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Can the Oakland A’s pull off another Cinderella story?

On July 19, 2012, the Oakland A’s stood at 47-44. They were eight games back of the first place Texas Rangers in the AL West, and two and a half games behind the Los Angeles Angels for the second Wild Card spot. The AL East-leading New York Yankees were headed to town for a four game set, and their 57-34 record was the best in all of baseball.

On June 14, 2017, the Oakland A’s held a record of 27-38, dead last in the American League and 17 games behind the Houston Astros in the division. They sat six and a half games behind the Tampa Bay Rays for the second Wild Card, with a similarly strong Yankees team coming in for a four game series.

Both seasons, the result was the same – a young, scrappy Athletics club fought their way to a four game series sweep against the Evil Empire with late-inning comebacks and walk-off victories. The 2012 series is fondly remembered as the turning point of that magical season, sparking a 47-24 stretch run and an AL West title clinch on the final day of the season. That group of misfits had huge performances from unexpected places, be it washed-up veterans or surprising rookies.

This weekend’s success by another young A’s squad against New York raises the question – can they do it again?

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The Teams

Offensively, the 2017 team is shockingly similar to that 2012 club. The first thing that stands out is how similar Ryon Healy is to 2012 Yoenis Cespedes. Despite a relatively low walk rate, Cespedes posted a 136 wRC+ with below average defense. Healy currently has a 129 wRC+, albeit with an even worse walk rate.

Similarly, Yonder Alonso’s breakout has him at a 173 wRC+, topping the 160 wRC+ posted by Brandon Moss in 84 games down the stretch. Matt Joyce, as he heats up, looks more and more like Seth Smith. Overall, the 2017 team has six regulars with an above average wRC+ (Alonso, Lowrie, Healy, Davis, Pinder, Joyce). The 2012 team had seven, depending on how “regular” you count platoon players Jonny Gomes and Chris Carter.

Beyond just coincidental statistical similarities, both clubs had many reinforcements waiting to make an impact down the stretch in the minors. While the 2012 team was more about veterans suddenly turning it on out of nowhere (Gomes, Moss, Inge, Reddick), the club also had contributions from its youth (Carter, Donaldson, Cespedes). Players like Matt Chapman, Chad Pinder, and Jaycob Brugman have already started to give a boost to this year’s club, and other prospects like Matt Olson, Renato Nunez, and Franklin Barreto are still waiting for their turn.

Pitching is a bit of a different story. Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone led the staff all season long for the 2012 club, as veterans Bartolo Colon and Brandon McCarthy were shut down with a PED suspension and a freak injury, respectively. Prospects A.J. Griffin and Dan Straily also came up huge down the stretch, while Brett Anderson came back from the dead for seven solid regular season starts as well.

The current A’s rotation certainly has youth, but it remains to be seen whether any of the A’s young arms can provide the stability that Milone and Parker did. Sean Manaea and Jesse Hahn have been solid so far, but both have major injury concerns and aren’t guarantees to continue their strong performance thus far. The same goes for currently injured righty Kendall Graveman, and “ace” Sonny Gray remains a wild card. This A’s rotation certainly has the potential, especially when you include Daniel Mengden, Jharel Cotton, and Daniel Gossett, but lacks any form of stability, and that could be the team’s downfall.

The 2012 club also had a phenomenal bullpen. Their relief core, led by the trio of Sean Doolittle, Ryan Cook, and Grant Balfour, finished with a 2.94 ERA, fourth-lowest in baseball. This year’s ‘pen just can’t match that. Their 5.01 ERA ranks third-worst. That number is a bit inflated by how awful Josh Smith, Frankie Montas, and Zach Neal have been, but Doolittle, Ryan Madson, Liam Hendriks, and Daniel Coulombe have been the only real bright spots and can’t be forced to carry the entire load.

Overall, the two clubs are pretty similar offensively, and with a little luck this year’s pitching might match the 2012 team’s. However, the biggest and most obvious difference is defense. The 2012 club’s defense was comfortably above average. This year, they’ve just been awful, placing dead last in the league by nearly every defensive metric. It’s possible that playing Chapman and Brugman regularly will help turn things around, but there are still many defensive holes that just can’t be easily fixed.

The Standings

Before the 2012 A’s pulled off their four game sweep of the Yankees, the team was already above .500 at 47-44. The farthest below .500 that team dipped was nine games, at 26-35 after a loss on June 10. Prior to this weekend’s sweep, the 2017 A’s were at their lowest point of the season at 27-38, 11 games under.

That’s not too bad, and fairly similar. The A’s are currently at 31-38 after their 69th game. After 69 games, the 2012 A’s stood at 33-36, only two games better. However, a fight all the way back to first place may be out of the question for this year’s team. The farthest the 2012 club fell out of first was 13 games, on June 30. This year’s club is currently (as of writing) 15 games behind the AL-leading Astros, who are headed to town next. Maybe the guys pull together another sweep, and make things really interesting, but I wouldn’t count on it.

The Wild Card is a different story. Outside of the Yankees, Astros, and Boston Red Sox, the American League has been mediocre. The Rays currently hold the second Wild Card spot and are only two games over .500. Despite being seven games under, Oakland is only four and a half games behind that spot. Eventually, some team is going to have to take off and run away with that spot. There’s no real reason that team can’t be the A’s.

The Verdict

The reason 2012 was so magical is because it was unexpected, unprecedented, and unlikely. I would not put money down on a comeback like that happening in Oakland again for the next decade, let alone this year.

However, the table might be set for a repeat. The two clubs have their similarities, and you never know what kind of an impact energetic youth can have on a club. I wouldn’t set my sights on the playoffs quite yet, though. The 2012 team made it to .500 right before the All-Star break. This year’s team should focus on the same thing if they want any chance of making some noise. Personally, I believe .500 is probably a reasonable end goal for this season, and one that could be reached if a couple things break right.

Curb your enthusiasm, A’s fans, but maybe not too much. Better baseball in Oakland is coming. If we’re all lucky, it just might be here sooner than expected.

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