ST. LOUIS – Over their past 162 games, only one team in the majors has won 100 games. It’s not the Cardinals.
It’s the team the Cardinals are facing this weekend. That’s right. The Athletics’ 100-62 record since last July 2 is the best in the majors (The Cardinals, at 95-66, are tied for the fourth-best).
The A’s can’t be accused of buying success on the free-agent market. Their $60.6 million payroll this season is larger than that of only three teams, the Rays, Marlins and Astros, according to USA Today’s calculations (The Cardinals are 10th at $115.2 million).
The A’s aren’t particularly lucky, either. Their plus-54 run differential is about what you would expect for a team 12 games over .500. Their 10-4 record in one-game games is in line with their overall record, too.
So how do you explain the winning ways of the A’s? It’s not easy but we can try. Here’s five reasons.
1. Josh Donaldson. A 27-year-old third baseman, Donaldson is hitting .308 with 12 homers and 51 RBIs and emerged as the A’s most productive player. The difference in 2013 and 2012, when he was sent to the minors twice, is a more disciplined approach. Donaldson is walking twice as often as he did last season. Walks, of course, have been a key to the Oakland attack. This year is no different. The A’s lead the A.L. in walks and are fourth in scoring.
2. Pitching, of course. You know how the Cardinals have been turning out rookie pitchers this season? The A’s have been cranking them out at a similar pace for seemingly ever. Once the arms start getting costly, the front office turns them into trade chips — most of which work in their favor.
This year, however, has been somewhat different. The A’s pitching has been solid but less than spectacular. Only one A’s starter has an ERA under 3.50 this season and their opening-day starter, Brett Anderson, has been injured most of the season. He will spend this series on the disabled list with a foot injury. Oakland’s bullpen, led by closer Grant Balfour (18 for 18), ranks fourth in the A.L. with a 3.13 ERA. The club’s pitching really has been held together by the next reason.
3. Bartolo Colon. The 40-year-old right-hander has won seven straight starts, is 10-2 with a 2.93 ERA and become a lock to make his third All-Star team, each in a different decade.
Colon is throwing his fastball 84 percent of the time this season, the highest rate in the majors (Lance Lynn is second, 76 percent), according to fangraphs.com. At an average speed of 90 mph, Colon isn’t blowing it by many hitters. He averages just 5.1 strikeouts per nine innings and posts one of the highest contact rates in the game.
What Colon has done better than anyone is throw the ball where he wants. He averages a majors-low 1.1 walks per nine innings and leads the A.L. in fewest pitches thrown per at-bat (3.5).
Colon will oppose Shelby Miller in what should be a pitcher’s duel Friday night. Not only will both starters bring in sub-3.00 ERAs, the A’s home park is much tougher on hitters at night when the heavier air settles in off the bay. Both games this weekend will start at 1:05 Oakland time.
4. Clubhouse culture. While the Cardinals are known for their veteran-led, business-first approach, the A’s are known for their frat-house atmosphere. Their clubhouse is stocked with fun-loving young players who let pressure get to them about as often as they visit a barber shop.
With a small payroll, expectations from the outside world aren’t as great in Oakland as what the big-money contenders face, either.
5. The stink is gone. OK, this really doesn’t have anything to do with the A’s success. But still, the players had to be pleased when they returned home earlier this week and found the raw sewage that flooded the clubhouse level during their last home stand had been rectified. Walls had been sanitized, carpets were replaced and bacteria tests had been passed.