It's tough to argue which team is the bigger surprise of the 2012 season. Both the Oakland A's and Baltimore Orioles have defied expectations and find themselves midway through September with the second- and third-best records in the American League, respectively. Starting Friday, the two clubs kick off a three-game set in Oakland that has huge postseason ramifications.
Somehow the Orioles are tied for the lead atop the AL East while the A's lead the Wild Card standings and are in gaining ground on the Rangers in the West. Oakland trails by just three games.
Managers Bob Melvin and Buck Showalter will surely be the top-two names when it comes to the AL Manager of the Year Award, with the order very much still in the air.
But aside from outperforming expectations and having quality managers, there are few similarities between these two teams.
When looking at the measurables, Baltimore is certainly a head scratcher. The club has a minus-20 run differential and is one of only two teams in baseball over .500 that's been outscored by its opponents.
The starting staff has been in almost a constant shuffle, leading to a combined ERA of 4.58, which is in the lower-third of baseball. The bullpen has been the bright spot, as Baltimore's pen has the sixth-best ERA (3.09) in the majors.
The Orioles are a slugging team that relies on its offense to stay in games and the strong relievers to make things tough in the later innings. Despite the run differential, they are an astounding 27-7 in one-run games. That means when the club loses, it has had a tendency to lose big – likely from a bad outing from a starting pitcher. Perhaps the Orioles' biggest predictor is that the team is 19-46 when scoring three runs or less. On the flip side, they are 62-16 when scoring at least four runs.
The Jekyll and Hyde pitching staff has a 1.83 ERA in wins and an 8.90 mark in losses.
On the other hand, the A's own the second-best pitching staff in the AL despite having four rookies in the starting rotation and a bullpen consisting mostly of arms that were unproven prior to the season.
The A's have buttered their bread with great pitching and the occasional long ball. Their ability to score runs at any time with the home run might be the biggest difference between this season and last. Hitting homers (the A's have hit the ninth-most in baseball) has helped make up for the club's poor .235/.307/.398 slash line for the year.
As the regular season winds down with both clubs in the thick of the playoff race, the debate for Manager of the Year will certainly heat up.
The contrasting styles of the teams should make for an interesting discussion point. Many believe that Showalter's job has been made much more difficult because of the constant turnover in his starting pitching staff that has struggled so mightily. Melvin, meanwhile, has benefited greatly from an array of starting pitchers who have made the most of their opportunities while also pitching in one of baseball's great pitchers' parks.
Some will also point to the difficulty of the teams' respective divisions. Many assume the AL East is tougher based on reputation, but a case could be made for the AL West considering it has the top-two teams (currently) in the league with Angels not far off.
In any case, both skippers have had outstanding years. The decision on the award will likely hinge on what happens over the regular season's final weeks.
The A's come into the series having won 21 of 27 while Baltimore has won 20 of its last 29. The Orioles pitching staff has been solid since in September, posting a 3.81 ERA.
Friday's first game will feature Baltimore's Joe Saunders (2-1, 4.24 ERA) and fellow lefty Tom Milone (12-10, 3.90 ERA). Saunders has made three starts for the Orioles since being acquired from Arizona in a post-deadline trade on August 26. He has been good in two of his three outings, having allowed just two runs in his last 11.2 innings coming against the Blue Jays and Yankees.
Milone earned victories in three of his last four outings, including a quality start in Seattle last weekend where he had 10 strikeouts in six innings. The left-hander's disparity in home and road starts is starting to even out with the end of the season approaching after bordering absurd levels earlier in the year. His home ERA sits at a solid 2.77 while his road mark is still above five.
Milone is the only pitcher currently in the starting rotation that broke camp as a starter for the A's. He leads the team in starts, wins and innings pitched. The 25-year-old has put together a very nice rookie campaign and projects to be a very solid No. 3 or No. 4 starter in the major leagues. His stuff is far from explosive, but his control should continue to improve, which should lead to success in the spacious Coliseum. His strikeout-to-walk ratio of better than four is a great indicator of things to come for the former 10th-round selection.
Saturday's game two will have Jarrod Parker (10-8, 3.56 ERA) take on Zach Britton (5-2, 4.72 ERA). Parker is coming off two-straight outstanding starts against the Angels, where he combined to allow just three earned runs in 14 innings against Los Angeles' talented and veteran-laden lineup.
Parker's two strong September starts have to be encouraging for the A's, who are keeping a close eye on his workload in his first full season in the majors after undergoing his Tommy John surgery back in 2010. It appeared as though the right-hander hit a dead-arm period in July and August but has picked things up recently.A
s the season has gone along, Parker's walk numbers have slowly declined which is a solid indication of progress since coming off the surgery. He might be the most complete right-handed pitcher the A's currently have in the rotation and will be a very important player for Oakland's stretch run in Brandon McCarthy's absence.
Britton has made just 10 starts for the Orioles this year after being added to the rotation back in mid-July. He has been emblematic of his club's up-and-down starting pitching staff having allowed two runs or less in five outings and four runs or more in five outings.
The lefty is coming off a rough outing against the Yankees in which he struggled with his command, leading to a four-run fourth inning. He didn't make it out of the frame and allowed five runs in all.
Britton's command is usually the issue. He has walked over 4.5 hitters per nine innings. But he has good stuff, evident by his good strikeout numbers and plus fastball that averages better than 92 MPH. He throws a slider and changeup at almost an identical rate.
Baltimore hasn't announced Sunday's starter, but the A's will be going with youngster Dan Straily (2-0, 3.42 ERA). In his last start versus the Angels, Straily had a few moments of struggle in his 6.2 innings, but faced one hitter over the minimum from the start of the fourth through the sixth inning. He was chased with two outs in the seventh after allowing a home run to Torii Hunter. The A's went on to win the game with the help of Coco Crisp's two-run "inside-the-park homer" (it was officially ruled an RBI triple and an error), followed by Jerry Blevins game-saving performance in the ninth to pick up Grant Balfour.
Straily is another intriguing young hurler for the A's who figures heavily into the team's future. His overall stuff might be a shade less explosive than Parker's, but his command and ability to place his pitches is more advanced. Oakland will be relying heavily on Straily to help make up for McCarthy's loss. McCarthy will miss the rest of the season after suffering a head injury when he was struck by a line-drive during the A's final game of their last homestand.