This may come as a surprise to most of you, but right now the Oakland Athletics—with their 6-3 win last night over the Minnesota Twins—are above the .500-mark at 44 wins and 43 losses. What may end up being more surprising is that this doesn’t appear to have been the result of good luck or fluke: The A’s Pythagorean W-L record* is identical to their actual record.
How the hell can that be possible?
Coming into the year, most thought of the A’s as a team that would be fighting to stay out of the AL basement with the likes of the Mariners, Twins and Orioles. I imagine very few had them only a game-and-a-half out of a playoff spot in the middle of July. But here we are. The A’s traded away rotation cornerstones Gio Gonzalez and Trevor Cahill in the offseason and also sent closer Andrew Bailey to the Red Sox for an unproven young outfielder, yet by every measure they are a much better team than the one that lost 88 games in 2011.
So how are they doing it? Well, certainly not with their bats. The A’s rank last in the AL in runs scored, hits and total bases, twelfth in on-base percentage and ninth in home runs. Although outfielders Josh Reddick, Seth Smith and DH Jonny Gomes are having very solid years, other regulars such as Kurt Suzuki, Jemile Weeks and Coco Crisp have been less than productive.
The A’s pitching, however, has been surreal. Despite the trading of Gonzalez, Cahill and Bailey this past winter, Oakland has allowed the fewest runs in the AL. Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone have both been outstanding in their first full years in the bigs and represent a solid return (at least so far) on the Gonzalez and Cahill deals, while veterans Bartolo Colon and Brandon McCarthy (who’s currently on the DL) have pitched very well. Even journeyman Travis Blackley has pitched well in some fill-in starts.
But how much of this success is due to the A’s pitchers, and how much of it is a result of playing their home games in one of the most pitcher-friendly ballparks in baseball? The A’s have the best home opponents’ wOBA in the AL at a rather miniscule .272, but on the road, they have also fared quite well with an opponents’ wOBA of .318, sixth best in the AL.
Billy Beane and his staff have put together a group of pitchers who have a tendency to surrender a lot of flyballs, which obviously plays well in Oakland—only the White Sox and Mariners induce a higher percentage of flyballs in baseball. This has led to them having by far the lowest HR/FB ratio in the league at just 8.1%.
As a result of these stats (along with the team’s low strikeout rate and middling walk rate), the A’s have the second highest xFIP in the AL to the Twins, but because of where they play their home games, this may not normalize too much.
Despite the fairly sizable home/road splits from the pitching staff, the A’s hitters have performed almost identically on the road as they have at home, which is to say, they’ve performed poorly no matter the environment. If the A’s are going to continue their success, they’re going to need to continue their superb pitching at home while maintaining some success on the road as well—because the offense will not be bailing them out any time soon. With series’ coming up against the likes of the Yankees and in hitter’s havens such as the Rogers Centre and Camden Yards, they may have their work cut out for them.
Beane and his administration are by no means perfect, but they have demonstrated that you can continually create value from pitchers of middling pedigree if you play in extreme pitcher’s parks. Trading pitchers like Cahill and Gonzalez at their peak value has allowed them to get better despite the appearance of rebuilding. Although the A’s don’t appear to have the talent to hang with the likes of the Angels, Red Sox and Rays, their current decent level of play may be less a fluke than smart process and roster construction.
*A metric developed originally by Bill James which uses a team’s run differential in a Pythagorean-like equation to estimate what that team’s record would be based on their ability to both score and prevent runs. Although not a perfect measure of luck, Pythagorean W-L does a decent job of rooting out flukes and underperformers and works passably as a way to predict a team’s future success.