Don't look now, but the Oakland A's are the hottest team in baseball. On Sunday they snapped White Sox ace Chris Sale's streak of 28 consecutive scoreless innings with a 2-0 victory, thus completing a three-game sweep and winning their 14th game out of their last 16. Thanks to that run, they're positioned for another return to the postseason; at 34-24, Oakland leads the AL wild-card race and is second in the AL West behind the Rangers, just two games back.
What's at least somewhat surprising — and yet so characteristic of general manager Billy Beane's club — is that the A's are getting it done while being led by a different cast of characters than last year. Of their five top hitters (in terms of OPS+) from the 2012 division winners, both Jonny Gomes and Chris Carter are now playing elsewhere, while Yoenis Cespedes (.224/.299/.448) and Josh Reddick (.165/.273/.262) have been slowed by injuries; the former missed the latter half of April with a left thumb injury, while the latter lost most of May to a right wrist sprain. Despite those setbacks, the team still ranks sixth in the league in scoring (4.67 runs per game) while playing in pitcher-friendly Oakland Coliseum.
Perhaps not surprisingly given the organization's ahead-of-the-curve emphasis on on-base percentage, the A's are third in the league in that category (.333) and first in walk rate (10.6 percent) despite ranking just ninth in batting average (.247). Of their 13 players with at least 80 plate appearances, nine have OBPs above the league average of .322, and with 2012 AL Manager of the Year Bob Melvin once again platooning and otherwise juggling players due to injuries, they've gotten OBPs of at least .339 from six of the nine positions.
Tops among the A's hitters have been a trio who figured prominently in Sunday's win. Josh Donaldson (.319/.392/.529 with eight homers) hit the sixth-inning sacrifice fly that ended Sale's streak. Scoring on that play and again in the eighth inning was Coco Crisp (.284/.387/.477), who dashed home from first base on a hit-and-run play with Jed Lowrie (.314/.392/.441) at the plate, aided by an error by White Sox centerfielder Jordan Danks.
Donaldson is the team's regular third baseman. Lowrie, who was acquired from the Astros in a trade for Carter, has shared time at shortstop and second base with Eric Sogard and Adam Rosales, both of whom are better fielders. Crisp has shared centerfield with Cespedes and Chris Young as well as rotating through the designated hitter slot where Seth Smith (.278/.355/.443) has been the top contributor when he's not patching the outfield. Thanks to Melvin's mixing-and-matching, which also includes productive platoons at catcher (Derek Norris and John Jaso) and first base (Brandon Moss and Nate Freiman), A's hitters have had the platoon advantage in 67 percent of their plate appearances, second in the league behind the Indians' 69 percent. Oakland's righty hitters have faced lefty pitchers in a league-high 27 percent of their total PA while producing a league-best 842 OPS under such circumstances via a .279/.385/.457 line.
Melvin's charges haven't sacrificed defense in the name of offense; the team ranks third in the league in defensive efficiency (.706), helping to offset the staff's subpar strikeout rate (7.3 per nine). Overall, they rank seventh in the league in run prevention (4.12 per game), but that's more on the strength of their bullpen than their rotation. Closer Grant Balfour, lefties Jerry Blevins and Sean Doolittle and righties Ryan Cook and Pat Neshek lead a unit that has produced the league's best ERA (2.80), helping the team win 25 out of 26 games in which it has led after six innings, about three wins above expectations given the AL average winning percentage of .849 in such instances.
Melvin hasn't had to juggle his rotation to the same extent as last year, when seven different pitchers made at least 13 starts and nine made at least six. Aside from the season-opening PED suspension of Bartolo Colon and injuries that have limited Brett Anderson to five starts, the unit has been intact all season, with Colon, A.J. Griffin, Tommy Milone and Jarrod Parker all taking the ball 11 or 12 times thus far. The starters are just 10th in the league in ERA (4.36), with Colon (3.33 ERA, 120 ERA+) the only one who's been better than average. The rotund 40-year-old righty continues to pound the strike zone with uncanny consistency; he has a 42-to-4 strikeout-to-walk ratio and has delivered quality starts in all but two of his 11 turns.
Meanwhile, Griffin and Milone (both 4.04 ERA, 99 ERA+) have been close enough to average for government work, and Parker has delivered a 2.41 ERA over his last five starts, compared to a 7.34 mark across his first seven. On the whole, the unit's 57 percent quality start rate is third in the league; they're keeping the A's in games far more often than not.
Melvin will have to hope that Griffin, Milone and Parker can curb their homer-prone ways, because unlike last summer, it doesn't appear as though Anderson will be riding to the rescue anytime soon. He went on the DL with a right ankle sprain on May 1, a day after pitching 5 1/3 innings in relief in a 19-inning marathon from which he had originally been scrapped as a starter. After experiencing soreness in the same foot during a rehab stint in mid-May, he was diagnosed with a stress fracture that will at least cost him most of June and could require surgery; via an update on his status in the San Francisco Chronicle, Susan Slusser noted, "Experts estimate that athletes with foot stress fractures need surgery in more than 50 percent of cases."
As for the key injuries on the offensive side, Cespedes and Reddick may be regaining their strokes. The former recently reeled off a 12-game hitting streak and is batting .274/.366/.500 over his last 15 games, numbers more or less in line with last year's outstanding rookie showing. The latter returned to the lineup on Friday and collected three hits in the weekend series, including a double. Just over one-third of the way through the season, the Oakland has benefitted from a bit of a soft schedule, going 9-0 against the Astros and 5-1 against the Angels but 20-23 against everyone else. A look at the expanded standings at Baseball-Reference.com shows that the A's are actually just 11-19 against teams with records of .500 or above, compared to 23-5 agains those below .500. With 10 of their next 13 games against losing teams (the Brewers, White Sox and Mariners) the smooth ride may continue for a while, but eventually the A's are going to have to show that they can hang with the tough teams while walking over the doormats. In the meantime, they're again one of the game's more surprising and fascinating teams