The Oakland A’s have played 15 games so far in the 2020 season. Normally that would mean we were halfway through April introductions and looking forward to a long year of baseball ahead. This summer, it means we’re already one quarter of the way through the entire campaign, which will last only 60 games due to the coronavirus pandemic.
Fortunately, the A’s are off to the hottest start imaginable. This abbreviated season is more of a sprint than the customary marathon, heightening the importance of banking early wins and avoiding an extended slump that there may not be enough time to dig out of. The green and gold has already achieved the former goal and avoided the latter pitfall.
There’s no one-off Wild Card Game to worry about this year, but winning one’s division is still valuable. The three division winners, plus the best second-place team, will host the entirety of their three-game first-round playoff series. It’s easier to make the expanded postseason than usual and there’s no first-round bye for division winners, which would seem to lessen the importance of the regular season standings, but there’s still great benefit to being one of the top seeds thanks to the lopsided home-field advantage it brings.
The A’s have already made great strides toward that AL West crown. They’re firing on all cylinders, with an 11-4 record that ranks best in the AL and ties them for the MLB lead in wins. They have a 4.5-game lead in their division, with a chance coming on Sunday to sweep their biggest competition, the Houston Astros, in their first series of the year. What’s more, they’re improving every day as they shake off the early rust and lock into their grooves, and they’ve now won eight straight games dating back to last Saturday.
Oakland will eventually lose a game again, but they’re showing just how serious they are as contenders and they might still be only scratching the surface. They’re getting contributions from every area of the club, with no glaring weaknesses, making them perhaps the most complete all-around roster in the sport at this moment.
- 1.8 fWAR: 4th in MLB
- 3.51 ERA: 10th in MLB
- 3.24 FIP: 4th in MLB
- .292 xwOBA: 3rd in MLB
Starting pitching has been slow to warm up around the league thanks to the short preseason, and the A’s were no exception to that as their first few games featured sub-five inning hooks. But now two arms have risen up toward the top of the league leaderboards, with cause to hope for more to join them.
Opening Day starter Frankie Montas has lived up to his ace billing, going seven innings in each of his last two starts, and he’s yet to allow more than two runs in a game. Joining him is Chris Bassitt, who’s let through just two runs total in his first three starts. His early success isn’t as clearly expected as Montas’ but also isn’t a complete fluke, as he’s been a quietly strong starter the last couple years and he has the peripherals to back up his work — it’s not unfathomable that he could stay hot for a while, or at least remain effective all season.
- Montas: 1.57 ERA, 23 ip, 22 Ks, 9 BB, 0 HR, 14 hits, 2.36 FIP
- Bassitt: 1.08 ERA, 16⅔ ip, 15 Ks, 4 BB, 0 HR, 11 hits, 2.07 FIP
They’ll eventually give up at least a couple homers, which will help regress those sparkling ERAs a bit, but for now they’ve been virtually unhittable. Statcast loves them too, with a .272 xwOBA for Bassitt and a .258 mark for Montas (league average is .325). They’re racking up strikeouts and generating manageable contact.
But wait, there is another. Hot rookie Jesús Luzardo has officially joined the rotation, and he tossed five scoreless innings in his first start even without looking his best — Statcast rated it as the team’s third-best start so far, with a .230 xwOBA. It’s not wise to hang too many hopes on a rookie pitcher, even potentially a great one, but he doesn’t need to carry the team by any means. If he does maintain success right away then it could add a third top-notch arm and turn this into a truly terrifying unit — especially in October.
The A’s have also continued to get steady work from Mike Fiers, who was their most consistent starter last year. His 5.63 ERA looks high right now, but he’s gone six full innings in each of his last two games and he’s always put his team in a position to win — Oakland has come out on top in each of his starts.
The biggest question mark has been Sean Manaea. In all three of his outings, the lefty has looked brilliant for three innings and one time through the lineup, but then unraveled immediately thereafter. But at this point we’re talking about the fifth starter spot, and that’s never a perfect situation — his .298 xwOBA is still encouraging. If it comes down to it, perhaps they could get creative and piggyback him with a long reliever in 3-4 inning stints, or at worst replace him with one of their viable depth options.
Not everything in this section will remain true for the rest of this season. Someone hot could cool off or get hurt, or someone else could rise up and break out. But for now, the A’s rotation has been Top 10 in the majors (Top 5?), before really factoring in the addition of a leading Rookie of the Year candidate. This area of the team has been a weakness in recent years, even when they’ve been able to patch together adequate production from the scrap heap. Now it’s a strength.
- 1.9 fWAR: 1st in MLB
- 1.71 ERA: 4th in MLB
- 1.92 FIP: 1st in MLB
- 2.73 WPA: 1st in MLB
- .270 xwOBA: 3rd in MLB
On top of those numbers, as a group they’ve converted seven of the eight close leads they’ve been handed. On an individual level, they’re 19-for-20 in their save/hold chances, with just one blown on Opening Day in an eventual victory.
This has simply been domination. They’re striking out 10 batters per nine innings, and more than four for every walk, totaling nearly 28% of all their batters faced. When opponents do make contact nothing happens, with just 6.5 hits per nine and a total of two homers, all backed up by an AL-best .270 xwOBA.
The standout so far has been setup man Joakim Soria. After a shaky 2019 that looked better on paper than it felt in practice, he’s been nearly perfect so far this summer. He hasn’t allowed a run in seven appearances, and even stepped in for a couple saves when the primary closer needed a day off.
Four more relievers have also avoided a single earned run yet, including familiar faces in lefty setup man Jake Diekman and righty J.B. Wendelken, and new scrap heap pickups T.J. McFarland and Burch Smith. Here’s the 0.00 ERA club:
- Soria: 7⅔ ip, 13 Ks, 2 BB, 5 hits, 0.36 FIP
- Diekman: 6⅔ ip, 9 Ks, 4 BB, 2 hits, 2.07 FIP
- McFarland: 5⅔ ip, 2 Ks, 0 BB, 4 hits, 2.26 FIP
- Smith: 7⅓ ip, 6 Ks, 1 BB, 3 hits, 1.74 FIP
- Wendelken: 6 ip, 6 Ks, 2 BB, 4 hits, 1.97 FIP
Soria and Diekman are perfect in their save/hold chances. The lefty grounder specialist McFarland has a 68% groundball rate and hasn’t walked anybody. Smith and Wendelken have each come through with clutch long relief outings to help the team to narrow victories, and Smith also earned the win Opening Day with a scoreless 10th while working around the first-ever extra-inning free baserunner in history.
The amazing part? That group doesn’t even include Oakland’s two best relievers. Liam Hendriks has allowed one run, and Yusmeiro Petit two, but they still have excellent lines. Petit’s strong 3.15 FIP and average-ish .319 xwOBA are both the highest in the pen, which says more about how hot the rest of the crew is than it does about Petit.
(They’ve also gotten a few innings from the now-injured Jordan Weems, as well as Lou Trivino, both of whom have sub-2.00 FIPs, plus a couple appearances by Luzardo before he moved to the rotation.)
For the time being, the pen has been automatic, and the very best in the majors by a wide margin. However many high-leverage innings need to be filled, they’ve come in and posted zeroes, whether to hold a close lead or buy enough time for the lineup to make a late comeback. They can’t stay this hot forever, but we’re seeing what they’re capable of when they’re at their best and it’s spectacular.
- 4.27 runs/gm: 17th in MLB
- 102 wRC+: 17th in MLB
- .321 xwOBA: 19th in MLB
The numbers don’t look like much, and Statcast agrees at a roughly average xwOBA, but they’re headed in the right direction after a brief early slump. In eight games in August, their wRC+ is 123 (4th in MLB) and they’re averaging five runs per game.
The offense has been excellent for two years, ranking sixth in MLB in scoring in 2018-19 combined, and it’s supposed to be a significant strength again in 2020. The question isn’t whether they’re good, but rather how long it will take to fully click. The process appears to already be underway.
Outfielders Ramon Laureano and Mark Canha have the most impressive overall numbers so far, but everyone has contributed something. Matt Olson and Stephen Piscotty have provided walk-off grand slams, Marcus Semien hit a walk-off too, and Robbie Grossman notched a game-winner in extras on the road. Matt Chapman and Chad Pinder have driven in some difference-making runs, Khris Davis and Sean Murphy knocked in half the runs in Thursday’s 6-4 win, and new catcher Austin Allen has a go-ahead homer plus a game-tying RBI in extras. Second baseman Tony Kemp is the hottest of them all, reaching base in 11 of his last 18 plate appearances.
- Laureano: .288/.400/.538, 165 wRC+, 3 HR, 12.3% BB, 29.2% Ks
- Canha: .244/.417/.356, 136 wRC+, 1 HR, 18.3% BB, 21.7% Ks
- Kemp: .316/.500/.316, 159 wRC+, 25.9% BB, 18.5% Ks, plus a team-leading .437 xwOBA
Everyone else’s stats will stabilize over time, but the important thing is they’re all chipping in at least something and they’re getting the job done, if only barely sometimes. Thanks to the pitching staff’s dominance, the lineup’s modest contributions have been enough to win games, or else their struggles with runners in scoring position (24-for-112, .214) would be looming as a much more critical problem.
One hallmark of this lineup has been the way they feast on opposing bullpens. They’ve struggled greatly against starting pitchers, with only a few exceptions, but their OPS goes up by nearly 300 points once the relievers take over. With their own bullpen perpetually holding serve, they’ve been able to put together some late comeback wins on days when they couldn’t touch the starter. Of course it would be preferable to just beat the starter earlier in the game, but when they can’t it’s good to see they still have hope until the bitter end — and remember, in October starters tend to get faster hooks.
There’s every reason to expect the hitting to continue improving, since most of these are established names whose talent is not in doubt. If they heat up while the pitching staff is still dominating then they’ll be unbeatable, and once the pitching does cool off then the offense should be able to pick up the slack and offset the difference.
After 15 games, defensive metrics aren’t going to tell us anything useful, so we’ll have to stick with eyeballs and reputations for now. Although, for what it’s worth, they’re 10th in FanGraphs Defensive Value, tied for second in UZR, and tied for 12th in DRS, with positive values in all those metrics.
The A’s defense might have been their best feature entering the year. With Gold Glovers on each infield corner, a finalist at shortstop, and a top-notch young catcher, they’re the best in the bigs around diamond. They aren’t as highly decorated in the outfield but are decent at worst with the upside for more, between Laureano’s superhuman throws, Piscotty’s hustle and sliding catches, Canha’s versatility to cover all three spots adequately, and Grossman earning a surprise GG finalist nod last season.
The summer began a bit rough, which isn’t unusual for rusty early-season defense. It felt like it loomed larger in the short season when Matt Chapman made a couple uncharacteristic and costly early errors, but he’s already looking back to his normal Platinum self. Here’s a nice game-saving play that seems routine for him.
And we already know that fellow Gold Glover Matt Olson is doing just fine, as we saw on Opening Day when he saved the tie by throwing out the lead runner on a play that almost nobody even attempts (h/t to Chapman with an Olson-esque scoop on the other end).
Wow I just realized that Chapman scooped Olson's throw like it was just one of the million ground balls he's scooped in his life instead of a split-second snap throw across the diamond to start a rundown pic.twitter.com/brGmCq5eeH— David Adler (@_dadler) July 25, 2020
But the biggest news comes at second base. The position was a mess for Oakland last year, with every routine throw causing us to hold our breaths, and even just a neutral glove there would be an upgrade and plug one of the few holes left in the ship. They’ve got just that in Kemp, who brings a perfectly average track record and a feeling of confidence when the ball is hit in his direction. He’s even got a nice highlight already, in a high-leverage spot.
Shoring up the keystone means there are no weak links anywhere in the defensive chain. At every single position, they range somewhere between average up through best on the planet. And let’s not forget the pitcher’s mound, which also comes into play sometimes. Luzardo made a couple rookie mistakes in his relief outings, but already erased those from memory in his debut start last week.
A’s pitchers only have an average strikeout rate overall, but a little bit of extra contact isn’t such a problem when you have team defense this airtight.
To sum it up, at the one-quarter mark of the 2020 season, the A’s are off to an AL-best 11-4 start based on the following ingredients:
- Rotation: Top 10, arguably Top 5, and just added an elite rookie
- Bullpen: Best in MLB so far by a wide margin
- Offense: Middling but trending upward, with penchant for coming back late against relievers
- Defense: Arguably best in MLB, despite some early miscues
But that’s only 15 games, and regardless of how much of the season that represents, it’s still a small sample. The question is how much of this they can sustain for seven more weeks, which is comparably a longer time but also vastly shorter than a normal long-haul campaign.
The biggest threat to the rotation is health, as they have the talent to continue their success and should especially benefit from a short season where longevity isn’t an issue. The bullpen will surely take a step down even if they remain excellent, but that could be offset by further improvement from the offense, which has an established track record of upside far beyond what we’ve seen so far and is beginning to show flashes of it. The defense will never be worse than what we just saw and it’s still been a plus overall by the numbers.
These A’s are good. Right now they’re great, and that might be for real, especially since greatness was within their reasonable preseason expectations. Here’s to the next quarter-season, in which we find out more about this Oakland squad and how well they can continue to roll — even just a couple more weeks like this could virtually guarantee their October ticket and put them in strong position for postseason home-field.