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Pros and cons of short season for Oakland A’s

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The small 60-game sample brings risk but also opportunity.

Puk and Luzardo: From dipping their toes in, to maybe carrying the load?
Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

The 2020 MLB season will be much shorter than usual due to the coronavirus pandemic, lasting just 60 games instead of the customary 162. That’s a significant change, especially for a sport that requires large sample sizes to truly separate the best from the worst.

Every team will be affected in some way by the abbreviated nature of this campaign, and they’ll all be playing under the same rules. Still, it stands to reason that some will benefit more or less than others, depending on each unique situation. Where might the Oakland A’s fall on that spectrum? Here are some pros and cons, starting with the bad news.

Cons

The primary con is a simple one: The A’s are good. Really, truly, title-contender good. They’re strong enough that they could absorb a few major setbacks and still be contenders, as we saw last year when they effectively lost their best starter (Montas), their elite closer (Treinen), their historic slugger (Davis), and another above-average outfielder (Piscotty) and still won 97 games.

When you’re this good, you want to play more games. As A’s fans are painfully aware from our ALDS experiences, anything can happen in small-sample baseball, and the opposite is true as well — over the span of six months, those blips and flukes wash out and premium teams rise to the top. Shortening that schedule to two months opens to door for more potential variation, which helps the fringe Wild Card contenders but hurts the expected front-runners.

Look no further than the last two years for an example. Each time the A’s eventually won 97 games and cruised to a Wild Card, but that was only after a six-month sample. In 2018 they started 31-29 and stood 5.5 games out of the playoffs through 60 games. In 2019 they opened 30-30, and would have missed the Wild Card by 1.5 games. They needed the larger sample to fully prove themselves.

The A’s still enter the season as one of the favorites in the AL, but they’ll have to be even sharper than usual in order to show it. A slow start could overshadow an otherwise great roster, especially if the Astros continue their dominance and leave Oakland fighting in an unpredictable and unbalanced Wild Card race. Of course, it goes the other way too — the A’s were already going to challenge Houston for the division, and now this bit of small-sample chaos opens the door even wider.

Beyond that, the downside of this short season has more to do with the long-term business side. This is the last year of team control for MVP candidate Marcus Semien and All-Star Liam Hendriks, and it’s one of the few inexpensive years for others like Matt Chapman and Matt Olson. The A’s will only get partial-seasons from each, instead of a full summer in the spotlight with this exciting group. On top of that, the overall pandemic shutdown might push back the 2023 goal for the new ballpark, which could affect their financial ability to extend the current core.

Neutral

There’s one huge change that might turn out to be a net wash for the A’s, and that’s the regional schedule. Oakland will only face opponents from the AL West and NL West, in order to reduce travel and limit cross-exposure.

We took a closer look at this yesterday, and the takeaway is that the AL West is probably slightly tougher than average among the six divisions. However, that’s partly because of the presence of the A’s, and of course they won’t have to play themselves. Adjust for that, and the result is closer to neutral.

Indeed, the latest ZiPS projections agree with that assessment. Out of all 30 teams, no one’s playoff odds were less affected than the A’s, whose delta checked in at almost exactly zero. There are more teams above them (helped) than below them (hurt) on the list, with the top beneficiaries being the midlevel clubs on the bubble of the Wild Card, but the A’s themselves could have a functionally similar path to October as they otherwise would have (at least, before factoring in the small-sample shenanigans discussed in the previous section).

The Wild Card race itself should be tougher because it will be more crowded and more volatile, but the actual competition the A’s face in their own games should be similar overall to their original full schedule.

Pros

Fortunately, the short season brings some pros to help offset the big con. Here are three possible upsides.

Starting rotation

First up is the A’s starting rotation, which is packed with talent but short on reliable durability. Mike Fiers led the team in innings last year with 184⅔, and Chris Bassitt is the only other returner who threw at least 100 in the majors. Frankie Montas missed half the season to suspension, Sean Manaea pitched only a month due to injury, and rookies Jesus Luzardo and A.J. Puk also threw only a few dozen frames each for health reasons.

Oakland has overcome this same problem the last couple years because they’ve proven adept at patching together enough emergency stopgaps to fill any holes that emerge in the rotation, but this year they might not have to. With only 60 games on the docket, it’s feasible that their top arms could stay healthy and strong from wire to wire with no need for any limits on their innings. Granted, this will be true for other teams, but not everyone has the same combination of ace ceiling and workload concerns as the trio of Manaea, Luzardo, and Puk.

In fact, while most good teams would normally want a larger-sample season, perhaps the A’s are uniquely suited for this situation. It may give them a better chance of maximizing their top talent in a shorter burst, in a way that might not have been possible over 162 games. Their floor could be lowered by one bad slump, but their ceiling gets higher too by not having to pace themselves.

One final way of looking at it: A higher percentage of their total innings could now come from those three top lefties than would have been likely over a full campaign.

30-man depth

There’s also the matter of depth. Every team gets a few extra roster spots to work with and they’ll all use them to add value, but the A’s 27th-30th players are as good as anyone’s. They’re loaded with strong outfielders and MLB-caliber No. 5 starting pitchers, and their spare infielders are recent Top 100 prospects rather than career backups or replacement-level hoi polloi.

In addition to the quality of the depth, more of them can now stay in the organization at all. Oakland was facing a tough choice in the infield back in March, when they had two top prospects who are out of minor league options, plus a Rule 5 draft pick, all fighting over one or maybe two spots.

Between Franklin Barreto, Jorge Mateo, and Vimael Machin, someone was going to be lost at the end of spring, but now they can all stick around — at least for a couple weeks while active rosters stand at 30 (and maybe a couple more weeks after that while rosters are at 28). That means that if an everyday starter pulls a hammy in the 10th game of the season, the A’s can turn to an appealing young backup who would otherwise have been dumped two weeks prior.

Speed in extra innings

Plus, two of these particular youngsters carry the trait of excellent speed. Barreto is a burner, but Mateo is even another level above that, routinely earning an 80-grade (top of the scale) for his wheels. With the temporary new rule of putting an automatic runner on second base in extra innings, having an elite speedster like Mateo on the bench could be an actual game-changer that helps tilt close affairs into wins.

In a small-sample 60-game season, even one extra victory thanks to a mad dash that only Mateo could make would be massively valuable in the standings. Lots of teams will think of this strategy, but few have a full-on Mateo with whom to maximize it.

***

Only time will tell how the short season affects the A’s fortunes, but there is reason for optimism. The smaller sample means a fluke slump could bury them without time to dig out of it, but it also gives them a better opportunity to take the reins off their fragile top pitching talent, in addition to some other fringe benefits. The risk is heightened, but so is the ceiling, with sights set on bypassing the Wild Card and going straight for the division crown.