The As and the AL West

Before the 2010 season began, many thought that the American League West was the tightest division in baseball. Everyone had their favorite, of course: the Rangers had taken a step forward in 2009 and have the best young talent, the Mariners had made many high-profile moves in the off-season, and the Angels still retained their core talent and, frankly, seemed to win every season whether people thought they would or not. While the As were acknowledged to be on the upswing, I don’t think I read a single “expert” who thought they would win the division. I thought the As had a good shot, maybe a better shot than others, but I can’t say I was overly confident in their chances.

The As haven’t won anything yet. But through Sunday’s games, they are in the lead in the West, if only by half a game over the Rangers. Yes, the As have outplayed their Pythagorean record by three games so far (although no team in the West is currently over .500 according their run differential), but those wins are “in the bank.” Can they keep it up going forward?

On offense, the As as a team haven’t been particularly “lucky,” as they’ve scored 201 runs, while creating 200 according to “absolute” linear weights runs (wRC). I doubt anyone expected the As to hit much this season, and with a .310 team wOBA, they’ve fulfilled that expectation and then some. However, 2010 is no more a constant than is 2009. A quick look at the As’ hitters and the ZiPS RoS projections indicates that some offensive improvement in 2010 is to be expected. Some hitters are a bit over their head at the moment: Daric Barton is finally fulfilling expectations with a .363 wOBA, although ZiPS RoS doesn’t expect too much regression. Second basemen Mark Ellis and Adam Rosales (who filled in while Ellis was injured) are clearly due to fall back to earth. Kurt Suzuki is back from injury and should hit better, and Rajai Davis and Ryan Sweeney should, as well. CoCo Crisp’s return from injury should shore up the outfield on both sides of the ball. Kevin Kouzmanoff isn’t a good hitter, but it’s highly unlikely he’ll finish the season with a .274 wOBA. Unlike the Mariners, the As seem to have realized that the DH is still legal in the AL West, and even a fraction of Jack Cust is better than Zombie Eric Chavez. This isn’t a good offense by any stretch of the imagination, but it is one that should be better going forward, and that’s without taking into account the possible call-ups of Chris Carter and Michael Taylor.

Oakland isn’t getting especially “lucky,” in relation to run prevention, either. The team 4.38 ERA is right in line with a 4.18 FIP and 4.25 xFIP. Of course, their starting staff’s biggest upgrade will be young ace Brett Anderson‘s return fro injury, even if he (or anyone, for that matter) isn’t quite as good as he’s been so far in 2010. While neither Gio Gonzalez and Dallas Braden aren’t quite as good as they’ve pitched so far this season, they’re both starting to look like average or above-average starters. Big off-season acquisition Ben Sheets hasn’t worked wonders, but he’s not killing the team, either. Trevor Cahill has been very lucky so far, so that is something to watch.

It’s too early to get much from the fielding statistics. While according to UZR, Oakland is +2.7 runs (16th in the majors), according to Plus/Minus +23 runs (7th in the majors, but 3rd in the AL behind the Rays and Seattle). Kouzmanoff is doing well so far at 3B according to both systems. Dewan’s loves Barton, UZR not so much this year, although history is with him. Cliff Pennington is holding his own as shortstop, and Mark Ellis should improve the situation at second base. Ryan Sweeney and Rajai Davis aren’t at their usual standards, but can be expected to come around.

Overall, while the As run prevention should probably be expected to fall back a bit (although the fielding should mitigate the regression of the pitching), they should also be expected to hit better. The AL West is still a very tight race, with the Rangers and Angels right there, and a full analysis would need to include all four teams. As for the As, they haven’t played far above their talent so far, and, contrary to the pre-season expectations of many, Oakland has a good chance to remain in the divisional race for the rest of the season.

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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.

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