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The Unlikely Collapses of the Brewers and A’s

September 23, 2014

The first half of the Major League Baseball season ended with two unlikely division leaders. The Oakland Athletics headed into the season without two of their most important pieces from 2013, having lost young pitcher Jarrod Parker to injury and 18 game-winner Bartolo Colon to free agency. However, by stringing together a typical Oakland lineup of unheralded hard workers and a retooled rotation, the A’s found themselves at an MLB-best 58-23 at the All-Star break. In the National League, the Milwaukee Brewers, overlooked throughout spring training, exploded for a 53-29 first half that kept them in first place from April 1. However, as September comes to a close, both teams are in danger of missing the postseason. The two collapses, almost unfathomable in mid-July, have been the dominant storylines as October baseball approaches.

At the start of the season, if the casual baseball fan could name more than three of Oakland’s position players, I would have applauded them. With a cast of bearded players that many teams would have penciled in for the bench, the A’s lineup looked more like a metal band than a first-place machine capable of scoring almost 500 runs before the All-Star break. The lynchpin to the entire scheme was Cuban slugger Yoenis Cespedes.  Known for his tremendous power, Cespedes produced 26 home runs for a power-starved A’s team in 2013. This took the pressure off of the rest of the batting order, which was often overlooked by opposing pitchers. First baseman Brandon Moss, hitting behind Cespedes in the Oakland lineup, produced 21 first half home runs, while third baseman Josh Donaldson hit 20.

Cespedes was probably the second or third most productive hitter in that A’s lineup throughout the season’s first half, but he provided hefty protection for the guys that made the most noise. All of that first half production made Cespedes seem expendable. Billy Beane, Oakland’s general manager famous for his brilliance in baseball frugality, decided to ship Cespedes and the 18 million dollars remaining on his contract to Boston in a deal for All Star lefty starter Jon Lester. The deal added much needed postseason and World Series experience to a very young rotation that was overwhelmed by the Tigers last postseason. Without a doubt, Beane and the A’s built a pitching rotation that resides near the top of baseball. However, Beane failed to anticipate the crippling step back that his offense would take without Cespedes.

Since the break, the A’s are 8 games under .500. How great was the influence of Cespedes? Without him, Moss and Donaldson have a combined 11 home runs, and the A’s as a team have hit 41 home runs, as opposed to 98 with him. The Angels soon passed by the A’s, and have since clinched the AL West. Now, the A’s currently hold a slim lead over Kansas City for the first wild card spot with Seattle lurking closely behind. While Oakland is still in a decent position to at least lock down a playoff spot, the enthusiasm of early summer is gone. And while Beane can boast many ingenious roster moves, his trade of Cespedes may have derailed his team’s stellar 2014 season.

The Milwaukee Brewers have won the division just once since their transfer into the NL Central. This is due in part to the presence of the St. Louis Cardinals, who entered the season as divisional favorites fresh off their 2013 World Series appearance. But the Brewers emerged early in the season as one of the National League’s deepest teams. Catcher Jonathan Lucroy and outfielder Carlos Gomez each produced breakout first halves, both batting over .300 and earning All Star appearances. Together with the revitalization of Ryan Braun, the Brewers’ lineup packed a heavy pre-All Star punch, scoring the second-most runs in the National League.

A consistent starting five backed up the revitalized batting order. Veterans Yovani Gallardo, Matt Garza, and Kyle Lohse all posted sub-4 ERAs, while young righty Wily Peralta logged a ten-win first half. However, the Brewers have stumbled, and with two weeks of the season remaining, they sit 7 games back in the division that they held for over 140 consecutive days. The Brew Crew’s plummet has cost them more than merely divisional contention, as they currently stand 4.5 games out of a Wild Card spot.

The causes of Milwaukee’s collapse mirror those of Oakland’s. While pitching remained strong, with an overall staff ERA of 3.73, the offense completely stopped producing. Since the start of the second half, the Brewers have dropped to third to last in the National League in runs scored. Gomez and Braun struggled since the All Star break, both hitting below .250, and not a single player on the team recorded a batting average north of .300. With the dramatic lack of offense, the Brewers’ pitching could not carry the load and keep the Brewers on a playoff pace.

Major League Baseball witnessed two unlikely surges followed by two even more unlikely collapses. With so much emphasis placed upon pitching in the game today, it is offense that caused the undoing for two of baseball’s apparent best. Perhaps general managers throughout the game can learn a valuable lesson from the A’s and Brewers of 2014: pitching wins championships, but neglecting the offensive side of the ball can spell doom for a team equipped with even the most dominant arms.

Photo: Kelley Cox/USA Today

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