I woke up this morning feeling pretty good about what the A's have done so far this season. The team is loaded with fun, young players, is above .500 for the second day this year, and has plenty of promising talent in the system. Speaking of the farm, player development seems to be occurring once again after taking a break for a couple of years. Sure, the starting lineup last night featured just one player hitting above .250 (Gomes and Taylor reached that mark by the end of the night), but as a 2010s A's fan you appreciate the baby steps. The fact that a lineup of weak groundball specialists threw up nine runs against one of the better pitching staffs in the league only added to my irrational enthusiasm.
Later in the morning, I read a fact that should have put a damper on that enthusiasm: despite being above .500 and in second place, the A's have the third-worst run differential in the American League. With 97 runs scored and 112 allowed, they are outperforming only Kansas City and Minnesota. And as any diligent, sabermetrics-dabbling fan knows, run differential is a far better barometer of how a team is actually performing than current win-loss record. So why aren't I worried about the A's keeping company with the worst two teams in the league? Three reasons:
1. The offense might be bad, but it's not this bad
The A's have scored 3.34 runs per game this season. For comparison, last year's disgustingly terrible offense scored 3.98 runs per game. Willingham is gone, but with Cespedes, Reddick, Smith, Kila, and Gomes added to the mix and Barton healthy, this year's offense should be better than last year's. Jemile Weeks is not going to hit .174 all season. Kurt Suzuki is not going to go homerless. While the offense is unlikely to impress this year, this team will average more than 3.34 runs per game by the time the season is over.
2. This is a team in flux
The current version of the A's is not even close to a finished product. Jarrod Parker has had just two starts to show off his filthy fastball. Michael Taylor has risen like a phoenix from the ashes and is getting his shot in the majors. The recently arrived Brandon Inge will stabilize the defense at third while performing as well or better than his predecessors at the plate. Manny's suspension is up in a few weeks. Brett Anderson is on the comeback trail. Prospects like catcher Derek Norris and starter Brad Peacock look close to major league ready. Thus, the team on the field could look drastically different in just a month or two.
Meanwhile, the starting staff has been in flux all season. The back end of the rotation, Tyson Ross and Graham Godfrey, combined to give up 30 of those 112 runs in just 36 innings. Godfrey has already been replaced by the above-mentioned Parker. Unless Ross picks it up, he won't stay in the rotation for long either, with Peacock a possible replacement. Toss out Godfrey and Ross and prorate the runs allowed rate of the rest of the pitching staff, and you get 95 runs. Again, the A's and their shockingly terrible offense have scored 97 runs. Boom. Positive run differential.
3. There is a lot of baseball left to be played
The Texas Rangers are first in the AL in run differential (another reason among many that the A's aren't going to accidentally win the division like they did in my dream the other night). In second? Yeah, the Baltimore Orioles. I feel pretty comfortable saying that the Baltimore Orioles aren't going to have the second best run differential in the AL at the end of the season. This is what 30 games can do: make even a good, underlying predictor stat look all crazy. I thought I was going to write more on this bullet point, but I'll just leave it at that. Right now the Baltimore Orioles have the second best run differential in the AL. There is a lot of baseball left to be played.
It is definitely true that the A's are lucky to have scratched out 15 wins in 29 games while being outscored. If they continue to be outscored, they should not expect to continue to win many games. However, lucky or not, those wins are in the bank now, and for the reasons listed above the run differential going forward should improve significantly. This is a .500 squad masquerading as a lucky bottom-feeder. They've outperformed expectations so far, and with the corrections due on offense and all of the reinforcements on the way, they should continue to outperform expectations.