Saturday night the Oakland Athletics fell 4-3 to the Atlanta Braves. That not only sounds odd because the Braves lost 12 of their last 15 games before the series began, but also because it put the Athletics in the most alien place in this goofy Major League Baseball season: not in first place. Not just in the American League West, but in baseball overall. Through swings and misses, choppy pitching, and a lack of power over the past month, the A’s have vaulted the 2014 MLB season into complete uncertainty.
That’s because the A’s are statistically the best team in baseball. They’re first in MLB in runs scored, sixth in on-base percentage, eighth in slugging, fourth in earned run average, second in WHIP, fourth in runs allowed—and oh, have I forgotten?—first in run differential (+161; the Seattle Mariners are second, 62 runs behind).
But as ESPN’s Christina Kahrl points out, Oakland is far from in-form lately. The Athletics are 15-17 over their last 32 games. Their offense has slumped, posting a .636 OPS and scoring a run fewer per game in August. Their great defense and depth in pitching, despite some struggles of late, will still get them to the playoffs. But they don’t look like the mightiest team in baseball at the moment.
Naturally, the question swirls now: What if Oakland continues to play mediocre for the rest of the season? There’s no Yoenis Cespedes to belt the ball 500 feet through the air to spark the rest of the lineup; the Oakland offense could be stagnant for the rest of the season. If that’s the case, and the A’s play ordinary baseball from here on out, then there goes the dominant side in the sport. Their torrid first four months would look like history.
In a season in which most Major League teams are average and few excellent teams exist—especially on the National league side—if the Athletics aren’t the team with the best shot to win the World Series, then who is?
Scour, shall we?
In the National League, there’s only two great teams. No offence to the Milwaukee Brewers and their potent lineup, but the Washington Nationals and the Los Angeles Dodgers are the only NL clubs that look like they could hoist the Commissioner’s Trophy. Funny, too, because two to three weeks ago the Nationals barely looked good enough to win the NL East.
Regardless, the Nats have the best run differential in the league and have allowed runners to touch home plate less than 420 times this year. Their starting rotation is every bit as deep as advertised. Three of their starters have ERA+ of 127 or higher, and Stephen Strasburg’s Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) is under three.
Forget Rafael Soriano blowing a few saves, forget them losing their last series to the Braves, and forget that they looked like they would never run away with the division. The Nationals now lead Atlanta by six games and are racking up wins via their rotation and their strong bullpen. Heck, if it wasn’t for their inability to best the Braves, the Nationals might even have the Majors’ best record.
But that still doesn’t make it clear if they’re the team to beat. Partially, that’s because Washington isn’t too dissimilar to the Dodgers. Overall, Don Mattingly’s team and the Nats rack up about the same number of points in a side-by-side comparison. While the Nationals have a deeper rotation and a somewhat better defense, L.A.’s rotation is comparable, their bullpen is solid, and they hit much better. The Dodgers may not be four-deep in their rotation like Washington, but Kershaw-Greinke-Ryu (when he returns from the disabled list) is even better than the Nats’ top three.
The lineup is an obvious advantage for the Dodgers, far more star-studded than the Nationals’. Denard Span, Jayson Werth, Adam LaRoche, Anthony Rendon, and Ian Desmond put up strong numbers, but the Nationals still find themselves middle of the pack in runs scored, average, and OBP. When Hanley Ramirez is in the lineup for L.A., though, one through five is a mountainous climb for an opposing pitcher. A .328 team OBP makes that evident, and makes the Dodgers a more reliable offensive team down the stretch than Washington.
With that mighty front three and lineup, then, it takes some of the weight off a Dodgers bullpen that is a little shaky outside of the backend. If you go around the National League, though, there isn’t a more balanced team than the Dodgers. Hitting, bullpen, rotation—they don’t have a major flaw, so they can stare the Nationals in the eye.
But that still doesn’t make either of them the confident choice to seize the A’s mantle. After all, the American’s League’s greatest might even be better than the Hollywood Men and D.C.’s team.
The Baltimore Orioles are much hotter than the Dodgers right now, for one. They’ve won 18 of 29, going from a +26 run differential to +54 in a month. It isn’t as if they only gain from playing well against a weak American League East, either; they’re 21-12 against the AL West too, the best division in MLB. Baltimore’s August ERA is actually decent, their 41.7 Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) is second to only the Kansas City Royals, and they have the long ball advantage.
OK, so what’s the problem?
Well, the problem that most people saw with the Orioles coming into the season: they lack remarkable pitching. Their rotation is hot right now, but it’s highly unlikely that will last. Their starting pitchers have been average this year, and each starter has been average for years before the 2014 season. Advanced metrics suggest the Baltimore starters can’t sustain this run. They’re tied for seventh in MLB in home runs allowed, and four of their starters have FIP’s higher than four. The O’s are clearly one of the best teams in the game, but that’s one glaring flaw that doesn’t usually translate into success in late-September and October, especially for a team that relies on skating through close games.
What about the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, then, the club with the best record in MLB? They do have major advantages that make everyone fear them. Offensively, they’re probably better than the Athletics. They score, slug, and get on base at about the same rate while having a much better team batting average (.260 to Oakland’s .250). Up and down their lineup the Angels are filthy, quite like their bullpen.
Houston Street is having a season too good even for him. Joe Smith is one of the best setup guys in the game, posting a WHIP under 0.9. And Jason Grilli pitches starkly better with the Angels than he did with the Pittsburgh Pirates. Seven of the Angels’ relievers have FIP’s under 3, and not a single one of them has a WHIP of even 1.2. If this team gets a lead, the game is more than likely done because of their top-of-MLB offense, bullpen, and their strong defense.
The only problem is that they can’t always get that lead on the mound to start a game. There’s simply no depth to the Angels’ rotation, something that everyone in the world has seen. Garrett Richards may have a Cy Young-type season—well, a Cy Young-type season when Felix Hernandez isn’t setting records—but the Angels’ rotation takes a noticeable dip after him, and then does a Sinbad-like fall off the face of the earth after Jered Weaver.
C.J. Wilson isn’t the same pitcher he was even last year, and Matt Shoemaker and Hector Santiago are only having OK seasons. Neither Wilson nor Shoemaker nor Santiago have ERA+ above 102. If you compound that with Weaver playing with fire—19 home runs allowed against only 125 strikeouts and a 4.13 FIP—then Richards might be the only reliable starter come October. Starting pitching depth is almost a necessity in the playoffs, especially when bullpens can become taxed.
That’s not a problem at all for the Seattle Mariners.
The M’s look more and more like a World Series threat by the day. They have the second-best run differential in MLB and have the best ERA, allowing fewer than 400 runs to score. They’re also first in WHIP and batting average against, so their arms are no flukes.
The rotation is more than just Felix Hernandez. Hisashi Iwakuma (0.97 WHIP) boasts one of the better seasons in the AL. James Paxton has been brilliant (2.20 ERA) through five starts. And somehow, despite giving up a ton of home runs and having an unsightly strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.91), Chris Young has a 3.20 ERA.
What makes the Mariners worry less about Young holding them back, though, is their bevy of relief pitching. Fernando Rodney, Danny Farquhar, Tom Wilhelmsen, Dominic Leone, Yoervis Medina, and Joe Beimel are not guys you want to face late down the stretch or in the postseason. With that bullpen, good defense, and Safeco Field facing you, there aren’t many teams that can crack the puzzle that is the Mariners.
But their offense can’t overcome Safeco either. The lineup is still weak despite good seasons from Robinson Cano and Kyle Seager (OPS’s of .871 and .817, respectively). The M’s are in the bottom 11 in MLB in runs scored, on-base percentage, batting average, and slugging. Seager and Cano, and maybe Mike Zunino, are the only threats in the Seattle lineup. That’s always a dangerous game to play when pitchers combust at a rapid rate.
So here we are. There’s only six great teams in all of baseball, with the Royals and the Detroit Tigers close but not quite there. Yet four of them have glaring holes. If the A’s step out of the winter they’re in right now and rejoin the world they created, then they would be miles ahead of everyone else again. Without those A’s we got used to, the Dodgers might seem like they have a slight edge because of their balance. But no one can say that without looking down at a spreadsheet, scrunching their nose, and saying, “Wellllllll....”
Yep, this is about as clear of an indication as any that this season has been weird and lacks an array of overwhelming teams. Maybe we can just try to enjoy the mystery, even if there is no might.