Oakland A’s: Are They Really An Elite Team?


Jun 6, 2013; Chicago, IL, USA; Oakland Athletics shortstop Adam Rosales (17) is greeted by teammates in the dugout after hitting the go ahead home run during the tenth inning against the Chicago White Sox at U.S. Cellular Field. The Oakland Athletics defeated the Chicago White Sox 5-4 in ten innings. Mandatory Credit: David Banks-USA TODAY Sports

To talk about the A’s in relation to the age-old adage about the tree falling in the forest, if a small market team is playing some of the best baseball in the league and the national media isn’t around to see it, does it really happen?

That’s where the A’s are at right now. Their record puts them amongst the best teams in baseball, but since R.J. Anderson of Baseball Prospectus wrote a piece for ESPN examining their record against sub-.500 teams versus above-.500 teams, the validity of that success has been brought into question.

Luckily the dialogue has broadened beyond just that observation, and on the same day Anderson’s piece was published, Dave Cameron of FanGraphs published an article that looked at Oakland’s record over the past calendar year — 108-60, which was only the best record in the American League during that span by a margin of 11 games. Cameron also broke down the numbers of some of the key contributors during that run and how Billy Beane and the Oakland front office have done more with less and won in the process.

Earlier today, Brandon McClintock of BaySports.net expanded on that, showing how none of this is a fluke, and that the A’s success isn’t likely to end any time soon.

With all of this in mind, how do you really put Oakland’s success into context? Are the A’s on the verge of becoming an elite team? Are they already there? Or should we be waiting for the other shoe to drop? Looking at exactly how the A’s have won will give you a better idea of the answer to both questions.

Oakland relied heavily on its young starting rotation last year, and while A.J. Griffin, Tommy Milone, Jarrod Parker and Dan Straily don’t have sparkling records after some early season struggles and a rough stretch of play for the team in early May, they have all put in quality starts as of late to silence any detractors that may have thought their 2012 campaigns were unsustainable.

Meanwhile, Bartolo Colon has been nothing short of amazing. The 40-year-old hasn’t lost since May 9 against Cleveland, and he’d given up only six walks on the year before he issued four against the Yankees last week. His ERA of 2.92 is good for 10th in the AL, and if the A’s lost him again for the positive testosterone test that was linked to Biogenesis, it would leave a gaping hole in the rotation that would be virtually impossible to fill.

The bullpen has been one of the best in the league yet again, with Bob Melvin inserting the likes of Jerry Blevins, Sean Doolittle, Pat Neshek, Ryan Cook, and most recently Jesse Chavez depending on the game situation. Grant Balfour has 17 saves this year and hasn’t blown a save opportunity since April of 2012.

With pitching like that, it’ll be a rare occurrence that the A’s don’t have a chance to win going into the later innings. But you have to score runs to win, and Oakland has been pretty good at that this season, too.

The A’s are fifth in the AL in runs with 318, and they’re one of the most disciplined teams at the plate as they lead the Majors with 271 walks. Coco Crisp is having a career-year at age 33, hitting .297/.384/.505 with eight home runs and 13 stolen bases to make him one of the most prolific lead off hitters in the game right now.

May 29, 2013; San Francisco, CA, USA; Oakland Athletics third baseman Josh Donaldson (20) at bat during the fifth inning against the San Francisco Giants at AT

And then there’s Josh Donaldson, who has become the latest diamond in the rough that Beane has plucked out of relative obscurity to become an All-Star candidate. Look at the stat leaders, and you’ll see the third basemen’s name besides players like Adrian Beltre, Evan Longoria and Dustin Pedroia. He’s posting a WAR (wins above replacement) of 3.0, good for seventh in the AL, and he’s starting to gain some recognition as one of the better all-around players in the Majors at the hot corner.

All of this and we haven’t even touched on players like Yoenis Cespedes, who has one of the best power swings in the league, or Jed Lowrie, who’s hitting .292 with 24 RBI’s and 18 doubles.

You could even argue the A’s haven’t hit their stride yet since they’re still waiting on players like Chris Young and Josh Reddick to get going. Reddick led the team with 32 home runs in 2012, and Young was an All-Star center fielder with the Diamondbacks before coming over to the A’s, and he broke out of a season-long slump last night, going 3-for-3 with a huge home run to account for the second Oakland run of the game against the Mariners.

Now, A’s fans may be bothered by the fact that the team isn’t garnering as much attention as they should considering their fantastic play. This isn’t a new thing, however. The A’s are the smaller fish in a tw0-team media marker, and their accomplishments are never going to draw in media attention in the same way that it would if it was happening with a team like the Yankees, Red Sox, Dodgers, or any other classic franchise you want to plug in.

I would argue this is a good thing for Oakland. It allows them to fly under the radar, and it even gives Bob Melvin the underdog card to play if he wanted to motivate his team in such a fashion.

So to answer the question of whether or not the A’s are an elite team? The evidence at our disposal from the past year or so bears out that they are playing at a very  high level. Whether or not that is sustainable remains to be seen. Despite the roster depth they worked so hard to build in the offseason, one or two injuries to key players can derail the whole operation in a heartbeat.

Additionally, regular season success may mean less in baseball than in any other sport. The playoffs are about who gets hot at the right time; looking at the list of World Series winners from 2001 until now is a testament to that.

Still, the A’s are such a fundamentally sound club in the way they’re set up that it will take an extenuating circumstance to knock them off their current trajectory. Solid pitching. Defense. Plate discipline. Run production. These are the maxims of the A’s organization.

It may seem like a given that every organization values these attributes, but look across the league and you’ll see that the big contracts still go to home run hitters and pitchers on the back end of their careers that are prone to injury and a fall off in production.

So while teams like the Angels and Yankees continue to acquire the big names with pundits declaring them the favorites because of their “elite” talent, the A’s will do things their way, and the results will speak for themselves.