With clinch, A's success no longer surprising
Back-to-back AL West champs proved over season to be steady contenders
We're taking a tour of October as the playoffs approach, with an in-depth look at those who are postseason-bound.
After looking at the American League East champion Boston Red Sox, National League West champion Los Angeles Dodgers and NL East champion Atlanta Braves, we're headed west to check in on the Oakland A's.
The A's are not a payroll-discrepancy peculiarity. They are a powerhouse.
This is confirmed by the way the A's methodically marched toward their second AL West title, clinching it not in a dramatic late-season surge that culminated on Day 162 but rather with a full season of steady play followed by a September flourish against some of the best in the business.
The A's are no longer an amusing anomaly. As was the case in the early 2000s, Billy Beane and Co. have artfully assembled an elite contender on a budget, and it's proven to be a contender with staying power.
The question is whether this Oakland club will go deeper into October than those 2000-06 teams who established the mystique of "Moneyball." The A's averaged 95 wins, won four AL West titles and made five postseason appearances in that span, yet they advanced to the AL Championship Series just once.
Last year, that trend continued with an AL Division Series loss to the eventual AL pennant winner, the Tigers, but not without a five-game fight.
Oakland seems even better prepared for the postseason stage this time around, because the club has had more than a week to line up its rotation and rest its regulars. And while those "Moneyball" clubs did more with less by focusing on stats like on-base percentage, this installment of the A's thrives on a matchup system that should suit it well come October.
Bob Melvin -- the "King of Platoons" -- has mastered the art of getting every ounce of preparedness and productivity out of his roster.
The A's have one of the most productive offenses in the sport -- not just because Josh Donaldson has emerged as a viable AL MVP Award candidate, or because leadoff man Coco Crisp became their first 20-homer, 20-steal season since Ruben Sierra in 1993 or because Home Run Derby champ Yoenis Cespedes can mash (though all of those developments undoubtedly help). They also thrive on the left-right considerations that allow players like Brandon Moss (.857 OPS, 28 homers, 81 RBIs), Derek Norris, Chris Young, Eric Sogard, Alberto Callaspo, Nate Freiman and Seth Smith to largely stick to their strengths.
So when October arrives and the matchups are everything, especially in the late innings, the A's will already have time-tested formula that works well for them. They'll also have a rested rotation that, unlike a year ago, has a time-tested veteran presence at the top in Bartolo Colon. The likely order will be Colon (17-6, 2.64), Jarrod Parker (12-7, 3.74), A.J. Griffin (14-9, 3.78) and rookie Sonny Gray (4-3, 2.90), with Opening Day starter Brett Anderson, who has worked in relief since his return from a foot fracture, piggybacking out of the 'pen.
The A's are deep, flexible and, best of all, hot. Entering Tuesday, Oakland had won 23 of its last 30 dating back to Aug. 24, including, most meaningfully, five of six against the Texas team it lapped in the AL West race.
This is not a cute story about some scrappy underdogs. This is the story of a true contender.
The bats: Last year, the A's had one of the Majors' worst offenses in the season's first two months and one of its best from early June on. This season, aside from a rough patch after the All-Star break, has been quite a bit more consistent, with Oakland averaging 4.74 runs per game to rank third in the AL and fourth overall. Credit goes to the platoons and the power. Only the Orioles and Blue Jays have averaged more homers per game than the A's (1.16).
The arms: As you might have expected, we saw some sophomore growing pains from Parker, Griffin and Tommy Milone this season, but Colon provided consistency, Gray provided a boost and the bottom line is that the A's have the AL's second-best rotation ERA, behind the Tigers, at 3.71. The bullpen has had some hiccups in recent weeks, but on the whole, it rates well, led by closer Grant Balfour (2.67 ERA, 28 saves). Anderson is a source of intrigue, as he has the ability to provide quality length out of the 'pen.
The MVP: Miguel Cabrera's a monster, Chris Davis is "Crush" and Mike Trout is a boy wonder. The name you don't hear nearly as often in the AL MVP Award debate is that of Donaldson, and that's unfortunate. His absence from the All-Star Game was downright criminal. But underappreciated and unexpected greatness is something of an A's hallmark, so perhaps it's fitting that Oakland is carried by a converted catcher who has the AL's sixth-highest average (.307), fifth-best on-base percentage (.388), eighth-highest slugging percentage (.510), to go with 24 homers, 92 RBIs and defensive dependability that adds up to a 9.1 WAR mark (second in the AL only to Trout).
The ace: The round mound of strike zone pounding, Colon is a curiosity. If you thought his career was essentially over when he got banged for 50 games for a positive testosterone test, you could not have been more wrong. Colon responded with a season that has made him a fringe AL Cy Young Award candidate. He keeps the clubhouse loose, and he keeps the wins coming. Colon is an oddity, and he's also an ace.
The unsung hero: The appeal of this A's team is that it is loaded with unsung heroes, Donaldson chief among them. But Moss best illustrates Oakland's platoon strength. The average fan probably doesn't realize that Moss has an .857 OPS that ranks 10th in the AL. It's predicated on him making 82 percent of his plate appearances against right-handed pitching. Moss hits .270 off righties.
The pressing question: The bullpen is the biggest question right now. Balfour has seen his velocity dip, and right-handed setup man Ryan Cook has labored. Dan Otero has provided a nice late-inning lift of late, but the A's are going to need the full extent of the 'pen performing well if they're going to advance.