For a team that so recently had a feature film made in their honor starring Brad Pitt and Jonah Hill, the Oakland Athletics haven’t done much of late. After taking the world by storm and making the playoffs four straight seasons from 2000-2003 (and again in 2006), things have really quieted down for everybody’s once-favorite small market franchise. Moneyball is no longer the hot new commodity around the league, and on-base percentage is so commonly referenced now that even the most mainstream of fans can typically be expected to grasp the concept.
Indeed, no one is talking about the A’s the way they used to, and there’s no reason to — the franchise has moved on, and so should you. Why? Because this intriguing 2012 edition is putting the team back on the map for entirely new reasons, and they deserve to be celebrated for what they are rather than what they used to be. With another win in last night’s game, Oakland has now pushed its record up to 67-56, good for second place in the AL West. While they are only five games back of the division leading Rangers, it’s an unlikely prospect they would be capable of overtaking such a good, well-balanced team. More probable, at this point, are the odds that the A’s stake a claim to one of the two Wild Card spots, something they are currently well-positioned to do; they’re currently tied with the Rays atop the Wild Card standings, although the race remains tight.
Unless the A’s completely fall apart, this year’s team will be the first to finish over .500 since that 2006 club that last saw the post-season. This success would not have been entirely easy to predict, in all honesty. At the start of the day on June 12, in fact, Oakland was 27-35 and not too far removed from an unseemly eight-game losing streak. They suddenly caught fire after that point and ran off an impressive stretch that saw them go 26-9, culminating with a 16-0 win over the Blue Jays. While they have since played at a less torrid pace (14-12), they remain solid and very much a legitimate contender for the playoffs.
Apart from a few nice offensives pieces, however, the new generation of A’s don’t carry quite the same thump as those from the early 21st century. You might say these aren’t your… older brother’s A’s. As a team, Oakland is hitting just .232/.306/.387, and they’re nearly last in all three of those triple slash categories. In other words, they’re not getting it done because of Billy Beane’s revolutionary new discovery of how undervalued OBP is. Granted, those early 2000′s teams had some fantastic pitching of their own to speak of, but they also had a little more spark offensively.
That isn’t to say the A’s are helpless with a bat in their hands. Now that massive first baseman Chris Carter is receiving regular playing time, he’s quickly put up big numbers to match his size: he’s already pounded 10 home runs, he’s walking in nearly 17% of his plate appearances, and his .406 wOBA would lead the team if he had enough at-bats to qualify. Cuban sensation Yoenis Cespedes is putting together a fine season as well, and although he’s missed some time due to injury, that hasn’t stopped him from hitting .303/.365/.512 and contributing 1.8 WAR per FanGraphs. Josh Reddick, though tailing off, still finds himself near the .800 OPS department and leads the team with a total of 4.0 WAR. Jonny Gomes is his usual lefty mashing self, and Seth Smith has contributed a little as well (.778 OPS), so while Oakland has some problems producing runs overall, they have the potential to be much better if their players stay healthy and produce well within their designated roles.
Of course, the ability to score runs is only one side of winning, and it’s really run prevention that the Athletics excel in thanks to one of the game’s best defenses (according to UZR), an absolutely enormous home stadium, and a solid group of pitchers. Even the loss of testosterone fueled Bartolo Colon won’t necessarily be a huge devastation to a rotation that also features Jarrod Parker (2.6 WAR), the perhaps underrated Tommy Milone (1.8 WAR), and the recently activated Brett Anderson and Brandon McCarthy. And while the bullpen features few relievers who are in the midst of noteworthy seasons — with the exception of Sean Doolittle, who has a 13.5 K/9 rate and a 0.85 FIP in 28 innings — the unit is certainly not a weak one overall.
The bottom line? This A’s team is better than most of us probably thought they would be, and it’s not likely they’re going to wither away and disappear from any kind of post-season relevancy like teams such as Baltimore and Pittsburgh. Is this a better team than the Angels, or say, the Tigers? Probably not, especially in the case of the former, but it’s nice to see a team that was once the darling of baseball back in contention for something other than moving to Fresno.