For those of you who are Moneyball’ed to death and thought the sun had set on the "Billy Beane as iconoclastic bad-boy genius" era, I've got some bad news: The Oakland A's are the spunky, red-hot team of the moment, and after a four-game sweep of the Yankees, you should get used to hearing their name.
Sunday marked the first time the Yankees had been swept in a four-game series in almost a decade (Blue Jays, 2003, via ESPN Stats & Info), and it moved Oakland into a tie for the final wild-card spot. Here are 10 things you need to know about the weekend series and the A's chances over the long haul.
1. Every single win came by exactly one run, a fact that was infuriating if you happen to root for the Yankees. Which I happen to do. And I happened to put my head through several windows. Note for other sports fans: Windows happen to be expensive. For Oakland, though, the tense triumphs were par for the course. In July, their 14 wins have come with a run differential of +21. Which means that even if we don't account for losses, the average margin of victory is 1.5 runs. It should come as no surprise that their record in one-run games this month is an astounding 8-0.
2. Two of the wins were walk-offs — yesterday's Coco Crisp special, and Brandon Moss's single on Friday. Brandon Inge hit a modified walk-off in the bottom of the eighth on Saturday, and Seth Smith hit a game-tying solo shot in the bottom of the ninth yesterday, just when it looked like the Yankees were about to salvage a win. Lots of dramatics.
3. The Oakland bullpen, which has the best team ERA in the American League, pitched 11⅓ innings over the four-game set, giving up three runs (2.32 ERA) on seven hits and striking out 13.
4. Oakland starters, facing the fifth-best offense in baseball, gave up just seven runs on 22 hits in 27⅔ innings (2.28 ERA), striking out 24 along the way. Tommy Milone, who came into the series 3-1 with a 1.23 ERA in his last four starts, threw the gem of the weekend, with seven scoreless innings and 10 strikeouts on Friday night, which became a no-decision when Robbie Cano gave the Yankees a breath of hope with a ninth-inning game-tying homer.
5. I think you get the point, but you really can't say enough about the Oakland pitching staff in July. They're first in the American League in the following categories: ERA, FIP, WAR, left-on-base percentage, home runs allowed, walks allowed, batting average against, hits, runs, earned runs, strikeout-to-walk ratio, WHIP, and probably 10 more I could dig up if I felt like it. And in most of those categories, nobody else comes close.
6. Oakland is now 14-2 in July, best in the bigs. Duh.
7. The Yankees had scored four runs or more in 27 of their previous 29 games. The totals against Oakland: three, two, one, four. And not that we're supposed to be talking about the Yankees here, but after being dogged by poor RISP hitting all year (as much as you can be dogged with a huge lead in the AL East and the best record in baseball, I guess), they left 27 men on base in four games. This from a team whose line goes from .266/.329/.465 with nobody on base to .239/.342/.434 with runners in scoring position (a lower average and slugging, but a higher OBP, at least) to an abysmal .215/.322/.370 with RISP and two outs.
I got ripped a little for saying the Yankees would fold in the playoffs because of their inability to score runs without hitting the ball over the fence, and I was probably wrong in the assumption that pitching completely outweighs hitting in the postseason, but you can't tell me this isn't a looming worry. And you also can't tell me this series didn't feel exactly like some of the recent Yankees playoff exits. Good but not great pitching, Sabathia looking like something just shy of a true ace, no timely hitting, and a bunch of close losses. And that's all I'll say about that. (Except this: If the season ended today, Oakland would be one of three teams contending for two wild-card spots. If they came out of that mess, they'd meet the Yankees in the divisional round.)
8. Yoenis Cespedes, Oakland's rookie Cuban outfielder, came into the game hitting .424 with three home runs in his last 14 games. In four games against the Yankees, he went 7-15 with two walks, two home runs, and an OPS of 1.396. He has the best average in baseball over the last 14 days, and the best wOBA in the AL. He's also a classic Billy Beane pickup, at least in some ways; he defected from Cuba after a brilliant career in 2011, seeking free agency in the Dominican Republic. But Beane didn't get him cheap — four years, $36 million, which makes him the highest-paid player on the team with the lowest payroll.
The As don't exactly have a terrific offense (in fact, they're pretty bad), but they've used hot bats like Cespedes and Josh Reddick to eke out some wins in July, despite still being near the bottom of the league in run production.
9. Which brings us to the luck factor. An 8-0 record in one-run games? A 14-2 record on the month despite only +21 in the run differential department? Four straight one-run wins over the Yankees, and one before that against the Rangers? We've already talked about the greatness of the Oakland staff, but can it possibly explain those numbers? The answer is, probably not. At least not all the way. If the tremendous pitching continued, you'd probably give them a fair shot to compete against superior offensive teams gunning for the wild card. But that list is long (Angels, White Sox, Orioles, Rays, Red Sox, Indians), and so is the season. The reality is that the team hitting will likely stay at its current low level, while the unconscious pitching will inevitably come back to earth. We're living in a baseball world where it takes a minor miracle for the extremely poor teams to make the playoffs, and that's exactly what Oakland will need.
10. But hell, why end on a somber note? The A's are a blast to watch, full of pie celebrations and fish dances (based on a Weekend at Bernie's dance craze) and all manner of other high jinks. It's easy to have fun when you're winning every day, but I get the sense these guys are having a legitimately good time. The funniest moment of the weekend came when Kurt Suzuki hit his first home run of 2012, breaking a very long dry spell, and the guys in the dugout sat back, looked away, and gave him the silent treatment while he ran down the dugout seeking high fives. After making him sweat, they finally mobbed him in the corner and gave him his due. Whatever else is worrying Billy Beane, he doesn't have to sweat the chemistry.