Usually, if asked to guess the most dominant team in baseball, you’d be inclined to pick some team from the perennially-stacked American League East, or perhaps one of the high payroll Los Angeles Dodgers or Detroit Tigers, or the defending champion Boston Red Sox. If you guessed any of those teams, this year, you’d be veering wildly off course. The most dominant team in baseball thus far is sitting right in our backyards, here in the East Bay. The Oakland A’s are sitting pretty right now at the top of the AL West, owners of a 28-16 record. They’ve more or less been mopping the floor with opponents for the past two weeks, and they completely obliterated the Cleveland Indians this past weekend, outscoring them 30-6 in a three-game sweep at Jacobs Field. The A’s are rolling and appear to be determined to take the AL West by the neck and not let go. The scariest part of it all, though, at least for the rest of the American League, is that the A’s could be even better.
For a number of years now, analysts have been looking at a team’s run differential to take a look at the hidden story, of sorts, behind a team’s on-field performance. Even over the course of a 162-game season, a team’s actual record can be skewed a bit by luck and random chance. However, as the thinking goes, the actual quality of a team shows up in its run differential, i.e. the number of runs it has scored versus the number of runs it has surrendered. Obviously, the greater a team’s run differential, the better they are, and truly great teams score way more runs than they give up. As an example of this, the cross-bay Giants, who currently lead the National League West with a 28-17 record, have a run differential of +27. That’s pretty darn good, and indicates that their first place standing is, so far, not a fluke.
The A’s? Their run differential is a whopping +95! They’ve scored 95 more runs than they’ve allowed to opponents. That’s 40 runs better than the next-best team, the Detroit Tigers. That’s pretty insane, and it gives you a pretty decent idea just how dominant the A’s have been in the season’s early-going. Credit a powerful hitting attack that leads the league in runs scored and OPS, and a surprisingly lights out pitching staff that leads the league in ERA. According to Rob Neyer, the A’s are on pace to finish with a run differential of +350 or so, which is the kind of number reserved only for teams with 100-win seasons.
What should give other AL West teams the willies, however, is the fact that the A’s are currently underperforming, according to that run differential. For those unfamiliar, there is a metric called Pythagorean Record, which calculates what a team’s record should be, based on their run differential. Smart front offices tend to use Pythagorean Record to evaluate how well their team actually performed and then make the appropriate moves to improve the team for the following season. The A’s currently have a stunning Pythagorean Record of 32-12, meaning that if it weren’t for some rotten luck in a few games, they’d have easily the best record in the majors.
Of course, we aren’t even two months into the season, and even run differential numbers are susceptible to small sample size goofiness. The skeptic might look at Derek Norris’s .226 batting average coming into this year and tell you that he won’t hit .354 for much longer. He might also tell you that Brandon Moss isn’t a .300 hitter, and that Scott Kazmir, Sonny Gray, and Jesse Chavez almost certainly won’t go the full year with a combined ERA under 2.50. He might also point out that Sean Doolittle will walk a guy at some point, and that Drew Pomeranz won’t carry a 1.14 ERA forever.
Crazy fluke numbers tend to even out over the course of the season, so it’s a near-guarantee that some of these guys are going to regress to their career norms. Still, it’s not like the A’s have a team full of players wildly exceeding their career numbers. The team is getting solid production from usual suspects like Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes, and John Jaso, and Moss’s power numbers are in line with his last two seasons. The guys in the bullpen are having seasons more or less in line with what they’ve been doing for the past year or two. Plus, Jim Johnson has been ejected from the closer role, so he won’t be around to cough up saves like he was doing in the season’s first month.
Maybe the A’s come back to earth a little, and maybe they won’t threaten the kind of run differential not seen since the 1998 Yankees. You just never know, though. However it plays out, even if there is some regression on the horizon, the A’s still project to continue to be the class of the AL West, and perhaps even the entire American League.