What can one know about the A.L. West race?

Rob Neyer

Rob Neyer

This might be the last time I can say this, or it might be the first of many times: as I write these words, the Oakland Athletics and the Orange County Angels are virtually tied atop the American League West standings. Which was supposed to happen for one reason, then wasn’t supposed to happen for another reason, but has now happened anyway. What does it all mean, though?


Before the season, the Angels sort of came out of nowhere to lead the preseason projections. For example, Baseball Prospectus’s projections had the Angels with a slight edge over the A’s. So slight that it was reasonable to consider them co-favorites. But the A’s got off to a great start, and by early June they owned a nifty 5½-game lead over the Angels. It was still 3½ games a month later, when the A’s got better by trading for Jeff Samardzija.

Yet somehow Oakland’s lead had shrunk by the end of July, when they (theoretically) got better again, this time by trading Yoenis Cespedes for Jon Lester.

And now the A’s lead has shunk again, this time to exactly no lead at all. Losing five straight games will do that sometimes. In fact, since trading for Samardzija the A’s are just 18-17 while the Angels, despite doing very little to improve themselves, have gone 22-14.

None of which means the A’s shouldn’t have picked up Samardzija and Lester. Just the opposite, in fact, as both have pitched quite well since joining the A’s. Without them, the A’s would probably be a game or two behind the Angels!

What it really means is that the preseason projections for these clubs were dead on target.

Well, sort of. By one measure, the A’s have played significantly better than the Angels ... and the Mariners have outplayed the Angels, too.

Oakland +161
Seattle +99
The O.C. +87

That’s run differential, of course. One can explain the disparities between these teams’ run differentials and their records, or at least begin to explain them, with their records in one-run games: the Angels are 22-18, the A’s 17-17, and the Mariners just 14-22. Based purely on run differentials, the A’s should have a hefty, practically insurmountable lead. But they don’t. And all that’s come before is moot.

Wait, even that top-notch run differential is moot? Well, not exactly. Those gaudy numbers tell us something about the A’s. But you know what tells us even more about the A’s? The thousands and thousands of at-bats and the hundreds and hundreds of innings their hitters and pitchers have amassed in their professional careers. Most of which were amassed before this season.

Which is how we knew the A’s were overachieving, at least offensively, for the first few months of the season. A couple of weeks ago, I noted that the A’s have used three catchers this season in key roles, and all three were essentially having career seasons, essentially adding up to a couple of Freddie Freemans ...

But as management must know, these guys aren't Freddie Freeman, either singly or collectively. They're all veterans with long professional track records, and a reasonably accurate method has them combining for a 750 OPS the rest of the season. More like Pablo Sandoval.

Oakland's three catchers won't play every day. So it's really more like trading two Freddie Freemans for two Pablo Sandovals for two months. Hardly the end of the world. But losing Cespedes hurt a little bit, both because he's a good player and because it'll be that much harder to pick up the slack when the Catchers Three regress as they must.

In the two weeks since then, Vogt’s hit three home runs, but otherwise the Catchers Three have been awful, combining for a .193/.244/.336 line in 127 plate appearance. Freddie Freeman would be ashamed. Panda, too.

Of course, the Catchers Three will come around. My point is that a lot of things went absurdly well for the A’s in the first four months of the season, and eventually some of those things were going to stop going so well.

So forget about the run differentials. These two teams are quite even, qualitatively. The additions of Samardzija and Lester might seem to give the A’s a slight edge, but the loss of Cespedes – without anyone in particular to replace his production – makes that edge even slighter.

How even are they? When FanGraphs runs the rest of the season, they come up with a dead heat: 94-68 records for both teams. Baseball Prospectus, same thing.

I don’t have the necessary arrogance to suggest that I know what’s going to happen. Shoot, I don’t even have a gut feeling about this one. All my gut tells me is that skill will be less important than luck, down the stretch. And I’m perfectly happy to just sit back and watch it all happen. The Athletics have only 38 games left, and 10 of them are against the Angels.

At some point, the numbers sort of fall away and all that’s left is the drama. And I think we might have just reached that point in the American League West.


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