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The Oakland A’s are suddenly good at defense

These rookies can do more than just hit.

Best 3B in the biz.
Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

For the last three years, the defining trait of the Oakland A’s has been their atrocious defense. The hitting and pitching have been bad, but there have been standouts in both areas to deliver bright spots now and then. The fielding, on the other hand, has been the worst. All over the diamond, all the time.

There are numbers, but don’t worry about them. I looked them up so you don’t have to. No one was more inept with the glove in 2015-16, as you saw yourself with your own eyes, and this year began the same way. Even when good defenders were brought on board, they either got hurt or immediately and drastically declined. The futility has been stunning.

But all that changed in the blink of an eye with the current youth movement. It wasn’t just addition by subtraction, with the old guard clearing out. This new group can straight pick it.

The conversation starts with third baseman Matt Chapman. He’s already the best defensive 3B in the entire sport, just two months into his MLB career. His advanced metrics are superb, and with a league-leading +19 Defensive Runs Saved he’s on a pace that would shatter Manny Machado’s record at the hot corner (+35, in 2013). He’s game-changing on his own, but we’re not here just to gush more about him today. Let’s leave it at one highlight video; it’s impossible to choose a favorite, but this might be the most unique since it shows off the full might of his unparalleled arm.

Next up is Matt Olson, whose bat has been so good that it’s overshadowed his top-notch glove. Not only does his 6’5 frame give him plenty of reach, he also brings everything else you could want in a first baseman: nimble hands to corral all types of throws, range to vacuum up batted balls, and an arm that’s strong and precise enough to play in right field. He’s the total package on that side of the ball, and even the early advanced metrics are optimistic in a way they never were about Yonder Alonso’s tenure in Oakland.

The outfield has improved as well. It remains to be seen who sticks out there in the long-term, but a depth chart that was once a desolate wasteland of org filler now has multiple promising defenders emerging.

The speedy Boog Powell has plugged the gaping hole in CF and made some nice throws, and Chad Pinder looks like a natural in RF after moving from the middle infield. Pinder’s versatility had long looked to be a potential calling card, but his transition has been more seamless than anyone could have predicted thanks to his athleticism, instincts, and strong arm. Once again, the early advanced metrics for both rookies are most promising.

Here’s a look down the full lineup, to see how far the defense has come. The following descriptions are strictly about that one side of the ball and have nothing to do with hitting.

  • Catcher: Bruce Maxwell is still a work in progress, but Vogt set the bar low.
  • 1st base: Olson is great, unless he’s elite. Upgrade over declining Alonso.
  • 2nd base: Jed Lowrie has been neutral this year, which is a pleasant surprise.
  • Shortstop: Marcus Semien’s numbers are still decidedly negative, but he’s playable.
  • 3rd base: Chapman will devour you. He’s better than Donaldson or anyone here since.
  • Left field: Khris Davis has the worst arm in baseball but is otherwise fine.
  • Center field: Boog has been a step up from Rajai and Bruggy, in both arm and range.
  • Right field: Matt Joyce is still bad, but Pinder provides a new hope.

There are now four positions where we can legitimately expect to see good-to-great defense in 2018, albeit only one up-the-middle. That’s half the lineup already.

Even if one of those young outfielders doesn’t end up panning out, Dustin Fowler will be waiting in the wings for his chance to shore up the fielding at any of the three spots. If you’re not sold on Maxwell, then hold on for 2016 draftee Sean Murphy, who has already taken his outstanding backstop skills all the way up to Double-A. There’s room at DH to hide someone like Khrush down the road, or another bulky slugger like Ryon Healy or Renato Nunez.

The one area left to address is the middle infield. Lowrie in particular doesn’t figure to be around much longer, with just one more year left on his contract and more prospects nipping at his heels. Semien is a different story, but even if he stays for a while it doesn’t necessarily have to be as the everyday shortstop. The chance is there for another youngster to seize a job at one or both positions. However, the top options are all bat-first guys: Franklin Barreto, Jorge Mateo, Max Schrock, and to a lesser extent Yairo Munoz.

But even if Oakland ultimately has to sacrifice leather at one or both of those infield spots in the name of an exciting sparkplug leadoff man, the point is that now they should be able to afford the write-off. Chapman is so off-the-charts at 3B that his statistical value is that of a good-to-great SS, and in real-life terms his range is so superhuman that he can actually help mask a more limited counterpart to his left. Olson possesses similar range on the other side. That may not completely negate a weakness up the middle, especially with a stable of groundball pitchers vying for the rotation, but it certainly helps offset a big chunk of it. All the while the outfield is quickly losing its gaps.

It’s quite the adjustment, but I have the feeling we’ll get used to it. The Oakland A’s don’t suck at defense anymore, and in fact they’re actually getting kind of good at it. In a year or two they could even be great.