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Oakland A’s getting great production out of bottom of lineup

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The 7-8-9 hitters are producing as much as anyone in the order.

Photo by Gregory Shamus/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s have scored 4.90 runs per game this season, which ranks 15th in the majors and slightly above the league average of 4.77. Their 101 wRC+ ranks 12th in the bigs. Both of those are notable steps backward from 2018, when they ranked top-5 in both categories, but they’re at least holding their own on offense.

It’s not hard to see why the A’s have declined with the bat. Jed Lowrie is gone after an All-Star year, Matt Olson missed the first month of the season, and Khris Davis and Stephen Piscotty have posted mediocre numbers. Even Matt Chapman, despite improving his power, K-rate, and walk rate, is overall below last year’s baseline for now thanks to a low batting average.

In fact, given all that bad news, it’s a wonder that Oakland is hitting as decently as they’ve done so far. Granted, Marcus Semien has improved substantially and brought a strong OBP to the leadoff spot, and Mark Canha has enjoyed a power surge, which has helped pick up some slack. But it’s taken more than that pair to make up for the regression in the middle of the order.

To get an idea of what’s going on, let’s begin in a place where we don’t normally look on Athletics Nation. The RBI stat is imperfect in a lot of ways, but in this case the list of team leaders is so unusual that it’s worth looking at:

  1. Jurickson Profar, 39 (in 269 PAs)
  2. Josh Phegley, 38 (in 182 PAs)
  3. Matt Chapman, 37 (in 331 PAs)
  4. Khris Davis, 37 (in 239 PAs)
  5. Marcus Semien, 36 (in 333 PAs)
  6. Ramon Laureano, 31 (in 280 PAs)

Topping the list is Profar, who usually bats seventh in the order, and right after him is Phegley, who bats ninth. And it’s not a fluke born of differences in playing time, as you can see from the plate appearance totals for each. Nor is it purely a matter of opportunity — though Profar has had the most baserunners to work with, his lead in that category isn’t huge, and he’s driven in a higher percentage than the big boppers.

At this point, I should clarify that I’m not trying to make some point about which hitters are more clutch than others, or even necessarily suggesting that these trends will continue. RBI are subject to all kinds of statistical noise and flukes, and some of this will balance out as time goes on. Rather, the point is to highlight a weird thing that is happening, one which helps explain how the lineup has done what it’s done so far despite relatively modest performances from its biggest stars. Profar’s team-leading total is still only tied for 52nd in the majors, even though the A’s as a whole are average in scoring among 30 clubs.

With that in mind, let’s focus on three hitters who have accounted for 72% of the team’s plate appearance in the 7-8-9 spots in the lineup:

  • Profar, 76 wRC+, 9 HR
  • Laureano, 92 wRC+, 10 HR
  • Phegley, 106 wRC+, 8 HR

Given Profar’s slow start, it’s surprising to see him leading the team in RBI. He’s warmed up in June, batting .327 this month (16-for-49) with a 131 wRC+, but he’s still collected his 39 RBI using only 54 hits. His power has helped, but even then his homers have mostly been solo, with only one going for more than two runs.

“Even when he was struggling average-wise, when he was down in the mid-.100s, his hits were knocking runs in,” said manager Bob Melvin on Saturday. “And then he started hitting a few home runs, he had some big RBI games, and now every time he comes up with guys in scoring position I think he has a lot of confidence.”

Phegley’s antics have been a bit more well-documented, including his record-setting 8 RBI game in early May. Among major league catchers, only Gary Sanchez and Yasmani Grandal have driven in more runs this year. But his breakout has still been a surprise, after he’d spent the previous three seasons battling slumps and injuries while serving as a backup behind bigger names.

“Knowing I’m going to play the next day, I don’t put too much pressure on my at-bats,” Phegley told me in late May. “When you get four or five at-bats a week, you kind of live and die on those at-bats, and I feel like I’m able to put those away and just roll onto the next thing and try to be successful. It’s let a lot of pressure off me to perform.”

As for Laureano, the recent series finale in Tampa Bay showed off his dual-threat ability. Early on he used his speed to scratch out a run, beating out an infield single with two outs to allow the runner to score, and then later he flexed his muscles for a homer that happened to come with the bases loaded. He’s also heating up, batting .299 with a 129 wRC+ in his last 26 games, including a vast reduction in strikeouts.

“You look at our production down there with Laureano, Phegley, and Profar,” said Melvin. “It’s quite a luxury to have guys in the mid-30s RBI-wise sitting down in the bottom of the lineup. So we literally can score any inning, and I think guys realize that, and there are a lot of guys on base for those guys down there too.”

Of course, Phegley is realistic about what his gaudy RBI total means.

“I look at the RBIs as that’s how much our team’s getting on base,” said Phegley in May. “I’m kind of coming up in clutch situations, bases loaded a lot, guys on. I might go 1-for-4 but my one hit is with two guys on and they score. You can call it luck having those guys on, but we’ve been getting on base and hitting the ball well and I’ve just come up with those big hits in those situations, so, very fortunate.”

The numbers back up Phegley’s statement. While the A’s rank just 19th in the majors in OBP (.319), the 6th and 8th spots in Oakland’s lineup have by far the highest marks in that area (.350 and .347, next-best is .329), which is perfect for setting up Phegley in the 9th spot. He’s still a distant seventh place in terms of the total baserunners he’s had to work with, so it’s not just a matter of extra opportunities, but clearly he’s getting more looks than you’d expect at No. 9.

Even looking past RBI, though, the bottom of the A’s lineup is simply hitting well, especially compared with their teammates. Here’s some napkin math, combining together the OPS marks of three sections of the lineup (weighted for plate appearances):

  • 1st-3rd: .732
  • 4th-6th: .773
  • 7th-9th: .742

That’s not a normal breakdown. The AL averages (excluding NL to remove pitchers from the equation) are .790 (1st-3rd), .771 (4th-6th), and .688 (7th-9th). It’s not just that lineups across the league are getting more balanced. This is specifically an A’s thing right now.

Here’s another way of looking at it, with Oakland’s AL rank at each spot in the order:

  • #1: .715 (10th of 15 teams)
  • #2: .683 (13th)
  • #3: .801 (8th)
  • #4: .781 (10th)
  • #5: .717 (9th)
  • #6: .822 (2nd)
  • #7: .658 (9th)
  • #8: .851 (2nd)
  • #9: .721 (3rd)

Quick explanations: The 2nd spot is low because every non-Chapman hitter they’ve tried there has been bad, while Chapman’s best work came batting 3rd; Piscotty and Grossman have been great at 6th but struggled everywhere else; Profar has dragged down the 7th spot (salvaged somewhat by Laureano), but he’s also helped pump up the 8th spot with his recent hot streak (alongside solid play by Laureano).

The heart of the order hasn’t been anything special, but the 8th and 9th spots are among the league’s best. Like Melvin said, the way the lineup is going right now, they could just as easily score in any inning regardless of who is due up.

Again, there’s not necessarily anything predictive here. At least some of this will balance out over time, as the stars kick into gear, or the breakouts cool off, or the breakouts don’t cool off and are moved up higher in the order. But for now the A’s lineup has enjoyed a fascinating level of balance, with one of the best bottom-thirds in the league.