|Sportsbook||Win AL West||Win AL Pennant||World Series|
|Over/Under Season Win Total: 89.5 (BetOnline)|
Like I mentioned in my write-up about the Angels, the AL West has basically become a race for second place for teams not located in Houston. The Astros have won three straight division titles, all in dominant fashion. To their credit, the Oakland Athletics have answered the bell the best that they can. Oakland has back-to-back Wild Card Game appearances and has won 97 games each of the last two seasons.
Unfortunately, the A’s have lost both of those Wild Card Games, so they have had exactly two playoff games to show for 194 wins, which is a legitimate flaw in the system. To some degree, it also keeps bettors and scribes unaware of just how good this Oakland team is and has been. Perhaps the Astros are at their most vulnerable point now that Gerrit Cole has moved on and Justin Verlander is a year older, but it still looks like the A’s will be hoping that the third time is the charm as far as the Wild Card Game goes.
Each of the last three seasons, Oakland overs have been among my favorite season win total bets. Last season, Oakland was my absolute favorite in the AL. All three of them cashed, the last two seasons with ease. Oakland’s season win total in 2017 was 73.5 and they narrowly got over it at 75-87. Oakland’s season win total in 2018 was just 74.5 and it was just 83.5 last season. Adjustments have been made for this season, but this A’s squad is still clearly the second-best team in the AL West in my estimation.
The thin financial margins for the A’s oftentimes create a narrative that doesn’t match the reality with this team. Many have a negative outlook on Oakland from the jump because of the strength of the Astros and the annual success of teams with much larger payrolls. Generally speaking, that mindset inherently creates value on the A’s year in and year out. They did have some down years in the 2010s, but for the most part, they competed well, despite the financial shackles and the inability to dole out big free agent contracts that draw headlines and generate buzz over the winter.
They’ve got a lot of terrific homegrown talent and have really done well plucking trade acquisitions from other teams. They were also one of the teams at the forefront of the bullpen spending barrage in the mid-2010s. Everybody soon followed suit and as prices for relievers got higher, the A’s had to get more creative. The investment on the player development side, which is a much smarter use of assets for small-market teams than free agency, has yielded a lot of positive returns.
While Oakland has limited playoff success, with one playoff series win since 1992, the A’s have still managed to compete in a financial system that is stacked against them. That being said, the A’s don’t get any help from their fans, with just over 3.2 million fans COMBINED over the last two 97-win seasons. Perhaps a new ballpark, which will open in 2023, will bring that spark and that attendance revenue, but we are still a long way away from that.
The A’s were one of the healthiest teams in baseball last season and also had one of the oldest pitching staffs. I’m looking for some regression from the A’s, but will the fallback be enough to prevent the team from surpassing its win total for the fourth straight season?
|BaseRuns Run Differential||+122 (5.03/4.27)|
|3rd Order Win% Record||94.6-67.4|
|Record in One-Run Games||27-22|
|Additions: Donnie Hart, Ronnie Freeman, Dillon Thomas, Jordan Weems, Carlos Perez, Nate Orf, Ryan Goins, Ian Gardeck, Jaime Schultz, Lucas Luetge, Brian Schlitter, Zach Lee, Burch Smith, Tony Kemp, Buddy Reed, Vimael Machin, Austin Allen, TJ McFarland|
|Losses: Blake Treinen, Josh Phegley, Ryan Buchter, Brett Anderson, Homer Bailey, Marco Estrada, Matt Harvey, Tanner Roark, Alfonso Rivas, Jurickson Profar, Jharel Cotton|
In general, this is not the type of offseason that you would want to see from a team that just won 97 games and went to the Wild Card Game. You want to see them attempt to build off of their success, but all we see here are far more Major League players going than coming.
But, you have to put this in the proper context. The A’s gave up Blake Treinen, who had struggled late last season, and also let starters Brett Anderson, Homer Bailey, Marco Estrada, Matt Harvey, Tanner Roark, and Jharel Cotton go. They also get back healthier versions of Jesus Luzardo, a top-25 prospect in baseball, AJ Puk, Sean Manaea, and hopefully James Kaprielian.
The A’s effectively traded Major League track record for youthful upside and I think there is a legitimate chance that they are better for it. Just because there are a lot of recognizable names leaving a team doesn’t mean that team is any worse. This is an example of that.
With the limited number of Major League transactions, particularly on the offensive side, we are looking at just about the same lineup as last season. The A’s have a very deep lineup. They are skilled 1 through 9 and even add in a top-30 prospect in baseball from last season in catcher Sean Murphy, who slashed .308/.386/.625 in the hitter-happy PCL before getting a Major League look for 60 plate appearances with a .245/.333/.566 slash with four homers and the same plate discipline he exhibited in the minors.
The reason I start with Murphy is because you know everybody else. Tony Kemp and Chad Pinder will likely form some sort of platoon that Franklin Barreto could also be a part of this season. Beyond that, all the regulars are back. I’m not sure anybody realized that Marcus Semien was worth 7.6 fWAR last season with a breakout offensive year that featured 33 homers, a .285/.369/.522 slash with a .373 wOBA, a 137 wRC+, and a strong follow-up to the best defensive season of his career.
Matt Chapman is the best defensive third baseman in baseball (sorry, Nolan) and also slashed .249/.342/.506 with a .354 wOBA and a 125 wRC+ as a 6.1-fWAR player. Chapman is even a positive regression candidate on the offensive side because his .270 BABIP was 31 points lower than his career average. Chpaman also bumped his BB% from 9.4% to 10.9%. If the BB% increase and K% decrease are both legit, Chapman’s OBP will rise as his batting average regresses positively towards his mean and we could be looking at a season more closely resembling his 2018 campaign. People don’t talk enough about how good this guy is.
In general, the A’s player development staff doesn’t get enough love. Matt Olson posted a 134 wRC+ with 36 dingers and will turn 26 just a few days after Opening Day. He also only played 127 games. He exceeded his 2018 home run total by seven with 113 fewer plate appearances. His walk rate was down, but his contact authority was up, which is a trade that the A’s were happy to make. With just under 1,500 plate appearances for a guy in what I’d call Season 2 of his offensive prime, a 40-homer season is not out of the question.
Ramon Laureano fell just shy of a four-win season with 3.9 fWAR and a 126 wRC+ with 24 HR and 13 SB. I am expecting some regression from Laureano, whose average exit velocity probably isn’t good enough to carry a .342 BABIP, but his walk rate should be higher this season to offset some of the decrease.
Stephen Piscotty is a big bounce back candidate. Injuries limited him to 93 games and 393 plate appearances last season with a .306 wOBA and a 93 wRC+. Piscotty posted a .351 wOBA and a 126 wRC+ in 2018 over 151 games and 605 plate appearances.
Mark Canha is a guy I am a little skeptical of. He hit 18 HR against RHP with a .297/.418/.548 slash in 340 PA. In two other full seasons against righties, he batted .271/.334/.486 and .227/.323/.343. Small sample sizes are always taken with a grain of salt, but I’d find it hard to believe that Canha would carry a .355 BABIP against righties, particularly with a repeat of that power. I think he’ll still be solid, but I don’t see a 4.0 fWAR again with a .386 wOBA and a 146 wRC+. It is worth noting that Canha became much more selective at the plate and cut his O-Swing% from 31.1% to 25%, which is a metric of how often a batter swings at pitches outside the strike zone. As a result, Canha walked more and also got into more favorable counts. Maybe it’s sustainable. I doubt it, but he also won’t suddenly crater I don’t think.
There just aren’t any easy outs with this Oakland team and you really have to respect the power production in a bad hitter’s park like Oakland Coliseum. That’s how the A’s finished fifth in wRC+, which is a park-adjusted and league-adjusted metric. A score of 100 is exactly league average. The A’s play in a poor offensive environment for 81 games, not to mention their games in Anaheim and Seattle in lower-scoring environments, and they managed to have a top-five offense in that metric. They don’t strike out a lot. They walk at a high clip. They have a lot of guys that make quality contact and carry high SLG. It is a pretty perfect offense for the current run environment in baseball.
Oakland is not set up quite as well to overcome injuries on the position player side as they were last season, but guys like Dustin Fowler, Skye Bolt, Jorge Mateo, Sheldon Neuse, and Seth Brown are all capable of being competent fill-ins at a variety of positions. Depth is a big factor for me when it comes to season win total betting. The A’s have a lot of it and this is likely to be among the best lineups in baseball in that adjusted wRC+ metric again.
Lastly, the discrepancy between Oakland’s actual record and other metrics systems isn’t a big concern to me. Sometimes we’ll see a difference between actual record and BaseRuns and see that a team was uncharacteristically good with RISP or something. Oakland’s offensive numbers actually ticked down a little bit across the board with RISP. Most teams generally fare better in those scenarios compared to their overall numbers. Perhaps Oakland’s offense could be even more productive in the run-scoring department next season.
What the A’s were able to do on the pitching side last season was remarkable. It helped that Brett Anderson had an outlier season in terms of staying healthy to throw 176 innings of 3.89 ball, but he is gone and we’ll save him for another win total preview.
The A’s actually played musical chairs with their rotation. Fourteen different pitchers made starts and they didn’t utilize the opener all that often. In fact, Liam Hendriks had one start and Joakim Soria had one start. The other 160 games were started by 12 different guys. Whistleblower Mike Fiers led the team with 33 starts and one of the most amazing sets of splits I’ve ever seen. Fiers, who was the first player to publicly out the Astros for their sign-stealing operation, had a 2.90 ERA at home with a 4.68 FIP and a 5.29(!!) xFIP. He allowed just a .225 BABIP at home and carried an 11.4% HR/FB%. Opposing hitters batted .217/.279/.361 with a .279 wOBA.
On the road, Fiers pitched to a 5.14 ERA with a .273/.332/.463 slash against and a .335 wOBA against. His road BABIP jumped to .288 and he had a 5.33 FIP and a 5.07 xFIP. His HR/FB% was 17%. So, Fiers was not good at home from the advanced metrics, but relied on a low BABIP against and an 83.3% LOB% to have success. He pitched to the park is the best way to put it, I guess, but it sure seems like he got pretty fortunate as well.
At least the A’s won’t have to rely as much on Fiers, who is without a doubt one of the biggest potential regression candidates in baseball with numbers like that. Oft-injured southpaw Sean Manaea made five starts at the MLB level and 13 overall last season after dealing with a major shoulder injury. Manaea had a strong 3.59 ERA with a 4.26 FIP and a 4.32 xFIP in 27 starts in 2018 and even started the AL Wild Card Game for the A’s last season. He’s a soft contact machine capable of carrying a low BABIP against and solid HR/FB% numbers. He won’t wow you and the projection systems are low on him, but I’ve always had my eye on him and I expect a solid season if he’s healthy.
Frankie Montas found a splitter and was simply unhittable until injuries took him out of commission. Montas was limited to 16 starts with a 2.63/3.00/3.47 pitcher slash. He struck out 103 and only walked 23 in 96 innings of work. Montas paired the split with one of the best sliders in baseball on a per-100 pitch basis. His SwStr% went from 8.6% in 2018 to 11.5% in 2019. Like so many A’s hurlers, health is the question. Montas only threw 96 innings last season after 136.2 in 2018, 61.1 in 2017, 16 in 2016…and so on. The guy has a high ceiling, but he cannot seem to stay healthy. It is tough to rely on him, but the potential is clearly visible.
Chris Bassitt was a solid two-win guy with some pretty good contact management skills of his own, but Jesus Luzardo is the guy I want to focus on. Luzardo is Nasty with a capital N. He’s racked up obscene strikeout numbers in the minor leagues with 234 in 195.2 innings of work. He has good control and command and runs it up there in the upper 90s with action, a plus curveball, and a plus changeup. We only saw six relief appearances with Luzardo for the A’s last season, but they were special.
Again, though, health. Luzardo worked 55 innings last season across four levels. Back in 2017, he pitched 109.1 innings. That was only his second year of pro ball. The 22-year-old won’t turn 23 until September and has elite upside, but let’s hope he stays healthy. Same for AJ Puk, who also made his MLB debut last season. Puk missed all of 2018 and threw 36.2 innings last season. He, too, has ridiculous strikeout numbers when he’s been out there, but who knows how long he can be out there.
Not surprisingly, the A’s are poised to have an excellent bullpen again. Liam Hendriks was one of the best relievers in baseball last season. Yusmeiro Petit may be the most versatile reliever in the game. Joakim Soria still gets it done and Jake Diekman was an excellent add at the Trade Deadline last season. A bounce back from Lou Trivino would help, but the A’s have committed a lot of time and resources to bullpen building and it has paid off.
Positives & Negatives
No team in baseball uses its home park better than the A’s. They’ve cracked the code of hitting for power there and their pitchers are masters of inducing as much harmless contact as possible. This organization is brilliant and always has been.
I’ve talked about this a lot before as well, but this is not a fun park for road teams. A new ballpark is being built, but the current one is not well-liked by visiting teams. The facilities are not great and the ballpark can be rather cavernous with limited fan support and its expansive size. It is also a place where a lot of hitters have bad numbers. Year in and year out, the best teams in the AL go to Oakland and lose series and even get swept. It’s just a hard place to play and that gives Oakland a big advantage in that they can keep beating up on the stiffs, but also seem to have the upper hand on their AL counterparts.
The A’s are an excellent defensive team. They were 10th in defensive runs saved last season, but led all of baseball in UZR. Per the FanGraphs all-encompassing Def metric for defensive value, the A’s were the best team in baseball.
Pick: Over 89.5
I still really like the Oakland A’s, but for the first time in four years, I will not have any action on their season win total. The markets have finally corrected this team enough. The secret is out. Generally, when the markets adjust to something in this dramatic of a manner, it is a good sell high opportunity. I don’t see it that way. I think the A’s are plenty capable of being a 90-win team again and will probably play Tampa Bay or New York in the Wild Card Game. To me, this is probably the fifth-best team in a very top-heavy American League, trailing the Yankees, Astros, Twins, and Rays.
I don’t think you make money betting against this team from a win total standpoint, so my pick is on the over. The lineup is excellent and this could very well be the best defensive team in baseball, at least in the American League.
On the other hand, I cannot wager money on this rotation. I love this group. I think the upside is extremely high and this rotation should be substantially better than last season with Luzardo and Puk. Unfortunately, I have no idea if anybody stays healthy. Fiers should, though he might get a severe case of whiplash if he gets too many road starts. Luzardo, Puk, Manaea, and Montas are all guys that have missed substantial time over the last three seasons. The remaining depth options are almost all unproven and even Luzardo and Puk are unproven to a degree.
If I ran a lot of simulations with the A’s, they would soar over 90 and win a lot of games in most of them. But this is a one-shot deal with 80% of the rotation shrouded with injury risk.
To me, the better way to attack Oakland is to take a longer shot flyer on them to win the World Series or the AL Pennant. If they make the playoffs, you have a low-risk position with a pretty decent ROI. With a win total, it is a black and white, yes or no, and a higher bet amount with -110 as opposed to 30/1 or higher for the World Series.
In the event that this rotation stays healthy and lives up to its potential, the Athletics could very well win the AL West. If the rotation doesn’t, the floor is high enough for the A’s to compete, but the ceiling collapses. I think the A’s have a pretty big range of outcomes. One in which the over is the pick because they could very well flirt with 100 wins again, but I could also see an injury-riddled rotation that winds up with 84-85 wins.