Sean Doolittle might not explain Oakland’s Amazing A’s, but he does exemplify them.
When I’m looking at a pitcher’s fundamental performance, the first thing I check is his strikeout-to-walk ratio. Of course it’s far from the only thing, but it’s the first.
Sean Doolittle does not have a strikeout-to-walk ratio. When you look him up on Baseball-Reference.com, all you see in that space is a white box — a void. Because while Sean Doolittle has racked up 28 strikeouts in his 21 relief innings, he’s walked not a single, solitary soul. And as my fourth- or fifth-grade teacher explained so patiently, you can’t divide by zero.
Or maybe you can. I forget. Maybe there’s some symbol that should be in that box for Sean Doolittle. But the void is more dramatic than any symbol, so I applaud Sean Forman’s decision to just go with ... nothing.
As I said, you can’t explain the Athletics with Sean Doolittle. As brilliant as he’s been, he’s also got a losing record (1-2) and a pedestrian ERA (3.43). But Doolittle’s walk-free season lies beyond the bounds of reasonable prediction, and perhaps just barely inside the bounds of Ordinary Baseball Weirdness (OBW). And you need a number of players like Sean Doolittle to have the sort of season the A’s are having.
Essentially, they have. But meanwhile, the Braves completely stopped hitting and the A’s did not. How stark is the difference between these teams? Both remain in first place. But while the Braves have outscored their opponents by exactly one run,
@susanslusser@robneyer A's on pace for +351 run differential, which would be one of the highest ever. 1939 Yankees hold record at +411.
The A’s have a +95 run differential. How good is that? It’s brilliant, and especially in this season of averageness. Only four other teams have managed to outscore their opponents by more than 20 runs:
Nobody’s been particularly good in the American League East or the National League East or the National League Central.
I’m not complaining. I couldn’t care less about the absence of a great team in the American League East. I’m happy to see five perfectly decent teams spend a few months beating up on each other. It’s just interesting. And at this point, perhaps no team is more interesting than the A’s, who weren’t supposed to be this good, and really weren’t supposed to be this good after losing Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin.
Yes, now is when I’m supposed to say the A’s can’t play this well all season. Doolittle’s going to issue some free passes, Derek Norris and John Jaso won’t keep out-hitting Brian McCann by a factor of infinity, and Jesse Chavez isn’t really a Cy Young candidate.
All those things are probably true. But sometimes teams play above their true abilities for a couple of months, and sometimes they do it for a whole season. Those ’39 Yankees with the record-setting (and still-holding) run differential? They went from +411 in ’39 -- without Lou Gehrig, by the way -- to +146 in 1940. From 1997 through ’99, the Yankees’ run differentials were +203, +309, and +169. From 2000 through 2002, the Mariners’ run differentials were +127, +300, and +115.
Were the ’98 Yankees fundamentally better than the teams before and after? Were the 2001 Mariners fundamentally better than the teams before and after?
Sure, maybe a little. They were probably healthier in the big seasons, maybe had slightly better players, maybe even had slightly better chemistry. But for the most part the talent was the same. Things just came together better in the big seasons.
I’m not going to say the A’s can’t outscore their opponents this season by 300 runs. Granted, it’s not likely. But they were +99 in 2012 and +142 in 2013, and they’ve got one hellacious head start.
There does seem to be an established level of organizational talent here. And sometimes if you’ve got enough talent, you roll an OBW Yahtzee.
For more, be sure to see Rob Neyer's Twitter feed, where he regularly live-tweets his solitaire dice games and flagellates himself for stupid mistakes.