Update, Wednesday 11:59 p.m.: Of course, that other team here in the Bay Area is not too shabby either, as the A's learned tonight. Despite some recent struggles, the San Francisco Giants, proud World Series champions in 2010 and 2012, regained first place in the National League West with a spirited 5-2 defeat of the A's in the third of the current four-game series between the two Bay Bridge Series rivals.
They play again mid-day Thursday in San Francisco in the finale.
It was a raucous scene at AT&T Park Wednesday night, with rival fans alternatively shouting "Let's go Oakland" or "Let's go Giants" all game long. In the early innings, the A's fans had the edge but as the game progressed, the hometown fans took over the noise meter until it became almost deafening by the end.
Update, Wednesday 9:30 a.m.: Apparently these A's are jinx-proof. Last night they continued their winning ways, taking Game 2 of the Bay Bridge Series against the S.F. Giants, 6-1. With the Angels' loss, their lead in the AL West grew to 4½ games. The A's have now won six in a row and lead the majors with 57 wins.
The Bay Bridge Series shifts west tonight for Game 3 at AT&T Park at 7:15 p.m. Recently acquired Jason Hammel makes his first start for the A's, squaring off against Matt Cain.
If you've been a fan of the Oakland A's all along, bear with us for a minute — we've got a news flash for those living in San Francisco Giants Land. And here it is: The A's aren't just that other Bay Area team. In fact, there's little doubt that right now they're the best team in all of major league baseball — and by a large margin.
They enter Tuesday night’s game against the Giants riding a five-game winning streak, after shutting out their San Francisco rival 5-0 Monday.
They lead the majors with 56 wins and a .629 winning percentage. The only team close is their AL West rival, the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, who are currently 3½ games behind Oakland, with 52 wins. Even more impressive is the A’s colossal run differential (runs scored minus allowed) of +140.
To put that into perspective, the teams with the second- and third-highest run differentials in baseball, the Angels (+74) and Seattle Mariners (+66) respectively, have the same +140 differential, combined. (Perhaps not surprisingly, the AL West cellar-dwelling Texas Rangers and Houston Astros have the two lowest differentials in baseball.) The A’s run-differential through all 162 games last season: You guessed it, +140.
The first half of the season has been nothing short of historic. Through the team's first 65 games, MLB.com reported the 2014 A’s were one of only 10 teams since 1940 with a run differential of at least +124. And MLB noted that those other nine teams "read like a who's-who of some of the greatest teams in modern times."
"The elite group consists of the 2001 Mariners, the 1998 Yankees, the 1998 Braves, the 1976 Reds, the 1976 Phillies, the 1974 Dodgers, the 1969 Orioles, the 1955 Dodgers and the 1944 Cardinals. Every one of those teams won at least 98 games, and all but the '55 Dodgers (who played only 153 games) won more than 100. Every one, of course, made the postseason."
The A's amazing numbers are hard to ignore, and the team is starting to get the attention it deserves. Oakland will send six players to the All-Star game, the most of any team (no other team has more than four representatives).
Josh Donaldson won the fans' vote for his position, earning the starting third base job for the American League team, becoming the first Athletic to win a fan-elected starting job since Jason Giambi did so in 2000.
In addition to Donaldson, left-handed pitchers Scott Kazmir and Sean Doolittle, catcher Derek Norris, and outfielders Yoenis Cespedes and Brandon Moss will make the trip to Minneapolis to play in the All-Star Game next Tuesday.
According to MLB.com, “The A's had not sent at least six players [to the All-Star Game] since 1975, when they had seven on the roster. They hadn't even had as many as four since 2003, which also marked the last time they sent a position player.”
The A’s also made a big splash last weekend, adding starting pitchers Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel in a trade with the Chicago Cubs. Samardzija was selected to the National League All-Star team, but will be replaced after his trade to the American League. The trade not only bolsters the A’s rotation, but signals to their fans and all of baseball that they are all in to make a strong push this season.
Looking at Oakland’s current roster, it’s tough to figure out how this team of no-names continues to dominate.
FiveThirtyEight recently wrote about one theory, pointing to the team’s high “cluster luck.” (“When a team’s batters cluster hits together to score more runs and a team’s pitchers spread hits apart to allow fewer runs, that’s cluster luck.”) Oakland currently has the second-highest cluster luck in baseball, meaning the team strings together hits in bunches leading to more runs, while not allowing other teams to do the same. (That same article points to bad cluster luck, the inability to string hits together, as one main reason for the Giants’ recent swoon.)
A’s General Manager Billy Beane wrote an article for the Wall Street Journal this week that sheds some light on his current philosophy for building a winner. Beane describes using technology, such as MLB’s “3-D tracking system,” Statcast, which is currently in use in only a handful of major league ballparks, to take Bill James-inspired sabermetrics to a whole new level of performance evaluation and roster building.
The technology "provides detailed metrics on the locations and movements of the ball, the players, and even the umpires." MLB periodically releases videos of the new technology in action, showing detailed data such as how fast a defender takes his first step, route efficiency and ball release. Here's an example: an amazing catch by the Dodgers' Yasiel Puig (Statcast info begins at :15):
Is all of this advanced data just a new way to quantify how great that catch is? Beane hints at a more subtle way to use the information to inform his personnel decisions:
“Data compiled using new technologies will enable management to assemble players in new ways, emphasizing their ability to complement one another. Whereas current metrics describe players' performance in isolation, front offices will increasingly rely on statistics that measure a player's value in the context of the rest of the team, picking up externalities such as how a player's defensive abilities may compensate for the deficiencies of those playing around him.”
Beane adds: “Technology-based roster-building and algorithm-driven decision-making thus will be the strongest propagators of the traditional virtues of teamwork and chemistry.” In other words, the A’s front office is using technology to manufacture their “cluster luck.”
Let’s be clear, this is not old-style Moneyball. Oakland management is spending money on players. Maybe not at Dodgers or Yankees levels, but the team is no longer refusing to invest in talent, as it did in the early 2000s. Its opening day payroll was more than $83 million, compared with $41 million in 2002. Billy Beane has made a few big money signings -- this offseason, he signed Kazmir to a two-year deal worth $22 million (a deal that's looking good now), gave closer Jim Johnson $10 million for one year (Johnson's been a flop, especially in appearances at the Coliseum), and is paying Cespedes more than $10 million both this year and next.
Maybe this is Beane tipping his hand, giving us a glimpse at the evolution of Moneyball, driven not by severe financial restrictions, but by an ever-growing parity in access to advanced performance data. As more information is available to all teams, Beane is keeping his team ahead of the curve by finding new ways to use that data.
At least through the first half of this season, anyway. The biggest question surrounding the A's as they approach the All-Star break (especially with their Coliseum lease nearing an apparent resolution), is whether or not they can keep up their torrid pace.
Over the last 10 years, the A’s have earned the reputation as a strong second-half team. (This doesn’t even include 2002’s legendary 20-game winning streak), which bodes well for the rest of the season.
In his WSJ column, Beane explains how technology is changing the game of baseball, for fans and front offices alike. “As we have seen in other societal realms, technology is driving sports down the road toward increased access, diversity and meritocracy.”
So far this season, Beane’s Athletics seem to be in control of baseball’s meritocracy.