Okay, if you follow the A's at all you must have heard the news. After dropping nine in a row to a season low .423 win percentage the A's reeled off a 21-13 record to arrive at .500 at the All-Star break. Seemingly more impressive, the A's are seeming now in the thick of the American League 2nd wild card spot hunt.
ZOMG. THE A'S ARE ONLY 2.5 GAMES OUT OF THE WILD CARD RACE.
These two facts: .500 ball and 2.5 back from the WC put the A's at a crossroads as the trade deadline, or as I like to call it, "Do You Intend to Contend Day", approaches. The question of the month for the A's: sell, buy, or stand pat?
Many fans are fixating on those two numbers: .500 & 2.5. But this is a very saber-metric friendly blog. We know overly fixating on just one number can be dangerous. Much as on-base percentage has proven a better indication of player offense than batting average, I reckoned we could do better than just talking pure win percentage. As Leonardo DiCaprio would say, we must go deeper.
Level I: Why so many .500+ teams?
First up, I want to get to the bottom of this whole 11 of 14 teams at .500 or better business. Fun stat, although one must skip over the fact that three of teams are at exactly .500. The distribution should really read 8 over the mark, 3 at the mark, and 3 under the mark, which sounds much less sensationalistic (stupid math ruining fun again). Next, we all know inter-league play fluffed everyone's schedules a bit. This year it was a full on bloodbath, as the AL beat the NL 142-110. What does that mean for the standings? The AL "stole" 16 wins from the NL, meaning the AL as a whole will finish 16 games over .500. That breaks down to just over a win per team. So, for this year, the league-average AL team should actually finish with a record of 82-80. Just something to bear in mind when looking at the standings. I broke apart the whole league by AL and inter-league play to see who really feasted on the sad-sap NL:
|Team||AL wins||AL losses||AL pct||interleague W||interleague L||interleague PCT||full W||full L||full PCT|
Texas sure won the "natural rival" lottery, going 5-1 against hapless Houston. Everyone else fell about in line as expected. No-one did very poorly, but the bad teams only won eight or nine games while the good teams were pulling double digit victory totals from the decrepit NL. Only the White Sox, Rays, and Indians performed better in-league than against the senior circuit. So interleague play was for the most part as expected. Good teams did better than bad. Only Baltimore looks truly out of place, although part of that .500 AL record is playing in the Division of Death.
Okay, so the NL didn't throw the AL standings too badly out of whack. Going on just AL records, there are 6 under .500 teams and 8 over .500 teams. I believe this is a fairly normal All-Star Break distribution for the AL teams. Feel free to ignore the "11 of 14" .500 teams hype. Also, the NL really does suck.
Level II: Why so close to a Wild Card Spot?
Now that you hopefully have a better sense of our .500 record, what does it mean to be 2.5 games off the wild card pace? For some context, we're all much more used to thinking about a one wild card league. Seems like hardly anyone these days is discussing that 1st wild card spot. For all the talk of the 2nd WC race, I think people forget that the Angels are only 3 games from losing that first playoff spot. To get a better grasp on this year's full race, I looked at the race for both the first and second wild card. Note that in the standings below, I added AL win percentage for some additional context. Yay context!
|Team||W||L||PCT||AL Pct||GB 1st WC||GB 2nd WC||2012 WC race|
x,y,z: Division leaders for the East, Central, and West, respectively
a, b: Wild card leaders for 1st and 2nd spot, respectively
In year's past, at this point in the season there are 6 teams ahead of us and we're 5 games out, instead of our current situation of 5 teams ahead and 2.5 out. Certainly 5 games is a steeper hurdle, but even then we still could not have been classified as having no hope going forward.
Everyone on the internet is screaming about "seller's market" because there are so many teams in contention. Many claim that this is because of the 2nd wild card. Is it? Let's take a look at the previous five years and see how they compare under both formats. I used a notation similar to the last column in the previous table. Numbers in parenthesis represent standings under the old (1 wild card) format and the other number is the standings under the new system.
|Playoff Team 1||-||-||-||-||-||-|
|Playoff Team 2||-||-||-||-||-||-|
|Playoff Team 3||-||-||-||-||-||-|
|Playoff Team 4||-||-||-||-||-||-|
|Playoff Team 5 (Runner Up 1)||- (2.5)||- (4)||- (2)||- (4)||- (3.5)||- (1.5)|
|Runner Up 1 (Runner Up 2)||0.5 (3)||1 (5)||2.5 (4.5)||0.5 (4.5)||1 (4.5)||5.5 (7)|
|Runner Up 2 (Runner Up 3)||1 (3.5)||2 (6)||4.5 (6.5)||3 (7)||1 (4.5)||6.5 (8)|
|Runner Up 3 (Runner Up 4)||1.5 (4)||6 (10)||5 (7)||3 (7)||2.5 (6)||6.5 (8)|
|Runner Up 4 (Runner Up 5)||2.5 (5)||6 (10)||7.5 (9.5)||4.5 (8.5)||3.5 (7)||7 (8.5)|
|Runner Up 5 (Runner Up 6)||2.5 (5)||6.5 (10.5)||9.5 (11.5)||5 (9)||4.5 (8)||10.5 (12)|
|Runner Up 6 (Runner Up 7)||2.5 (5)||8.5 (12.5)||11 (13)||9 (13)||6 (9.5)||12.5 (14)|
|Runner Up 7 (Runner Up 8)||7.5 (10)||11 (15)||16 (18)||10 (14)||10.5 (24)||12.5 (14)|
|Runner Up 8 (Runner Up 9)||9 (11.5)||12 (16)||16 (18)||11 (15)||12.5 (26)||12.5(14)|
|Runner Up 9 (Runner Up 10)||10 (12.5)||12.5 (16.5)||23 (25)||13.5 (17.5)||14 (17.5)||16 (17.5)|
All standings as of July 9th
Wow! Over the last six years, this has been by far the most competitive AL season to date. In no other year has the sixth runner up team (that's us this year) been less than 6 games out under the new system (9.5 out of the old). Forget the Wild Card debate, this is a season unlike any other (cue Fox overly dramatic music). If you want to hazard a guess as to why be my guest, but at this point in the season the field's wide open and the 2nd WC does make the wide window even wider.
Level III: What would it take to become playoff team #5?
This whole post has been about standings. What can standings tell us about win chances? Strength of schedule is what. Hey, it's like we're on the Stanford/Cal football blogs. All opponents are not created equal. Below is a table of all our opponents and the number of games we have played and have yet to play.
|Win Pct||Opponent||Games Played (86)||Games Remaining (76)|
What really jumps out at me from that list is how top heavy it is. Fully a third of our remaining games are against the Yankees, Rangers, and Angels. Yikes. To date, our opponents had a cumulative .503 win percentage. Going forward that total jumps to .523. But that stat is a tad misleading, remember the average AL team is better than .500 (specifically, league average is .506) this year thanks to inter-league play.
Okay, now that we've seen the road ahead let's play the "What would it take to win" game. Before we can play, we need to postulate how many wins it will take to win that coveted 2nd Wild Card spot. Here's a list of the number of wins the 5th place team in AL finished with going back to the 1998 expansion year (that gave us the doormat turned darling Rays):
|Year||5th place win total
That averages out to 89 wins. When it topped 90 wins the American League usually had a punching bag or two (the 100+ loss years from the Royals and Tigers) and that 85 win year was the good ole days of 100+ win Seattle and Oakland beating the heck out of everybody. Getting back to 2012, let's assume 89 wins is the target. Based on the remaining schedule, what would it take for the A's to get 89 wins?
The first tall order of business, playing tough against the big boys. Let's say the A's go .500 against the unholy trinity of NYY, LAA, and TEX. That's 26 games and from 43-43 we get to:
Of the remaining teams, there are two groups. The punching bags (MIN, SEA, KCR - 15 games left) and the other wild card contenders (CWS, BAL, TBR, CLE, DET, BOS, TOR - 35 games left). One way to get to 89 wins is to go a perfect 15-0 against the punching bags:
Do that, and you only have to play a shade over .500 ball (18-17) in those 32 games against the rest of the league and that'll get you to
So, pretty much .500 ball against all the real competition, and every loss to MIN, SEA, and KCR has to be made up somewhere else. Pretty interesting lens from which to view the rest of the season, eh?
End of Levels - You have defeated Ignorant Analysis and saved Princess Reason
I hope you enjoyed this look at where we are located record-wise in relation to the rest of the league. It will be very interesting to see if the standings hold as close as they are by July 31st. I don't know what's "best" for the franchise but I do know as a fan that in this shootout year for the playoffs, with such good vibes on the team, if ever there was a time to believe in the intangibles of winning culture and happy fanbases and the like, this is the year to not sell off anyone.
I want to finish with a quick personal story. You know what happened exactly four years ago yesterday? A good friend of mine, a native son of the East Bay who spent his youth cheering for the Green and Gold, a fan since '68, revoked his ties with the Oakland A's. Stopped following the team. Gave up on rooting for them. What happened on July 8th, 2008?
At point the A's were 49-42 and sat 5 games back of Anaheim for the division lead and just 4.5 back of Boston for the wild card. We can talk about overachieving teams and proper predictions for failure and I don't want to at all get into the merits of that trade. For my friend, all he saw was a winning, contending team throw a season away. Harden pitched the Cubs right into the playoffs that year, rubbing salt into the wound.
I don't believe in franchises destroying themselves by making stupid moves to placate fans, but I also miss my friend coming with me to A's games.