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June 29, 2005

Prospectus Today

Turning it Around

by Joe Sheehan

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I don't want to get too carried away with this, but here are the AL West standings as of this morning:


              W   L   Pct.   GB
Anaheim      47  29  .618    --
Texas        38  37  .507   8.5
Oakland      36  40  .474    11
Seattle      33  42  .440  13.5
(Aside: man, the Angels are playing some good baseball.)

And here are the AL West standings as of the morning of June 29, 2001:


              W   L   Pct.   GB
Seattle      56  21  .727    --
Anaheim      38  39  .494    18
Oakland      37  40  .481    19
Texas        30  47  .390    26
Back in 2001, the A's put together a monster second-half run, going 64-19 from July 1 through the end of the season. It wasn't enough to catch the Mariners, but it did comfortably place them in the wild-card slot. It was just one in a series of great second halves for the A's, who played .600 ball or better in the second half of each season from '01 through '03, making the postseason each time.

It might be happening again. With a 17-8 June, the A's have gotten off the mat and at least started to justify the expectations of those of us who thought the midwinter trades of Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder wouldn't keep them from having a successful season. You might recall that the A's 17-32 start was in large part driven--or stalled, if you will--by an offense that was as dysfunctional as you're likely to see. For the season's first two months, the A's had implemented a take'n'rake offense, hold the rake, with a sparkling walk rate and strikeout-to-walk ratio and no other offensive assets. They didn't hit for average, drive the ball or run the bases well, leaving them with one of the game's worst lineups, last or next-to-last in the AL in virtually every category.

This month, however, the A's have begun to hit for average and power, enabling them to leverage the strong walk rate and plate discipline--85 walks against 96 strikeouts in June--into runs. The A's have scored 136 runs this month, after scoring just 201 in the season's first two months combined. Their per-game average has jumped by 38%, from 3.94 to 5.44 runs per game. It's the difference between an offense that can't win and one that can. They had 28 homers coming into June; they have 27 in the month so far, with a couple of games left to play.

Most of the gain is just regression to the mean. Eric Chavez and Jason Kendall simply weren't likely to keep being below-average players. Chavez is at .385/.449/.719 in June, while Kendall has found his singles, if not everything else: .314/.410/.349. The return of Bobby Crosby has been a big boost, as the second-year shortstop has hit .318/.375/.523 this month. Those three players are responsible for most of the A's offensive improvement in June, although the improved slugging of nearly everyone on the roster has boosted production. The support players, guys like Scott Hatteberg and Bobby Kielty and Mark Kotsay, look a lot better when they're the fourth, fifth and sixth best hitters in the lineup rather than the best three, as was the case for the first third of the season.

The bump in runs scored would be enough to explain the turnaround, but the A's have done a better job on the other side of the ball as well. The rotation, which itself went through an awful stretch in May, has righted itself to become a consistent producer of quality outings. Joe Blanton, who was arguably the worst pitcher in baseball last month (28 runs, 31 hits, 14 walks, six strikeouts in 18 1/3 innings), has begun to miss more bats, stringing together five good outings and posting a 23/8 K/BB this month in 35 2/3 innings. Rich Harden, back off the disabled list, has picked up where he left off, with one run allowed in two six-inning starts. Barry Zito may never get back to his 2002 peak, but he's settled into being a good mid-rotation starter. Even Kirk Saarloos's weird Kirk Rueter act is working for the moment, with a 2.08 ERA (and 2.42 K/9) in June.

And then there's the guy they got for Mulder. Dan Haren has a 27/5 K/BB and a 3.11 ERA in June, and is at 78/32 for the season in 104 innings. After a May wobble, he's established himself as the A's second-best starter behind Harden. How does he compare to the more famous pitcher in the deal?


                ERA     RA      IP   K/9   K/BB   VORP   WARP   SNLVAR
Haren          3.89   4.67   104.0  6.75   2.44   12.4   2.5       1.9
Mulder         4.55   4.81   101.0  5.61   2.03   11.4   1.7       1.2
Haren's nine unearned runs allowed to Mulder's three makes the ERA difference less meaningful than it appears at first glance. But when you do take that second look, you see that Haren has a meaningful edge on Mulder in runs, in underlying indicators, and in advanced metrics. He's outpitched Mulder so far, giving the A's the edge before considering any of the other players--or any of the money saved--in that deal.

It's important to note that some of these gains may be illusory. The A's played most of June in run environments that favored pitchers, and against teams with below-average offenses. Right now, the A's are in the midst of a ten-game stretch in which they play just the Giants and the Mariners, two teams that have made a lot of pitchers look good this year. Haren, Saarloos and the rest of the rotation will get a tougher test when they play the White Sox on the last two weekends before the All-Star break.

This isn't 2001. While better than they looked in April and May, the A's aren't as good a team as they were then, and the competition for the wild card is stiff. The A's are just 6 games behind the Orioles, but they're behind seven other teams, including the Twins, who are almost certainly better than the A's and who are the most likely wild-card team. Their chance of a second-half run to the postseason is fairly low, although their history and their better play of late argue for taking it seriously.

This looks less like the '01 team and more like the '99 version. That was the year the A's moved from rebuilder to contender, but with the team in both the AL West and wild-card races in midsummer, Billy Beane straddled the line between mortgaging the future and making a run, completing four trades that, in the big picture, didn't change the team's outlook all that much in '99, but brought in two players (Terrence Long and Jason Isringhausen) who would make contributions to playoff teams in 2000 and beyond, while jettisoning older talent that had no future with the team.

That's where the A's find themselves again, in the gray area between rebuilding and contending, and with a future that should look much better than their present. The challenge for Beane is to straddle as well as he did in 1999. This could mean trading away Zito, a move that would look a lot worse for the A's--due to Zito's reputation--than it actually would be. If Erubiel Durazo can get on the field enough to prove he's healthy, moving him to allow Dan Johnson to keep playing would make sense.

What's certain is that the A's aren't going to just be a footnote to this season. I expect them to continue playing well, and while my preseason prediction of 90-odd wins and a division title is unlikely to come true, the underlying idea--that the A's could contend through a transition--seems to be proving sound. The Braves are the model for successful roster turnover; if the A's can pull it off, they would be the first small-market team to achieve this feat, and set off another round of agitated debate over the right way to run a baseball team.

It'd sure be cool if there were more than one.

Joe Sheehan is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Joe's other articles. You can contact Joe by clicking here

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