Hall of Fame pitcher Lefty Gomez was often quoted as saying, "I'd rather be lucky than good." That adage is oft-repeated in sporting circles, but I'd like to make a slight adjustment to it. In the MLB playoffs, I'd rather be hot than good. The 2010 Giants, 2006 Cardinals, 2003 Marlins, and 2002 Angels were not the best teams in baseball those years, but they won championships because they were the hottest teams. The 2007 Rockies were far from the best club in the NL, but they rode an incredible winning streak all the way to the World Series. You have to be good to make the playoffs, but it takes a bit of luck and a lot of great timing to go all the way.
When August began, I took a look at who the Athletics' hottest hitters had been in July. The idea was to look beyond the full-season stats and see who was hitting the best at that moment. In the small samples of the playoffs, anybody can be the hero. With the ALDS starting tomorrow evening, let's take a look at which Oakland hitters were swinging the hottest sticks in September.
First, I'd like to take a macro approach. These are the team-wide OPS marks for each month this year:
April -- 761
May -- 696
June -- 738
July -- 647
Aug -- 779
Sept -- 838
Good news! The lineup seems to have peaked in September, which is the best time of year to play your best ball (other than October). Granted, the team probably faced its weakest opponents that month, but still. I'll take all the good news I can get.
Let's break it down a bit further. Here is how each Oakland hitter fared in September (sorted by the highest wRC+):
Note: Only players on the ALDS roster were included in this table.
Of course, these numbers all represent very small samples and were accrued against mostly crappy teams. But the playoffs themselves are very small samples, and sometimes Cody Ross hits two homers off of Roy Halladay to win a big game. The ALDS's hadn't even started yet before Marlon Byrd and Delmon Young hit big home runs in this year's postseason. Anything can happen. Let's see what kinds of conclusions we can draw from Oakland's impressive September stats.
The important hitters are all on fire.
While this team prides itself on its depth throughout the lineup, there are clearly a few key hitters who make the engine run: Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, Yoenis Cespedes, and Coco Crisp. Each one of them is absolutely on fire.
Josh Donaldson was so good that he was named the AL Player of the Month -- the first Athletic to receive that distinction since Eric Chavez in September of 2000 (that's 78 months!). He did everything -- he hit for average, hit for power, controlled the strike zone, and got on base. He's the best player on the team, and he's playing his best ball of the season right now.
Brandon Moss, meanwhile, figures to be a key player against Detroit's all-right-handed rotation. The good news is that he's posted an OPS over 1000 for each of the last two months. He hit 13 homers in August and September combined and slugged well over .600 in each month. The A's will need him to mash against the Tigers' power pitchers, and he seems primed to do just that.
Yoenis Cespedes has been an enigma wrapped inside of a riddle wrapped inside of a cigar leaf all season long. He seems to have finally figured something out, though, because he had by far his best month in September. His plate discipline still doesn't look good based on the walk and strikeout rates, but he's finally hitting the ball well and using the whole field. He posted an 812 OPS in April, and then didn't surpass 731 in any month until now. He's getting hot at the right time.
And then there's Coco Crisp. What can be said about Coco that hasn't already been said? He just posted the best offensive season of his career, he went 20-20 for the first time, and he still makes highlight reel catches in center field. The A's are 78-49 in games in which he starts, and 18-17 in games when he doesn't. This is the first time in his career in which he's hit seven homers in a single month, and he's still controlling the strike zone as well as he has all year.
If even two of these guys can continue their hot streaks. the A's lineup is going to look pretty good.
Strikeouts are down.
The biggest thing to worry about against Detroit's pitching is the strikeout. Two of their starters struck out 10 batters per nine innings, and Justin Verlander came one whiff short of striking out a batter per inning. Three of their relievers (Benoit, Smyly, and Alburquerque) also surpassed a batter per inning. Making contact will be a premium skill in this ALDS.
The good news is that, as a team, Oakland's posted its lowest strikeout rate of the season in September. They whiffed in only 17.1% of their plate appearances last month, down from 19.0% for the year. Their next-best mark was 18.5%, which they achieved in both April and August. Granted, they played seven September games against the Twins, whose starting pitchers are allergic to the letter K, but Iike I said, I'll take all the good news I can get.
Seth Smith got good again.
Smith has had a really weird season. He was red-hot in April (even against lefties), cooled off in May/June, and then bottomed out in July (357 OPS) and August (574 OPS). Then he had Lasik eye surgery in late August, and came back to mash the ball for 32 plate appearances in September. You can cry small sample size if you want, but consider that Smith had nearly as many hits in 32 September PA's (11) as in 102 PA's in July/Aug (13). Could Smith be the random player who gets hot and hits a big homer in October?
Josh Reddick has finally arrived.
A few months ago, I picked Reddick as my bold choice for Oakland's second-half MVP. I'm not going to link to the article because then you might read about how wrong I was. We can't have that.
Well, it took longer than I expected, but Reddick seems to have re-discovered his stroke. Hopefully, that also means that he's finally healthy. After getting BABIP'd all year, the hits have started falling in for the right fielder, and he's once again showing a level of plate discipline that I didn't think was possible from him. His home run power looks more like gap power this year, but a productive Reddick would be a huge boost in the playoffs.
Daric Barton is on the roster for more than his defense.
Barton's numbers in September are basically what his proponents have always wanted to see out of him. An average above .300, an OBP above .400, and more walks than strikeouts. He'll be in there for his defense, but he's also hitting as well as he has since 2010. His .339 September BABIP is probably unsustainable, but he should be a good bet to get on base a few times in this series.
Everybody is playing well.
The only three players with a September wRC+ below 100 (that is, below league-average) were the three defensive specialists: Kurt Suzuki, Chris Young, and Eric Sogard. Suzuki is in there as defensive catcher, Sogard is the best infield defender, and Young's best skill is backing up Coco in center. If none of them hit, then that's fine. At this point, no one is counting on them to. Of course, Young's other specialty has been game-winning homers, which would be a welcome contribution in October.
As with Barton, it should be noted that the team's BABIP was .314 in September (up from .289 for the season). They may have hit into a little bit of luck, and they certainly faced weak pitching. But a hot streak against weak pitching is a whole lot more encouraging than a cold streak, and the playoffs are nothing but small samples against potentially tired pitchers at the end of a long season. There's no reason why this hot streak couldn't continue for another couple of weeks.
One more table!
|On Fire (>150 wRC+)||Hot (110-149 wRC+)||Meh (80-109 wRC)||Cold (<80 wRC+)|
|Seth Smith||Coco Crisp||Stephen Vogt||Nobody.|
|Josh Donaldson||Daric Barton||Alberto Callaspo||Absolutely|
|Brandon Moss||Josh Reddick||Kurt Suzuki||Freaking|
|Derek Norris||Jed Lowrie||Chris Young||Nobody.|
|Yoenis Cespedes||Eric Sogard|
The "On Fire" section has Oakland's three most important hitters. The "Hot" section has four more starters. The "Meh" section has the two starters who are most likely to be removed early in the game anyway. Nobody had a truly bad September.
Again, I can't stress enough that these are small samples collected against weak pitching. That is a really important asterisk to put on these stats. But, given the circumstances, you couldn't hope for a better trend than this. Everybody is hot at the time when you most want everybody to be hot. And, as Righty Hall always says, "In the playoffs, I'd rather be hot than good."
Game 1 starts in 24 hours. Colon vs Scherzer. Meet us here at 6:00pm. I'll have your thread.