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Mark Canha, Stephen Piscotty heating up in June

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The A’s outfield is stepping up to help the struggling infield.

Photo by Rick Yeatts/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s are barely hanging onto their .500 record as they stave off the threat of a June swoon. They were limping through a 6-10 stretch entering their set against the Angels last weekend, but they managed to scratch out a series win thanks to some walk-off heroics.

As the starting rotation continues to struggle with injuries, and the emergency replacement arms get exposed against tougher competition, the lineup has needed to step up. That’s been tougher with Matt Chapman landing on the DL, but a couple new names are helping pick up some slack. Here are the A’s top hitters in June so far, ranked by their wRC+ marks:

  1. Matt Chapman, 195 wRC+
  2. Khris Davis, 176
  3. Mark Canha, 136
  4. Stephen Piscotty, 123
  5. Dustin Fowler, 116
  6. Matt Olson, 109

Losing Chapman was already a big enough blow on the defensive side of the ball, but he was also hot at the plate. Khrush’s seven dingers are the second-most in MLB this month behind only Paul Goldschmidt’s eight, and Goldy’s had 25% more plate appearances to work with. But with zero Matts currently contributing much, Khrush can’t do it all on his own, as we saw first-hand in the series against the Astros.

But what about those next two names on the list? Let’s take a closer look.

Mark Canha

First up is Canha. He’s on everyone’s mind right now because he played hero on Sunday in the exciting finale against the Angels. His homer opened the day’s scoring, his two-out hit in the 9th tied the game at the last possible moment, and his amazing catch in the 10th helped preserve the tie long enough for Oakland to break through.

That hasn’t been his only good day this month, though. Everyone knew his absurdly hot April wouldn’t last forever, but few seemed to notice that his May slump was also not a permanent condition. Here are his monthly splits:

Mark Canha monthly splits
Month AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ HR BB% K% BABIP
April .308/.357/.596 162 4 7.1% 21.4% .333
May .183/.256/.341 59 3 7.8% 28.9% .226
June .289/.386/.447 136 1 11.4% 13.6% .323

The largest of those samples is the bad May, which accounts for nearly half of his PAs this year. And it wasn’t just a low-BABIP mirage — he was striking out way more, and when he did make contact it wasn’t hard as often. He earned that slide, and if it had continued then it would have been easy to chalk the whole thing up to a fun April fluke. Instead he’s finding his second wind and coming back around. Those June numbers could look even better, but he had a screaming liner glance off the absolute top of the wall for a long single instead of the homer he deserved.

Two things particularly impress me about Canha’s recent resurgence. The first is that he’s doing it on the back of significantly improved plate discipline. In the early going he was striking out three or four times for every walk, but this month his ratio is almost 1:1 thanks mostly to a massive cut in Ks. He’s not striking out as much partly because he’s not swinging-and-missing as much, and he’s achieved that partly by chasing out of the zone less often. Whether he can keep it up is another question, but this area of improvement isn’t coming out of nowhere.

The other impressive feature of his resumed breakout is that it’s not just a bunch of batted-ball luck. His hits aren’t falling any more than they were in April, they’re just not not falling like in May. There aren’t major red flags in his June line, other than it being a tiny sample size.

The point here isn’t that Canha is suddenly an All-Star or anything, just that he’s still a legitimate contributor. He’s earned some benefit of the doubt going forward, such that whenever he cools off for a week or two we don’t need to lament that the mirage is gone and he’ll be terrible forever. The one thing we’ve learned about Canha over the years is that he just won’t go away, in a good way — every time we think he’s done, he comes charging right back and reminds us he’s got something to offer.

Stephen Piscotty

Purely in baseball terms, the Piscotty acquisition hasn’t worked out well so far. He’s looking better in the outfield after appearing lost early in the season, but his defensive metrics tanked so hard in April that they (and thus also his WAR) may not fully recover this year. At the plate, he ranks as one of the worst hitters in the lineup.

Don’t give up yet, though.

Stephen Piscotty monthly splits
Month AVG/OBP/SLG wRC+ HR BB% K% BABIP
April .278/.345/.381 104 1 7.3% 18.2% .333
May .160/.203/.307 36 2 5.1% 21.4% .185
June .298/.370/.426 123 1 9.3% 25.9% .394

This improvement isn’t quite as strong as Canha’s, but it’s still a step in the right direction. Piscotty isn’t showing the same uptick in plate discipline, and the difference is mostly coming in the BABIP department. But which is the bigger fluke: the good June, or the terrible May?

Piscotty actually put up his highest rate of hard contact in May, when he had his worst results. He’s maintained that hard contact in June while more often packaging it within line drives, and this time around he’s turning it into hits. At some point he’ll need to add more power to the mix, even if only to inch his .123 isolated slugging up toward his .162 career mark, but he’s no longer an auto-out at the plate. He even took his turn as hero, with the clutch go-ahead hit against the Angels on Saturday.

One more number to consider: According to xwOBA, Piscotty (.347) has hit the ball about as well this year as Jed Lowrie (.349). Interpret that as you wish, combined with all the information above.

It’s fair enough to be worried about Piscotty. After a full off-year in 2017 his struggles no longer qualify as a small sample, and he’s owed money for four more seasons after this one. Personally I’m willing to give a partial mulligan between some nagging injuries last summer and the distractions of his well-documented family tragedy, but I know I’m being green-and-gold-tinted optimistic by doing so.

Numbers don’t care about optimism, though, and they’re telling us to set down the pitchforks for now. There’s a long way to go to turn this from a hot streak into a full-on comeback, but this is a start. Let’s see where it goes.

Looking forward

The A’s vaunted infield has been quiet at the plate this month, with Chapman out, Olson coasting, and Marcus Semien (71 wRC+) and Lowrie (69 wRC+) (nice) absent outside of an occasional clutch hit. The outfield couldn’t have picked a better time to show up and catch a heater. Even Dustin Fowler has chipped in, with a strong average and a few dingers of his own.

More help is on the way, too. Matt Joyce is on the DL with a minor back injury, and he began a rehab assignment with Triple-A Nashville on Tuesday. He’s having a poor year, but the back issue had reportedly been bothering him for a while and it’s completely fair to wonder if it played a role in his slump. Between that and the way we saw him start slow last year before suddenly getting hot for the final four months, there’s every reason to believe he could begin contributing again soon.

Of course, the question will still remain what Joyce’s future is with the club. He’s a free agent after the season, and the outfield is suddenly getting crowded. Can he do enough in the next month to regain trade value, or will he wind up finishing out the year in Oakland? Could he even be a DFA candidate down the road if he doesn’t hit his way back into relevance? How will the return of Boog Powell affect the depth chart, as he is also deep into his own injury rehab assignment? How long until Ramon Laureano forces his way into the picture?

There’s plenty of time to answer those questions, and one major factor will be the performance of Canha and Piscotty. One way or other, it’s a relief to see some other bats stepping up to help Khrush & The Matts, and hopefully the resurgent outfield will continue to contribute.