AL West: look who’s coming to the divisional raceby David Wade
August 13, 2012
Texas is still one of the best teams in baseball. That's been the familiar refrain of these American League West updates for the past couple of years. The Rangers continue to pummel teams with an unrelenting offense that scores runs better than any other team in baseball.
As we also expected, due to their huge additions via free-agency, Anaheim started playing its way into the division race. Of course, veteran stars like Albert Pujols got a lot of help as soon as the Angels called up a rookie who is putting together one of the most incredible seasons anyone has ever had.
Texas' starting rotation may represent its only area of concern. Injuries to Colby Lewis and Neftali Feliz have hurt what was a decent, but not dominant, rotation. Yu Darvish has done well, but his wildness keeps him from being a legitimate ace. Signing Roy Oswalt seemed like an easy decision at the time, but he has disappointed so far by posting a 6.53 ERA that, combined with the club's acquisition of Ryan Dempster, has pushed Oswalt to the bullpen.
There was a bit of drama last week when Oswalt asked to come out after two innings of relief in a close game, but management is downplaying it. Now they will hope that Dempster can pitch as well in the American League as he did in the relatively weak National League Central and that Oswalt can either shine in the bullpen or work his way back to the rotation.
With 8.55 strikeouts per nine innings and only 1.58 walks given up over the same rate, Oswalt may be due a much better stretch of pitching since right now he has a much higher-than-average BABIP and home runs given up per nine innings pitched. Hits are falling in against him more often than they have in his career, and fly balls are going over the fence more often than he's been accustomed to. In short, you could argue that he's been a little unlucky this season in comparison to his career numbers.
Scott Feldman has stepped in and provided some quality starts for Texas, and at one time the club was toying with the idea of stretching out Alexi Ogando for a possible spot in the rotation. For now, Ogando looks like he'll remain the Rangers' primary setup man.
Unlike the woes revolving around the Rangers' pitching, about the only drama facing the offense involved Josh Hamilton's recent slump due to continuing problems with addiction, although the latest case was something less threatening than the vices he has fought before.
While Hamilton has hinted that laying off Skoal has his swing in the spittoon, Dave Cameron over at Fangraphs has noted a couple of times that Hamilton simply swings at everything. When pitchers give him something around the plate, he hits at a pace that will put him in the discussion for the American League MVP. But when they pitch him away, he doesn't lay off. As a result, he swings his way into extended bouts of futility.
As noted, the Angels also continue to play great baseball, and as everyone knows, that better baseball began when the club called up the spectacular Mike Trout.
Trout leads all of baseball in WAR, as calculated at Fangraphs. The stat, which factors defense in with hitting and compares a player's statistics versus a replacement-level player, rewards all-around players the most. "All-around player" describes Trout, as his combination of speed, power, and defense has led to comparisons to guys like Mickey Mantle and Alex Rodriguez.
Bryce Harper had the bigger buzz associated with his name as a call-up this season, but Trout has left Harper in his wake. Trout has produced so well that he has a chance to join Fred Lynn and Ichiro Suzuki as the only players to win both their league's Rookie of the Year and MVP awards in the same season.
While Trout has bolstered the Angels offense, their real strength—and the thing that could make them a favorite over Texas in a playoff series—still lies in their starting pitching. Jered Weaver, C.J. Wilson, and Dan Haren already made up an imposing staff, but management augmented them further with the addition of Zack Greinke. If they can either pass Texas and win the division or secure one of the Wild Card spots, they will have the best four starting pitchers of any team that qualifies for the postseason.
But, as the Rangers and Angels march toward their inevitable late-season standoff, another team has unexpectedly joined the fight.
The A's, under ownership hell-bent on moving to what they hope would be the greener pastures and greater tickets sales of San Jose, are in the midst of an incredible stretch of baseball that has seen them go in one month from a team struggling to reach a .500 record to one with hope of making the 2012 playoffs.
The Athletics' 19-5 record in July is what turned their season around. On the first day of the month, they avoided a four-game sweep at the hands of the Rangers by beating Darvish in Arlington. But the magic really began when they came home and swept the Boston Red Sox in a three-game series, with the last two wins coming in the bottom of the ninth. If momentum exists, for the Athletics it was born during that series.
In the second game of the series, Boston led 2-1 going to bat in its half of the final inning. After their first two batters reached base, the Red Sox decided to play for one insurance run. On an attempted sacrifice, Boston's Nick Punto bunted into a double play. That left Ryan Kalish at second base. He then tried to steal third but was thrown out. Missing an opportunity to pad their lead by making those outs on the basepaths proved fatal, as Oakland scored twice in the bottom of the inning to walk off with the win.
In the next series, this time against Seattle, Oakland won two of three, with both wins coming in extra innings. Chris Carter drilled a pinch-hit home run on July 6, and two days later, Oakland's eventual team MVP, Josh Reddick, doubled in the winning run in the bottom of the 13th inning.
After the All-Star break, Oakland swept Minnesota on the road and came back home to split a short series against Texas. Then came a four-game set hosting the Yankees in which every game ended in a one-run victory by the A's.
Oakland went on to win two series on the road against Toronto and Baltimore, scoring an out-of-character 48 runs to leave the drama back in Oakland. The A's ended July back at home hosting the Tampa Bay Rays, but the hot streak came to an end, as they only won one game of the four-game series. Still, their hot July has helped bring them level with Anaheim and only a handful of games behind Texas.
Powerhouses like Boston, Toronto, Baltimore, Tampa, New York, and Texas made up most of the schedule during Oakland's midsummer run and if they can take advantage of a much softer schedule over the next few weeks&,dash;one that features Cleveland, Minnesota, and Kansas City for 13 of their next 16 games—they may continue their entertaining climb up the standings.
Oakland's 13 walk-off wins have them well in reach of the major league season record of 18. The dramatic nature of so many of the A's wins has only increased the storybook nature of the season. But the real key to sustained success is grounded in the reality that their pitching is incredibly solid.
Oakland's late-inning heroics at the plate are due to timely hitting and certainly not to a consistent offense. For, as they have in the past few seasons, Oakland ranks near the bottom of the league in nearly every offensive category. But those troubles are offset by a pitching staff that is, conversely, one of the best in the league, even though three stalwarts from 2011 play for different teams.
Gone are Gio Gonzalez, Andrew Bailey, and Trevor Cahill, traded away for prospects this past winter. But, as usual, Oakland continues to call up young pitchers who step in and help the team right away. Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone have done well while the A's have milked quality innings out of Bartolo Colon, who by all rights should be out of the game by now.
Everyone knew Anaheim and Texas would battle for this division. Everyone also suspected that Seattle would not contend, and their trade of Ichiro to the Yankees a couple of weeks ago may signal that the team is going to try to build around Felix Hernandez and put together a team that could contend in a couple of seasons.
But it's those Oakland A's who are flipping the script and bringing an element of surprise into what we thought was a cut-and-dried story out West.
David welcomes comments below. You can reach him via email at david DOT wade AT insightbb DOT com.