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Why the A’s might be even better in 2021 than they were last year

The 2020 A’s won their division. The 2021 edition could easily be even better.

Oakland Athletics v Houston Astros - Game Two
The Matts both had off-years in 2020
Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s have gone to the postseason each of the last three years, each time finishing the regular season on an enormous 97-win pace. In 2020, they also won the AL West division crown.

In 2018-19, the paths to success were similar. A young core led by the likes of Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, and Ramon Laureano anchored the offense and defense, a super-closer dominated the 9th inning whether Blake Treinen or Liam Hendriks, and the rest of the pitching staff did just enough to support. There were other stars along the way, like Khris Davis, Jed Lowrie, and Marcus Semien, but that was the general idea.

In 2020, however, the story changed. The result was the same, with a .600 winning percentage and a playoff berth, but the recipe bore little resemblance. Here are a few examples, looking at the wRC+ marks of some top hitters. A score of 100 means their OPS was relatively league-average, while higher is better and lower is worse.

Player 2018 2019 2020
Chapman 139 126 117
Olson 119 135 103
Laureano 131 127 103
Semien 97 138 92
Piscotty 126 93 74

The stars didn’t really hit last year, and Chapman missed nearly half the year to injury, but the A’s won anyway. Why? A few reasons:

  • Mark Canha stayed good
  • Sean Murphy turned the catcher spot from a minus into a plus
  • Robbie Grossman broke out
  • Chris Bassitt broke out at the top of the rotation
  • Hendriks got even better, Jake Diekman broke out, and the whole bullpen took a huge step forward

There’s also the matter of sequencing. Even the hitters listed above who finished with mediocre lines still had hot streaks for a couple weeks here or there, and they staggered those well enough that a couple bats were pretty much always humming at any given moment.

But the bottom line is that a lot went wrong last year in ways that aren’t likely to repeat. Most of the hitting slumps can be written off for now as small-sample noise in an unprecedented 60-game season that was interrupted by a pandemic, wildfires, and nationwide social protests. Plus, Chapman was hurt even when he was playing, Laureano was distracted at his peak by an emotional brawl and suspension, and Piscotty has also battled injuries lately.

It’s far more likely that the star core, all still in or entering their primes and back to health if they weren’t there before, will return to their normal thumping in a normal 2021 campaign. You don’t need to replace 2019 MVP candidate Semien, because you already didn’t really have him last year when you won the division, so anything at all from Elvis Andrus will be fine. You lost Grossman, but that can be accounted for with just one fraction of one star bounce-back, or DH upgrade Mitch Moreland, or someone new like Ka’ai Tom panning out or Chad Pinder breaking out.

If Bassitt regresses? Jesús Luzardo should improve in his sophomore campaign on his way to superstardom, and Sean Manaea (added velocity) and Frankie Montas (healthy) could too, or a newcomer like Cole Irvin or Daulton Jefferies or A.J. Puk could emerge. There’s plenty of talent remaining in the bullpen, even without Hendriks and departed free agent Joakim Soria.

It’s not news that the A’s have been good for a few years, but the national narrative this winter has been whether they can keep it up after losing several notable free agents. That’s the wrong question entirely. Considering how little went right last summer when they breezed to a division title, and how well they replaced their losses over the offseason, we should be asking how much better they might be in 2021.