A's: midseason report card

July 11, 2012, 10:37 pm
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Baby-faced rookies exceeding expectations, unlikely surges of power striking the opposition, an unknown first baseman-turned-pitcher punching out the side, whipped cream pies, Gatorade showers, and a calculating manager manipulating all of the puzzle pieces.

Surprise! The A's are 43-43 at the All-Star break and just 2 games out of the second American League Wild Card spot. For once people are talking about the team on the field, and not the seemingly endless waffling of Major League Baseball's commissioner in regards to the A's future.

For the first time since 2008 the As have a .500 record at the All-Star break. Could they possibly pull off a playoff run that no one saw coming?

The A's starting pitchers have a 3.67 ERA, which is the lowest in the American League. It's shocking stat when you consider the offseason upheaval that sent All-Stars Gio Gonzalez, and Trevor Cahill packing and A's fans into a state of clinical depression. Instead of a season of sorrows, Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, and even Bartolo Colon have anchored a starting rotation that's allowed two earned runs or fewer in 20 of the last 23 games. Not even the vaunted A's rotations anchored by the Big Three of Barry Zito, Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder pulled that off. They've done it with both of their most experienced starters spending time on the DL. Opening day starter Brandon McCarthy's shoulder remains a major question mark, and Colon has spent time on the DL as well. Oh, and arguably the A's most talented pitcher Brett Anderson is about to start a rehab assignment. The A's have more arms than a paranoid dictator.

The A's gave the ninth inning to the "Mad Aussie" who in turn ended up enraging A's fans. Then to Brian Fuentes, who whipped fans into even more of a lather. When the smoke had cleared from the charred remains of the A's ninth inning explosions, they found a man who could handle the heat -- Ryan Cook. The rookie became the A's closer and has been serving saves since. Cook pitched so well that he became just the seventh rookie in Oakland history to be named to the All-Star team. With a closer in place, the A's bullpen has been lights out. It ranks second-best in the AL with a 2.88 ERA, and the unit's .204 opponent batting average is the lowest in the AL. The 'pen has also allowed an AL-low 17 home runs. Despite losing the closer's role, Grant Balfour has been worth every penny, and the emergence of first baseman-turned-pitcher Sean Doolittle has been arguably the best story in baseball. Doolittle has 24 strikeouts in 14.2 innings pitched.

The A's had an AL-worst 124 errors last season and manager Bob Melvin made the defense priority No. 1 in the offseason. The A's have looked better in 2012. Not only does Josh Reddick have a howitzer for an arm in right field, he has the reckless abandon to make hit-stealing catches. Coco Crisp lacks a decent throwing arm, but his speed plays better now that he is back in center field. Yoenis Cespedes still has to learn how to play left field, and when he's been injured, Seth Smith and Jonny Gomes have played pretty well there. As far as the infield is concerned, the platoon of Brandon Moss and Chris Carter at first is a little below average defensively. Jemile Weeks and Cliff Pennington are solid up the middle. The acquisition of veteran Brandon Inge also solidified third base. Still, the A's make far too many mistakes in pressure situations against big opponents.

If the A's weren't blasting baseballs into orbit their grade would suffer more. A's hitters ended the first half by hitting 22 home runs in their last 18 games. The A's 83 long balls are the most they have hit before the All-Star break since 2007, when they had 91. Reddick has already collected 20 home runs. The last A's player to hit 20 before the All-Star break was Nick Swisher in 2006. Here's a "Moneyball" stat for you -- based on Reddick's 485,000 salary, he is second in MLB in cost-per-home run, with the A's paying him 24,250 for each homer hit. Cleanup hitter Cespedes has shown flashes of superstardom but durability has been an issue. Moss has 10 homers in 26 games played. His platoon-mate at first base Chris Carter has three in six games but Oakland is last in the AL in runs scored (319), average (.225), total bases (1047), and second-worst in on-base percentage (.291) and slugging percentage (.365). There's plenty of room for improvement.
It seems Melvin can do no wrong in this department. Against the Mariners on July 6, Carter became the first rookie in A's history to hit a pinch hit walk-off home run. Oakland now hasa bench that pushes the starters for playing time. Oakland has platoon options at first base, left field, and shortstop. The A's also appear to have two MLB-caliber catchers. Jonny Gomes has a pinch hit home run and is batting .286 with runners in scoring position, and Brandon Hicks is 2-for-2 with two doubles as a pinch-hitter.

This offseason Billy Beane may have pulled off his greatest feat since getting Hollywood executives to cast Brad Pitt to play him in a major motion picture. One can only imagine the Oscar-worthy performances Beane must have put on with rival GMs during the acquisitions of Reddick, Milone, Parker and Smith via trade. Combine that with the coup de gras of signing Cespedes -- which shocked even the most dialed-in experts in the baseball landscape -- and the first half has silenced the Beane doubters. Not to go unnoticed, the sneaky yet effective addition of Colon, the former Cy Young Award winner. What looked like an offseason fire sale actually stocked the shelves with new toys for Melvin to tinker with. Beane and Melvin have made all the right moves. Melvin has even managed to make Beane's one mistake this offseason -- signing Coco Crisp to a two-year deal -- look like a smart move. Beane has transformed his reputation for treating his manager as a meaningless puppet by turning the reins over to Melvin. The difference is staggering.

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