For so much of this season, it seemed as though Texas would be coasting to the division without a real competitor. All winter and spring, we were told what a great race the Angels and Rangers would be. The new big rivalry in the American League!
With an April collapse in LA, though, that big race never quite materialized. They managed to pull to within three before the trade deadline and traded for Zach Greinke, but then went in to a free fall that has them praying just for a Wild Card spot. With pennant races heating up, the team Sports Illustrated put on their cover as "The New Road To The World Series" is a non-contender in the American League West.
Yet Texas has not been able to settle fully in to comfort, thanks to the explosion of the Oakland Athletics.
Now, this is not an extraordinarily closer race than the Rangers have had in the Ron Washington era. This time last year, the division lead was only one game better at five up. It was a two game lead just a week ago, though, and the big difference last year was the ultimate series against the second place team came when things were just about wrapped up. This year, Texas will host Oakland for a four game series with time left yet for that series to actually matter, starting tonight.
We were all prepared to know our foes in these Anaheim series. The mass media fed us their players and their stories, and we focused on the team meant to give us problems. In all that time, the A's, and what makes them tick, were able to slip through the cracks.
It didn't help that the A's seemed done for almost the entire year. As early as May 29, Baseball Prospectus had their playoff chances at 0%. On June 30th, they were just over 0% while sitting 13 games back of the division lead.
Since that day, they have gone a blistering 49-24. Their playoff odds once climbed to well over 95%, within two games of the Rangers, and had the second best record in the American League. That's crazy enough for a team no one expected to be good, let alone a team that went the first three months of the season without changing any of those minds.
There has been debate about what has gotten Oakland to this point. Are they a fluke, or are they legitimately one of the best teams in the league? Is it suffocating pitching, or is that an effect of their ballpark that has their offense getting underrated? The truth, as usual, is somewhere in the middle.
With 651 runs scored, the offense has been the fourth least productive in the AL, but playing half your games in Oakland's cavernous stadium will do that to you. Their (park-adjusted) 96 wRC+ is nothing great, either -- average being 100 -- but it is closer to the middle of the pack, and you can win when your offense is mediocre and your run prevention is great.
Thanks to having allowed fewer runs than anyone other than the Tampa Bay Rays, that's been the case. By ERA, their pitching has been absolutely phenomenal, with a team rate of 3.51. They don't even look like a fluke from the typical measure of a team's "luck," getting an expected record out of runs scored and runs allowed. Oakland's expected record is just shy of 84 wins, close enough to their actual record of 86 wins.
Stifling pitching is the reason they are really one of the best the AL has to offer; no luck here. Right?
Maybe, but not necessarily.
For one, only some of that run prevention is on the pitching. We also need to give some credit to a defense which ranks third in the league in Ultimate Zone Rating. Something neat to point out, by the way, is they sit behind the Angels and Mariners, and ahead of the Rangers; the AL West (by UZR) has the four best fielding squads in the AL.
There's also the matter of luck in their run prevention. That ERA of 3.51 is a full 0.7 runs per nine -- 106 more runs on the season so far -- better than you'd expect from looking at their rates of strikeouts, walks, and fly balls allowed; three things that are better at predicting runs allowed than ERA.
What's going on is two fold: teams aren't getting strong contact against the A's, and the A's aren't letting baserunners score. In fact, only the Angels have a lower batting average on balls in play (.276) than the A's, and no team has a higher left on base rate (75.3%).
The A's "ability" to to create fieldable contact and strand runners have each been worth about four extra wins to the team this year, a whopping eight total. When shifting from actual runs allowed to expected runs allowed (and scored), Baseball Prospectus drops the expected record for Oakland by four games (and raises Texas by five).
The important thing to note is that, while nearly an entire season has been played, these statistics -- LOB% and BABIP -- are not something you can expect to normalize in even a full season for most pitchers. A season is long, but it's not long enough to avoid flukes on what happens when baseballs travel in to play. Some of that is a strong defense, and perhaps there is some magic juice they have going, but the A's have won more than you expected, and there is compelling evidence they're proving you wrong at least in part with luck.
Regardless of whether they are somewhat lucky or entirely this good, though, the significant thing is that they now have these games in hand. They are now a team that could threaten the Rangers' hopes with a good showing in Arlington.
Since that moment of sitting as near playoff locks, though, and just two games back of the division, with the second best record in the league, there has been some cooling. We begin this four game set four games up on Oakland, while they have fallen behind the Yankees and Orioles in the wild card standings, and are now just 2.5 up on the Angels. Two games in a week is a big deal this late in the season, and what seemed like an unexpectedly tight race is now on the verge if being over. Merely getting a split in this series will put the Rangers' magic number at three (assuming Oakland stays in front of LA), and a sweep would eliminate the A's division hopes.
Texas still has to win those games, though. We can be happy that Texas is probably going to win the division, but until this series is over with a resounding Texas victory, there will still be reason for some nervousness. Especially with Adrian Beltre and Josh Hamilton being damaged goods right now.
Lucky or good, Oakland has a chance over the next four days to create a storybook sequel to Moneyball. Though the movie does fail to mention the team the A's overcame still slipped in to the Wild Card and went on to win the World Series.