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The two Oakland Athletics and the one Seattle Mariners

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Seattle is looking up at Oakland in the playoff hunt, but the way in which the AL West rivals have arrived here couldn’t be more different.

Seattle Mariners v Oakland Athletics Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

Yesterday the Mariners beat the Athletics 7-1. Considering their placement in the standings the final score was surprising. Considering their respective run differentials and Pythagorean Win Expectancies, it was even more unexpected. But Seattle’s competitive performance against a team with one of the best records in baseball fits a trend of peculiar pluckiness against MLB’s elite. Intriguingly, it also fits Oakland’s season-long trend of coming up short against the rest of the league’s top teams.

Even with last night’s win the Mariners are craning their necks to see a playoff spot, but as August concludes, they can take a modicum of hope in their competition’s struggles against stronger opponents. The trick or treat nature of the A’s has made them a fascinating team to follow this season, and their torrid pace has put them in the driver’s seat for a playoff spot. They’ve wrenched the glass slipper from Seattle’s foot, but their entry to the dance has come from stomping on baseball’s downtrodden.

Following yesterday’s result, the AL Standings look like this:

B-Ref

Seattle’s grisly run differential has been covered, dipped in tar, lit ablaze, and waved aloft ad nauseam this year, and with good reason. While an imprecise measurement, run differential is a straightforward gauge of a team’s quality, and Oakland’s +79 suggests a far superior team than Seattle’s -42. In the aggregate Oakland has played like a superior team to Seattle, but the way the teams have gotten to their respective situations muddies those waters.

This year, MLB, and the AL in particular, has been defined by the Haves and the Have Nots. Whereas on August 31st last season, six teams were within 4 GB of Twins for the 2nd WC, this year there are none, and only Seattle and Tampa are within 12 games of playoff contention. Houston, Boston, and the Yankees are unequivocally dominant teams, while Baltimore, Texas, and 3/5ths of the AL Central entered the season with non-competitive rosters, and were joined by floundering performances by Minnesota, Toronto, and Anaheim.

Against those subpar opponents, as well as the fading Giants and rebuilding Padres, the Mariners have had success, including a remarkable May and June in particular. Oakland, however, has been better:

A’s and Mariners vs. <.500 Teams

Team Actual Record MLB Rank by Actual W/L% Run Differential Pythag W/L% MLB Rank by Pythag W/L%
Team Actual Record MLB Rank by Actual W/L% Run Differential Pythag W/L% MLB Rank by Pythag W/L%
Oakland 54-20 2nd 140 0.681 4th
Seattle 41-28 13th -14 0.479 24th
Play Index

With power bats throughout their lineup and a dominant bullpen, Oakland has seen every matchup with subpar team as a tasty chance to fatten up. They’ve gone so far as to lick the plate clean, going a staggering 21-0 against the Tigers/Padres/Orioles/Blue Jays. Seattle, meanwhile, has a meager 11-9 record against those clubs, and has had to employ their one-trick win style of “Get a lead, get it to Edwin” to somehow orchestrate a far better record than their Pythag would indicate.

But when we check the inverse, one of these teams changes entirely:

A’s and Mariners vs. >.500 Teams

Team Actual Record MLB Rank by Actual W/L% Run Differential Pythag W/L% MLB Rank by Pythag W/L%
Team Actual Record MLB Rank by Actual W/L% Run Differential Pythag W/L% MLB Rank by Pythag W/L%
Seattle 34-31 5th -28 0.454 13th
Oakland 26-35 16th -61 0.393 22nd
Play Index

While Seattle has maintained a consistent brand of nonsense against every team they’ve played this season, Oakland’s performance has fluctuated wildly. The A’s offense is a force to be reckoned with no matter the situation, but they’ve been below-average against top competition. Using sOPS+, which tracks a player or team’s performance in a certain split relative to the league-average OPS+ in that split, Oakland ranks just 22nd with a 95 sOPS+. Compared to what their average numbers are, however, it’s even more drastic. tOPS+ gives us a reference point for how a player or team is performing in a split relative to their own overall numbers. The A’s have mustered just an 80 tOPS+ against >.500 teams, 28th in all of MLB and 3rd-to-last in the AL.

If all those abbreviations and splits made your eyes glaze over, you can be forgiven. The crux of it is that Oakland has struggled against better teams, which is not unexpected, but that they’ve done so far more than most of the AL and MLB as a whole. Seattle, conversely, has been one of baseball’s best teams relatively against >.500 teams, despite doing little to separate themselves against cellar-dwellers. They’ve been a slightly above-average offense against top teams with a 101 sOPS+ that ranks 13th in MLB and tied for 5th in the AL.

There are two questions this leads us to. First, why the discrepancy? It could simply be luck, a difference of style, or any number of other things I can conjecture.

Oakland’s offense is based on pure three-true-outcome achievement, but when they fail to sequence properly their run scoring dries up. That style is hardly any less viable than Seattle’s contact-reliant approach at the plate, which typically requires multiple hits to have success. More likely, Oakland’s rotation built of straw and a child’s wish is to blame, as their lockdown bullpen can’t shut a game away if they’ve already fallen behind. Seattle faces a similar predicament, but even with a relatively unremarkable rotation the M’s have gotten better production early in games.

The second, more pressing question is simple. Does this portend anything for the final month of the season? Both Seattle and Oakland face teams with winning records 12 more times this year, with Seattle drawing 16 games against losing teams to Oakland’s 15. If the current trend holds Seattle will remain on the outs as Oakland would maintain a 16-11 record based on their previous rates against >.500 and <.500 teams. Relatively, Seattle would go a solid 16-13, but ultimately fail to do enough to close the gap.

The M’s have already helped themselves a bit, however, going 8-5 with a healthy +16 run differential against Oakland this year. 4.5 games back entering tonight’s game with six remaining against the A’s, Seattle still controls their own fate. Both teams have elements of paper tigers as they wind down, only one will be able to pounce on the final remaining playoff spot. Here’s hoping last night was only the beginning of Seattle’s bite down the home stretch.