clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

2018 Oakland A’s: Anatomy of a surprise contender

Full look at A’s numbers from 1st half of season

Photo by Stephen Lam/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s were supposed to have a bridge year in 2018, as they transitioned from doormat into contender. Instead, they went on a 21-6 run heading into the All-Star break, making them the hottest team in MLB and launching them into legitimate postseason contention. With the figurative second half of the season opening this evening (65 games remaining), the A’s stand three games out of the second Wild Card, and eight games out of both the first Wild Card and the AL West division lead.

# Wild Card AL West
1 Yankees (+5) Astros (-)
2 Mariners (-) Mariners (-5)
3 A's (-3) A's (-8)
4 Rays (-8½) Angels (-14)

What brought us to this point? Here’s a look through each area of the roster.

Offense

First, the big picture. Here are some ranks among the 30 MLB teams.

  • 10th in runs/game (4.63)
  • 8th in wRC+ (103)
  • 6th in HR (127)

Oakland has enjoyed a Top 10 offense so far this season. They’re scoring more than the average team, hitting a tick above average, and among the most powerful clubs in an era of increased dingerdom. Within the AL they are around fifth or sixth overall, behind the main title contenders (Yankees, Red Sox, Astros, Indians) and neck-and-neck with the Mariners.

There are two characteristics that most define this unit. The first is that they have been significantly better on the road, to an extent we rarely see.

Home: .226.299/.376, 88 wRC+, 42 HR, 8.6% BB, 23.3% Ks
Away: .262/.329/.459, 115 wRC+, 85 HR, 8.0% BB, 22.0% Ks

At home they’re one of the worst five offenses, managing just 3.7 runs/game and ranking 24th in homers. On the road they’re at least second-best, plating 5.4 runs/game and leading the sport in long balls. They’re like Dr. Parrino & Mr. McGwire.

We already knew the Coliseum was a pitcher’s park, but not to this extent. They’re facing mostly the same competition everywhere, and their batted ball profile is similar enough to not be a primary factor — in fact, they’re making slightly more hard contact at home. The pitcher’s are also experiencing a big home/road split, including an uptick in homers away, so the A’s aren’t the only ones struggling to hit at the Coliseum.

The other trait of this offense is that they love the late innings. Ten times they’ve come back from a deficit in the 7th inning or later to turn a near-loss into a win, and nobody scores more toward the end of the game — they lead MLB in both the 8th and 9th.

Taking it down to an individual level, here’s where everyone stands (ranked by wRC+).

  • Jed Lowrie (135): Earned his first All-Star berth at age 34
  • Khris Davis (125): Leads team with 21 homers
  • Mark Canha (120): Finally found his breakout at age 29
  • Chad Pinder (120): Playing part-time as a super-sub
  • Matt Chapman (117): Hot and cold month-to-month
  • Stephen Piscotty (115): Hottest hitter on the club
  • Matt Olson (113): Just behind Khrush with 19 HR
  • Josh Phegley (89): Only 45 PAs; replaced Bruce Maxwell
  • Marcus Semien (87): Has been strong in clutch
  • Dustin Fowler (73): Struggling to get on base so far
  • Jonathan Lucroy (69): Total zero at plate

The roster also currently features Nick Martini as a backup outfielder, and through 18 plate appearances he’s only got a 47 wRC+ but a couple big hits along the way. Martini is here in the absence of Matt Joyce (88) who’s playing time and production have been cut short by a back injury. Top prospect Franklin Barreto (84) has also contributed with a few dingers in sporadic backup duty, though he’s still striking out way too much.

All told, this has been a group effort rather than one or two standouts carrying the rest. There’s almost an entire lineup worth of hitters who have been at least 10% better than league average.

Defense

During the A’s three straight last-place seasons from 2015-17, they were among the worst defensive clubs in the sport. They made tons of errors, the advanced metrics were ruthlessly negative, and the eyeball test agreed with all the numbers. That is no longer the case, as they are now more in the neighborhood of average overall.

  • T-8th-most errors (61)
  • 7th in UZR (17.7)
  • 18th in DRS (-1)

Leading the charge are two corner infielders who look like legitimate front-runners for Gold Glove awards — Matt Chapman at third base, and Matt Olson at first base. Chapman in particular is an absolute wizard at the hot corner, grading out as the top defender in all of baseball at any position. His +22 DRS and +12.6 UZR are the best in the business, and even adjusting for position his overall value is roughly equal to historically great shortstop Andrelton Simmons. To repeat: He plays 3B so well that he’s worth the same as an elite SS.

Olson is no slouch himself. Perhaps his best trait is his ability to dig out any throw that comes his way, which has helped SS Marcus Semien finish his incredible ascent from disaster to completely competent (and maybe even slightly above-average?). Even Jed Lowrie has been around average at second base, after years as a bad shortstop.

A couple unlikely names are helping shore up the outfield, as well. Mark Canha has been passable in CF and good on the corners, and Chad Pinder has filled in at six positions but has been particularly capable in LF. On the other hand, the numbers detest the work of Stephen Piscotty in RF — that made sense in April when he was dropping flies left and right, but he’s looked completely competent for a while now and at least his UZR has begun to stabilize.

Starting pitching

The rotation has been nearly non-existent this season, as the whole group has suffered an unbelievable quantity of injuries. A dozen different pitchers have started games, and that doesn’t even count Jharel Cotton or top prospects A.J. Puk and Grant Holmes, all of whom went down in spring training (Cotton and Puk with Tommy John). Including Puk and Holmes, a total of 10 starters have spent time on the DL.

Here they are in order of how many starts they’ve made. The current DL is in strikethrough, and those in italics were on the DL at some point.

  1. Sean Manaea (20)
  2. Daniel Mengden (16)
  3. Trevor Cahill (9)
  4. Andrew Triggs (9)
  5. Frankie Montas (8)
  6. Kendall Graveman (7)
  7. Chris Bassitt (6)
  8. Brett Anderson (6)
  9. Paul Blackburn (6)
  10. Daniel Gossett (5)
  11. Edwin Jackson (4)
  12. Josh Lucas (1) (bullpen game)*
  13. Jharel Cotton (0)
  14. A.J. Puk (0)
  15. Grant Holmes (0)

* Note: Lucas is a reliever, not a starter.

That leaves three promising youngsters (Manaea, Mengden, Montas) and three veterans off the scrap heap (Cahill, Anderson, Jackson), plus Bassitt who often gets talked about as a candidate to move to long relief. With the trade deadline approaching, this is an obvious area of the team to look externally for improvements.

And yet, although the rotation has been by far the weakest part of the roster, it hasn’t actually been that bad overall. Definitely in the bottom half of the league, but closer to average than atrocious. Manaea has been mostly strong, while Montas, Cahill, and Jackson have pitched better than anyone could have expected and Mengden has enjoyed some successful stretches.

  • T-17th in IP/start (5.4)
  • 19th in ERA (4.36)
  • 20th in FIP (4.41)
  • T-13 in Quality Start rate (43%)

We’ve seen much worse than that in recent years. Considering all the injuries they’ve had to work through, those are miraculously acceptable numbers.

Relief pitching

As great as the offense has been, the bullpen may be the strongest area of the team so far. It’s been so incredible that it’s completely made up for the weak rotation — case in point, four times the A’s starter has left early due to injury, and on each occasion they’ve won anyway. There’s been some deadweight in the middle/garbage innings so the overall ERA and FIP aren’t amazing (8th and 19th, respectively), but they’ve got it where it counts.

  • 1st in Win Probability Added (7.91)
  • 1st in Clutch (4.90)
  • T-Fewest blown saves (8)

That Clutch score is nearly double the next-best team. They’re toward the bottom in save/hold situations, which is one thing keeping their blown saves low, but they still have one of the best percentages in the league (29 saves, 42 holds, 8 blown, 89.9% conversion rate).

The best work has been done by two fireballers, Blake Treinen and Lou Trivino. The closer Treinen got an All-Star nod with the help of his 0.94 ERA, best among all MLB relievers (min. 20 innings), and Trivino is right behind him at 1.22 (third in MLB). Both of them bring upper-90s heat with enough other options to keep hitters guessing and rack up strikeouts, and they also have the ability to throw multiple innings in a game (and do so often). That combo is able to lock down the final three or four frames of a close affair, and while some regression should be expected eventually (Trivino’s strand rate is over 95%) they aren’t merely lucking into success.

Behind them are a few offseason additions. Yusmeiro Petit is good for a couple frames at a time, helping eat up whatever was leftover by the rotation, and lefty Ryan Buchter can be trusted late in the game as well. Emilio Pagan has stayed in the middle innings but held his own.

Help could be on the way from within, as well. J.B. Wendelken already got the call up from Triple-A after striking out 38.1% of his batters there, and Bobby Wahl could hopefully be the next in line (42.1% K-rate). In his last two outings for Nashville, Wahl struck out all six batters he faced using 21 total pitches. It will be interesting to see what they can do at the big league level, and whether they can turn an already strong unit into an embarrassment of riches.

And there you have it. An excellent lineup, a nigh-unbeatable bullpen, decent defense, and a patchwork rotation somehow holding its own, have all added up to a shocking 55-42 record. Let’s see if they can keep it up in the second half of the season and make a push into October!

Also check out: This top-notch analysis from Zach Kram at The Ringer, which goes a step further and compares the A’s with the strikingly similar Mariners.