A funny thing happened on the way to the inevitable ALCS showdown between the Oakland Athletics and Detroit Tigers – both teams stopped playing well.
Entering play on August 19, neither team holds first place in its respective division. The Tigers are two games behind the Royals in the AL Central, while the A’s are a half-game back from the Angels in the AL West. Both clubs hold the top two spots in the AL wild-card standings, although Detroit is essentially tied with the Mariners for that second berth.
The idea that Detroit could miss the playoffs altogether seemed unfathomable just a month ago. Or even just over two weeks ago when Tigers GM Dave Dombrowski nabbed David Price from the Rays at the July 31 trade deadline. Yet an 8-9 record thus far through August and 13-18 mark since the All-Star Break has suddenly made their postseason chances look a bit shaky.
Oakland’s postseason status seems more assured, but the team is 7-10 in August and 14-15 since MLB’s midsummer hiatus. That’s obviously not what was expected from the A’s after they made the bold move of getting Jon Lester from the Red Sox on July 31.
Prior to that, GM Billy Beane established the bar among AL contenders by acquiring Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel from the Cubs. The A’s looked like they were getting all the top starting pitching. That is, until the Tigers traded for Price hours after Oakland dealt for Lester.
Wouldn’t that be a hell of a thing if the A’s and Tigers ended up meeting in a one-game wild-card playoff, with the winner going to the ALDS, instead of a seven-game epic to determine who goes to the World Series? Maybe we could have a Lester vs. Price pitching matchup, to boot. Just like the MLB experts predicted back in March, before either of these teams began collecting aces for their respective rotations.
Starting pitching wins championships. We all know that, right? But in their zeal to fortify their staffs and not just qualify for the postseason, but win the World Series, maybe the A’s and Tigers underestimated how important hitting can be.
Yoenis Cespedes wasn’t Oakland’s best hitter when Beane traded him to Boston as the centerpiece of the package exchanged for Lester. But he was one of the lineup’s top power threats, notching 17 home runs and a .464 slugging percentage. Replacing Cespedes in left field, Brandon Moss is batting .205 in August with no home runs and slugging .250. Jonny Gomes (who came from the Red Sox in the Lester deal) is hitting .211 (the same as his slugging percentage) with no home runs.
However, no one else in the Oakland lineup has been hitting well either. In August, the A’s have a .224 team batting average, the second-worst in MLB. (Only the Mets have been worse.) Their .643 team OPS is among the bottom five in MLB.
With the depth Beane had built on his roster, trading Cespedes was a risk the A’s could afford to take. Stephen Vogt and Nate Freiman have gotten more playing time as a result. If Cespedes was so valuable that Oakland’s offense would crater in his absence, he never would’ve been traded. It’s possible that losing Cespedes upset some lineup chemistry, but it’s more likely that the team just went into a collective slump.
In Detroit, Austin Jackson wasn’t considered one of the team’s top offensive threats especially on a team with reigning AL MVP Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez. But he was versatile enough to either provide some offense in the lower half of the Tigers’ batting order or hit leadoff. The Tigers’ offense hasn’t taken as steep a dive as Oakland’s, but its numbers aren’t impressive. In August, Detroit is batting .249 as a team with a .688 OPS.
With Jackson gone, Rajai Davis has a .266 batting average in August, but is hitting .248 versus right-handed pitching overall. Ezequiel Carrera is batting .194 with a .565 OPS. Defensively, the two provide adequate defense in center field, but don’t have the range of Jackson, who’s been one of the best gloves at his position during his five years in Detroit. There’s a reason the Tigers are in hot pursuit of Cuban outfielder Rusney Castillo, with visions of him possibly contributing this season.
Of course, Detroit has bigger issues — namely the relief corps that’s been a problem all season. As much as Dombrowski has tried to fix the unit, he’s running out of time and options.
The Tigers’ 4.37 bullpen ERA ranks 27th out of 30 MLB clubs. Its .275 opponents batting average and .737 OPS are each the second-worst in baseball. No matter how well the starting pitching performs, the bullpen is blowing too many leads. But it certainly doesn’t help that the Tigers’ offense isn’t providing the level of support it once did.
Oakland has 38 games left to play, while Detroit has 40 games remaining. There’s far too much time left on the schedule to say with any certainty whether or not one or both of these favorites will fail to live up to expectations.
Though the downward trend both teams are riding is surprising, each has nearly six weeks to turn things around. (There’s even just under two weeks before the Aug. 31 waiver trade deadline, providing an opportunity for Beane and Dombrowski to add pieces and tweak their rosters further.)
But maybe it’s time we start paying a bit more attention to the Angels, who were only a game out of first place in the AL West before the A’s made their blockbuster deal, and have been overshadowed by Oakland’s raging success all season.
And in August, the Royals and Orioles are playing the best baseball in the AL. The O’s have pulled away in the AL East, going 11-5 and leaving the Blue Jays and Yankees in the dust. And the Royals are now fulfilling the promise many invested in them before the season, compiling MLB’s best record this month at 14-3 and leapfrogging the Tigers in the AL Central.
What all of this really means is that the AL playoff race is going to be a whole lot of fun for the next month-and-a-half. Six clubs are in the mix, and two more are in striking distance. A team that would probably win a division title in any other season might be a wild-card. Even more surprising, that team could be the second wild-card, having to play a one-game playoff on the road.
But keep paying attention. The situation, as the popular term goes these days, is fluid. Oh, it’s so damn fluid.