The Athletics perennially have one of baseball’s lowest payrolls and a home clubhouse that threatens to fill with sewage at any moment. But this season, they been faced with another hurdle that is far more difficult to surmount: the worst luck, by far, in the major leagues.
Oakland's misfortune has not been centrally related to the team's health, though the A's have sustained more than their fair share of significant injuries to key players—specifically to closer Sean Doolittle, starter Jarrod Parker, first baseman Ike Davis, second baseman Ben Zobrist and centerfielder Coco Crisp. The real problem is that while the available players have performed well enough to combine to form a winning team, the production simply hasn’t translated to wins with any regularity. Through Tuesday, Oakland’s record was 35–45, the second-worst for any team in the American League except for the White Sox.
Playing winning baseball is fundamentally a matter of scoring more runs than you allow, and years ago, the great statistician Bill James conceived of an elegant tool to determine what a club’s record ought to be according to its run differential alone. He called it a Pythagorean expectation. This season, according to the now refined tool, the surprising Astros and the disappointing Indians currently have exactly the records they deserve; their real winning percentages and Pythagorean winning percentages are identical. The Athletics' results, meanwhile, are another matter. Here are the teams who have so far most exceeded their Pythagorean expectations, and those who have fallen the farthest short of theirs:
The A’s have scored the third-most runs in baseball (356, or 4.45 per game) and have allowed the 14th-fewest (311, 3.89 per game). Their resulting run differential of +45 suggests they should be tied with the Astros for the AL West lead. Instead, they are 11 games behind Houston and 7 1/2 behind the Rays for the AL’s second Wild Card spot.
Such a reality suggests that the A’s tend to win the blowouts and lose the close ones, and that is indeed true. While they are 17–8 in games decided by five runs or more, the A's are a league-worst 6–20 in one-run affairs and 0–6 in games that go to extra innings. An underwhelming bullpen bears some of the blame: Oakland’s relievers have combined for an ERA of 4.42, better than that of only the Rockies as a unit, and they have performed particularly poorly in clutch—that is, high leverage—situations.
Even so, a Pythagorean differential of -10 by the end of June is such a statistical outlier that it can largely be attributed to just one thing, and that is phenomenally bad luck. The good news for the A’s is that, in the long term, such luck can be expected to even out. The bad news is that they are already out of time, at least for 2015. Even if they suddenly start playing to the Pythagorean winning percentage of .562 from here on out, they would only finish with a record of 81–81, which is likely not good enough to make the playoffs.
The great likelihood is that the star-crossed, if not starless, A’s won’t get the chance to mount an improbable postseason run, as presently constituted anyway. Billy Beane, the club’s general manager, is not the type to pin his hopes, and his team’s future, on an unexpected streak of good fortune. Beane’s recent success—which has included three straight playoff appearances, despite those low payrolls—has been fueled by both a refusal to initiate a long-term rebuilding program and a willingness to constantly arbitrage his mature or expiring assets for younger and cheaper ones, who might as soon as the following season equal their predecessors’ production at a fraction of the cost. That's a necessity for the cash-strapped A’s.
In other words, Beane is a realist, and with this season all but lost, that means that impending free agents like Zobrist, closer Tyler Clippard and starter Scott Kazmir—and possibly other key contributors like Davis and Josh Reddick—could all be moving on from Oakland’s sewage-threatened clubhouse by the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline. They will be replaced by players who are younger than they are and make far less than they do, but who, Beane will hope, might next season bring Oakland to its first World Series in 27 years—if even a modest amount of luck is on their side.