How the Oakland A’s Vanquished the Texas Rangers and Won the West

On Sunday, the Oakland A’s topped the Minnesota Twins 11-7 for their 93rd win of the season and clinched first place in the AL West for the second year in a row.

For the first time since a run of four straight playoff appearances ended in 2003, the A’s have reached postseason play in back-to-back years.

The Texas Rangers, preseason division favorites for many, lost to the Kansas City Royals, dropping their record to 84-71. After leading the division for a good portion of the year, including Sept. 1, a 5-15 month has put Texas in a battle for the Wild Card. For the second straight season, the Rangers have collapsed down the stretch.

While these two teams did not look evenly matched on April 1, 2013, despite Oakland’s second half push last year, nobody picked the A’s as the superior team on April 1, 2012. With the Rangers following up back-to-back World Series appearances with two straight September collapses, what happened in the AL West to change these team’s fortunes?

Oakland

The Oakland A’s have taken a lot of grief from opposing fans and members of the media over the last decade because of Moneyball. Every time an A’s player doesn’t walk it seems like someone is ready to make a snarky comment.

What’s missing in people’s assessment of the team is that the full title is Moneyball: The Art of Winning an Unfair Game. Moneyball strategy is a way to combat a low payroll with moves, whatever they may be, that could improve the team for an affordable price.

One tactic used in the book that was repeated in 2012 was trading a closer, in this case Andrew Bailey, for players that were less replaceable. Last year that player was Josh Reddick. Reddick broke out in 2012 with a 32 home run campaign.

Similarly, Brandon Moss, in just 84 games launched 21 homers. Combined with Cuban import Yoenis Cespedes and a solid starting rotation, the A’s were able to outlast the Rangers, taking the division on the last day of the regular season, their only day in first place in 2012.

This year holds a similar story in terms of breakout players: Coco Crisp has broken out for a 22 home run season in 2013 after hitting 27 home runs total during his first three seasons in green and gold.

Josh Donaldson, 2007 first round pick of the Cubs, has hit .307/.388/.510 and looked like one of the best third basemen in the game.

Reddick has battled injuries, but Moss has had another solid season as a 29-year-old picked up as a minor league free agent after the 2011 season.

Bartolo Colon, in the season he turned 40, one year after a suspension for PEDs, has put up and ERA under 3.00 for the first time since 2002. Rookie Dan Straily has allowed two earned runs or fewer in seventeen of his first 26 starts this year. Jarrod Parker, who had a brutal April, has pitched to a 3.09 ERA since the calendar turned to May.

The A’s also found a replacement for Reddick deserving of the breakout player of the year honors: Josh Donaldson. The 2007 first round pick of the Cubs, acquired as part of the return for Rich Harden, has hit .307/.388/.510 and looked like one of the best third basemen in the game.

Playing in the same division as Adrian Beltre, that’s saying something. Donaldson has been especially valuable down the stretch, hitting nearly .400 and getting on base half the time he stepped up to the plate. Five of his 24 home runs have come in September and he has scored 19 times in 20 games, his highest total in any month, through Sunday.

Texas

When Josh Hamilton signed with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim this past winter, the Rangers knew he would be tough to replace. While Hamilton has been a disappointment in LA, the offense he provided during his years in Arlington hasn’t been replaced.

Ian Kinsler, Elvis Andrus, David Murphy, and Mitch Moreland have all taken steps back from their performance in 2012. Jurickson Profar, their top prospect and “break glass in case of emergency” player has not yet made an impact at the major league level hitting just .232/.307/.324 while playing third base and left field in addition to his natural position, shortstop.

Nelson Cruz, in the midst of his best year since 2010, was suspended in August as part of the investigation into Biogenesis, the Miami clinic providing PEDs to ballplayers.

Unfortunately for the Rangers, pitching hasn’t been the answer either: Yu Darvish has been excellent as staff ace, but the rotation behind him has not been as impressive.

Adrian Beltre, of course, has remained excellent, hitting .317/.372/.505 and hitting at least 28 home runs for the fourth straight season. But the offense that lead the league in runs last year and hadn’t placed lower than fourth in runs since 2009, finds itself in seventh place.

Unfortunately for the Rangers, pitching hasn’t been the answer either: Yu Darvish has been excellent as staff ace, but the rotation behind him has not been as impressive. Alexi Ogando has battled injuries and thrown under 100 innings, Matt Harrison made just two starts before missing the season with shoulder troubles, Justin Grimm and Nick Tepesch have combined for 34 low-quality starts, and trade acquisition Matt Garza has an ERA approaching 5.00 since being acquired.

Derek Holland has been OK this year, but the Rangers have lost each of his four starts in September, including two games to Oakland and one to Tampa Bay, their competition in the division and for a Wild Card spot.

While Oakland A’s skipper Bob Melvin may be on the cusp of back-to-back Manager of the Year awards, his counterpart in Texas, Ron Washington could find himself looking for work at the end of the season.

Joe Nathan is having another fine season and heads into the final week of September with 40 saves and an ERA under 2.00. Because he’s the closer and usually saved for games the team is already winning, between Sept. 1 and Sept. 16, Nathan made just two appearances. It’s hard for a pitched to help his team without taking the mound.

Which brings us to what might be a difference maker in the AL West: the managers. While Oakland A’s skipper Bob Melvin may be on the cusp of back-to-back Manager of the Year awards, his counterpart in Texas, Ron Washington could find himself looking for work at the end of the season.

Washington was at the helm for two World Series losses, and now will have overseen two late-season collapses, managing his team right out of postseason discussion.

The Rangers were just one strike away from defeating the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2011 World Series but let the Cardinals come back to win. The year before they ran into the Giants.

Terry Francona had two World Series rings with the Red Sox, helped break the 86-year championship drought, and oversaw one collapse in September 2011 and then was done.

Ron Washington may not have the rings on his hand, he may not have the most talent, and postseason series are not always won by the best team, but to watch his team enter September competing for the division and fall short, he may not have the benefit of the doubt anymore either.

Cross-posted at The Sports Post

Baseball on the Brain?

The six months of Major League Baseball’s regular season are jam-packed with 162 games for each of the 30 teams. All winter I wait for baseball season to begin again. Sometimes I wonder if it pervades my mind too much?

This is sadly not a crochet creation of MVP candidate Josh Hamilton. 

He’s Going Crazy, Call Him Superman

Josh Hamilton hit his 9th home run of the week, and 18th of the year, on Saturday. In addition to doubling his current season total, Hamilton has accumulated 1.6 WAR in this week alone.

In 2011 8 players hit 18 home runs over the course of the entire season. The list isn’t made up of superstars, but it’s a solid group of guys: 

+ Mekly Cabrera

+ Chris Heisey

+ Chipper Jones

+ Howie Kendrick

+ Carlos Lee

+ Russell Martin

+ Miguel Montero

+ Brandon Phillips

In all, 76 players hit more than 18 home runs. Hamilton himself hit “just” 25 long balls last year. Much has been made about Hamilton’s inability to play the field, but he did appear in 156 games in 2008. The problem is the other years of his career have game totals of just 90, 89, 133, and 121.

If Hamilton appears in more than 133 games, the total from his MVP year in 2010, he should stand to crush those numbers. Hamilton  is already more than half way to his home run total (32) and forty percent of the way to his RBI total (100) and a third of the way towards his runs scored (95), This fast a start could carry him to a career year even with a slump or injury mixed in during the remainder of the season.

Lester Hit Hard, Rangers Practice Home Run Derby Cruising to 18-3 Victory

Jon Lester has been one of the most consistent pitchers for the Red Sox the past few seasons. The past two years have brought Opening Day honors to the lefty. While the team was off to a slow start, Lester turned in two solid outings, each good enough to deserve the win under normal circumstances. That Jon Lester did not take the mound against the Rangers. The Lester who did had trouble locating his pitches and finding the strike zone. By the third inning, Lester would give way to the bullpen and the damage would really start to accumulate as the Rangers scored 18 runs, including six home runs on the way to their fifth straight win.

The Rangers, one of the strongest offensive clubs in the American League, went to work early with leadoff man Ian Kinsler getting a hit to start the game. Lester would limit first inning damage to hits and watch Dustin Pedroia’s laser show in the bottom of the inning put his team up 2-0 over Colby Lewis. That would be about it for good news.

The Rangers would score 4 runs in the second inning and 3 more in the third, chasing Lester from the game. Scott Atchison allowed two baserunners of Lester’s to score and one of his own in the third inning, but went on to pitch three more clean frames and, along with Matt Albers, keeping the score at a reasonably close 8-2 through the seventh inning.

Mark Melancon would change all of that. In an effort that makes Alfredo Aceves’ first appearance look downright brilliant, Melancon faced six batters in the eighth inning and failed to record an out. What he did do was allow towering home runs to Josh Hamilton, Adrian Beltre, and Nelson Cruz as part of an 8-run eighth for Texas. ESPN reports that “Melancon is just the 8th pitcher in last 90 years to allow 3 HR without recording an out.” Not quite the history the Red Sox wanted to celebrate at Fenway Park this week.

Adrian Gonzalez would chip in with a home run of his own in the bottom of the inning but that was the only sign of the Red Sox bats since Dustin Pedroia’s blast many innings earlier. To add final insult to injury, Mike Napoli added a two-run shot in the ninth off Vincente Padilla, who filled the role usually occupied by a position player in these types of blowouts.

Sox Stud of the Game: Dustin Pedroia

Laser show. La luna. It doesn’t matter. The second baseman hits the ball, catches it, and defends Kevin Youkilis in a single bound.

Sox Dud of the Game: Jon Lester

Lester didn’t have his best stuff tonight and against a powerful Rangers lineup it came back to bite him. Hard.

Game Notes:

W: Colby Lewis (2-0) L: Jon Lester (0-2)

The performance of Lewis lost in this story. Striking out seven while walking one and allowing just two runs to score early in the game, Lewis set the tone for the Rangers and the bats helped him to sail.

Adrian Gonzalez: The Padres’ Bargain

September started with Red Sox off-season acquisition Adrian Gonzalez as part of the AL MVP discussion, along with two of his teammates: 2008 MVP Dustin Pedroia and center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury.  While a substantial number of words were spilled this winter about Boston’s acquisition of the All-Star first baseman and his subsequent contract extension, his old team, the San Diego Padres, should be satisfied with the way things turned out for the team during Gonzalez’s tenure in Southern California.  

Gonzalez was originally selected first overall by the Florida Marlins during the 2000 amateur draft. Just three short years later the young first baseman was traded, along with Will Smith and Ryan Snare to the Texas Rangers for Ugueth Urbina.  The Rangers of course had their own stud first base prospect, Mark Teixeira, who made his major league debut on April of that year.  By hitting .259/.331/.480 while clubbing 26 home runs, Teixeira finished fifth in Rookie of the Year voting and never looked back.  

The Marlins probable sold too early on Gonzalez considering his pedigree as a first overall pick and solid progression through the farm system including hitting .266/.344/.437 in AA Portland in 2002.  Off-season wrist surgery would put a damper on his 2003 numbers, both with the Marlins and then with the Rangers.  Across three teams in 2003, over 493 plate appearances, Gonzalez hit just .269/.327/.365 – good for a .692 OPS.  His home run total sat at just five.  Nonetheless the 2004 edition of Baseball Prospectus declared the first baseman as Rangers GM Jon Hart’s “crown jewel” of mid-season acquisitions and expected a full recovery along with Gonzalez forcing his way into the Rangers lineup by 2005 or sooner.

Sure enough, Gonzalez mashed AAA pitching to the tune of .304/.364/.457 in 2004 and .338/.399/.561 in 2005.  Unfortunately the success did not translate to his first exposure in the majors.  Making his Major League debut in April 2004, the top prospect hit just .238/.273/.381 in a cup of coffee with the team.  In more than three times the plate appearances in 2005 (still just 162), Gonzalez again struggled with a line of .227/.272/.407.  Unfortunately it was at this point that the Rangers, with Mark Teixeira now well established at first base and still under their control through the 2008 season, decided to trade from their position of strength, first basemen, for pitching help.

In January 2006, Adrian Gonzalez, Terrmel Sledge, and the pitching version of Chris Young were sent to the NL West San Diego Padres for major league pitchers Adam Eaton and Akinori Otsuka and minor league catching prospect Billy Killian.  Things did not go well in the Ballpark at Arlington.

Adam Eaton, brought in to solidify the starting rotation, was limited to just 65 innings in 2006 and left as a free agent at the end of the season.  After winning eleven games in back-to-back seasons before arriving in Texas, despite ERAs of 4.61 and 4.29, Eaton tallied just seven victories in his limited time on the mound with a bloated 5.12 ERA and WHIP of 1.57.  His 5.95 K/9 was a career worst and part of a downward trend for the hurler since his 2001 season where he recorded 8.41 strikeouts per nine innings.  Eaton was a better at home (.281/.346/.459) than away (.322/.391/.513) and subject to a reverse split with lefties hitting just .279/.340/.382 while watching their right handed counterparts tee off against Eaton: .320/.393/.592.

Right-handed reliever Akinori Otsuka fared somewhat better.  In two seasons with Texas, one as their primary closer, the Japanese righty tossed 92 innings of 2.25 ERA.  He averaged just under seven K/9 but registered a superb 3.50 KK/BB during his time in Arlington.  Unfortunately, injuries limited Otsuka in 2007 and that concluded his tenure with the Rangers.  While he did provide some value out of the ‘pen, it was not the difference making impact the Rangers should have gotten in return for a perfectly good player ho had the misfortune to be blocked at his position.

As for Killian, he spent two seasons in the minors with Texas before moving to the White Sox farm system.  He has never appeared in the Major Leagues.

When it comes down to it, this was simply not a good trade for the Rangers.  At worst, Gonzalez could have been a designated hitter for a team with a very potent lineup.  According to the Fangraphs’ version of WAR, Adrian Gonzalez alone worth 21.8 WAR.  Adam Eaton just 0.6 and Akinori Otuska 3.0 over his two seasons with the team.  Chirs Young, even battling injuries brought with him an additional 4.9 WAR.  Terrmel Sledge was worth -0.3 WAR.  

All things considered, the Rangers may have misread the market, trading too good a hitter for pitchers who were not young kids yet to break in or established top-shelf veterans.  The Rangers traded a future superstar for commodities that just did not match up in value.

Did the Padres get a better haul for their prize?  Gonzalez was certainly worth even more last winter than in 2006 and San Diego managed to snag several of Boston’s top prospects.  If they pan out, the value might look good in a few years.  If not, the Padres at least got promising young players in return.