Are the Oakland A's really this good?

Clay Kallam

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Today, the A's have a better record than the Dodgers -- but will that be true in September?Getty Images

More than 20% of the major league season is in the books, and only one team has more wins than the Oakland A’s. If the season were to end today, the A’s would host the White Sox in the ALDS and be taking aim at the Boston Red Sox for a trip to the World Series.

Then again, the A’s have been outscored by 10 runs after Sunday’s games, which is the mark of a .500 team, not a 21-15 team. And remember, 13 of those 21 wins came during one of those inexplicable hot streaks that sometimes elevate ordinary teams into something special for a brief glimpse of glory.

So which team will fans see the rest of the year? The group that’s in first place? Or the players who’ve watched the other team score 10 more runs?

Pitching

It is indeed the year of the pitcher, so it makes sense to start here – and the veteran A’s staff (fifth oldest in the league) has been steady if not spectacular. In fact, the best way to describe Oakland’s pitching is “average.”

The team ERA? 4.16, compared to the league average of 4.04. Saves? 10, compared to the league average of 8. Home runs allowed? 39, the same as the league average. Strikeouts? 308, just five more than the league average of 303.

As with any franchise, though, injuries are a factor. Jesus Luzardo apparently got more upset at losing a video game than a Major League game and broke his finger, and Mike Fiers, who will be 36 in mid-June, is on the injured list as well. That leaves the rotation a little short, though Daulton Jeffries, Grant Holmes and James Kaprelian are all former first-round picks who are just a phone call away.

All in all, the rotation seems to be comfortably average, even accounting for the injuries, but the bullpen may be more problematic. The erratic Lou Trivino leads the team in saves, and ageless – well, he’s 36 – Yusmeiro Petit is the most effective, but it’s hard to see a World Series contender with a relief staff anchored by Trivino, Petit, Jake Diekman and Burch Smith.

So far, so good, though, and if A. J. Puk ever surfaces and Adam Kolarek finds his groove, Oakland might have just enough pitching to stay atop the Al West.

Hitting

So if the pitching is average, then the hitting needs to be above-average, right? And despite a homer-suppressing park, the A’s have more power than most teams, and they complement that with a better-than-average walk rate as well. In fact, they even steal a fair amount of bases, but despite all that, they are below average in the single most important offensive stat: runs scored.

Part of that is just luck, but the veteran hitters (third oldest in the league) are predominantly right-handed, which makes it harder to take advantage of platoon splits against relievers, and there’s a black hole whenever the shortstop comes to plate. Neither Elvis Andrus or Vimael Machin are doing anything – if you add their batting averages, they total .211; and only a recent hot streak has gotten Andrus’ OPS above .400.

Of course, Andrus will hit better, and since no other player is really tearing it up, it’s reasonable to expect that the offense will improve over the course of the season, maybe by a lot. If so, the rest of the season will be a lot more fun, and include a lot more wins. If not, well, a .500 season isn’t that bad.

Fielding

The A’s were early adopters when it comes to playing guys all over the field, regardless of their previous experience, and the reason is simple, though counterintuitive: The better the pitching, the less important the fielding.

Let’s start with an unlikely comparison, slow-pitch softball. Since everybody hits at least .500 in slow-pitch, every out is precious. If you make an error on what would have been an out, the next guy will probably get a hit, and now there’s a rally under way. And since one of the next two hitters is likely to bang out a line drive as well, at least one run will score because of that error.

But now look at MLB today. Nobody’s hitting, so if you put a runner on with an error, the odds say that you’ll get three outs before that run scores.

Of course, you’d rather have good fielders than bad fielders, and Matt Chapman and Matt Olson are elite. The rest, even cannon-armed Ramon Laureano, are average at best, so defense is not an Oakland strong point. In fact, according to Baseball-Reference.com, Oakland is projected to have the worst defense in the league, but so far it hasn’t mattered much, and is unlikely to during the regular season.

But, as mentioned, you’d rather have good defense than bad, and especially come postseason, when the competition is stiffer, fielding becomes more and more critical.

In conclusion

So are the A’s really this good? Sadly, the numbers seem to say no, as Oakland doesn’t really stand out in any particular category, and that 13-game winning streak looks more like one of those goofy outliers rather than a measure of how good the team really is.

On the plus side, the AL West isn’t exactly loaded with juggernauts, and even though various projections favor the Astros in the long run, Houston is an aging team that’s still struggling with the aftermath of the cheating scandal.

All in all, then, expect the A’s to be in the thick of things all year long, but don’t be surprised if they fade from being one of the winningest teams to being one of a large number of pretty good teams. But if they can figure out a way to get to postseason, strange things can happen – after all, a team that won 13 in a row in April can do it in October too.

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Clay Kallam is a lifelong East Bay resident who spent several decades in local journalism -- and still writes for Diablo Magazine (among others). Over the years, he has covered just about every aspect of life in the Bay Area, from rock-and-roll to the arts to political coverage to food to sports. On the food front, he does not claim to be a critic, but rather someone who enjoys a good meal, a well-made drink and a nice red wine. As for sports, he has written for national publications (including Sports Illustrated and Slam) and covers girls' basketball across the nation for MaxPreps. He is a high school coach and a serious fan of the local teams -- and savored every minute of the Giants' and Warriors' championships. He graduated from Acalanes, UC Santa Barbara (ancient history) and Cal (philosophy). He lives in Walnut Creek with his wife Maggi, who takes many of the food photos. He appreciates his readers and is always happy to talk about anything he's written. His food experiences can be found at #dishdining on Instagram, and emails can be sent to claykallam@gmail.com.

Walnut Creek, CA
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