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Oakland A’s defense making a difference, for better or worse

They’re not perfect, but this is the A’s best defensive team since 2014.

Piscotty beams up to rob a homer.
Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

When the Oakland A’s went 7-3 on their recent East Coast road trip, it was easy to find areas for praise. The lineup scored 60 runs, the rotation did enough to keep the team in games, and the bullpen went above and beyond to play hero multiple times. However, one department that didn’t get much attention was the defense, which was quietly steady throughout.

The A’s still made a handful of fielding miscues during the road trip, because no team is perfect, but overall they took care of business on that side of the ball. They won several close games, and in some of them the difference was that Oakland simply made fewer mistakes than their opponent. That was most apparent against the Blue Jays, who seemed to have a team-wide case of the yips as they booted the ball all over the stadium.

The green and gold also chipped in some legit highlights in addition to their lack of messups. Here’s one example from an unlikely source. On May 18 Brett Anderson left his start after one inning due to injury, but the A’s won anyway when the bullpen came to the rescue. However, Anderson had already been bailed out once by Matt Joyce, before the relievers ever entered the mix. Considering the final score was a tight 3-1, this play loomed large in hindsight.

Unfortunately, the magic hasn’t continued completely unabated. When the A’s returned home they gave us a reminder of why defense is so important, in a pair of one-run losses to the Mariners. On Tuesday they went to extra innings, and Seattle drove in the winning run on the play embedded below. Notice Dustin Fowler bobble the initial pickup, after which the runner slides into home safely by maybe one or two steps at the most. You have to figure that a cleaner play results in an out, which wouldn’t have guaranteed victory but would have substantially raised the probability.

The next day, the A’s lost 1-0. The Mariners had a runner (Guillermo Heredia) on third base and hit a grounder to shortstop Marcus Semien. The runner broke home on contact and Semien had a chance to throw to the plate, but he bobbled the ball on the transfer and couldn’t even recover in time to get the batter at first. There’s no guarantee that Semien would have nabbed the runner at home even with a clean pickup, as it would have taken a perfect throw to beat the speedy Heredia, but his odds went from solid to zero when he just dropped it instead.

It almost happened again in the finale. Semien was camped under a popup in shallow RF, but a charging Stephen Piscotty distracted him and the ball fell for a “hit.” Fortunately, batter Kyle Seager didn’t run it out and only got to first base, where he was eliminated in a GIDP; the next batter after that singled, which would have surely scored Seager if he’d hustled to second base when he had the chance. The Mariners lost by one run.

All that said, the A’s still made several excellent plays against the Mariners, some of which we’ll get to later in this post. They also could have helped themselves by scoring more than two total runs in those two losses. The point here isn’t that they reverted to all-around poor defense in that series, but rather to show that some of the remaining miscues can still make a big difference.

From worst to decent

From 2015-17, Oakland had perhaps the worst defense in baseball. They threw away more games than any of us could count, and along the way it made the whole team significantly less watchable. The big picture is looking significantly better in 2018, though. As a team they’re tied for 10th in the sport in UZR/150 with a rating of 1.4 (league range is +12.9 to -7.7), and they rank 18th in DRS at minus-6 (league range is +42 to -45). Both of those marks are close enough to zero to call it a wash, suggesting the A’s are around an average defensive team overall and middle-of-the-pack in MLB. That’s a massive step up.

The biggest help has been the addition of a couple elite gloves to the lineup. Matt Chapman is so amazing at 3B that he was the overall MLB Defensive Player of the Month for April, including all players at all positions. Matt Olson probably has some Gold Gloves in his future as well, as he’s absolutely everything you could ever hope for in a 1B — he even makes his infield-mates better with his ability to corral their throws, like a true pickin’ machine. The rising tide from the Matts helps raise the rest of the A’s ships.

Oakland has also done a good job of eliminating big negatives, beginning with hiding Khris Davis’ exploitable arm in the DH spot. Jed Lowrie was impressive at second base throughout the road trip and is playing some of the best defense of his career, raising him up toward neutral instead of detrimental. Semien still makes some mistakes but has turned himself into a capable shortstop. Joyce began the year with a couple whoopsies but has made several highlights lately, not limited to the one we looked at earlier.

A few new outfielders have emerged as well. Despite some early shakiness in CF, Fowler has the speed to handle the position and should be the best we’ve seen out there since Coco. Mark Canha looks better in the outfield every year, even holding his own in center for a stretch this year. Could it be the mask?

The biggest surprise, though, has been Chad Pinder. He came up through the minors as a shortstop and second baseman, but last year the A’s tried him in the outfield with great success. The experiment went so well that now he’s out there almost exclusively, including 20 of his 23 starts, and there’s a strong argument to be made that he’s Oakland’s best defensive corner outfielder. That’s not what anyone expected when he was coming up through the minors as a bat-first middle infielder.

Finally, the best recent story has been Piscotty. His defense was horrid to begin the year, both by the eyeball test and the metrics. His range and arm were disappointing, and when he did get to balls he kept clanking them off his glove. There was no sign of the guy who had put up mostly positive numbers the previous two years, and the early small-sample marks were arguably the worst in baseball at any position (with the note that that’s not really how to properly use UZR and DRS).

The turnaround has been dramatic. Since returning from bereavement leave, Piscotty has been a different player. Upon his arrival from St. Louis last winter, Cardinals fans raved about how he’d go all-out to make plays, and we got a glimpse of that in Boston.

His fundamentals kicked in on this next one, outshining the hustle of Yangervis Solarte.

But the real gems came at home against the Mariners. Unfortunately the A’s ended up losing this game, but Piscotty was a big reason why they stayed close throughout. In the 3rd he outright robbed a home run from Mike Zunino, and then in the 7th he stole another hit (and possibly an RBI) from John Andreoli. That’s a web gem ranging back and another one running in.

This is more like what we were hoping for from Piscotty, and maybe even better than expected. His numbers may not fully recover this season, but if this is the kind of play we can expect from now on then the next four-plus years of his contract are going to be a pleasure to watch.

Overall, the A’s defense is certainly making a difference this year, for better or worse. Just in the last couple weeks it has saved them a couple games and probably cost them a couple as well. Finally, though, it seems to be adequate, and maybe even helping more than it’s hurting. At the very least, the pitching staff no longer has to hold their breath every time the other team makes contact. It’s not easy to quantify fielding using stats, but anyone with a set of eyes can tell this is the best defensive team that Oakland has put out since at least 2014.