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A Tale of Two Seasons: The A’s breaking out and the Giants breaking down

Both teams were aiming to be around .500 and hoping for the best. It worked for the A’s. It has, uh, not worked for the Giants.

MLB: San Francisco Giants at Oakland Athletics D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

The Giants entered September as a .500 baseball team. This was only 12 days ago, but I had completely forgotten that the 2018 Giants had ever shown any semblance of being a winning baseball team. The last week and a half have completely recolored my perception of the year, and it feels like it’s 2017 all over again.

This team is going to leave you with a bad taste in your mouth. The 2018 Giants have been like if you were eating a burger at Applebee’s and for the first 90 percent, they’ve been perfectly fine if a bit bland, but the last few bites have tasted like Windex infused with pennies. They’ve been like if Radiohead played a pretty decent three-hour set and when they came back for an encore they played, “Anyone Can Play Guitar.”

They were supposed to a .500 baseball team, and for the first five months of the season, they were. They’re just ending as the worst team in the majors.

Meanwhile, if you look across the Bay, the A’s are enjoying unexpected success. They’re going to the playoffs where they’ll try to win their first postseason series since 2006. If they make it past the Yankees, they’ll almost certainly be wiped off the face of earth by either the Astros or the Red Sox, but hey, at least they’re going.

The A’s weren’t supposed to be good this year. PECOTA projected them to win just 76 games. If the Giants win half of their remaining games, they’ll end up with 76 wins. PECOTA thought the 2018 A’s were as bad as the Giants turned out to be. This turned out to not be true. The A’s are good. They’ve been fortunate in one-run games because their bullpen has been miraculously clutch, but they’re a legitimately good hitting team.

Some of their plans bore fruit and they got some help in other areas. The circumstances were right for outperforming their expectations. They’ve gotten breakout seasons from some unlikely sources. While they’ve had some injury concerns, most notably losing Sean Manaea through 2019, it’s nothing compared to what the Giants have had to deal with.

On Baseball Reference, the A’s leader in WAR is Matt Chapman at 7.9. It’s not too surprising considering Chapman is essentially Nolan Arenado. The A’s deserve credit for drafting and developing Chapman into an MVP. Next on the leaderboard is Jed Lowrie at *gets up, puts on a pot of water, grinds six tablespoons of coffee and pours it into a French press, allows water to come to a boil before pouring it into the press, waits four minutes for it to steep, presses down the plunger, pours a cup of coffee, comes back to my computer, takes a sip and spits it out* 5 wins above replacement?

Lowrie had a good season in 2017 putting up 4 bWAR, but that essentially doubled any previous season and Lowrie was 33 years old last year. Raise your hand if you expected Lowrie to come back and be even better at 34. Maybe I missed the Ben Lindbergh article detailing how Lowrie changed his grip, switched from ash to maple bats, and sold his firstborn to a witch, but Lowrie suddenly being the best second baseman in the majors is news to me.

It’s not just Lowrie either. Marcus Semien is having a four-win season, Blake Treinen is striking out three more batters per nine innings, and the A’s have gotten a combined 180 good innings from Trevor Cahill and Edwin Jackson.

The Giants’ biggest breakout has been Dereck Rodríguez. Aside from that it’s been nothing but breakdowns. There are a few explanations for this. For one, the A’s roster is a little younger than the Giants and their core is still in their peak. Per the Baseball Gauge, the A’s roster is a year younger than the Giants’ on average although that doesn’t explain Jed Lowrie being three years older than Brandon Crawford and seven years older than Joe Panik.

The A’s also likely have a much better player development system. It’s hard to evaluate a team’s player development without going in and seeing if it’s people poring over Trackman and Rapsodo data or if it’s some guy just yelling, “Hit the ball, c’mon!” But I would venture that the A’s ability to churn out players exceeding expectations is an indication theirs is working. Meanwhile, the Giants haven’t been able to develop an outfielder since Chili Davis and just this year, Tyler Beede and Chris Stratton fell into an infinite void from which there is no escape.

Whenever the Giants did get a player who looked like they were breaking out, a part of their body broke. Mac Williamson hit 3 dingers in his first 19 at-bats before he suffered a concussion from which he is still feeling effects. Brandon Belt was on his way to a career year before he missed time with appendicitis and a hyper-extended knee. Johnny Cueto looked like one of the best pitchers in the majors before spraining his elbow. Steven Duggar put up 1.1 wins in a quarter of a season before he tore his labrum.

Even with all the things the A’s have done right and all the things the Giants have not done right, it’s not difficult to imagine a scenario in which the two teams’ fates are reversed. If the A’s have a normal record in one-run games, this article is about how the Giants were hoping for the Rays’ season or the Phillies’ season. If Madison Bumgarner doesn’t get hit on the hand or the Brandon’s have normal second-half regressions or Panik doesn’t have terrible batted-ball luck, the Giants’ plan to aim for .500 and hope for the best looks a little better.

This isn’t meant to be sour grapes nor is to say that the roster is fine, and the Giants can go into 2019 without changing anything. It’s just to point out that the season could have worked out differently with a smidge of luck instead of every imaginable thing going wrong.