The Oakland A's earned a sweep at Yankee Stadium this week, and it all started with a win on Tuesday. It was a close game, so close that it went 11 innings, but the A's did enough to come away with a 3-2 victory. Such razor-thin margins have already become the norm for Oakland in 2016, with eight of their 16 games being decided by just one run. Fortunately, the green and gold has emerged triumphant in five of those eight thrillers.
That 5-3 record in one-run games is a big deal. Last year, the A's went 19-35 in such contests, and they didn't notch their fifth one-run win until June 16 (which pushed their one-run record to 5-18). There are many reasons for the improvement. The bullpen is significantly stronger, the defense has been tighter, and there have been some clutch hits. But there has also been a huge increase in a thing whose recognition may rub some analysts the wrong way: luck.
There's no way around it. If you want to win a lot of one-run games in baseball, you are going to need to benefit from some luck. If you're a particularly great team, that might just mean the absence of bad luck, but your fortunes will rely to some extent on the bounce of the ball and the randomness of human behavior.
Take the 2015 Braves for example. They were unquestionably awful, with a 67-95 record in the hands-down weakest division in baseball. Their hitters tied for the worst wRC+ in MLB, and their rotation was subpar. Their bullpen had the second-highest ERA and the second-most blown saves in MLB -- even worse than the A's on both counts. Their defense was middle-of-the-pack, probably a slight positive but nothing to write home about. And yet that club went 28-18 in one-run games.
It's easy to look at the 2015 A's and conclude that their one-run futility was an obvious result. Combine a flimsy bullpen with a porous defense and it's easy to imagine a squad that can't close out the close ones. What then of those Braves, who were a similarly wretched team with similar weaknesses?
To illustrate how luck plays a role in a one-run contest, and why that's not a lame cop-out or lazy analysis, here is a five-step guide illustrating what it takes to win a baseball game by one run.
Step 1: Bunch three singles together for a run
Sequencing is incredibly important in baseball, no matter how many times you produce positive individual results. In the 1st, the A's got a two-out walk but stranded the runner. In the 3rd they wasted a leadoff single, and in the 5th it was a one-out triple left on base. But in the 2nd inning, they got the right combination. A soft flare to left by Jed Lowrie, then a dribbler by Yonder Alonso that squeaked through the weak side of a heavy shift, and there were two on with two out. Marcus Semien got the green light on 3-0, and he lined another single to left to drive in Oakland's first run. Remove any one of those three singles, and it's just another scoreless inning. The 2015 A's usually didn't get that third single.
Step 2: Hope the other team doesn't make the great play
Brett Gardner has twice won the Fielding Bible Award in left field, in 2010 and 2011. If you're unfamiliar with the Fielding Bible, it's what the Gold Glove Award would be if it actually measured defense instead of just reputation and name power. Gardner is 32 now and has certainly lost a step in the field, but he still finished sixth in the voting for left fielders last year. The dude can cover some ground out there, which shouldn't come as a surprise for a guy whose game is mostly based around speed.
In the 6th inning, Danny Valencia ripped one into the gap in left-center. Gardner got on his horse, and as he raced across the grass it became apparent that he had a chance at making the catch. He lunged at the last second in a sort of half-dive, but he ended up about an inch short and the ball glanced off his glove and rolled away. Valencia ended up on third base with a leadoff triple, and two batters later he scored on a single.
This is what I mean by the absence of bad luck. That was a legitimate rocket by Valencia, and he earned the extra-base hit. But at the same time, Gardner came that close to robbing him with an incredible play. There will be a certain percentage of the time that Gardner makes that running grab, and the A's were mildly lucky that Tuesday wasn't that day. The 2015 A's would have watched helplessly as Gardner reached that extra inch and came up with the ball.
Step 3: Be in the right place at the right time
The Yankees didn't benefit from the same manner of luck. Their half of the 6th inning looks tame in the box score: Flyout, lineout, single, E-6, lineout.
That's a double down the line more often than not. That was a good play by Valencia -- totally within the reasonable range of his ability, but also not a ball he will get to every time. If that had streaked into the LF corner, no one would have blamed him nor even thought twice about it. Good hit, we would have said.
That's a two-run single, by all rights, if not more. But it went directly at Alonso, and instead it was the last out of the inning. Instead of scoring a pair, that shot ended the rally. Again, it's not that Alonso made an incredible play, it's that sharp contact like that often yields better results.
Here's how that inning would have gone against the 2015 A's: Flyout, double, RBI single, E-6, 2-run single ... and by that point the game would have been out of reach.
Step 4: Get 5⅓ scoreless innings from your bullpen
The line for Oakland's bullpen: 5⅓ innings, 0 runs, 1 hit, 4 Ks, 0 walks. Good luck getting that kind of performance out of the 2015 pen. That's partly because the A's collected superior relievers this past winter, but also because the quality arms they added have lived up to their reputations so far. Remember that we liked most of the A's relievers entering 2015, but most of them just pooped the bed with no warning. The best-laid plans don't always work out, but they have so far in Oakland's pen.
Step 5: Hit 'em where they ain't
In the 11th inning, Jed Lowrie lined one to the right side. It wasn't that different from the ball that went directly at Alonso in the 6th, but Lowrie's hit went a couple feet higher and cleared a leaping Mark Teixeira (another former Fielding Bible winner). Instead of a harmless lineout, it was a double. Instead of striking out in the subsequent at-bat, Khris Davis managed to make contact and move the runner to third with a productive groundout. Davis had already struck out three times in this game, and in around 40% of his plate appearances all year, but this time he got wood on the ball.
Mark Canha strode into the box with two outs, 1-for-13 on the year so far. He hit it hard to the left side, and if it had gone just a foot to the right it would have been a routine 6-3 putout. Even as is, it was close enough that the shortstop got a glove on it. But on Tuesday, it was enough to squeak through for the go-ahead RBI.
If any of those things go differently, the A's probably lose this game. If they don't capitalize with that extra single in the 1st, or if Gardner catches Valencia's drive, then they might not even get enough runs to push this one to extra innings. If Canha's game-winner goes just a foot to the right, then it's an out and we go to the 12th. If the Yankees' liners find holes in the 6th, or if the bullpen is anything less than perfect, then perhaps New York scores five runs and cruises to victory. And this isn't even an exhaustive list, as I haven't mentioned Stephen Vogt throwing out Jacoby Ellsbury, who has over 300 career steals at an 83% success rate; Eric Surkamp picking off Didi Gregorius immediately before allowing a walk and a double that would have scored him; or Marc Rzepczynski's wild pitch rolling into the dugout rather than rattling around the field long enough for Chase Headley to score from second.
The A's won this game fair and square. They won because they made a lot of great and timely plays, just enough of them to overcome the great and timely plays made by their opponent. But they also benefited from some favorable hops, or at least from a lack of unfavorable ones. Change just one of those plays above, even without altering anything that lies within the A's control, and the outcome might be different.
And that, all of it, the roster improvements and the talent upgrades but also the luck, are the differences between the 2015 A's and the 2016 A's so far. Let's hope the magic can continue beyond these first two weeks.