him for last year. Moreover, as Buster Olney has said, Bartolo Colon could be 50 before MLB resolves this thing.
2.    Céspedes is hitting home runs at a pretty great pace–1 HR per 17 ABs. Hopefully the recent power surge will be followed by more pitchers pitching around him, meaning he’ll realize he can contribute even when he doesn’t hit the ball 500 feet.
3.    My former teammate Mark Appel was taken with the #1 pick by the Houston Astros on Thursday. I played summer ball with Mark in Danville and I couldn’t be happier for him. Also, the fact that I used to relieve him is now my number two sports claim to fame, after having economics class with Stephen Curry!

3 Things I Don’t Like
1.    The MLB Draft was great for Mark Appel, but it wasn’t so great for the A’s. The Draft seems to be taking especial scrutiny this year–see articles here and here–and I’d like to point out just one, one really stupid flaw. There are lots of them. But I’m just going to mention one. Teams get compensatory picks for losing premier free agents. But don’t the teams with the most money sign the most premier free agents? Yes! And that’s why the Yankees had two post-1st round sandwich picks this year, for losing Nick Swisher and Rafael Soriano, neither of whom was homegrown. You spend money, you get money, basically.
2.    It might be time to question the pitch-calling capabilities of the Oakland catchers, one of whom is young and the other of whom is not known for his defensive capabilities. Too many times Ray Fosse–a former catcher–has noted that the pitch asked for just didn’t make sense given the count. Yesterday it was a fastball belt-high and in called for by Derek Norris with men on and Alexei Ramirez at the dish. It’s not the first time. Given that the manager Bob Melvin is a former catcher you’d think these things would be quickly rectified.
3.    There’s not a third thing! The A’s are 16-3 in their last 19 games! But, if I had to pick a third thing, I’d say that I don’t like the animosity between A’s and Giants fans. It just isn’t becoming. Leave all the vicious bickering to the Northeasterners. Out West we like to have fun and support differently-minded folk. I’d like to think Bay pride is more important than anything else (Cal-Stanford aside). The rivalry between the A’s and Giants feels forced; why not just mutually agree to take out our vitriol on the actually-hated Dodgers and Angels?

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