Meet the Enemy 2: The unknown A's are leading the West

Someone is missing their duck call. - Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

We're doing it again...Alex Hall from Athletics Nation is here to answer some questions.

Since the Angels are traveling to Oakland this weekend, Alex Hall from SBNation's Athletics Nation is here again to trade questions with me about our teams.

Entering play Friday night, the Oakland squad has a 1.5 lead on the Halos, but have won 4 of their last ten games.  In the meantime, the Angels had won 5 straight series before splitting a four-game set in Seattle, and have won 14 of their last 20.  The club can thank their starters for the hot streak as they've posted a 2.85 ERA (129.1 IP – 41 ER) while holding opponents to a .209 batting average against (98/470) with 35 walks and 103 Ks.  Also, the rotation has 15 quality starts in their 19-game span.

Friday:  Richards (4-1, 3.00 ERA) vs Pomeranz (4-2, 1.38 ERA)
Saturday:  Skaggs(4-2, 3.97 ERA) vs Milone (3-3, 3.50 ERA)
Sunday: Weaver (6-3, 2.99 ERA) vs Gray (5-1, 2.31 ERA)

My answers to Alex's questions

Here's Alex:

1. Many mainstream writers are calling Oakland a team of unknowns.  Are the A’s a bunch of over-achieving unknowns or are the mainstream guys just not paying attention?
I think it's fair to be skeptical. If I wasn't a fan of the team, I'd probably be wary of guys like Jesse Chavez and ... you know, I just went through the entire roster a few times and I can't think of a second name to include with Chavez. Feel free to doubt him all you want, since he could turn into a pumpkin tomorrow just as easily as he could stay in the Cy Young race all season. I have full faith in him, but I'm looking through heavily tinted green and gold lenses.
However, I think this team is starting to shed its unknown status with each passing day. Sonny Gray made his name last October by out-dueling Justin Verlander in the playoffs, and he's a former first-round pick and top-100 prospect. Josh Donaldson finished fourth in the MVP voting last year, Yoenis Cespedes won the Home Run Derby, and Brandon Moss has a .550 slugging percentage in over 1,000 plate appearances with a team that plays in a notorious pitcher's park. Jed Lowrie, Coco Crisp, and John Jaso were never considered stars before coming to Oakland, but none of them were scrubs either. Scott Kazmir was doubted not for his talent, but for his health. And as for the bullpen, almost every team comes up with random guys who turn in star-quality seasons, so that's not unusual.
So, given that, an analyst who claims that these guys are unknowns in 2014 would indeed be someone who is not paying attention. Two years ago many of them were unknowns, but many of them have over-achieved long enough that their levels of success have simply become their new baselines. Heck, even Chavez has a 3.56 strikeout-to-walk ratio to back up his early success. Of course, this entire website was originally created because an A's fan was disappointed in the mainstream media's weak national coverage of the team, so sneaking up on the world has gone from a consistent reality to a sort of comfort zone. It somehow makes it more fun when every victory comes as a big shock to the baseball world, even when it's largely the same guys who won last year.
2. Speaking of unknowns, who’s this Drew Pomeranz fella?  Sure, he’s a former first round pick, but his best year prior to 2014 was 2012 when he had a 4.93 ERA in 22 starts with Colorado.  What happened?
Pomeranz is an example of how to ruin a young pitcher. He was developed very poorly by Colorado, and he just needed to start over somewhere else. The A's cleaned up his delivery by having him pitch exclusively out of the stretch, which has upgraded his control from "poor" to "shaky." And whereas the Rockies rushed him to the Majors a couple times, the A's started him in the bullpen throwing low-leverage mop-up innings and then gradually worked him into the rotation when he showed he was ready. Of course, his sub-2 ERA is a mirage; his underlying performance (3.69 FIP) has been about league-average. But his strikeout potential is finally translating to the bigs and he's starting to look like he might make good on his top prospect status after all.
As for the basic scouting report, he's billed as a two-pitch guy but he really has three now. He throws a good fastball (average 91.6 mph), but his out pitch is his curveball. He also throws a sinker, and has started using that pitch more in his last two starts. He possess a changeup but hardly ever uses it; Brooks Baseball says he's only thrown it five times all year.
3. Which smells worse, the dugout in Oakland during a drainage problem or Derek Norris’ beard after a day game?
Well, the confounding variable is that some of the drainage is bound to get into Norris' expansive beard during the course of the game, so the beard would contain the smell of both the sewage and the carcasses of whatever animals got lost inside and perished. Beard wins by a hair.
4. If all things remain the same (no injuries, no trades), who wins the AL West?
The A's, duh.
But seriously, though, this scenario favors the A's. Let's assume that the Rangers aren't going to recover from their Greek tragedy of a season, and that this comes down to Oakland and the Angels. The A's are already ahead and have the far superior run differential, which suggests a relatively brighter future. The biggest obstacle to their continued success would be an injury or three, and the Angels' best chance of improving at this point in the season would be through a big-time trade acquisition. With the current rosters, the A's are a better team. But reality is different than this scenario, and a lot can change between now and October -- injuries, slumps, etc. I have no doubt that the Angels are for real, and this is going to be a tough race.
5. As of Thursday, Oakland easily has the largest run differential in baseball.  Would you mind explaining how this is happening?  Are you afraid of any regression?
It's simple, really. Just score the most runs per game of any team in the Majors, and allow the fewest runs per game. If you do that, as the A's currently are, you'll lead in run differential, guaranteed.
OK, that's not the answer you were looking for. Remember Beane Count, the junk stat Rob Neyer invented around 15 years ago that measures walks and home runs? The A's lead the Majors in it, by a lot. They lead the Majors in drawing walks, which has helped them rack up the second-best OBP in baseball (and thus the second-lowest frequency of making outs). They're second in the AL in hitting homers, but their pitchers are keeping the ball in the park at the same time. Hits and BABIP come and go, and you can chase them all day if you want. You'll succeed with those now and then, just as an NBA team who relies on three-pointers will ride that to success when the statistical fluctuations occasionally fall in their favor. But control the walks and homers on both sides of the ball, and good things often follow. Not always, but often.
As for regression, I'm more worried about that on the pitching side than the hitting side. Health permitting, this offense is for real. They were fourth in MLB in scoring last year, so this appears to be their true talent level. However, nobody in the rotation (except fifth starter Tommy Milone) is a good bet to throw 200 innings without wearing down -- Gray and Pomeranz have never played a full MLB season, Chavez has never exceeded 130 innings as a pro, and Kazmir has an extensive injury history. Perhaps they all stay healthy for the whole year, but you'd have to expect at least a couple of them to fall off a bit as their arms reach uncharted territory.
6. I like getting my questions first, that way you get to do the crazy thing you ask me to do...so have at it, write me that haiku about Billy Beane!
The mad scientist
Creates players from spare parts.
Is he ... FrankenBeane?

Thanks again, Alex!

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