Just how far have the Oakland A’s come in the past few years? Well, the days of Jack Cust, Bobby Crosby and Travis Buck seem like a distant memory, as do the five straight losing seasons from 2007-2011. Beyond having the best record in baseball this year, the Athletics have also carved out the best record in the majors over the past three seasons.
As many of you loyal A’s fans know, there has also been a seismic shift in the team’s national profile this year. Whether it’s Scott Kazmir’s remarkable comeback story or the hard-to-believe transition of erstwhile first baseman Sean Doolittle into one of the premier closers in baseball, many of our players have become household names seemingly overnight. And with that notoriety—not to mention superior production—the A’s landed no less than six players on the American League All-Star team this season (seven if we count newly acquired pitcher Jeff Samardzija, a NL All-Star choice).
Doesn’t it seem like only yesterday that our A’s only had one player chosen each season for the All-Star Game? Almost always a pitcher for the AL bullpen? Justin Duchscherer, Andrew Bailey, Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook. It was a banner year if we had two players selected in the same season. Yet, this year, the A’s had an embarrassment of riches with not one, not two, but six All-Stars! To truly appreciate just how far the team has come, consider this: We have another six players on this year’s club who absolutely could have been our lone All-Star representative in those previous lean seasons.
Let’s start with right-handed starter Sonny Gray (9-3, 2.97 ERA), who ranks among the American League’s Top 10 in victories, ERA, opponents’ batting average (.228) and opponents’ slugging percentage (.320). Not only that, but dating back to when he first arrived on the scene almost a year ago today (July 10, 2013), Gray has posted the eighth-best ERA in the American League (2.87). And the A’s No. 3 starter Jesse Chavez has been one of the most consistent pitchers in the league, registering a 7-5 mark and 3.06 ERA (11th in the AL), including 11 quality starts in 18 appearances.
And how about Coco Crisp? Beyond his circus catches in center field, Coco is batting .291 and ranks in the American League Top 10 in both on-base percentage (.387) and stolen bases (16). Plus, he brings unique pop to the leadoff spot, with seven homers and 31 RBIs.
Then look to the bullpen. No argument in Doolittle representing Oakland’s relief corps in Minneapolis Tuesday, but there are clearly three other pitchers who could have very easily been tabbed as well. The unflappable Dan Otero (7-1, 2.10 ERA), maybe the most versatile reliever in the game today, leads all American League relievers in wins, innings pitched (55.2) and pitches per inning (13.3). Fernando Abad (2-3, 1.93 ERA) ranks fifth in opponents’ slugging percentage (.234) and opponents’ batting average (.161) among AL relief specialists. And set-up man Luke Gregerson (2-1, 2.12 ERA) has been a workhorse in allowing only 39 hits in 46.2 innings and leading all AL relievers in appearances (45 games).
And we might have had a seventh almost All-Star if he hadn’t joined the team until June 1. Stephen Vogt has arguably been the A’s best player the past six weeks. We’ll give him an honorable mention. Not only has he played five different positions (catcher, first base, left field, right field and designated hitter), but he has batted .376 with four home runs and 17 RBI in only 101 at-bats. If he had enough ABs to qualify, he would be leading the majors in batting average and would rank fourth in OPS (.972).
So, while we can all agree that the A’s were indeed fortunate to have a major league-high six players elected All-Stars—seven counting Samardzija—it’s the next six “near All-Stars” that truly demonstrate how productive the 2014 Athletics’ have been as we near the Break. Judging by the competitive race shaping up in the AL West—clearly the best division in baseball—we’ll need everyone on the roster to continue playing at a very high level to claim a third straight divisional crown. O.co Coliseum should really be rockin’ the final three months of the season.
High standards and expectations are a good thing, right? When you zoom to back-to-back seasons of 94 and 96 victories, respectively, and are on pace to win 98 games this season, new and higher expectations simply come with the territory. It also made our just-completed series in Detroit truly maddening. All three games against our AL Central nemesis were tense, hard-fought affairs, and while the A’s came up empty handed, each game resembled the type of playoff competition we’ve grown accustomed to when these two teams have squared off the past two years.
That said, Bob Melvin and his club know full well that they must still go through Motown if they hope to realize their goal of winning a World Series. So it would be easy to say it matters whether you beat Justin Verlander or win a series at Comerica Park. On some level, that’s certainly true. However, our late August dismantling of the Tigers in Detroit last season—we scored 34 runs in claiming three of four games—didn’t seem to have much impact when we returned to Michigan as the leaves began to fall in autumn.
A linear thinker would probably conclude the A’s returned home content last night after a 4-4 road trip in which two of the three teams they faced are postseason contenders, and five of the games were played without a designated hitter—a distinct disadvantage to any American League team. Yet, the old adage that championship teams win at home and play .500 ball on the road doesn’t seem to have that acceptable ring anymore. I know what you’re thinking: We’re better than that!
Well, when you’re flying high in Miami, then shot down in Detroit, it’s understandable that you are left feeling a little wanting. No question, there are higher expectations this year. It’s the price you pay for success. And most importantly, there are higher expectations in the A’s clubhouse. These remarkable players that have bonded together to post the best record in Major League Baseball continue to keep their eyes on the ultimate prize.
And to lend a little perspective, let me remind you that this A’s team has grinded out baseball’s best record despite a first half that featured five straight three-city road trips—an almost unheard of gauntlet—against mostly upper-division opponents. After the All-Star Break, Oakland will not take even one road trip of more than two cities and seven games. And only nine of the 21 series that they will play after the Break will be against teams which currently have winning records. Of course, any manager will tell you it’s dangerous to play that game. After all, it is baseball, where nothing is guaranteed. What is guaranteed, however, are high expectations. And that’s a good thing. It tends to lead to even higher accomplishments.