Q: How do you explain what the A's are doing this season?
-- Don Hastings, Oakland, Calif.
A: They really have come out of nowhere, haven't they? I questioned their off-season moves, especially trading away three good, young pitchers (Gio Gonzalez, Trevor Cahill and Andrew Bailey) they could have had under control at reasonable costs for a couple more seasons.
And through the first two months - when the A's were eight games under .500 - it appeared as if this $50 million roster (down from $67 million 2011) was going to struggle through another losing season.
But since June 2, when they broke a nine-game losing streak, the A's are playing .667 baseball (54-28 entering Tuesday), and writing a much different story. How, you ask?
Moves we thought could pay off a bit down the road are paying immediate dividends. Yoenis Cespedes' four-year, $36 million deal looks like a bargain now, as he's on pace for a .295-20 HRs-80 RBIs-20 SBs rookie season.
Vice president/general manager Billy Beane and his evaluators also hit home runs on the talent that came back in the trades: Josh Reddick for Bailey, Jarrod Parker and Ryan Cook for Cahill, Tommy Milone and Derek Norris for Gonzalez.
And even stop-gap veterans Brandon Inge, Jonny Gomes and Stephen Drew are making contributions.
You expect an A's staff to post one of the league's best ERAs given their pitcher-friendly home ballpark, and that's the case again, as the A's are second at 3.42. But what's unusual here is that manager Bob Melvin has been forced to use 10 different starting pitchers because of injuries and Bartolo Colon's suspension.
Offensively, the A's have been climbing since June and sit ninth in the AL in runs scored (just ahead of two other contenders in the Orioles and Rays), and 10th in slugging percentage.
What they lack in batting average (13th in the AL), they make up in power (seventh in homers), and eight players in double figures in home runs.
But one note of caution: If the A's do make a very unexpected postseason appearance, they will have earned it because their schedule will be very difficult down the stretch. It's the most-difficult remaining schedule of any AL contender, with all contenders except the Mariners, who have a winning record since the All-Star break. In series order:
Vs. Los Angeles (three games), @ Seattle (three), @ Los Angeles (four), Vs. Baltimore (three), @ Detroit (three), @ New York (three), @ Texas (four), Vs. Seattle (three), Vs. Texas (three).
Q: What could possibly be wrong with Jon Lester? How does such a talented pitcher turn so drastically without an apparent injury?
-- Jim Pasqurell, Aurora, N.C.
A: Lester has had some dings along the way, the latest a leg cramp that forced him from an Aug. 24 start after seven innings. But you're right, there is nothing serious enough to keep him from making starts and racking up innings, and that makes his lack of success this season more mystifying.
Sometimes there can be a fine line between very good and mediocre. Lester's peripheral stats are down, but not enough to warrant a big rise in ERA - 5.01 this season compared to a 3.75 career mark and a 2008-11 run of 3.21, 3.41, 3.25 and 3.47.
His opponents' batting average is up to .273 - 24 points higher than his career .249 mark and well above his previous four-year run of .256, .242, .220 and .234. Lester's strikeouts per nine innings also are down to 7.51 from 8.55 in 2011 and a high of 9.96 in 2009.
But his walk rate actually is better than the past two seasons, his WHIP (walks and hits per innings pitched) is only .07 higher than his career mark (1.37 to 1.30), and he's throwing the exact number of pitches per inning (16.7) as he did last season, and only .1 more than his career average (16.6).
So despite the dropoff in results, there's nothing that makes you think this is a long-term decline, or that a bounce back in 2013 isn't possible. After four excellent seasons by Lester, he's simply experiencing a down year - and you can say that about the Red Sox as a whole, can't you?
Q: With Boston taking a giant step back and New York getting older, do Baltimore, Tampa and Toronto step up, or is it time to award the title "Toughest Division in Baseball" to the AL West?
-- Jim, El Cajon, Calif.
A: This season definitely has brought change in the American League, where for the past handful of years, power had been concentrated in a small cluster of big-budget clubs: the Red Sox and Yankees, as you mentioned, plus the Rangers and Tigers.
The Rays, who've been to the playoffs in three of the past four seasons and quite possibly will make it four of five, also have been able to bust into that small circle despite a huge payroll disadvantage.
They've been elite since 2008 - and if you've read this column in the past, you know that I rank that as the game's greatest small-market team accomplishment since the A's 'Moneyball' teams of the early 2000s that were led by Mark Mulder, Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, Jason Giambi and Miguel Tejada - all products of their system.
The Orioles also have stepped up, and are headed in the right direction, but you have to realize the element of good fortune working for them this season. They are 16 games over .500 despite a -31 run differential, and have a 24-7 record in one-run games - two trends that won't hold up, and probably will reverse in 2013. The Blue Jays also are promising, but were derailed this season by a rash of major injuries.
The AL West has undergone a remarkable transformation from last season - certainly enough to make it the game's most-improved division, if nothing else. In 2011, the AL West was a cumulative 323-325, and that included the Rangers' 96-66 mark. Through Monday, the AL West stands at a cumulative 294-245.
Everybody knows about what the Angels have done in an attempt to challenge the Rangers' supremacy, but the A's and Mariners have been huge surprises. Oakland has the league's best record since June 1 and few have noticed, but since the All-Star break, the Mariners have been one of the AL's best teams at 30-19. So things certainly look promising in the near-term future.
And what's interesting here is that the Houston Astros will be joining the AL West next season, and given their current state - total rebuilding mode - you'd think that the rest of the division will be able to beat up on them for at least one season.