Last Updated: 2019-03-04
The biggest surprise in baseball last season was the Oakland Athletics. The A’s improved by 22 games and made it to the American League Wild Card Game. Their playoff appearance was short-lived, as the Yankees won that game in runaway fashion, but it was still a dramatic and stunning turn of events.
Everybody knows that the A’s operate under very strict financial constraints. A lot of the inefficiencies that they used to expose in the baseball world are now being exposed by the majority of the league’s teams, including teams that have much larger payrolls. Some homegrown talent and some savvy trade acquisitions allowed the team to win 97 games, the most wins for the A’s since the 2002 season.
Sustaining success in Major League Baseball without a significant payroll is hard. That will be the task for the Athletics this season. They still finished six games back of the Astros, but had finished at least 20 games out each of the previous three seasons. The fans never really bought in, as attendance increased by less than 100,000 spectators over the 81 home dates.
A new ballpark is coming and the A’s have a really exciting core of position players and an excellent bullpen. The early 2000s aren’t coming back, but this is a team that has a great chance of being a formidable foe in the AL West in 2019.
Of course, it could also be a struggle. The A’s used 15 different starting pitchers in 2018. Sean Manaea led the team with 27 starts and he has already been ruled out for the 2019 season. Trevor Cahill signed elsewhere. Edwin Jackson is still unsigned. Brett Anderson re-upped, but is an annual injury risk. Anderson, Frankie Montas and Daniel Mengden are the only working bodies that made at least 10 starts left on the roster, though trade acquisition Mike Fiers, who made nine starts, is still under club control.
On the bright side, history seems to be on Oakland’s side. The A’s don’t have one-off seasons like 2018. They won 94, 96, and 88 games from 2012-14 before winning 68, 69, and 75 over the next three. From 1999-2003, the A’s made the playoffs for straight times and won at least 88 games from 2004-06 before falling off the pace. This is life as a small-market franchise in the big leagues. You get cyclical three-year windows and have to maximize them. It would appear that the A’s are in another one of their windows.
The pitching staff has some big questions, but Oakland’s 813 runs were the most for the franchise since 2001. That team had three players with 30 home runs, including noted PED user Jason Giambi. Last year’s team had five players with at least 23 dingers.
The A’s are set up well, but their ceiling is a matter of some conjecture. If nothing else, this is a team with a high floor because Oakland has a very good bullpen, a good offense, and is a good fielding team. The big question mark is the starting rotation and that could swing your season win total bet one way or another.
Season Win Total Odds
2018 Standings Data
Actual Record: 97-65
Run Differential: +139
Pythagorean W/L: 95-67
BaseRuns Record: 95-67
BaseRuns Run Differential: +133 (4.88/4.06)
3rd Order Win% Record: 96.0-66.0
Record in One-Run Games: 31-14
Additions: Jurickson Profar, Chris Herrmann, Robbie Grossman, Marco Estrada, Joakim Soria, Jerry Blevins, Eric Campbell, Anthony Miller, Corban Joseph, Mark Payton, Tanner Anderson, Parker Bridwell, Jake Buchanan, Kyle Lobstein, Kyle Crockett, Brian Schlitter, Nick Hundley, Cliff Pennington, Wei-Chung Wang, Tyler Alexander, Kyle Crockett, Brian Schlitter
Losses: Jonathan Lucroy, Jed Lowrie, Matt Joyce, Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Edwin Jackson, Jeurys Familia, Shawn Kelley, Wilkin Ramos, Eli White, Emilio Pagan
One of the more interesting offseason exercises is to see how the A’s allocate their meager financial resources. This winter, they highlighted Marco Estrada and Joakim Soria. Both of those guys make sense. Soria seems to actually be getting better later in his career and Estrada’s fly ball stylings fit well at Oakland Coliseum.
We can argue whether or not the A’s deployed their financial resources correctly, as Soria got $6.5M in 2019 and $8.5M in 2020, with Estrada on a one-year, $4M deal. The A’s also traded for Jurickson Profar, who will make $3.6M this season. If the A’s had around $15M to spend, did they do it intelligently? We’ll have to wait and see, but with this year’s cost-depressed free agent market, it’s fair to wonder if they could have done something more.
The losses are fairly significant. Jeurys Familia and Emilio Pagan were part of a dominant back-end of the bullpen and Jed Lowrie developed into a really fine middle infielder. Matt Joyce had some platoon value and both Trevor Cahill and Edwin Jackson contributed some good innings.
Not listed among the losses is Sean Manaea, who will miss the entire season. That is a huge blow to the A’s rotation. Parker Bridwell is an on-brand signing for the A’s, as their park is really, really generous to fly ball guys.
BA: .252 (13th)
OBP: .325 (10th)
SLG: .439 (4th)
wOBA: .329 (5th)
wRC+: 110 (4th)
BABIP: .294 (15th)
K%: 22.1% (13th)
BB%: 8.8% (13th)
Widespread contributions were the story for the Athletics last season. They may have fallen short for traditional fans with the .252 batting average, but a top-10 OBP and a top-five mark in SLG, wOBA, and wRC+ is just what I like to see. The A’s had seven players with at least 15 home runs and the only regular players to post a wRC+ under 100 were Marcus Semien and Jonathan Lucroy. Lucroy is gone, replaced by Josh Phegley and Chris Herrmann. Both are known more for defense.
In defense of Semien, he posted a 95 wRC+, played great defense, and was highly valuable with 3.7 fWAR. Matt Chapman was the best hitter for the A’s because his BABIP was 67 points higher than Khris Davis and he walked a little bit more, but this was an all-around strong offense. Chapman’s 137 wRC+ paced the group, but Davis checked in at 135, Ramon Laureano and Nick Martini stepped on the scene late in the year and posted 129 wRC+ marks, Stephen Piscotty posted a 125 wRC+, and Matt Olson posted a 117 wRC+. Platoon guys like Mark Canha and Chad Pinder were also above average hitters.
All of those plus hitters are back, with the exception of Jed Lowrie, who has been replaced by Jurickson Profar. Profar grades out well by the projection systems, which seem to like him more than I do, but he posted a .341 wOBA last year in spite of a .269 BABIP. If the power gains stay, he’ll easily be another above average hitter for the A’s.
Martini and Laureano are question marks, after posting small sample size BABIPs of .388 and .379. Chapman’s .338 BABIP was 48 points higher than what he had in 2017. One statistical anomaly, that has literally no bearing on the A’s season win total, but is a fun fact, is that Davis has posted a .247 batting average in each of the last four seasons.
Matt Olson slashed .247/.335/.453 in his first full season with 29 HR and a .340 wOBA. In 216 PA in 2017, Olson slashed .259/.352/.651 with a .411 wOBA. He could certainly improve quite a bit offensively. Oddly enough, Olson’s BABIP went from .238 to .292 and his average dropped 12 points. He even struck out in a lower percentage of his plate appearances. He’s a guy to watch.
All in all, this looks like another solid lineup with power, on-base skills, and this is also a solid defensive team for the most part. The A’s were third in defensive runs saved and tied for sixth in UZR/150 last season.
ERA: 3.82 (11th)
FIP: 4.18 (20th)
xFIP: 4.25 (20th)
K%: 20.3% (23rd)
BB%: 7.8% (5th)
LOB%: 73.5% (13th)
This is the primary area of concern for the Athletics. More specifically, the starting rotation, which is projected to feature three guys that barely pitched or didn’t pitch in the second half of last season. Four starting pitchers for the A’s underwent major operations last season, as Jharel Cotton and Daniel Gossett had Tommy John surgery, Andrew Triggs had thoracic outlet syndrome surgery, and Sean Manaea had shoulder surgery that will cost him the entire season.
Fifteen different A’s made starts last season, including Liam Hendriks, who started the Wild Card Game against the Yankees. The sad thing is that Lou Trivino and Josh Lucas joined Hendriks as the only relievers to make starts. The A’s burned through that many starters because they had to. Only Manaea and Trevor Cahill made at least 20 starts. Those two were also the only starters to be worth at least 1.0 fWAR.
Mike Fiers, acquired at the Trade Deadline from the Tigers, looks to be the de facto anchor of the staff. In nine starts with the A’s, Fiers posted outstanding K/BB rates with a 2.90 ERA and a 3.67 xFIP. He also had a 4.59 FIP, as he posted a 19.6 percent HR/FB% and benefitted from a .230 BABIP and a 94.6 percent LOB%. Consider me skeptical, even with Oakland Coliseum’s forgiving features. I can say the same about oft-injured left-hander Brett Anderson, who was signed to a one-year deal just as Spring Training was beginning.
Daniel Mengden’s 115.2 innings at the MLB level were a career high and he posted a 4.05 ERA with a 4.69 FIP and a 4.70 xFIP. Frankie Montas returned from injury to post a 3.88/3.90/4.60 pitcher slash in 65 innings. Chris Bassitt didn’t pitch at all in the big leagues in 2017, but worked 47.2 decent innings with a 3.02 ERA and a 3.98 FIP. The A’s will be forced to hope that Marco Estrada can channel his inner 2015-16 when his ERA outperformed his FIP by a large margin. Estrada’s last two seasons have featured ERA/FIP combos of 4.98/4.61 and 5.64/5.44. As an extreme fly ball guy, getting away from the AL East and Rogers Centre should help, but how much?
For all of the starting rotation questions, the bullpen has virtually no questions. Blake Treinen is elite and his one-seam fastball just might be the best relief pitch in baseball. Joakim Soria and Fernando Rodney are quite solid. Soria has actually posted HR/FB% marks of 2.9 percent and 6.2 percent the last two seasons while posting FIPs of 2.23 and 2.44. Lou Trivino was unhittable in the first half with a .151/.246/.232 slash against and a .213 wOBA against before he fell apart in the second half. Ryan Buchter and Yusmeiro Petit are both solid.
The bullpen will rank among the best in baseball and will clean up some messes from the starting staff. The A’s will also utilize openers this season.
Positives & Negatives
In today’s MLB, the A’s are set up for success. They have a good offense that hits for power and also gets on base and they have an elite bullpen. The diminishing importance of starting pitchers puts the A’s in a really advantageous position. They’ve been at the forefront of bullpen spending in recent years, so it is hardly surprising that the bulk of their free agent funds went to Soria.
The AL West is weakening around the A’s. They struck while the iron was hot last season to go on a massive second half run while the Mariners regressed their way out of the playoff picture. Houston is still the top dog, but with Seattle in full-on rebuild mode, Texas scouring the bottom of the surface to feed, and the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim are still unable to surround Mike Trout with a supporting cast worthy of the league’s best player. That puts a team like Oakland in position to benefit.
Pick: Over 83.5
I feel pretty confident that the A’s are legit. Regression is coming after a 31-14 record in one-run games, but 14 games worth of regression? Even via the alternate standings metrics, the A’s were still in the mid-90s in wins. What have they lost from last season? The bullpen remains elite and is even stronger with the addition of Joakim Soria. The offense could very well be even better this season with full years of guys like Nick Martini and Ramon Laureano.
The starting staff is what it is. It isn’t very good. You know it. I know it. Quite frankly, the A’s know it. They did have success last year in outperforming FIP and xFIP. Oakland Coliseum was the site of the lowest batting average on ground balls last season. Maybe they’re cutting the grass a little thicker or maybe it was the defense (Matt Chapman is a Platinum Glover), but the park formerly known as O.co saw a paltry .203 batting average across the board for hitters on ground balls. That was 43 points better than league average and 25 points better than any other ballpark.
This is a fallback for A’s pitchers, along with the vast foul territory and the marine air that can wreak havoc on fly balls on cooler nights.
Finally, one other thing I’ve mentioned in the past about the A’s is that it is extremely hard for road teams to come in there and play well. A new ballpark is coming, but the current one is viewed as a dump by most impartial observers. Road teams don’t like it. Road teams that have to make cross-country trips look forward to stops in Anaheim and Seattle. They don’t get excited to play against Oakland with sparse crowds and sewage in the showers.
Last season, the A’s took two of three from the Yankees, two of three from Boston, and two of three from Cleveland at home. The A’s swept the Indians at home in 2017, swept a four-game series from the Yankees, and took three of four from Boston. They also took two of three from the second Wild Card Twins. It is not an accident that the A’s typically play well at home and play well at home against good teams.
I’m buying stock in this team. This is my favorite over bet in the American League.
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