The Oakland Athletics are finally starting to get their due in select baseball circles, as members of the big market media latch onto storylines of insane run differentials, position players turned pitchers, and soon-to-be All-Stars that are making the league-minimum salary. All of this is deserved, as Oakland is the best team in baseball by almost any metric you choose. It might be surprising to hear, then, that this A’s team should have a much better record than they currently do. In fact, the underlying peripherals on this team are so good that they rank as one of the best baseball teams of the past couple decades, up there with the likes of the 2001 Mariners and 1998 Yankees/Braves. Let’s get into the statistics that back this up.
Let’s go over the A’s Pythagorean winning percentage, a concept created by Bill James that uses a team’s runs scored vs. runs surrendered to give us an expected or “true-talent” win-loss record. For a team that scores a lot of runs and doesn’t give any up, such as the 2014 Oakland Athletics, actual W-L records and Pythagorean W-L should obviously both be high. However, the main thing that can cause deviations between the actual W-L and Pythagorean W-L records is performance in clutch situations, especially bullpen implosions and timely hitting. Given what we have witnessed recently, the A’s have suffered from both of these phenomenon.
Going into today’s game (July 3rd), the A’s have converted only 59% (19/32) of save opportunities, 9% under the league average and good for 4th-worst in all of baseball. This stat has been impacted by this past week’s two blown saves, but we all know this has been an unexpected issue for the whole season. For everyone crying “Jim Johnson!” at the computer screen right now, you may want to look elsewhere. Luke Gregerson alone is responsible for six out of thirteen of the A’s blown saves. Still, Sean Doolittle will continue to be amazing (his WHIP is .64 and xFIP is 1.95), and Rajai Davis only gets to hit one “I’m guessing fastball but just hit an oopsy-walk-off grand slam on a hanging slider” in his life.
Oakland also hasn’t hit particularly well in high leverage situations over the course of this season. Before June, during which they hit 6th-best in the majors in clutch situations (the difference between context-dependent and context-neutral batter success or failure), they have been middling or awful: 12th-best in April and 27th in May. Perhaps I shouldn’t remind everyone they left the bases loaded twice yesterday without scoring a run in those situations.
What these clutch situations impact most is how many games the A’s should have won if run differential dictated win-loss record. For example, the Tiger’s win expectancy at the start of the bottom of the ninth in Monday’s game was 4.5%; even with the bases loaded and Rajai Davis at the plate in a 4-1 game, it was only 20.9%. Far more times than not, the A’s win Monday’s game. Because they didn’t, it’s a good example of the team not performing as well as they should and undermining their expected win total.
The Pythagorean win-loss formula is a very accurate predictor of success, and teams (such as the 2013 Oakland Athletics) often finish seasons with an identical actual record and Pythagorean record. Usually, over the course of a season, these sorts of discrepancies in clutch play regress to the mean and correct themselves. Sometimes they don’t.
That being said, after 84 games, the A’s are 51-33; their Pythagorean record is four wins better, at 55-29.
Make no mistake, this is a massive difference after just over half a season. If we extrapolate the pace of those win percentages to the end of the season, they are 98 and 106 wins, respectively. A team that wins 98 games usually has the best record in baseball and is a lock to make the playoffs; a team that wins 106 games ranks among the elite teams in baseball history. How elite? Since 1960, only eight teams have won at least 106 games. Five out of eight of those teams won the World Series.
To illustrate where the A’s are and where they should be, as well as to compare them to the greats, I’ve graphed out both of the two best teams of the past two decades, the 2001 Mariners (116 wins) and 1998 Yankees (114 wins). Both are good examples of over performing the Pythagorean formula, as the M’s were predicted at 109 wins and the Yankees at 108. The reason for this was largely their performance in one run games, as they respectively went a crazy 26-12 & 28-10 in those contests, records which are completely unsustainable. A good recent example of this was the 2012 Baltimore Orioles, who went 29-9 in one run games to win 11 games more than their Pythagorean record (82 wins) and make an improbable playoff berth before crashing back to the mean in 2013.
Even given the over performance, these two clubs are scions of elite baseball teams, as both had incredible talent and made serious postseason runs (the ‘01 Mariners lost in the ALCS and ’98 Yankees won the World Series). I’ve plotted the 2014 A’s wins onto the chart, both actual and Pythagorean. As there is no good repository for finding a team’s Pythagorean W-L record for each game during the season (that I know of), I’ve simply taken four of the blown saves the A’s had that resulted in losses and turned them into wins. The most important part of the graph is showing us the A’s relative position to these two elite teams if the A’s were performing up to their expected W-L record. In case you were wondering, yes, the Rajai Davis game was one of the results I reversed.
If not for a four game losing streak at the tail end of May that came in the final series of a three-city road trip at Toronto, the 2014 A’s would be very close to on pace with these historic teams. That’s not a small achievement. Given the A’s are currently 13-11 in one run games, and Sean Doolittle is historically good, one would expect performance in these tight games to improve during the second half of the season, as bullpen performance is the main driver of success in tight games. It’s not just Doolittle who’s great: the A’s currently have the 7th-best bullpen by WAR. All of this points to an improvement coming in these tight games, which should help normalize the A’s record with their Pythagorean record. The 2014 Oakland Athletics are underperforming, and that is a scary prospect for the rest of the league.