Editor's Note: this post is part of the Front Page Auditions Series
Great baseball teams win 100 plus games and the Oakland Athletics are on the cusp of greatness. The last time they crossed the century mark they benefited from the "Big Three", an MVP shortstop, and a twenty game winning streak. All of which led to a book and eventually a movie to document or some would say "craft a story" of the 2002 season.
If you believe Moneyball, the Hollywood depiction of the 2002 A’s, then the A’s should crush 100+ wins this year. After all Brandon Moss is significantly better than Scott Hatteberg, Bob Melvin has the respect of Billy Beane, and the A’s front office doesn’t have to use any brain power to unload Jeremy Giambi for a bag of Cheetos. But we’re not comparing 2014 to 2002. We’re looking at a 94 and 96 win team the past two years that is even better this year.
Oh, but hold on. You want to tell me that the division is too good. The A’s can’t win 100 games even if they are better because the Angels are going to bounce back, Texas added a Prince, and Seattle just outspent the Steinbrenners to secure Robinson Crusoe (er Cano). Well, let’s look at some history. In 2002, when the A’s won 103 they didn’t steam roll a division of pansies. The Angels won 99 (and the World Series) and Seattle won 94 that year. And unlike this year the A’s in 2002 didn’t get to play 19 games against the Ineptros, who were still in the NL West. In other words, let’s cross off the "strong division" argument against 100.
Instead, let’s discuss three reasons why the A’s are at least four games better this year.
Yoenis Cespedes – last year was disappointing unless you get a lot of satisfaction watching All Star homerun hitting contests -- .240 average, 26 jacks, 80 RBI’s. Did the league out adjust him or was he distracted from helping approximately 10 family members who had defected from Cuba relocate in the US? I believe at least partially the latter. In September he hit .314 with 6 HRs. In the playoffs, facing the best pitching in the AL, he hit .381. We have no idea what his ceiling is. I’m betting it’s significantly higher than last year.
The bullpen. The bullpen was exceptional last year. But it’s better and deeper this year. What does that mean? Per Professor David W. Smith, a winner of the Henry Chadwick Award from the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) for those who aren’t in the know, who did a detailed analysis of decades of baseball performances, teams win 86% of the time when they have a one run lead after 8 innings. So what, you say. Well, I think the new metric for the A’s might be they win 80%+ if they have one run lead after 5 innings – Otero, Gregerson, Doolittle, Cook, Johnson…No one is going to want to be behind the A’s half way through a game with their depth. The A’s have shortened the game to the nub.
The starting pitching. Four out of the five likely starters are pre-arbitration eligible – i.e. they are still very very young – 24 (Sonny Gray), 25 (Jarrod Parker), 25 (Dan Straily), 26 (A.J. Griffin) – and could make this a five year playoff run. A subject in of itself for another time. If you believe that the prime years of a player peak around age 28 there is some significant improvement coming from a core that have already been pretty special. And not taking anything away from our comrade Karl Marx, but typically competition -- to win a job in the show and to stay off the Greyhound road trip rides in the minors -- breeds better ballplayers. And remember, Sonny Gray, only made 10 starts in 2013. Put him down for 30 this year. But just yesterday A’s fans were asked to hold their breath. Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin experienced "forearm tightness" and "elbow discomfort", which could be code for Tommy John surgery or in a best case scenario everyone’s all fine in three weeks. While the A’s could probably weather missing Griffin with Tommy Milone or Jesse Chavez, Parker is a #1 or #2 starter. If he’s out for more than a few weeks then so likely are chances of 100 wins…If he’s not, there is still one major curveball -- what about Big Bad Bartolo?
The A’s don’t have anyone that’s a good bet to be drinking out of the Fountain of PED’s this year. Allegedly. Bartolo Colon was throwing 96 MPH and won 18 games at age 40 – a year removed from being caught using banned substances. In the history of baseball—channeling David W. Smith to confirm this -- name me a prior 20 game winner who wins 18 games after 6 years of not winning more than 10 a year? However, if Giants fans can turn a blind eye to Barry Bonds’ use of PED’s when he was making waves as the original Splash Brother, then A’s fans can put their head in the sand and marvel at how good Bartolo was without thinking dirty thoughts. He won 18 games. He had a 2.65 ERA, his second lowest ever. He threw 38 consecutive strikes against the Angels two years ago. 38? Are you kidding me? On several A’s teams a few years back 3 straight strikes would have required divine intervention. The A’s are going to miss him.
That said, they won’t miss him as much because Mr. Beane and company have put together an incredible team -- stocked at every position with replacement parts at the ready. And while 100 wins does not guarantee anything -- the last five times the A’s have done it they have not won the World Series – it certainly give the A’s as good of a chance as any other contender. They are on the edge of greatness. And Parker pending, this time Hollywood has a readymade title – 100: Rise of an Empire.