Oh, man, the A's look good. I mean really good. Hey, everyone! Come see how good the A's look! The starting rotation is dealing; Oakland starters have allowed no more than 1 earned run in their last 6 games, and no more than 2 earned runs in 18 of their last 20 games. The starters are getting the job done. The bullpen hasn't blown a game since...last Friday, which is still progress.
The A's pitching is always good, though. Even when the team is terrible, Oakland's pitchers are usually not the problem. Last year, especially in the first half of the season, the A's were bad because they couldn't score at all. The moment that an Oakland starter gave up his only run of the evening, you just knew that the game was over. A 1-run deficit? Forget it. Insurmountable. Sure, they'll load the bases on an error and two walks in the 9th, but trust me. It won't matter. It never mattered.
This year is different, though. The A's are exciting! They have all kinds of hitters who can do all kinds of neat things. Gone are the days of Three True Outcomes specialist Jack Cust, sitting around waiting for his pitch, taking called third strikes as he tried to Lawyerball his way into a walk or a homer. Gone (for now) are the days of Daric Barton, doing the same as Cust but without the homers. Gone are the days of Kurt Suzuki, pounding double-play grounders into the...wait, he's still here? OK, scratch that. Suzuki is still here, and still not a very good hitter. At least he swings the bat, though. Patience is a virtue, even in baseball, but there has been a feeling around the A's fanbase that the hitters need to spend more time hitting and less time looking for a walk. Walks lead to baserunners, but only hits will score those runners. You'd really like to have both.
So, the boring Old Guard is out of the picture, and they have been replaced with thrilling all-around players like Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, and Jemile Weeks. Professional hitters like Seth Smith, Jonny Gomes, and Brandon Moss have sparked a lineup which, while not prolific, is at least putting together rallies and hitting for extra bases and winning games. With athletic, higher-average hitters throughout the lineup, the A's must be doing something different than the old homer/walk/strikeout routine, right? Continue after the jump to find out!
Let's start at the beginning, as that is a very good place to start. Oakland is 41-42, and if they can win their upcoming series at home against the Mariners, they will enter the All-Star Break with a .500 record. Wow! The lineup went crazy in June, placing in the top 10 in the Majors in scoring for the month. What kind of effect did that success have on their 2012 run total?
Oakland, 312 runs scored, 28th in Majors
Hm. Never mind. Still can't score runs. Let's make sure that it's because we have bad hitters, and not just bad luck or bad timing or...
Oakland, .669 OPS, 29th in Majors
Oakland, .296 wOBA, 28th in Majors
Oakland, 87 wRC+, 27th in Majors
There. See? They may be scoring like the 29th-best team, but it's all lies! They're hitting more like the 27th-best team! Nothing like sabermetrics to brighten your day.
OK, so they're not scoring, and it's because they're not hitting very well. Whatever, the pitching still rules, and good pitching beats good hitting any time (and vice versa, but shut up). Here's the thing, though:
Oakland, .224 batting average, 30th in Majors
I don't get it. The A's have all of these exciting, gritty, aggressive hitters who seem to knock the ball all over the yard, right? Nope. Turns out that the whole lineup is one big 2011 Kurt Suzuki, at least according to the numbers I've cited so far (2011 Suzuki: .686 OPS, .300 wOBA, 89 wRC+). Actually, Suzuki's 2011 numbers were slightly better than this year's A's team. Jeez. Get it together, fellas.
Still, there must be something else that we're missing here. The A's aren't scoring much, but they're scoring more runs than a couple of teams despite being dead last in hitting the damn ball. Sure, they're also last in BABIP (.265), but I see that as more of a related failure than a sign of hope for positive regression. Everyone gets robbed of a hit now and then, but Oakland's hitters bounce, pop, and fly into a lot of routine outs.
And then, there were three. True outcomes, that is.
Oakland, 9.2 BB%, 4th in Majors
Oakland, 21.2 K%, 6th in Majors
Oakland, 81 home runs, 16th in Majors
Well I'll be damned. You can take the Oakland out of Cust, but you can't take the Cust out of Oakland, apparently. The entire lineup isn't one big Suzuki; it's one big Three True Outcomes hitter. The numbers aren't quite Custian, but the tendencies are there. The A's aren't swinging much (27th in Swing%, 29th in O-Swing%, which is swings outside of the strike zone), but when they do they are making a fair amount of contact (16th in Contact%). In other words, they're working the count and waiting for their pitch, and when they get it they are unloading. Also noteworthy is the way in which they are unloading:
Oakland, 39.1 Fly Ball %, 1st in Majors
Oakland leads the league in something! No one hits a higher percentage of fly balls than the A's do. That is why they can be middle of the pack in homers despite being below-average in their HR/FB rate (23rd in the Majors). Coupled with the fact that they are 27th in doubles, this also explains their low batting average. They are hitting a lot of towering fly balls which are either clearing the fence or being caught for routine fly outs. There hasn't been a whole lot of in between (like hard smashes which fall a couple feet short but hit the wall for doubles).
Sure, this A's team can manufacture a run now and then. They are 6th in the Majors in stolen bases, at an efficiency rate (79%) which ties for 5th. But that is just the icing on the home run pie for this lineup. As Susan Slusser mentions (from the link in the first paragraph), the A's have homered in their last 15 straight games, their longest such streak since April of 2002. True enough, when I look back at the successful run over the last few weeks, it is highlighted by a bunch of homers and timely homers and leadoff homers and walkoff homers, and not much else. Well, except excellent starting pitching. Always with the starting pitching.
What do the stats say about Oakland's hot hitting in June? Despite getting that average up (to .250, ranking 20th in June), they're still relying on those same three outcomes: 3rd in BB%, 4th in K%, T-7th in homers. The wRC+ (T-6th) is still outperforming the OPS (12th).
What does it all mean? Is Dave Kingman secretly pulling the strings of his old team? Did Adam Dunn sneeze on home plate during Chicago's last visit, infecting generations of Oakland hitters to come with his offensive strategy? Is this how they play baseball in Jamaica, where hitting coach Chili Davis is from? Anything is possible, I suppose. More likely, this is just the best type of hitter that Oakland can afford. The guys with high batting averages and OBP's are too expensive, but homers, on their own, are pretty cheap these days. Think again of that list of exciting, all-around hitters from the intro: Reddick, who is a low-average, high-power hitter; Cespedes, who has tons of power but swings all-out and strikes out a lot; Gomes and Smith, who both rack up the K's and walks while looking for their pitches to crush; Weeks, who has increased his walks while decreasing everything else good; Moss, who is flashing the power but not making a lot of contact otherwise. With the exception of Weeks, they've been successful hitters, and, also with the exception of Weeks, they were picked up on something resembling the scrap heap (Cespedes counts because any free agent who lands on the A's must have been passed up by 29 other teams).
I don't have a grand conclusion for you. I just thought it was interesting that, in Oakland's quest for a new group of hitters and (at least in my mind) a new offensive strategy, they have finished up with a lineup that seeks out the same Three True Outcomes as always. The good news is, it seems to be working slightly better this time.
Just in case you forgot, it's July 5 and the A's are only 4 games out of a Wild Card Play-In spot. Time to start getting your hopes up!