From yesterday's chat:
Rob, In the end who makes the playoffs in the American League?
Yankees, Tigers, Rangers, White Sox. Book it.
Don't get me wrong; I like Rob Neyer. He is a voice of reason in the insanity of the baseball world, and I find myself agreeing with him more often than not. However, in this case, I don't think his pick for the West will even end the season in second place. Of course, baseball's a funny sport like that, so I hesitate to completely contradict him, but since all we really have at our disposal are the numbers, and some time to kill before the A's try to pull off a pretty amazing sweep, I submit the following: a look at the next 43 games and three of the AL West teams: The Loveable Moppets, The LAAAAA Angels (We'll call them "The Baying Hounds from the Place With Fire and Brimstone" for short), and the Texas Rangers.
With the devastating young combo of Jered Weaver and Joe Saunders (who apparently don't lose baseball games), Ervin Santana, another young arm with flashes of brilliance, Kelvin Escobar (who is pitching better that his record suggests), and their established ace, John Lackey, the Angels are making up for the loss of Bartolo Colon by turning in quality start after quality start.
The A's, meanwhile, have not been so lucky in their 'replace Rich Harden' campaign, and have also been hampered by the inconsistency of Esteban Loaiza, who admittedly has been night-and-day better lately. The A's aces Barry Zito and Danny Haren may have more experience than Weaver and Saunders, especially down the stretch, but they also haven't been quite as good overall. Blanton has come on lately, but is still prone to streaks of inconsistency. And then there's that nagging feeling of looking at the radar gun during Zito's last few starts...
Starting for the Rangers are Vicente Padilla and Kevin Millwood, whose W/L records have been helped by the vaunted Texas offense, and Adam Eaton, who, much like Padilla and Millwood, is vying for an ERA between 4.00 and 5.00. Kip Wells and newcomer Edinson Volquez have recently joined the starting rotation, and while Volquez just got his first major league win, Wells' most recent less-than-sharp start was masked by the Rangers' offense, as is always the case when the Rangers are winning. This is not a rotation to build any part of a dynasty with, but they're going to win most of the games in which their team scores 8+ runs. That being said, when an opposing pitcher does manage to shut down the Rangers' offense, or even hold them to four runs or fewer (or seven, as was the case last night) Texas is almost always going to lose.
Overall Advantage: Angels
The Angels' bullpen, once touted as the highlight of the team, has really struggled this season. Brendan Donnelly was shifted around from set-up to mop-up, and back to set-up, where he has improved recently; Gregg, Carrasco, and Bootcheck have struggled as well, and Romero has been flat-out terrible; leaving Shields and K-rod as the go-to guys from the pen.
The A's, by contrast, have one of the best bullpens in the league, and it shows in their record. The devastating combination of Calero, Duchscherer, and Street has become almost automatic; the long relief of Saarloos, Gaudin, and Halsey keeps the team in games in which the starters depart early, and the spot-appearances of Kennedy and Sauerbeck have been used to maximum effect this year.
The Rangers have a bullpen?
I kid, I kid...kind of. The Rangers are a team that survives on blowouts; over their last forty games, only ten were decided by fewer than 3 runs, and the Rangers' record is 4-6 in those games. During a series, the Rangers can beat you 14-0 in one game, but they also are prone to losing one by a close margin when facing a strong starter and bullpen, and losing another one by a large margin when their pitching staff is matched against a strong offense.
One series is really all you need to watch to get this answer. The Angels' defense is among the worst in the Major Leagues, and the A's is among the best. With Chavez at third, Ellis at second, Swisher at first, and three centerfielders roaming the outfield, the A's nail down the defensive plays. The Angles, on the other hand, find that their pitching and offense must cover for their defense in almost every game, while the Rangers fall somewhere in the middle; they have their stars, but they are still prone to the unearned run.
Distant Last: Angels
Well, since the A's are last in the league in just about every offensive category; they lose this round. Last night notwithstanding, the A's offense is not good, and no amount of winning is really going to change that. The A's are finding ways to win without much offense, which says volumes about their pitching and defense. In some games, one big hit is literally all it takes for them to win, and the A's have used that axiom to maximum advantage this year. See: the A's run differential.
I see a lot of similarities between the A's and Angels' offenses--that is to say, the Angels are not that good at the plate, either. The Angels have outscored the A's by about forty runs so far during the season, but Texas has outscored both of them by about as big as a margin as you can imagine--they have scored about a hundred more runs than the A's. Texas' offense is scary good and is the only reason they're even flirting with the top of the West.
Advantage: Texas, and it's not even close.
This is a tough one, since it really depends on what you think a manager does during the game, and it also depends on what kind of club you are managing.
I would venture to say it's fairly easy to manage Texas; you take your nine best hitters, line 'em up, let them hit, and start a pitcher for your team. On a good night, your team will score ten runs, and give up four. On a bad night, you'll score four and give up ten. Replace pitchers as needed.
Things are a little tougher for Macha and Scioscia, due to the plethora of close games that they have to manage. Both are fairly competent at using the bullpen; the batting lineups are pretty much set for the year, except for weird exceptions (BoCro batting third, for instance), so that leaves in-game management. Scioscia is great at the concept of the running game, but could stand for improvement at picking times when his players won't be thrown out or picked off. The Angels give away too many outs on the basepaths--they are successful at stealing less than 75% of the time, and that's not including the runners thrown out at home--and even with their offense having a slight edge over the A's, they make up for it by frequently giving away outs.
By contrast, the A's don't have much of a running game at all, but Macha has tried some small-ball management lately, with limited success. The A's are not likely to lose a game on one play, or one mistake, but the same cannot be said for the Angels. Of course, Texas doesn't usually lose games on one play either, but that might be because they are either winning by five or more runs or losing by five or more runs by the time the game gets to the late innings.
At this point in the season, with six, seven, and eight head-to-head match-ups remaining between the three teams, the A's hold a 5.5 game lead in the West over the Angels, and 6.5 game lead over the Rangers. It doesn't quite put the A's in the bank yet, but as Ray Fosse put it the other night, "I'd rather be the team with the five game lead".
I normally hold very little stock in the idea of a 'soft' or 'hard' schedule going down the stretch. Too many factors enter into the game of baseball to determine the outcome of any series before it's played. However, if you look at the Angels' Aug/Sept schedule, you will find that they alone have to play against the playoff-striving Red Sox, Yankees, and White Sox teams, and their advantage (their starting pitching) is going to be matched against Texas' advantage (their offense) for eight more games, including tonight's. The Texas Rangers have only the Detroit Tigers to contend with for a series, but they do have the eight games with the Angels and six with the A's. While I believe that it is highly unlikely that either the Angels or the Rangers can do more than split their eight games, the same thought applies to the A's/Angels series, a total of seven games remaining before the end of the season. The A's and Texas do play each other six more times, but the Angels will be playing Boston, the Yankees, and the White Sox during that same stretch, so it's hardly an advantage.
Oakland Wild Cards:
With a healthy Rich Harden, the A's move from a good baseball team to an elite baseball team. When used as a starting pitcher, the big three in the rotation are Zito, Harden, and Haren, who can win any series, any time, against any team. Even out of the bullpen, Harden is a formidable opponent, and will help the A's not only to games in October, but games late in October. But it is a huge 'if' whether Harden will even come back for the 2006 season, or if he even should.
Unlike the situation in Anaheim with Bartolo Colon, there was not a rookie superstar waiting in the wings for a chance to be Oakland's everyday shortstop. Instead this role has fallen to Marco Scutaro, a journeyman with enough black-magic to land not only a gig on the 25 man roster, but a starting role, and in the last month, Scutaro has put up .311/.362/.557 numbers. Granted, his season totals (especially his OBP) are dismal, but sadly, they're all better than Crosby's, whose 2006 OBP is less than .300, and his slugging is not much higher than that. Could this be the result of a nagging injury? Can the A's already light-hitting offense afford to take a shot at finding out? Is the shortstop role really Crosby's to lose? And most importantly, will it kill the mojo to disturb the team on the field right now?
Loaiza has been one of the mysteries of the 2006 season for the Oakland Athletics. Purchased with the label of 'innings-eater; 3-4 runs allowed in 6-7 innings' kind of a pitcher, Loaiza has been a huge disappointment for much of the season. However, in his last two starts; holding Texas to four runs in six innings, and nearly pitching a complete game against Tampa Bay, he's beginning to show signs of the pitcher he's been in the past. If he can match Zito, Haren, and Blanton down the stretch, the Angels' advantage in the starting pitching department may be nullified.
Again with the witchcraft, because there is no way on earth a team should own another team quite the way that the A's own the Mariners of 2006. They have won 14 games in a row against Seattle, bringing the season total to 14-1, which is ridiculous, and actually defies statistics. By contrast, the Angels have fared worse against the team from Seattle; going a pedestrian 5-7 against them for the season with seven games to go. But this does not hold true for the Rangers, who own a very respectable 8-2 record against Seattle, with six games to go.
Health, health, health, health
The assessment above is only valid as long as the puzzle pieces stay in the puzzle.
So, here's what it looks like from my perspective right now. With seven head-to-head match-ups left with the Angels, and six with Texas, the A's will have to fight for it, but a five and a half game lead with 43 to go is an advantage; not a guaranteed one, but a maintainable one. It's by no means a certainty; it's by no means over by a long shot, and there will be many, many more panicked games to go before it's all over, but this reality is this:
Oakland holds the cards right now, inasmuch as they keep winning baseball games. It would take an Oakland collapse and great play by either the Angels or Texas (and only one of them can play well in the head-to-head series) to change the current standings. And that's not woofing; that's just telling it like it is; apologies to Rob Neyer.
I'm an A's fan before I'm a writer, so I'm going to stop there, and the only definitive conclusion I'm going to state is that the Texas Rangers are not going to win the West. And, yes, you can book it.
Oh, and side note? The Academy would like to thank the Seattle Mariners for giving the A's this chance. Your check is in the mail, postdated October 2nd.
Reminder: If you live in the LA area, Buck18 has organized watching the A's/Seattle game at Grunion's in Manhattan Beach tonight!