The 2001 Oakland A’s were absolutely loaded.
Their pitching was led by the Big 3 of Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito, with Jason Isringhausen as their All-Star closer. Their lineup was anchored by the reigning MVP in Jason Giambi, the next year’s MVP in Miguel Tejada, and a historic defensive third baseman in Eric Chavez, and that was only the infield, with Johnny Damon as the new star addition for the outfield.
This was one of the best squads in the 21st-century major leagues so far. They had competed in 1999, then reached the playoffs in 2000, and they were only getting better as their bevy of young super-talent further established themselves.
Through their first 12 games of the season, their record was 2-10.
At the end of April they were 8-17.
They didn’t get back to .500 until May 22.
They finished the year at 102-60.
Those first dozen games were like something out of the Twilight Zone, which was still a reasonably relevant pop culture reference at the time. Giambi and Mulder were off to good starts but they didn’t get much help, and the club lost everything from close affairs to blowouts. At one point they dropped seven straight.
To make matters worse, every single one of those 12 games came against AL West division opponents. They went 1-5 vs. the Mariners, 0-3 vs. the Rangers, and 1-2 vs. the Angels, meaning their opening slump was mathematically as costly as possible in the standings.
And none of it mattered. Turned out the team was good, and over the course of six months that quality rose to the surface. Turned out that 7% of the season is effectively a rounding error, and had no serious impact on the overall campaign.
Of course, not every team that starts slow is destined to flip the script and break out, but the point is that it’s absolutely possible. If you can go from 2-10 to 102-60, then you can overcome anything in the first two weeks, much less the first one week or the first couple days. And it’s not like I’m reaching back to ancient history for this precedent — I watched that season myself, and the organization is still in basically the same front-office administration.
Deja vu all over again
That brings us to the 2021 edition of the A’s. Like their predecessors two decades earlier, they’re an established contender with postseason experience who is still expected to be good, with an impressive group of proven stars and upside for more. And in similar fashion, they fell flat on their faces coming out the gate.
But 3-7 is better than 2-10, and they probably don’t need to rebound all the way to 102 wins to meet their goal. They lost six straight, but the old team did seven, including a 13-1 rout*. And you know what the 2001 club did to begin the process of shaking off that slump? In games 13-16, they won three out of four from teams in SoCal (Angels) and Texas (Rangers), precisely like the 2021 squad just did against the Dodgers and Astros.
* That day’s starter, a yet-unproven Cory Lidle, had a 27.00 ERA after that game. He finished the year at 3.59 in 29 starts, with around 3 WAR.
There’s another unmistakable parallel. Remember how the 2001 skid included losing five of six to the Mariners? That was the Seattle team that set an AL record with 116 wins. Not only were the A’s shaking off spring rust, they were also blitzed by a historically great opponent — just like the 2021 team, getting blasted by a legendary Houston lineup and trounced by a $250 million Dodgers juggernaut that won the World Series last year and has so many former Cy Youngs that one of them is literally mopping up in the bullpen.
And those tough Mariner matchups were only half of the dirty dozen 2001 games, with the others coming against eventual also-rans. The 2021 club played all of their 10 opening contests against elite competition.
No guarantees, in either direction
None of this is to say the 2021 A’s are guaranteed any success, just because they’re following some time-tested rope-a-dope script. They still have work to do, and their roster has questions like any year. Obviously a stronger start would have been preferable, and they could still miss the playoffs.
But nothing that has happened to this point precludes success by the end of September. It doesn’t even really reduce the odds, as good teams have 3-7 stretches all the time. Other than a couple of early injuries, which are an inevitable reality, nothing has changed about a club we were all excited about two weeks ago. They took an extra week to get going, and simultaneously ran into a buzzsaw of top opponents.
We’ve seen an even higher-rated A’s roster start even slower against even weaker clubs and had it mean zilch by the end of the summer. This too can pass.
Settle in, play like we saw the last three years and again the last two days in Houston, capitalize on the breakouts that come up, and make adjustments at the trade deadline like Jermaine Dye in 2001 or Tommy La Stella last summer. Do that and nobody will even remember the slow start, until I write this article again in 2027.