The A’s were better. They proved it for six months. Over 162 games, Oakland verified they were more capable than the Detroit Tigers of traversing baseball’s slog of a schedule. Their staggering young pitching depth, their capacity to grind down opposing starters and Bob Melvin’s platoon magic made them the superior team. They won 96 games to the Tigers’ 93, but you don’t need a landslide to win the election.
The playoffs and regular season ask baseball teams for different qualities. In a sample size of one game last night, the Tigers had Justin Verlander and Miguel Cabrera and the A’s did not, and that’s why Detroit will face Boston in the ALCS and the remarkable A’s suffered another early departure from the playoffs.
The series cut to the heart of why maybe Billy Beane’s [stuff] doesn’t work in the playoffs. Let’s first acknowledge that the randomness of the playoffs has played a significant role in Oakland’s recent depressing playoff history. Trying to explain Oakland’s postseason failings can turn into after-the-fact spinning. But there seems to be some logical reason for why the low-budget, smart-as-hell A’s have made the playoffs seven in times in 14 years and have advanced past the Division Series once.
The A’s build great versatility with their roster, which allows them small edges they can exploit against middling teams with less depth. Their excellent scouting fattened up the back of their roster. Sonny Gray’s excellence aside, they ride a stable of very good starters rather than one or two great ones. Their patient, disciplined approach shreds back-of-the-rotation starters and allows them to face middle relievers more often.
We’re making some generalizations here, of course. Third baseman Josh Donaldson was an absolute star this season and should finish in the top five of the AL MVP vote. That’s not smoke and mirrors. The A’s deserve credit for acing a franchise’s most important mission, which is to make the playoffs as often as possible. Since 2000, they have made the same number of postseasons as the Red Sox.
But all of Oakland’s strengths and small edges are mitigated by the structure of a short series. Versatility and depth can only exploit so much in a matter of five games, especially when the opponent starts a Cy Young-caliber starter three times. The quality of their sixth, seventh and eighth best starters never comes into play. When they work the other starter’s pitch count, they aren’t seeing middle-of-the-bullpen fodder. In Game 4, their reward for knocking out Doug Fister after six innings was a heaping helping of Max Scherzer, the presumptive AL Cy Young winner.
In the regular season, teams are rewarded for consistency and relentlessness, and the A’s built a roster that could provide both. In the playoffs, you may run Verlander at his most brilliant (and tight-pantsiest – seriously, what was up with that?) on the day your season is decided. Gray may throw a fastball in and up, right on the hands, and it might be Cabrera standing there at the plate, ready to launch a quality strike over the left field fence. That might be all it takes to send you home.
If the A’s keep making the playoffs, they are bound to break through and win a World Series. The odds are the postseason will turn in their favor. But it will probably take some luck, because what makes them so great in the regular season matters far less in the playoffs.
The Cardinals and Dodgers — two totally different cultures, Boz writes — will begin the NLCS tonight in St. Louis. It’s Joe Kelly against Zack Greinke. The Cardinals will not be scared of the Dodgers’ star-laden roster. Owner Bill DeWitt has been a major factor in the Cardinals’ success. Dodgers hitting coach Mark McGwire will confront his old team and has drawn praise from his hitters.
In the ALCS, Austin Jackson needs to rebound from his 2-for-20, 13-strikeout ALDS performance. Jacoby Ellsbury is making himself a lot of money this postseason. Dustin Pedroia and David Ortiz are buddies.