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Oakland A’s progress report through one quarter of the 2017 season

Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s played their 41st game of the year Thursday night, which means they officially passed the one-quarter point of their 162-game season. Time for a progress report!

First, the big picture. The A’s are 18-23, neither good nor awful, which is right in the neighborhood of what we should have been reasonably expecting. However, they’ve been excellent at home (12-8) and miserable on the road (6-15), which is a development worth watching. Unfortunately it all adds up to last place in the current standings, but on the bright side they’re still only 3.5 games out of second in the tightly packed AL West.

Team W-L Back
Astros 29-12 -
Rangers 22-20
Angels 22-21 8
Mariners 20-22
A's 18-23 11

They’ve been outscored by 40 runs, the second-worst differential in the AL, but when they’re not getting blown out they’ve been decent in the close games (4-5 in one-run contests).

Next, let’s hand out some hardware! Virtual hardware. Software? Whatever, stay focused Alex.

MVP: Yonder Alonso

For the purposes of this post, to keep things simple, Most Valuable Player is going to mean Best Position Player. And since none of Oakland’s position players provide any serious defensive value, it really means Best Hitter.

Alonso has been one of the top surprises in all of baseball. Coming off a terrible season in which his bat vanished and he posted a negative WAR, the A’s chose to keep the first baseman another year for $4 million. That looks like a great call so far, as he ranks 14th in MLB in OPS (.991), 12th in wRC+ (167), and 7th in homers (12) — that latter number is already a career-high, with over four months left to go. His breakout season has been truly amazing.

Alonso, 2017: .271/.372/.619, 167 wRC+, 12 HR, 13.9% BB, 23.4% Ks, 1.2 WAR

One more Alonso stat: On a team that is struggling to hit in the clutch, he’s been by far their top performer in that area as well. He’s 13-for-29 with runners in scoring position, with plenty of walks and extra-base hits, for a .448 average and 1.314 OPS. While the rest of the team shies away from the spotlight, he’s risen to the occasion and upped his performance.

Even if Alonso tails off a bit after his monster start, he still appears to be a truly changed player. His newfound power is real to at least some extent, and that makes him a hitter to be reckoned with rather than a defensive specialist at an offensive position. Regardless of what happens the rest of the year, though, he’s our clear choice for first-quarter MVP.

Honorable mention: Khris Davis and Jed Lowrie

Khrush hit 42 homers last year, so we knew to expect power from him. He’s delivered that, with 12 homers to match Alonso, but this time around he’s managing to take a walk when he doesn’t get his pitch to hammer. His 11.5% walk rate is nearly double what he did last year, which is helping keep his OBP afloat as he goes through his normal streakiness. He’s been cold in May, though, going 9-for-61 with a .474 OPS, so hopefully his dinger Thursday against the Red Sox will wake up his bat.

Meanwhile, Lowrie’s story is similar to Alonso’s. He had a rough 2016, though his was largely because of injury, and the A’s stuck with him for another try. Now healthy, the 33-year-old has responded by more or less returning to his prime, with a little bit of everything at the plate — a decent average and OBP, strong walk rate, low strikeouts, and enough power to make you notice. Many on Athletics Nation were unenthused at the idea of Alonso and Lowrie filling in the right side of the infield, but against all odds they’ve been carrying the lineup.

Here are the top five everyday hitters:

Player wRC+ HR
Yonder Alonso 167 12
Jed Lowrie 119 5
Khris Davis 117 12
Trevor Plouffe 105 6
Ryon Healy 103 7

This list excludes Chad Pinder, who has only played a handful of games. But check out Plouffe, working his way up above league-average with the bat!

Cy Young: Andrew Triggs

Much as Alonso isn’t the guy most of us would have guessed would be leading the lineup, Triggs is a bit of a shocker for the top of the rotation. You might reasonably have expected the enigmatic ace in Sonny, or one of the stud youngsters like Manaea or Cotton, or even the reliable workhorse in Graveman. But nope, it’s the 28-year-old sidearmer who converted from the bullpen late last summer. Gotcha!

The keys to Triggs’ success are nothing new. He avoids hard contact, he keeps the ball on the ground, and when it does go in the air he keeps it in the park. He doesn’t pile up strikeouts, but opponents can’t square him up often enough to make him pay for letting them hit it. His delivery and release point are unusual, and his pitches dart and dance around without even needing to exceed the low-90s in velocity.

Triggs, 2017: 8 starts, 2.12 ERA, 46⅔ ip, 35 Ks, 12 BB, 2 HR, 3.12 FIP, 1.2 WAR

That ERA is 5th among MLB starters, and his FIP is 10th.

Unfortunately, there is a downside coming. Since Triggs has been a reliever to this point, he’s never put in a workload beyond 75 innings since becoming a pro in 2012. If we look back to that 2012 season and add in his college numbers from that spring then it comes to 151⅔ frames, so there is at least some precedent for a big innings total in his life. But that was a long time ago, and we can’t assume he’ll stretch back out from 60-inning reliever to even 150-inning starter (much less 180 or 200) in one year. We’ll have to wait and see what kind of limit the A’s choose to put on him as the season wears on, but the safe bet is that they’ll ease off of him eventually.

Honorable mention: Jesse Hahn

The other guy you didn’t expect, because that’s the kind of season it’s been in Oakland. (Hey it’s better than having your stars disappoint and no one else step up.) Hahn is actually 4th in MLB in FIP (2.92), thanks largely to allowing just one homer in eight games. He’s stumbled a bit in May, with just one quality start in three tries, but part of that has been the A’s defense letting him down.

The rest of Oakland’s rotation, which has actually been pretty strong:

Name ERA IP/G K% BB% HR FIP GB%
Jesse Hahn 3.02 5.96 20.3% 9.6% 1 2.92 47.9%
Andrew Triggs 2.12 5.83 18.5% 6.4% 2 3.12 54.0%
Sean Manaea 5.52 4.88 26.8% 13.4% 2 3.75 62.0%
Kendall Graveman 3.95 5.86 16.1% 6.6% 5 4.26 48.4%
Sonny Gray 3.97 5.67 17.9% 7.4% 4 4.76 56.3%
Jharel Cotton 5.68 5.43 20.5% 9.4% 6 4.59 37.7%

Context: 2017 MLB average for starters is 20.3% for Ks, 8.5% for BB, and 44.4% for grounders.

The bullpen has already had some ups and downs, but no one reliever is standing out just yet.

Gold Glove: Jed Lowrie

No wait hear me out!

First off, good news. The A’s are no longer statistically the worst defense in baseball! They’ve been passed in (negative) DRS by the Padres, and FanGraphs’ Defensive Rating has Oakland above the Padres and Pirates (and catching up to the Astros). They’re still first in errors, but only by a few!

So now we’re only watching the worst defense in the AL. Progress! And the least bad of the bunch has been — stop me if you see a theme forming here — one of the guys you’d least expect! Lowrie’s defense has long been a weakness in his game, as he can handle the middle infield just well enough to fit his solid bat at SS or 2B, but this year he’s looked downright acceptable at the keystone. The numbers back it up, too, as he’s the only everyday player to grade out as a positive in both DRS and UZR (while admitting that both are still pointlessly small samples). He’s only committed one error.

On a team that can’t field, being roughly average can make you the best. And that’s what Lowrie is doing at second base, which itself is a step up from what he used to do at shortstop.

Honorable mention: Yonder Alonso and Rajai Davis

Alonso gets no love from the advanced metrics, partly because they don’t do a great job of measuring all aspects of playing 1B, but the eyeball test still likes him. Meanwhile, Rajai has done fine in CF, when his hamstring and his questionable bat have allowed him to be in the lineup.

Rookie of the Quarter: Chad Pinder

Not going to spend a lot of time on this one because the landscape will surely change. For now, the only rookies we’ve really seen have been Pinder, catcher Bruce Maxwell, and pitchers Jharel Cotton, Frankie Montas, and Bobby Wahl. (That’s excluding brief appearances from Matt Olson, Raul Alcantara, etc.)

Of that group, Pinder has found the most early success. He’s already cracked three homers in 43 plate appearances, and he’s making a great case for more playing time. We’ll see how he responds if he actually gets an everyday nod at some point.

Pinder, 2017: .282/.349/.590, 157 wRC+, 3 HR, 4 BB, 12 Ks (in 43 PAs)

Cotton and Montas have gotten the most playing time among the rookies, but both have ERAs over 5.00 and Cotton is already back down in the minors.

There are still more than four months to go, and a lot will change over that time. Some of these unexpected award winners could fall off, and some new names will surely join the roster from Triple-A later in the summer. Win or lose, we’ll be watching every step of the way!

More on the A’s season so far: