Why the Oakland A’s will pull away from the pack in the 2nd half

If you paid attention to the Oakland A’s during this century – and let’s face it, unless it was the beginning of last season when they had baseball’s best record, or in 2002 during their 20 game win streak (Yes, it really happened. I was there. The movie did a very good job of portraying the streak as it happened!!), then you probably haven’t paid the A’s any attention.

You’d just be assuming they’d just lose in the first round of the playoffs. In which case you’d have been right seven out of the last 15 seasons this century.

Since 2000, 15 full regular seasons and postseasons have been played. The A’s have been to the postseason eight times, which is a lot more than most teams can say and it’s more than half of the time.

Unfortunately for Oakland, they only made it passed the first round of the playoffs just once. It was 2006 and they were swept in the ALCS by the Detroit Tigers, once again breaking the hearts of their fans. Yet, that isn’t my point.

The point I will make is why usually the A’s have a better record in the second half of the season than the first. What I am getting at is that the A’s have been, at least in this century, a dominant team and more importantly a dominant team down the stretch.

Nomar Garciaparra. Getty Images.

They often have a mediocre start and then take off after the All-Star break hits. It’s happened seven times in 15 seasons (although they made the playoffs for the eighth time in 2014 it was not the second half that got them there) and it’s about to happen again in 2015.

It’s mainly because of the way Billy Beane rebuilds his teams with young, inexperienced but budding, soon to be stars and an older veteran or two, veterans that some teams are reluctant to sign.

In that regard they’ve had everyone from David Justice to Nomar Garciaparra to Mike Piazza to Big Frank Thomas, some have worked, others have not. Yet in 2002 Justice was part of the A’s 20 game win streak and in 2006 they had Hall of Famer Thomas on the team.

It’s the young players, however, who really take the team to another level once they’ve had a few months in the big leagues under their belts. The 2012 Athletics are a prime example of exactly that.

Beane made some controversial trades after the 2011 season, leading experts to predict the A’s would lose 100 games in 2012. Instead the A’s won the American League Western Division Title on the final day of the season after taking off in the second half.

Before I can get to why I foresee this happening again, I’ll need to revisit the A’s implosion of 2014, why it may have happened and why this year will be different.

The Collapse of 2014

Everyone thought Beane was crazy this offseason when he traded away five of the A’s seven 2014 All-Stars. He traded Yoenis Cespedes at the trade deadline to the Boston Red Sox for John Lester. Then he let four more All-Stars go in Josh Donaldson, Derek Norris, Jeff Samardzija and Brandon Moss during the offseason. But was he being crazy?

Not really, when you look closely at the 2014 Oakland Athletics and the second half of their season.

Josh Donaldson. Bob Levy/Getty Images
Josh Donaldson. Bob Levy/Getty Images

The A’s started the season off baseball’s hottest team (if you forget about the first week Jim Johnson fiasco), they also started off the year with mostly all veteran – or at the very least – “well-seasoned” players on the team. They smoked every team they played, that is until July when the collapse began, just prior to the All-Star break.

At that point the Athletics had been doing so well that that the hitting drought that slowly crept up on the team in the beginning of July went largely unnoticed.

It wasn’t until it had been going on for a month, and Beane had traded Cespedes, that the implosion of the 2014 Athletics became the talk of the baseball world. Everyone was blaming the trade when that wasn’t the problem. Whether Cespedes in the lineup or not, the A’s still would have floundered in the second half.

Did Beane trading Cespedes for Lester cause the collapse? No. At the time of the trade, it appeared that without Cespedes there were still enough hitters in the lineup to keep things going. Besides how long can a team that had the best record in baseball possibly slump? That had to have been in Beane’s mind.

Plus, he’d already committed to trying something new for him in 2014. He chose to use the normal tactics most teams use to win during a season when he traded top prospects Addison Russell and Billy McKinney to the Cubs for coveted starters Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel.

Beane went “all-in” to win when he traded slugger Yoenis Cespedes to the Boston Red Sox for lefty starter Jon Lester. There was no turning back.

Brandon Moss, Derek Norris and Stephen Vogt were all slumping and there wasn’t anyone left to protect Donaldson in the lineup. Cespedes had really only been acting as  protection in name only having won two straight Home Run Derbys.

Stephen Vogt. Getty Images
Stephen Vogt. Getty Images

In reality however, Cespedes still would have finished the season third on the team in home runs behind Donaldson and Moss. He left the team hitting a pedestrian .256 with 17 home runs.

In Boston Cespedes hit just five more home runs finishing the season three bombs behind Moss who hit 21 homers before the All-Star break and just four homers in the second half, finishing the season with 25.

But Beane could not have predicted Moss’ hip injury would end up being so severe. Nor could he have predicted  Vogt’s foot injury, both of which required extensive offseason surgery. No one expected Norris to slump. It was a disaster of epic proportions.

The team barely made to the American League Wild Card game, winning just 88 games in a season where they had been on pace to win 100 games or more.

Beane may have been able to guess that after starting out so strong the team would break down and the law of averages would catch up with them (which it did) but there is no real way to know that. Instead of playing it safe, he took a gamble.

In 2014, Beane swerved in a different direction. He went off his regular path when he traded for Samardzja, Hammel and later Lester. He went all-in to win with big names and big trades. Veering away from his usual path of using young unknown players and a few aging veterans to form his team. It backfired and it backfired big time.

Back to Normalcy in 2015

Ok, so from July to the last day of September the 2014 Oakland A’s season was a disaster of epic proportions. So over the offseason Beane returned to his usual strategy of one, spending less money, especially since owners Lew Wolff and John Fischer don’t provide him with much to work with in the first place.

And two, going back to his usual M.O. Beane got rid of the all the big name players in exchange for a ton of minor league talent who, once they get the feel of the big leagues after a couple of months, have the potential to be great.

New shortstop Marcus Semien, who was acquired from the Chicago White Sox in the Samardzija trade, and Rule 5 draft pick Mark Canha are already prime examples of players with great potential who will only get better. Both are already hitting well and once their big league instincts kick in, in regards to fielding and base-running, they will be forces to be reckoned with.

Mark  Canha. Oakland Athletics.
Mark Canha. Cal Bears.

They are not the only ones either. Beane has built a 2015 team that will, by the second half of the season, be ready to take off as they have so many times before.

By filling his roster with young talent, who might otherwise be sitting on the bench or in the minors somewhere, Beane as usual, through the trades of his All-Stars collected a lot of young talent so that the A’s would have plenty of talented depth in case of unforeseen injuries. In recent years, having depth and young, up and coming players have led the A’s to success.

They may not have won a World Series with this method but they have dominated, making the playoffs eight times since 2000. Beane may need to make a tweak to his method somewhere to take home a World Championship but not by utilizing a complete turnaround like he attempted in 2014.

As I write this the Oakland A’s are on the verge of improving their record to 11-15, an unremarkable start but not one that can’t be easily overcome once the team’s newbies become accustomed to playing in the majors.

The team has been playing better in their last few games scoring at least six runs from the seventh inning on. They lost two in extra innings but the fact that they were able to overcome five or six run deficits to almost win the game just shows that they don’t need that much more improvement in order to start dominating the A.L. West and the entire league.

The A’s bullpen has also struggled without closer Sean Doolittle and Beane has been shuffling between his now plentiful number of capable relievers trying to find the right balance, a balance of players he will find and find soon. Then there will be the return of veterans Coco Crisp, Jarrod Parker and Ben Zobrist to add to the team’s experience, helping by example, the younger players.

That’s why it will only be a matter of time, approximately until the All-Star break, until the Athletics take off and make the postseason for the ninth time in 16 seasons.

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