Bud Selig is living his dream.
In this, the first season in which two teams in each league will qualify for Wild Card postseason berths, the American League currently has five teams within one game of the lead in the Wild Card standings. When you think about it, this would be even more exciting if just one Wild Card were available.
But, whatever. It's pretty exciting anyway.
Percentage-wise, the Oakland Athletics are on top of those Wild Card standings. And we can't really consider this a total fluke, as the A's also have the second-best run differential among the Wild Card contenders.
I'm having trouble figuring the A's out, though.
Here's the thing ... Last season, the A's finished 12th in the American League in scoring. This season, the A's rank 12th in the American League in scoring. Sometimes my English ain't so good, so here's that same information in a slightly different format ...
Okay, so what about the Athletics' pitching? Their pitching's been really good, right?
Yes. Really good. Despite trading Trevor Cahill and Gio Gonzalez and losing Brandon McCarthy for most of the season (so far), the A's have the second-best ERA in the American League. The thing is, though, it was really good last year, too. Thanks to Cahill, Gonzalez and McCarthy, plus a solid group of reliefers, the A's finished with the league's third-best ERA.
So the A's have moved up one slot: none in runs, one in ERA.
Sometimes the rankings don't tell the whole story.
For one thing, ERA doesn't include all the runs. The A's have given up very few unearned runs, and so they actually rank No. 1 in runs allowed.
A's - 418 runs allowed
Rays - 419 runs allowed
This year, the A's have given up 15 percent fewer runs than the American League average. Last year, even with the third-best ERA in the league, the A's gave up just five percent fewer runs than average. That's a HUGE difference. Last year, they were merely good at run prevention and this year they've been excellent.
Meanwhile, they've done little to improve the other side of the equation. This year, the A's are 10 percent worse than league average in scoring; last year they were 11 percent worse.
Yes, I know the A's have enjoyed a huge power spike this season. Last season, they hit only 114 home runs all season, ranking 12th in the league. This season, they've already hit 123 home runs, good for eighth in the league. Yoenis Cespedes has proved a canny acquisition, and Josh Reddick has been a revelation. Power- and luck-starved for years, normalcy finally seems to have arrived.
Reddick and Cespedes (and Jonny Gomes and Brandon Moss and Chris Carter) have played a big role in the Athletics' success; without them, the A's wouldn't be contenders at all. But essentially all those guys have done is balance the ineffectiveness of the club's catchers and middle infielders, all of whom have essentially been offensive zeroes all season long.
The real credit for this team's success, though, goes to the pitchers and the fielders responsible for run prevention. It's actually sort of an amazing story.
Last season, three Athletics starting pitchers finished the season with more than one Win Above Replacement: Gio Gonzalez (3.9), Brandon McCarthy (2.9), Trevor Cahill (2.3) and Guillermo Moscoso (1.6). Those four pitchers, combining for nearly 11 WAR were the best thing about the 2011 Athletics.
This season, only McCarthy's still on the roster, and he's been able to start only a dozen games all season.
The real story of the 2012 Athletics is how effectively management reloaded the rotation with Bartolo Colon, Jarrod Parker (acquired in Trevor Cahill trade) and Tommy Milone (acquired in Gio Gonzalez trade). They've also gotten great work from plucked-from-the-scrap-heap Travis Blackley and rookie A.J. Griffin.
Unfortunately, Griffin's just been placed on the Disabled List. Fortunately, McCarthy's just been activated from the DL and will pitch against the White Sox this weekend. What's more, Brett Anderson is on the mend from Tommy John Surgery, and seems close to returning to action with the big club.
Oakland's hitters have been slightly better this season than last season, and since some early-season changes their hitters are better now than then. But it's still not a good lineup. If the A's are going to stay on top of the Wild Card standings, it will be on the strength of their pitching and their defense.
One minor concern: Oakland's pitchers actually have a worse-than-average strikeout-to-walk ratio this season. Balancing that: they're excellent at preventing home runs, both at home and on the road. And they do, statistically speaking, have good fielders.
They've got a shot. But even if we assume the Orioles will eventually find their level -- they now have the third-worst run differential in the league -- the A's are still fighting for two playoff spots with three teams that are fundamentally better than they are: the Rays, the Angels, and whoever finishes second in the Central. So the odds are still against them.