Entering Thursday’s games, the Pirates had the best record of any MLB team over their last 30 games: 21-9. The Cardinals and Blue Jays, whose run prevention and production, respectively, are the best in baseball, have each gone 20-10. I’m guessing you know these things; these teams are big stories, from Toronto’s winning streak to St. Louis’s perseverance over mounting injury problems. Even the small-market Pirates are getting national attention, thanks to their unique story and to Andrew McCutchen.

I’ll bet you didn’t know this: the only team sitting at 19-11 over its last 30 games, entering Thursday, was the Oakland Athletics. The same team that started 14-30 has been one of the league’s most dominant clubs for the last five weeks, and by beating the Rangers Thursday, they escaped the AL West cellar (however narrowly, by just a few percentage points over the Mariners) for the first time since May 7th.

I wrote an article for Just a Bit Outside in mid-May about the run of brutal luck that had felled the A’s. I talked about the gap between their run differential and their winning percentage, and about the even greater gap between their actual run differential and the one implied by their raw statistics. I shed a very public tear for the hard-luck A’s, but in the end, I firmly recommended that they tear the thing to the ground. Their playoff odds when I wrote that article were hovering around six percent. I could see no way that they might overcome such a bad stretch to open the season and still finish it by earning a playoff spot.

In hindsight, that was myopia on my part. The 2014 A’s finished the season on a 16-30 jag, but their previous performance had been so good that they made the playoffs anyway (if only barely, at 88 wins, and not for long). The 2013 Dodgers had a 17-30 stretch early in the season, and a 42-8 stretch in the middle, and cruised to the playoffs. We live in the Age of Streaks, and teams go from excellent to execrable twice a season.

Now, I’m still going to recommend that the A’s sell. They’re nine games back of the Astros, six games back of a Wild Card slot, and still less than 15-percent likely to reach the playoffs, according to the Playoff Odds Report. The false rebounds by teams who started slowly are harder to remember but almost certainly more common than the real rebounds are. This is still overwhelmingly likely to be the zenith of Oakland’s season, and anyway, they have a bevy of tradable assets whose value to the team as anything but trade chips is somewhat limited.

The point, though, is that the A’s are alive and kicking again. If they do sell, the last month ought to make Billy Beane think more about players with immediate turnaround potential than about those with long-term upside but no short-term value. (This is how Beane tends to think anyway, but it’s worth underscoring the point. He has a more competitive core in place than he might have thought he had.) It would feel like cruel irony to some, but maybe Starlin Castro could fill the role Beane once had set aside for Addison Russell. Maybe the Dodgers would give up some member of their overcrowded bunch of hitters to improve the back half of their rotation. In mid-May, even accounting for bad luck and underachievement, it looked like Beane’s effort to move past baseball’s decades-old formula of buying and selling in trades had fallen on its face. Today, Beane looks pretty smart.

For just a moment, let’s talk about the phenomenon of good teams playing very badly for long stretches. I gave a few recent examples above, but there have been others. Good teams have been falling into deeper funks and rising to greater heights in recent seasons, it seems. Look at the start the St. Louis Cardinals are having. Though they might rightfully be the best team in the National League, they’re no 105-win team. Yet, here they sit, 47-24 through 71 games. Remember the 2013 Indians? They won the last 10 games of their regular season, by sweeping the Astros, White Sox, and Twins.

That last anecdote hints at the hypothesis under which I’m working. The Astros, White Sox, and Twins of 2013 averaged 60 wins apiece. They were terrible teams, and the Indians did what good teams have always been told they had better do: steamroll their terrible opponents. It doesn’t usually come out quite so neatly, though, which leaves me to wonder: is something changing the natural interaction between good teams and bad ones?

There are a few somethings that might be doing such a thing. One, of course, is the unbalanced schedule, which makes any evaluation difficult. Teams face very disparate sets of opponents, and the coming and going from divisional play serves to segment many clubs’ schedules. Another possibility is that the talent pool is getting a bit empty on the shallow end, creating an underclass of teams on whom any competent big-league squad could beat up. There’s some evidence of this, though circumstantial evidence only, in the way the league’s platoon breakouts look, and in the way teams are going from also-ran to contender (or the other way) so easily.

It could all be a fluke, of course, but for the A’s, it doesn’t feel that way. It seems as though the team is finally catching a few breaks and playing to its potential. That that has come right on the heels of such a miserable run illustrates the peculiarity of the competitive landscape around the league right now. I was mostly wrong in my article about this group last month, but one thing I’ll stand by is: there will be no team more fun to follow toward the trade deadline than this one. The range of possible outcomes is simply huge.

Thank you for reading

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