Oakland Athletics Photo Day

It was perhaps the most Oakland Athletics play of the season Sunday night in the bottom of the eighth inning. Erstwhile A’s bench stalwart Adam Rosales, now with the Rangers, hit a a ground ball into the third base-shortstop hole. Athletics shortstop Eric Sogard — one of the defining players of this year’s A’s club — ranged into the hole and made an impressive throw to nab Rosales at first base. [See it here]

The Athletics, just like last year, opened the season under .500 in the first month and a half. Oakland was 20-22 on May 15th, and they had allowed 199 runs in 42 games — 4.74 runs per game. Only three teams — the horrendous Astros, Blue Jays and Angels — had allowed more.

Since then, Oakland is 68-39, the best team in baseball. The Dodgers are a half game back at 69-41, and Boston is a full game back at 69-42. Oakland has passed Detroit for the second-best record in the league.

They’ve done it with a little bit of everything, of course, but Oakland’s run prevention of this 107-game run has been sublime. The Athletics have allowed just 374 runs in those 107 games — 3.50 runs per game. No American League team is within 40 runs of Oakland, and despite the lack of the designated hitter, only Atlanta has allowed fewer runs than the Athletics in the National League.

The Athletics have gotten some good pitching from Bartolo Colon and Jarrod Parker in particular, but this is not a rotation nor a bullpen filled with aces head to toe. Additionally, it’s not a rotation that piles up strikeouts — none of the club’s five starters with at least 25 starts has a K/9 over 7.5. The Athletics pitching staff relies on defense to get outs, and this team is now capable of placing a plus defender at every position.

Start with Sogard, who has done just enough with his high-contact ways at the plate to muster a .265/.320/.369 line. That’s more than good enough to justify his range at both middle infield positions. Josh Donaldson patrols the copious Coliseum foul ground with aplomb and has somehow transitioned from catcher to become one of the better-handed third basemen around. The club can run out two center fielders if it wants — Chris Young and Coco Crisp — and at least two more guys who could fake it there — Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes.

Save Donaldson, no position player on this team is playing at a star level. But baseball is a unique sport in that teams can’t funnel important moments to its star players. At any moment, anybody in the starting lineup — or even on the active roster — could be the one with the chance to swing the game, in the field or at the plate.

Go look at the 2011 Athletics and you can see the model in place, but there were simply too many empty at-bats and defensive innings. Hideki Matsui, 585 plate appearances for a 93 OPS+ as a DH. Conor Jackson, 368 plate appearances for an 83 OPS+ and minimal defensive skills in the outfield. Mark Ellis, a 51 OPS+ in 233 plate appearances at second base. They lacked a star and had some ideal complimentary players — Crisp, Kurt Suzuki, Josh Wilingham, Jemile Weeks‘s good season — but too often they had to rely on the others, and the others weren’t good enough.

This year and last season, the role players have stepped up time and time again. Whether it’s Eric Sogard making big plays in the field, Nate Freiman hitting one of his first four major league home runs as a 26-year-old, or Stephen Vogt putting up a 113 OPS+ over 38 games as a fill-in for an injured Derek Norris, the Athletics have overwhelmed the league with quality up and down the roster.

Maybe defense is the new Moneyball, and maybe the A’s have just done a better job of scouting and developing throughout their farm system. Whatever it is, the Athletics have once again put together a rich roster on a low budget. The result, it appears following the weekend’s sweep of Texas, is a second consecutive AL West championship and a revival for Billy Beane‘s magic in Oakland.