August 17, 2006
How the A's Got Their Groove Back
Yesterday, I took a shot at the "Fundamentals" sign in left field at U.S. Cellular Field in Chicago. It turns out I was wrong about what it represents.
I'm writing because you took a shot at the "Fundamentals" sign... calling it silly. I suppose you think the sign declares the White Sox an organization that stresses fundamentals and that "this is what made us World Series Champs."I don't know when the sign went up, but I only noticed it this year, and just made the connection between it and the Sox' representation of their style of play in winning last year's championship. I'm relieved to be wrong about this, and I thank D.K. for his correction.
Here's a question: what major-league team has the second-biggest lead in its division behind the Mets? The answer to this was "the Tigers" for most of the season, but right now, it's the A's. They have a 6˝-game lead over the Angels in the AL West, a mark that matches the Tigers' lead in the AL Central, but is slightly better because they're seven games up in the loss column.
How did this happen? The A's have been beset by injuries all year. Their best pitcher has thrown just 35 innings, their highest-paid player is hitting .242 with a .420 SLG, and their "MVP candidate" shortstop has a .297 OBP when he's not riding the bench with nagging injuries. Until last Saturday, the team had actually been outscored on the season. The A's have never really solved their offensive problems, hitting just .251 on the season with the second-worst EqA in the AL and a punishing lack of power from six lineup slots…yet they're in as comfortable a position as any team in the league, and they're an odds-on favorite to reach the playoffs for the first time since 2003.
The 2006 A's are firmly, deeply, a pitching-and-defense team, the end product of five years of roster transition. No matter how many times they get described otherwise, the facts are that the A's win by keeping their opponents off the scoreboard. The A's are second in the AL in ERA, runs allowed and Support-Neutral Lineup-Adjusted Value-Added (SNLVAR, or more simply, the quality of their starting rotation). They have the best bullpen in the AL as well, and are fifth in the league in defensive efficiency. If anything, the A's have gone too far in this direction, and now find themselves committed to players such as Jay Payton, Mark Ellis and Mark Kotsay. A few offense-for-defense trades can help balance a team; the current A's have actually overcorrected in that regard, and with the stagnaton of Bobby Crosby and Dan Johnson, they've been left with an inadequate offense.
Quite frankly, the segment of the media that likes to focus on "what a team would have been without this guy" in MVP discussions could do worse than to land on Frank Thomas. Thomas' overall stats don't make him a candidate-he's just the fifth-best DH in the league-but his .262/.385/.514 line has meant the world to a team that has just one other player posting an 800 OPS. I don't buy the "where would they be without him?" MVP argument, but there's no player, not even David Ortiz, who has a greater claim to that ground than Frank Thomas does.
The Mariners have helped, of course, The A's are 15-1 against them, which accounts for the entire difference between them and last place in the AL West. There's no obvious reason why they would match up well with the Mariners, so this looks like one of those fluky things that happens in the course of a season. The head-to-head results between the two, particularly six A's wins over the last two weeks, have created all the separation in the AL West standings.
This isn't a particularly good team aside from their terrific run prevention. The A's have good plate discipline, but when they do swing the bat it's to little end. They don't hit for average or for the kind of a power you might expect from a high-walk team, nor do they have any kind of team speed. Few teams get worse results from making contact; the A's are 13th in batting average, last in slugging, 11th in isolated power, third in GIDPs and last in batting average when not striking out. If any team could use a Dante Bichette/Garret Anderson type of hitter, a .300 guy who never walks and knocks 75 extra-base hits, it's the A's. What the A's have are junior versions of that in guys like Payton and Kotsay.
An upgrade through the trade market is unlikely, so what you see is what you get. In the 2006 version of the AL West, however, that's probably enough. This division, a power in the early part of the decade, is having what may be its only down year for a while. The A's may not be one of the five best teams in the AL, but they don't need to be this year. And of course, once they get into the postseason, they're as much a threat as anyone thanks to the top end of their pitching staff. If Rich Harden somehow gets healthy for the Division Series, there's just not that much difference between the A's and the Tigers, not over a best-of-five.
It would be amusing if the worst A's team to make the playoffs this decade turned out to be the first one to reach the ALCS, and it did so by beating the top seed in the league.