The 2020 Oakland A’s were already good. Their 22-10 mark is the best in the American League, and they have the track record to back it up coming off two straight 97-win seasons. They were already a real, legitimate title contender.
But even the best teams have weaknesses, even if those flaws aren’t costing them piles of games in the regular season standings. For example, the A’s starting rotation is holding its own but could be better. Maybe it could win a championship in its current form, especially if the bullpen stays hot, but its odds would go up with an established ace on top.
However, the most glaring problem on this current Oakland roster is their inability to reliably drive in runners from scoring position. They’re great at hitting dingers, ranking Top 10 in MLB this summer and third since the dawn of 2018. They’re fine at setting the table, with a decent OBP and the third-best walk rate in the majors. But when they’re not slugging, they’re having a lot of trouble cashing in on the rallies they build.
Oakland ranks 26th with a paltry .223 batting average. A little bit of that might be poor BABIP luck, but the primary factor is a strikeout rate that ranks fifth-highest. Regress that BABIP all you want, but if you’re not putting the ball in play then you will never turn it into a hit. So when they rank 29th with a .215 average with runners in scoring position, it doesn’t seem like a small-sample fluke, but rather exactly who they are as hitters.
Anecdotally, we’ve already seen plenty of frustrating moments with the bases loaded and a star A’s slugger swinging through three pitches to strand them, without even a chance of lucky bloop falling in somewhere. Factually, the numbers agree with that perception — their 27.3% strikeout rate w/RISP is highest in the majors, by more than a full percentage point over the runner-up and nearly six percentage points above league-average. And again, it’s close enough to their overall 26.2% rate that this isn’t some weird fluke, it’s simply who they are as hitters. It would be weird and unsustainable if this group wasn’t whiffing like crazy in the clutch.
And this all isn’t just a new 2020 issue. In the last two Wild Card Games they combined for three runs on 13 hits, while going 0-for-10 with runners in scoring position. This is exactly why they lost those games — when the homers ran dry, there were no other avenues toward scoring, especially against top-notch right-handed starting pitchers like Luis Severino and Charlie Morton.
Granted, the A’s also received zero starting pitching of their own in those games, spotting their opponents early leads. That’s an issue too. But in 2018 they were only down 2-0 until the 6th inning, and in 2019 it was 4-1 after the 4th. It’s not like they got blown out. A team that averaged five runs per game those years, and made an entire identity out of late-inning comebacks, should have been able to overcome those early deficits. That is, if they could buy a hit in any clutch moment.
(Also: Now they’ll have Frankie Montas and Jesús Luzardo in October, so the rotation is already improved. The clutch hitting has remained every bit as big a problem in 2020.)
The strikeouts and RISP failures were the single biggest drawback on this contending roster, and addressing that was the single most impactful thing they could do to improve at the deadline. They needed a new bat, one who could reliably make contact, preferably a lefty to offset the righty-heavy lineup that keeps losing against RHP in the playoffs, and the only position where they could fit an acquisition in their star-studded group was second base. And it would be even cooler if they didn’t have to sell the farm to get him.
Fortunately, Oakland found the perfect fit in Tommy La Stella. Not just a good fit. The best possible fit of any available player. This guy was top of the list.
There is nobody in the majors who strikes out less than La Stella. He’s fanned SEVEN times in 117 plate appearances, good for a 6% rate. Seeing a single-digit value in that K-rate looks like a typo, but in this case it’s not. And it’s not a short 2020 fluke, as his rate the previous summer was 8.7%. That’s 438 plate appearances worth of a skill that takes far fewer than that to normalize.
La Stella never strikes out because he never misses when he swings. Since 2019, his 4.2% swinging-strike rate is fourth-best in the majors. For context, as a team the A’s are middle-of-the-pack at 11% swinging-strikes.
Even better, when La Stella hits the ball he actually does something with it. His 2019 breakout season featured 16 homers in 80 games, and this summer he has a .202 isolated slugging percentage — that would rank fifth on the A’s, ahead of Mark Canha, Marcus Semien, Ramon Laureano, and Sean Murphy. La Stella isn’t just a slap hitter, he’s a guy who hits everything and drives it.
Another way to put it: He’s a lite version of Michael Brantley. Except the thing Brantley is better at (power) the A’s don’t need more of, and the thing La Stella is better at (even more contact than Brantley) is exactly what they do need. Factor in position, and he is a better fit than even Brantley would be, if you could only add one of them to the lineup.
Granted, the A’s already had a decent answer to all this. Second baseman Tony Kemp was plugging along fine, getting on base a ton and being a classic glue guy. But La Stella is essentially a better version. He’ll be a slight downgrade on defense but not a Profarian disaster, and he’s a significant upgrade on offense. They both walk a ton, but La Stella can also hit, and he strikes out one-third as often. Kemp could set the table for the rally; La Stella can set it or cash it in.
Furthermore, this doesn’t end Kemp’s time in Oakland. He’s still here, and he’ll surely still find playing time. There’s also a whole month left for someone to get hurt, and now they’re better prepared to cover for that. The A’s were essentially punting the backup infielder spot before now, using it to stash future prospects instead of win-now veterans, and now there’s someone viable on the bench.
In pure baseball terms, La Stella is exactly the player they needed, as a lefty second baseman who gets on base a lot, hits well, and never strikes out. But there’s one more factor in any trade, and that’s the acquisition cost. This isn’t a one-and-done A’s contender, and while you want to maximize the chance while you have it, you also have to balance that against the next few years of what could be an Oakland dynasty. A perfect trade fit would also address that department.
That’s the icing on top: The A’s more or less got La Stella for free. Franklin Barreto is not nothing, and at age 24 the book is not closed on his lofty talent. But the team had clearly long given up on him, going out of their way to block every possible chance he might ever have precisely because they didn’t think he was ready.
Barreto’s prospect sheen was almost completely gone, leaving just latent lotto ticket potential, and with it went any serious trade value. He’d been around so long that he was out of options and could no longer develop in the minors, and there’s every chance he would have been DFA’d by November if he was still here. This was a free spin with an expiring trade chip. They literally gave up something and the Angels certainly got something, but functionally Oakland had some store credit to work with and simply used that to make this crucial addition.
The A’s could have stood pat with their current group, and still looked strong for October, especially since there’s no one-off Wild Card Game to worry about (it’s a best-of-three this year). But instead they made the best trade possible in the current market, for the most perfect player available, and they got it done so cheaply that they still have enough in the tank to nab a starting pitcher if they want — and reportedly they want to do just that.