The Oakland A's stand at 6-7 overall after the first two weeks of the 2016 season, which is good enough for second place in the currently weak AL West division. They swept the Mariners on the road, then came home and got swept right back by the Angels, and then took two of three from the defending champion Royals. In other words, there have already been ups and downs, just as there will continue to be for the rest of time.
There are bad things. The lineup isn't scoring enough runs, mostly because it's not getting hits or drawing walks or doing anything other than hitting a few solo homers. The starting pitchers aren't going deep enough into games, and the defense once again leads the AL in errors.
There are also good things! Here are five of them, in numerical form. They each carry a "Sustainability Factor" on a scale of 1 (it's a trap!) to 10 (take it to the bank).
Marcus Semien | 1 error
Last year, Semien displayed the fielding skills of Roger Dorn and the throwing acumen of Chuck Knoblauch circa 1999. He ended up with the most errors (35) among all MLB players at all positions. But after the better part of a year working with coach Ron Washington, his defense looks much better. Semien has committed only one error through the first 13 games. He had three already by this point last year, and six overall in April. Errors don't tell the whole story, though. Here's an example of a play that Semien couldn't have made last year if you gave him 10 tries:
He had to charge in, react to the ball taking a weird hop, and then throw on the run. I doubt he'd even have fielded that grounder last year, and if he had he'd have thrown it into the dugout. Semien isn't just making fewer errors on the routine chances, he's also making tougher plays as well. Oakland's shortstop defense has gone from poor to at least average.
Sustainability Factor: 8 ... None of this should come as a surprise. We've been talking about Semien's improvement for months. But now we're starting to see it play out in real life, in games that count. In other words, the eyeball test is lining up with the scouting reports, and when that happens you can be pretty sure that what you're seeing is real.
A's hitters | 6th-lowest K% (19.8%)
There isn't a lot going right for the A's offense so far. They rank 26th in wRC+ (76), thanks to a low average, a low walk rate, and mediocre power. But one thing they're doing is putting the ball into play, which is always better than striking out (unless you're Billy Butler). In particular, Billy Burns hasn't yet struck out in 35 plate appearances, which I assume is because he hasn't yet had an at-bat that lasted three pitches.
The spectrum of strikeout rates so far goes from Angels (14.8%) to Blue Jays (27.5%), and the A's rank toward the good end. On the bright side they're hitting the ball hard, and on the downside they're hitting too many flies and not enough liners, but either way the best route to breaking out of a slump is to keep on putting the ball in play and let the BABIP take care of itself.
Sustainability Factor: 2 ... That is to say, this whole group of stats feels like small-sample theater. Their swinging strike rate is 12th-highest, and they're only 17th in contact rate, and that doesn't logically jibe with a low strikeout rate. The low Sustainability Factor isn't to say that this lineup can't maintain a low K%, just that I don't yet know which of these numbers to trust. At least there are some genuinely low-strikeout hitters here, like Burns, Reddick, Alonso, and Lowrie.
Ryan Dull | 22-of-23 batters retired
Dull has faced 23 batters so far this season over seven appearances. He has retired 22 of them, including nine strikeouts. The one baserunner came when he hit Daniel Nava with a 1-2 pitch, so the only time a guy reached base it had nothing to do with anything the hitter did and he already had a two-strike count. He's also stranded all six of his inherited runners. This is almost literally as good as a pitcher can be.
Sustainability Factor: 5 ... Obviously Dull will eventually give up a hit. He might even allow a run at some point. But after posting an 0.74 ERA in the minors last year, then 11 scoreless frames to begin his MLB career last September (before wearing down and allowing a few homers), he's sure looking like the real deal. No one can sustain this level of perfection for long, but Dull looks like a legitimately quality MLB reliever, for the low price of a 32nd-round draft pick.
John Axford | 0 walks
There are two relievers on this list because the bullpen has been the brightest spot on the team so far, and that is still going to feel weird to say for the indefinite future. Axford has a ton of late-inning experience and mid-90s velocity that allows him to pile up strikeouts, but the caveat is that he tends to issue a lot of walks. He's walked 11.3% of the batters he's faced in his career, for a rate of 4.4 BB/9. Last year those numbers were even higher, at 12.8% and 5.2 BB/9. But so far this year, he's pounding the zone like he never has before and getting opponents to swing more than usual. The result is that Axford is one of three Oakland relievers who still haven't allowed a run (Dull and Zep are the others).
Sustainability Factor: 4 ... I was going to give this a Factor of 1, but after a deeper look I wonder if Axford has intentionally shifted styles in an effort to pitch more to contact. He's only got three strikeouts so far in seven appearances, and opponents are making more contact (and swinging and missing less) than they ever have against him. Perhaps Axford has changed, or perhaps this is all small-sample noise and things will revert back to normal.
A's team | 4-3 in one-run games
One-run games can truly go either way in baseball. There are things you can do to stack the deck in your favor, like having great relievers or an airtight defense, but there will always be some luck involved when that grounder deflects off the pitcher's mound in the 11th inning to score the winning run.
Last year, the A's went 19-35 in one-run games, which is absolutely awful. Meanwhile, the Blue Jays won their division despite going 15-28 in one-run games, while the 95-loss Braves went 28-18. The Dodgers went from +5 in 2014 to -3 in 2015 and won the division both times. The Angels were +5 in 2014 when they led MLB in wins, and then +18 last year when they missed the playoffs. There simply isn't a lot of predictive value in this metric, but it can make a huge difference in your overall record in a given season. The A's started out 1-13 in one-run games last year, and it took until June to win their fourth.
Sustainability Factor: 5 ... I have no idea how the A's will do in one-run games this year, but I can say with confidence that they won't finish -16 again. Some of this improvement is the strengthened bullpen, and some of it is just improved luck. Giving this a Factor of 5 simply means that last year's extreme troubles are a thing of the past.