The Twins and their impressive run to the top of the standings in the American League Central have captured much of the baseball world's attention over the first two months of the season. But they are unlikely to sustain their performance, and as Joe Sheehan wrote in the latest installment of his excellent newsletter, they are a fluke. The Twins are a 21-29 team that through a run of incredibly timely hitting in high leverage situations, are currently masquerading as a 30-20 team. What I find interesting is that the Oakland Athletics, who have deviated from their expected performance by a similar level as the Twins, albeit in the opposite direction, have received considerably less attention. The Athletics are also a fluke, but more of a depressing sort, rather than the can-do, plucky-upstart sort the Twins have been. The Athletics are a more of a 31-23 team than they are the 21-33 team that the standings indicate. Much like Sheehan did for the Twins, here I will break things down for the Athletics.
The Athletics are currently the worst team in the American League, sitting 12.5 games back of Houston in the West and 7.5 games back of Detroit for the final AL playoff spot. To begin the year, FanGraphs playoff odds (POFF) for the A's were 32.5 percent. As of today those odds have dropped all the way to 6.1 percent. The Athletics were the biggest season-long fallers in my playoff odds report last week. My assertion that they are more of a 31-23 team comes from their BaseRuns record, which says that based on their offensive and pitching component statistics they should have a run differential of +32, rather than the +3 they currently have. Even taking that +3, which is what has actually happened, the Athletics should be a 27-27 team.
On offense the Athletics are about where they should be. Through Tuesday's games they have scored 227 runs (4.2 per game), which is tied for fifth best in the AL. Although, based on their offensive elements they should have scored 232 (4.3 per game). They get on-base at a good clip (.318, sixth in AL; note all remaining rankings will be given for AL only unless otherwise noted), and slug runners around moderately well (.390, 10th), although they could sock a few more bombs (47, 11th). They have stolen 31 bases (fifth-highest) and done so at a strong, 84 percent rate (second-highest). All told, the Athletics have a decent offense that has only slightly underperformed it's potential.
If offense is not the issue, then pitching and/or defense must be. The Athletics have allowed 224 runs (4.15 per game), which has them as 11th in the AL. But, based on their pitching statistics they should have only allowed 200. The Athletics' pitchers are middle-of-the-pack in strikeout rate (20.1 percent, 8th), and walk rate (8.1 percent, 8th). These are two critical parts of fielding independent pitching (FIP), of which the Athletics' pitchers have the 4th best mark in the league (3.71). A lot of the success in FIP is their 6th best ground ball rate (44.7 percent), and league-low total of home runs allowed (42). Even if we include fielding into the mix, the Athletics look pretty good. By defensive efficiency the A's outfielders have been the fourth-best at turning batted balls into outs, fifth-best by park-adjusted defensive efficiency. So the Athletics staff allows contact at around an average rate, they have managed to keep the ball in the yard when doing so, and often turn those balls in the yard into outs, yet, as noted, they have still allowed the fifth most runs in the league, tied for 11th with those pesky Twins on a per game basis.
Turns out that, as Sheehan pointed out has been the case for the Twins, the Athletics staff has performed in an unsustainable manner in clutch situations. But, while the Twins have performed like studs in clutch situations, the Athletics have performed like duds. A simple measure of clutch is the leverage of the situation. Bases-loaded, tied game, bottom of the ninth inning is about as high leverage as it gets. Bases-empty, 8-0 game, bottom of the third inning is low leverage. How teams perform in the various leverage situations relative to other teams, and to themselves in other situations are tracked to give a measure of clutch. While typically unsustainable, clutch can happen for periods and have interesting effects on performance.
Using the Baseball Reference Play Index, a team's leverage splits can be examined by comparing their performance on a given statistic (e.g., OPS) in the various leverage situations to itself. tOPS+ gives us what we want. A tOPS+ of 100 is the baseline. On offense, higher numbers mean the team is better in the given situation and lower numbers mean they have been worse, while for pitching the scale is flipped. The Athletics' offense has performed similarly in low, medium and high leverage situations (101, 102, 95, respectively). This is what you should expect, as there is no real reason a team should thrive or wilt in certain leverage situations. Yet, the same story is not true for the pitching staff who have posted marks of 84, 102, and 139, which means they are better than typical in low leverage situations and awful in high leverage situations. In fact, that 139 tOPS+ in high leverage situations would be the highest mark since 1914. The Athletics have allowed teams to hit .239/.308/.356 against them, but in high leverage it has been .273/.358/.436. That change is like going from facing Cliff Pennington (career .662 OPS) to facing Todd Frazier (career .795 OPS).
A lot of this bad performance in high leverage situations is on the relievers. Dan Otero (1.532 OPS, 274 tOPS+), Fernando Abad (1.417, 188), Eric O'Flaherty (1.185, 136), Ryan Cook (1.139, 158) and Evan Scribner (.840, 213) have all been really bad. As a group the Athletics' relief corps has the league's worst ERA and fourth-worst FIP. There could be an underlying reason for the lack of performance in the important spots in the game; perhaps Billy Beane needs to march into the clubhouse and set the fellas right, but more likely than anything it is just random unluckiness. This sort of thing has altered their season so far, but it is not typically sustained and suggests that, much like the Twins, their record is a fluke.
For what it is worth, the Athletics are projected for a .513 winning percentage the rest of the way, which will still only get them to 76 wins. That is certainly a disappointing result given preseason expectations, but it is only five fewer wins than everyone's favorite story, the Twins, are projected to end with.
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