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Taking Stock Of The A’s At The 1/3 Mark

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MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Oakland Athletics
“Can I drop my lowest grade?”
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

At the beginning of the season I pegged the A’s as being roughly a 93 win team. Here we are at the 1/3 mark and the team sits at 31- 23, on pace for 93 wins. But the road has been anything but a straight line, and at times Oakland seems better then this and at other times worse.

Meanwhile, with the Astros currently reeling, the A’s hold a solid 2.5 game lead in the AL West and are, if nothing else, clearly contenders in the division race. What follows is a look at the team piece by piece, and predictions for what we can expect to see going forward…

Starting Pitching

The rotation has been talented but inconsistent, led by opening-day starter Chris Bassitt. Bassitt may be emerging before our very eyes, unleashing a new cutter and slider, the latter thrown from a 3/4 arm slot. comparisons to Max Scherzer maybe a bit kind, but just being mentioned in that company reflects that Bassitt’s breakout 2020 season was in fact no fluke.

Perhaps a bit underappreciated is lefty Sean Manaea, who has been better than you might think overall. of course you don’t get to just ignore anyone start, but it doesn’t really matter how bad your worst start is — whether you give up two runs or 20 runs you are probably going to lose your worst start and it is still only one game.

For Manaea, that start came in Boston when he was lit up like a Christmas tree for 10 hits and 7 earned runs in 2+ innings. In his 10 other starts? 58.2 IP, 56 hits, 16 ER, 13 BB, 3-1 with a 2.45 ERA. If my starting pitcher can do that 10 out of every 11 starts, I don’t care what he does in that 11th start.

Joining the trio you feel good about when they start, James Kaprielian has been outstanding looking every bit as good as his 1.53 ERA. Kaprielian combines worthy stuff (95 MPH fastball, slider, changeup) with strong command and has a chance to be a good one if he can stay on the mound.

The flip side, Frankie Montas has proven time and time again but he has a big-time arm and a lot of trouble harnessing it. Montas will look great one inning and terrible the next, great one start and terrible the next, great until something bad happens and then he falls apart. in aggregate, Montas now has a 4.45 ERA That only came down from 4.92 because all four runs against him today were unearned — even though he had a lot to do with the 4 spot, walking the leadoff batter and grooving fastballs to Shohei Ohtani and Anthony Rendon. When he is on he can dominate, but I would not want Montas starting a big game for me and I see him as a weakness in the rotation and not a strength.

As for Cole Irvin, you have to appreciate his intelligence, attitude, and overachieving style, but you also have to know that he has little margin for error and a tendency to miss his spots many times on a bad day.

Overall, I still think it’s a good rotation that will get much better with the return of Jesus Luzardo (I truly believe in him and always remind skeptics of how little minor league experience he had prior to coming up). Ultimately, I don’t think the rotation will stand between the A’s and the division. It isn’t perfect, but it’s pretty darn good.

Summary: I give them a 7, but I can’t dance to it.

Bullpen

The loss of Trevor Rosenthal really sent the bullpen into flux, forcing the trio of Lou Trivino, Jake Diekman, and Yusmeiro Petit each to act like “the guy” instead of as key role players. and as we know, behind those three is a lot of question marks. I do think Burch Smith helps the bullpen a lot, and getting JB Wendelken back will help. But these are not great relievers, they are good relievers, and I wonder if at the trading deadline the A’s might look for a Jeurys Familia type of pickup.

this is not a terrible bullpen, just not one you would choose first as you try to go deep into the postseason. it may prove to be an achilles heel down the stretch, especially if Diekman and Petit continue on pace for 75 appearances/innings.

Summary: I give it a 5 with room to grow at the trading deadline..

Offense

Offense is down across MLB, so the A’s stats need to be put in context. Oakland hits the 1/3 mark with a team slash line of just .227/.313/.403, scoring 4.15 runs/game. They are middle of the league on paper, neither a scoring machine nor bottom of the barrel.

What I see is a team that has unnecessarily surrendered the outside corner to pitchers. When the A’s hitters remember to use the whole field, they find they have a lot of hitters who actually hit very well to the opposite field. In particular, Elvis Andrus should think right field most of the time, while Matt Chapman and Sean Murphy could jump their averages 50 points without sacrificing much power at all just by taking outside pictures to right and right-center.

Perhaps the most frustrating aspect of watching the A’s is seeing hitters who could be so much harder to pitch to get themselves out far too much. That being said, however, they do run up pitch counts and eat up the underbelly of a bullpen, they are among the league’s elite home-run hitting teams, and recently they have had a flurry of games in which their hit total reached double digits.

I believe the ability is there, and the line up is not half bad at least in theory. But in practice, it is as it looks on paper: ever so slightly above average thanks to the long ball.

Summary: I give it a 6 and can only do the “tear my hair out” dance to it when outside pitches are pulled to third base.

Defense

DRS and UZR seem to hate the A’s this year, but I believe the metrics are being a bit harsh on Oakland. Perhaps the Matts are not having their very best seasons defensively, but they are still really, really good and you cannot convince me that they have been below average or anything good. Granted, the middle infield has its issues with Andrus being unreliable and second base average-at-best, though Tony Kemp has been surprisingly solid and Jed Lowrie pretty much makes the play on every ball he can get to.

In the outfield, I do think Ramon laureano is a bit more flashy than great but that is offset by how excellent Mark Canha has been, how excellent Chad Pinder is, and how above average Seth Brown has proven to be. and while Stephen Piscotty may not provide much speed or range, at the very least he does not make a lot of mistakes.

Sean Murphy is terrific behind the plate, and the A’s continue to be exceptional both at not making errors and at converting batted balls into outs. They are a daily highlight reel, but they are also usually efficient.

Summary: I give it a 9, and I can dive to it.

The Astros

Who is better over the course of 162 games? So far, despite the 0-6 start that included 4 shellackings by the Astros themselves, it’s the A’s who sit 2.5 up right now in the division. It’s remarkable to realize that in the past 50 games, Oakland has gained 6.5 games in the standings on Houston, so it would be silly to regard the A’s as anything but possible division winners.

That being said, the objective analyst in me still has to give the odds to the hated Astros over the long season, though what I am most confident in predicting is that come mid-September nothing will have been decided.

The return of Framber Valdez is big, and the Astros are far and away the better hitting team. They have been really streaky, and they are down right now, but I suspect they will be doing a lot of winning going forward. They are likely on their way to around 96 wins, the A’s around 93, but with enough +/- that the A’s could easily come out on top.

This, of course, does not take into account future injuries or transactions. what about the trading deadline?

Trading Deadline

I know it’s fashionable around here to dream about Trevor Story, but I really do not recommend the A’s go that route at the deadline. I am not convinced that a better shortstop, or one better hitter, is necessarily the difference between a deep playoff run and an early exit or no invitation.

More to the point, I do not want to see Oakland further decimate its barren farm system right now. Remember that if you are in the Rockies’ shoes, for a treat just like Story you are setting your sights on the likes of Kaprielian and Soderstrom.

As mentioned above, I see the A’s focusing more on may be a good addition to the bullpen rather than counting on Trevor Rosenthal to contribute meaningfully. Is that a 3 win game? No. But it may be the way the A’s can get better most while sacrificing the least. As for starting pitching, I think those additions come internally if, say, Luzardo steps up his game in the second half.

Those are some thoughts with 54 down, 108 to go. I look forward to hearing your responses!