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Signs for hope after A’s swept by Astros in 2021 opening series

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It wasn’t ALL bad

Division Series - Oakland Athletics v Houston Astros - Game Three Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s got swept in their opening series of 2021, and everything went wrong. Their rotation got knocked around, their bullpen did too, the lineup barely scored, and the defense made too many mistakes. It was ugly.

But really, not everything went wrong. Even when a baseball team loses, someone usually did something good along the way. That’s certainly true of last weekend’s A’s.

Here are a few things that went right during the sweep.

Olson leads MLB in exit velocity

Slugging 1B Matt Olson didn’t pop any dingers against the Houston Astros, but he made some incredible contact. His final line, while decent, belies how well he hit the ball.

Olson: 4-for-14, double, 2 BB, 4 Ks

In 17 plate appearances he collected 10 batted balls, including the following six exit velocities:

  • 115.3 mph
  • 109.8
  • 109.5
  • 109.4
  • 105.8
  • 100.0

None of them had the launch angle to clear the fence, resulting in two singles and four outs, but if you want to bet against Olson at those EV marks then that’s up to you. The 115.3 at the top is tied for the third-hardest contact by any A’s hitter since Statcast began in 2015, just 0.6 mph behind the top spot.

Put it all together and Olson’s average exit velocity so far is 99.5 mph, which is the best in the entire majors for hitters with at least 10 plate appearances so far.

What I’m saying is, don’t turn away when Olson comes up to bat this week, because sooner than later these rockets are going to begin clearing fences and you’re going to want to see it.

Canha crushing

In raw terms, Mark Canha has already put his slow spring training performance behind him, in which he batted .167 with no extra-base hits in the Cactus League. So far through four regular season games he’s 4-for-14, with a triple that may as well have been a homer. He’s hitting exactly like he’s supposed to, and he’s arguably the most productive healthy hitter in the lineup so far.

Canha: 4-for-14, triple, double, 2 BB, 2 Ks

But even that sells it short. His .447 xwOBA is nearly 70 points higher than Olson’s, and ranks 43rd among 192 MLB hitters with at least 10 PAs. Nobody will finish the season with a number that high except maybe Mike Trout or a couple other superstars, but for now the point is that Canha is swinging even better than his strong raw numbers appear, and he’s hit the ball hard about half the time he’s made contact.

That makes two batters in Oakland’s lineup who are crushing so far. That sounds better than “nine runs in four games.”

Lowrie is back

Wanna make it three hitters? Jed Lowrie isn’t exactly crushing, with a more average-ish .311 xwOBA, but he’s already hit one of his vintage RBI doubles.

Lowrie: 3-for-11, double, 2 BB, 3 Ks

More importantly, he played in all four games, including three of them starting at second base and once off the bench as a pinch-hitter. The question has never been so much whether Lowrie could produce, but whether he could stay healthy and in the lineup at all, and so far he’s succeeded in both regards. It remains to be seen whether he can keep it up all year, but so far so good. We might have a Full Lowrie back, at what was supposed to be the team’s weakest position.

That’s three hitters who are already locked in. One-third of a lineup! And catcher Sean Murphy is back, in Monday’s starting order, with CF Ramon Laureano (3-for-7, triple, double) not far behind, both dealing with minor wrist injuries. Before you know it the offense will be humming.

Half the bullpen was good

The bullpen had as rough of a time as the rotation against the Astros.

Adam Kolarek served up homers to the first two batters he faced, matching his entire run total from 2020 in about one minute. Jake Diekman gave up three runs, two of them earned, to exceed his 2020 run total as well. Yusmeiro Petit twice yielded a pair of inherited runners, and Lou Trivino did once as well. In mop-up duty, lefty Reymin Guduan tossed two innings and finished with seven runs, three walks, and four wild pitches.

Buuuut ...

  • Wendelken: 2 ip, 0 runs, 3 Ks, 3 BB, .318 xwOBA
  • Romo: 1 ip, 0 runs, 1 BB, .269 xwOBA
  • Trivino: 3⅔ ip, 1 run, 4 Ks, 0 BB, 1 hit (a homer)
  • Smith: 3 ip, 1 run, 1 K, 1 BB

That’s half the bullpen right there. J.B. Wendelken didn’t allow a run, and stranded three of his four inherited runners — and the one that scored was on an error by Olson, so not even the pitcher’s fault. Sergio Romo wasn’t perfect but got the job done, inducing a double play along the way. Trivino did allow that key homer, but he retired all 11 other batters he faced. Burch Smith has a shaky xwOBA (.423), but the only run he allowed was the Jose Altuve hustle play where he scored on a “sacrifice infield popup.”

And the other half of the pen? I won’t pretend it’s not scary that Kolarek gave up two homers and another blast in his season debut, but in the encore on Sunday he induced playable ground balls from all five batters he faced, only one of them hit particularly hard. It only went wrong because Matt Chapman of all people made an error, or else we’d have been talking about Kolarek’s nice bounce-back outing.

Diekman of course has earned more than one game of leash before anybody worries about him, after his spectacular 2020. That just leaves Petit, who also struggled against this powerful Astros lineup last October despite being good against pretty much everyone else. And Guduan, or whoever might replace him, until expected closer Trevor Rosenthal is ready from injury.

And now A.J. Puk is here!

This might sound crazy, but it’s gonna take more than four days to properly judge this bullpen.

***

Those four games looked bad. I’ll bet the next four are better. Some of the ingredients were already there all along. And we haven’t even seen starting pitcher Frankie Montas yet, making his debut tonight against the Dodgers!