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Last season, the Oakland A’s limped to a 76-86 record and a third-place finish in the American League West. Over the winter, they seemingly worsened themselves (in the near term, that is) by trading away ace Dan Haren and offensive linchpin Nick Swisher. However, as a result of GM Billy Beane‘s trades, the A’s now have one of the best farm systems in the game (although, to be fair, some of that young talent seems to be trending downward), but it was assumed that the cost of those acquisitions would be irrelevance in the present. Thus far, however, those assumptions have turned out to be incorrect.

PECOTA tabbed the A’s for a 79-83 campaign, but that’s looking like a healthy underestimation. At this writing, the A’s are a surprising second in the West, on pace for 89 wins, and, according to first-, second-, and third-order standings, they ought to be atop the division by a sizable margin; a plus-58 run differential achieved before July will do that for you. Anyway, how have they achieved such unlikely success? For the most part, it’s been great pitching and great defense, the two factors which have constituted the “Oakland Way” for the past several seasons.

This year, the A’s rank second in the majors in Defensive Efficiency, but that’s not particularly out of character. What is somewhat surprising is the strength of the rotation thus far: they have four starting pitchers, because they have four starting pitchers within the AL’s top 21 VORP performers: Justin Duchscherer, Rich Harden, Dana Eveland, and Greg Smith. Unexpected? Absolutely. Sustainable? Perhaps.

In terms of his ERA, Duchscherer is besting his 90th-percentile PECOTA projection, Harden his 75th, and Eveland and Smith their 75th– and 90th-percentile forecasts, respectively. On the other hand, Joe Blanton was expected to be the rotation’s stalwart this season, but he’s checking in between his 40th and 25th percentiles. To what extent luck is involved in the numbers, take a look at each starters’ BABIP to date:

Pitcher       2008 BABIP
Blanton             .299
Duchscherer         .246
Eveland             .288
Harden              .298
Smith               .270

Duchscherer’s is obviously somewhat low, and Smith’s is modestly on the lucky side. So they might be in for glancing regressions going forward. Mostly, though, there’s nothing terribly out of whack. The key, insofar as the rotation is concerned, is of course keeping Harden healthy. In six major league seasons, Harden has been on the disabled list six times, and since 2006 he’s logged a total of 125 2/3 innings. There’s no disputing his excellence, but if the A’s are to make a genuine run at this then Harden must defy his history.

Offensively, the A’s have enjoyed a nifty mini-renaissance from Frank Thomas after picking him up off of the discard pile (before breaking down), and Eric Chavez recently returned from the DL and seems to be back to bopping a bit. Mark Ellis has been quality in all regards, and Jack Cust has rebounded quite nicely from a miserable start to his season. With all that said, the A’s in 2008 rank a mere 18th in the majors in EqA, so the offense is anything but a source of strength. In particular, the A’s have received paltry production from first base and right field. The A’s best hope is that the two youngsters manning those positions-Daric Barton and Carlos Gonzalez-get better with time, and better that the time be “soon.” Add in continuing disappointments of Bobby Crosby-at least he has his health-and tepid production out of filler pickups like Emil Brown, and it’s clear the A’s need to see that their kids can play.

What does it all add up to? According to the PECOTA-Adjusted Playoff Odds Report, Oakland has a robust 63.4 percent chance of making the postseason. By comparison the Angels have just a 36.5 percent chance of making it. That’s a function of Oakland’s significantly better run differential. As for the divide between run margin and record, the usual explanations seem not to apply. Usually such discrepancies are traceable back to each team’s record in one-run games, but the A’s are 10-10 in one-run affairs, and the Angels are 13-9. That’s a difference, but not a big one. Two-run games? In those, the A’s are 6-10, but the Angels are a whopping 17-4. Is such a disparity in two-run records mostly a function of luck, as we’ve come to believe about one-run records? Or is it indicative of a skill? The logic of scale suggests that it’s more of a skill than one-run outcomes, but measurably less than records in five-run games. Color me flummoxed.

Regardless of how you answer those questions, here’s what Oakland needs to happen: continued very-goodness from the rotation and bullpen or, in lieu of that, some development from the youngsters holding down first and right. Additionally, the Angels must run up against the vengeful god of run differential (although he occasionally sleeps through his shift). All in all, PECOTA probably oversells the A’s odds of pulling off the rebuilding miracle, but at worst it seems to be a coin flip in the West. And who would’ve guessed that?

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