I write this on Wednesday evening. It is mid-August. The Ides of August, even, though you're reading this the day after. The Oakland Athletics are 61-55, counting the Wednesday loss to the Royals. The last time the A's had a record this good this late was 2006, when they won the AL West behind Frank Thomas's bat and then went 3–4 in the playoffs—three wins against the Twins and four losses to the Tigers.
They're not looking at the division crown this year. They were up 5 1/2 games in the Short Stack in 2006, and they're down six now. Six games doesn't sound like a lot when there are 46 still to play, especially with seven of those 46 against the first-place Rangers. But it is a lot. The Rangers are a better team than the A's, so those games remaining are more likely to bury the Green & Gold than they are to become their salvation. This is why Oakland is only given a 1 percent chance at winning the division in the current iteration of our Playoff Odds. (Current as of my writing, anyway, which doesn't incorporate the Wednesday games yet, though I'll eat my hat with mustard if that figure differs much as you're reading this.)
No, the wild card, that's the prize. (Such as it is, anyway. You can call it what you want, but I ain't calling them "the playoffs" unless it's a multi-game series.) The A's stand a game back of Detroit and 1 1/2 back of Tampa and Baltimore. There are three games remaining with each of those teams as well. From here, there are some things that would be easy to do: I could tell you why the A's won't make the playoffs or I could tell you how the A's can back their way in (Miguel Cabrera gets hurt, the Rays slump, whatever). The first thing is boring because it's probably true and the second thing is depressing because playing "anything could happen" with negatives is morbid. It carries a whiff of ill wishes. It invites karmic whiplash. We don't want that.
Instead, let's muse on how Oakland can find itself playing nationally televised October baseball, even if for just one game. The briefest of recaps of how the team got to this place it's in will be instructive, so: Yoenis Cespedes (.321 TAv, 2.7 WARP), Josh Reddick (.293 TAv, 2.5 WARP), and Chris Carter (.348 TAv, 1.1 WARP in just 128 PA) are the flashy individuals; a 40–30 record in games won by three runs or fewer is the suspicious team-standings stat (or the sign of a good bullpen and tactical manager?); and the fifth-best rate of turning batted balls into outs is the indication that Billy Beane is still on that New Moneyball grind.
By the way, do you want to know how Carter is putting up a .348 TAv? Here's one reason:
That's Carter's swing rate in 2012, normalized. That is, it shows where he swings more and where he swings less than other righties in the league. So he's going after the inside pitches and the pitches in the strike zone and he's not touching the other stuff. Now this:
That's his TAv, also normalized. Why's he swinging at all those inside pitches? Because in the 15 plate appearances that have ended on pitches on the inner third or inside, he's ripped the ever-loving [ed.: you can't say that—you'll offend every religion there is] out of those balls. That "15" ought to raise your hackles a bit because it's a tiny number, but I'm more showing you explanations for the past than I am making predictions of the future.
Anyway, with that semi-aside in mind, let's get back to the three offensive individuals I mentioned above. The last time I wrote about the A's on this site, my extremely astute editor provided the following title: "Oakland is Just Terrible (No Offense)." That was June. Oh so long ago. Later that month (much later), the A's called up Chris Carter. From his first game (June 29th) on, the A's have scored a smidgen over 4.5 runs per game. Sure, big whoop, that's league-average (almost exactly). But for a team that plated 3.8 per contest B.C. (Before Carter), that's a huge deal. Point seven runs per game = seven runs every 10 games = 113 runs for the season. One hundred thirteen runs in 2011 would have taken the A's from 12th in the league to fifth. I hope I've provided enough context to show how massive a difference there is between 3.8 and 4.5. Keep all that in mind for a second because I need to lay a little more groundwork.
PECOTA as applied to our Depth Charts has the A's playing as a .474 team the rest of the year. Simulate that out against their remaining schedule, and you get mean win total of 82.9. The second wild-card team (the Rays) finishes at 86.6 wins. Theoretical wins and real wins and simulated wins aren't all the same thing, but just bear with me, because for right now, I'm going to wave my hands by typing about how I'm waving my hands and by the time you get to the end of this sentence, you'll have forgotten whatever objection you were about to make. Cool? Cool. So as I said, the A's are about 3.7 wins behind the Rays in terms of end-of-year expectation. With a runs-per-win ratio in the low nines, that means the A's need to figure out a way to add 34 runs to what PECOTA currently sees is their destiny if they want to catch Tampa.
That was the groundwork: 34 runs. As it turns out, with the way Chris Carter has played, we can find a massive chunk of those 34 runs just by mucking about with what we expect out of Carter.
First, let's dig into his playing time. Carter is currently penciled in for 65 percent of the starts between now and the end of the season in our Depth Chart, but he's actually started 21 of the last 22 games. And why not? The big dude with the lightning stroke ("Zeus" Carter?) is bashing .267/.398/.600. Six hundred! It's just 128 plate appearances, but the last guy to slug .600 in Oakland in at least 128 trips was Jason Giambi in 2001. So given that, you've got to figure Carter will play more like 95 percent of the time than 65 percent, with Daric Barton unlikely to appear at all and Brandon Moss's time being eaten into significantly now that he's quit Kevin Maasing all over the place. (Gross.) By a simple multiplication, this bumps Carter's expected VORP over the rest of the year from 4.5 runs to 6.5 while losing about one run's worth of Moss and Barton at the plate. (I'm assuming that defense is a wash—Moss is a converted outfielder and Carter is a converted DH.) So after all that, we've found: one run! Hooray!
But wait, that's one run based on his projected .284 TAv. PECOTA thinks he's the second-best hitter on the team, but that .284 is a far cry from the .348 he's put up so far. (For context, the unfathomably hot, in so many senses, Buster Posey stands at .349.) Let's be pessimistic and say he hits like Miguel Cabrera the rest of the year: that's a .324 TAv, representing a 60-point gain over his projection. A little math (divide those sixty points by 0.9, multiply by plate appearances) tells us that's a 12.5-run improvement over the rest of the season.
Chris Carter continuing to play like a superstar and getting playing time like a superstar would, in other words, go more than one third of the way toward pushing the A's from where they theoretically stand now to equal footing with the Rays. Of course, that still leaves another 20 or so runs to find, but the A's can get another chunk from similar machinations with Josh Reddick (.266 PECOTA TAv, .293 performance so far) and Yoenis Cespedes (.291 PECOTA, .321 to date; and he's an every-day player who only has 72 PA projected in the depth chart, presumably because of injury concerns). I won't show my work because it'll get tiresome, but you can get +10 more by adjusting Reddick's performance and Cespedes's playing time. And if Cespedes continues to hit like he has so far, rather than like his projection, he'll add another six runs.
Out of three hitters, in other words, and without going entirely loony with optimism (Brandon Inge carries a bat with him to the plate instead of his glove! Derek Norris's beard causes every pitcher to walk him out of fear! Jonny Gomes hits righties!), the A's can find reason for hope that they'll keep themselves in the wild-card hunt right down to the wire. Obviously this kind of thought experiment requires the belief that the rest of the team (the pitching in particular in this case) will not give back any of the above gains, that Brett Anderson won't struggle in his return from Tommy John surgery, that Brandon McCarthy won't get hurt again, that Sean Doolittle will remain inhuman. But like I said, sometimes you want to look for the reasons why a team will succeed rather than focusing on reality and/or the reasons why they won't. The A's have a path to the AL play-in game, and while it may not be the most likely path for the infinite coin-flips we call reality to wander down, it's a path, which is more than it looked like Oakland would be able to say they had back in June.