The Oakland A’s have been bad at manufacturing runs for a long time, to the extent that they’re kind of famous for it.
Two decades ago they could only afford undervalued walks and homers, so they went with a Three True Outcomes offense for a while. That strategy adapted over time as the market changed, but small-ball never fully came back into vogue in Oakland. Even when there was an occasional speedster or slap hitter, from Byrnes to Rajai to Coco to Burns, their skillsets always felt like square pegs in a round lineup and often went underutilized. Meanwhile, they lost the 2014 Wild Card Game to a Royals team that could barely hit the ball 100 feet but somehow could cross the plate at will.
The A’s are often good at scoring overall. Some years they’re powerful, and some years they’re clutch. But when the best-case scenarios stop flowing at the plate, they rarely have a secondary answer to fall back on.
The current A’s fit the same narrative, now in their fourth straight year as a legit postseason contender. Two decades later they still have a reputation for slow, patient, station-to-station offense, short on batting average but with extra dingers to make up for it. The stats haven’t always lined up perfectly with that broad characterization, but even when they seem to be breaking out of it they still end up reverting to old habits in time to lose in October.
The past month has been especially frustrating, as a team-wide slump put a lid on the scoring and they were perpetually one little play short of what they needed to win. But this week we’ve seen something different, as wily veteran Elvis Andrus has the lineup all shook up, in a good way.
The idea of Andrus as a small-ball player isn’t new, of course. In the spring he encouraged a renewed interest in stolen bases, he’s got one of the lowest strikeout rates on the roster, and it took him until July to hit his first homer. In the same week we saw him create a run-scoring balk out of thin air, and then flop for an interference run. Dude makes stuff happen, even when he has a 65 wRC+ for the season.
On Tuesday he pulled something new out of his bag of tricks. With runners on first and second and nobody out, he laid down a sacrifice bunt to move them up to second and third. A well’a bless my soul, that’s not something we see often in Oakland but it sure was perfect right then — two batters later a sac fly brought home the runner from third, and by the end of the inning they’d extended it into a three-run rally.
Sac bunts aren’t always the best idea, with a thin line between advantageous and wasteful, but Andrus picked a great spot. The A’s had been failing to find the clutch hit for a month but are pretty good at coming through with sac flies, which made a worthwhile marginal difference between second and third base. They were facing a pitcher (Jose Suarez) who had quietly been kinda dominating them this year up to that point. And while it took the bat out of Matt Olson’s hands with a subsequent intentional walk, it just put it into the hands of Jed Lowrie who happens to be tops in the majors at batting with runners in scoring position.
Add it up and you’ve got a valuable gain of 90 feet, during a long team slump, against a pitcher nobody can figure out, to put your cleanup hitter in a situation where he could succeed in his sleep. That’s a productive sac bunt, and it was also Andrus’ first of the season.
In the club’s next game on Thursday, he did it again, and once more it was a perfect fit for the moment. In the 8th inning, Oakland held a slim 2-1 lead and wanted some insurance for their bullpen. They put runners on first and second and two out, Andrus bunted them over, a single scored one, and a sac fly scored another.
A long rally for a crooked number would be nice, sure, or maybe a three-run dinger. But what they really needed was just to add at least one more run and put any kind of distance behind them on the scoreboard. Andrus increased their chance of doing that, and the whole thing worked out as they got exactly what they came for.
In the 2nd inning, this might have been a bad play. There’s still lots of time, you don’t know if one run will make a difference in the final tally, and maybe this rally you’re building is the one that will knock out the opposing starter and put the game away early. But in the 8th the script was already written, and it said every single run is pure gold that night so grab one however you can get it.
Oakland has 13 sac bunts this year. Three are by pitchers, and four more are by non-hitters (Skye Bolt and Aramis Garcia). Andrus now has two, and the rest are Tony Kemp, whose own pesky antics are already well-chronicled on this website.
The bunt wasn’t Andrus’ only maneuver. Earlier Thursday, in the 5th inning, he singled and then stole second base, his ninth swipe of the season. That extra 90 feet made all the difference, as the next two batters hit grounders that didn’t get fielded but also didn’t leave the infield, and he scored on the second lucky single. Without the steal, he’s either stranded on third base, or maybe even doubled up by one of the grounders.
Oakland scored four run in the game. Andrus contributed to three of them, between his crucial steal in the 5th, and then his bunt in the 8th. Who do you thank when you have such luck? You thank Elvis, who created that luck with his smart hustle plays. It’s entirely possible they don’t win Thursday without his small-ball.
Even before this week, Andrus had already gotten back on track at the plate. His overall season stats won’t show it, but for the last two months (since late-May) he’s batting .280 with a 99 wRC+, and Statcast says he’s been even a bit better than that. He’s not hot like a volcano, but he can stand on his own two feet again and it’s no longer unusual to see him chip in.
But perhaps what the A’s could use even more than a few more singles from him, or one dinger every month, is a bit of small-ball to shake them out of their offensive malaise — both in the short-term of this slump and the long-term of decades of unreliable Three True Outcomes. When day after day you lament that they just needed one more hit for one more run to turn a loss into a win, it’s worth exploring the styles of play that offer exactly that extra push, and Andrus (and Kemp) can deliver them.