It’s Oakland, After All

Can one of MLB's most consistent teams make a playoff breakthrough?

It’s a particularly Oakland A’s “thing” that, despite going 0-6 to start the 2021 season, you didn’t get a sense that a lot of folks in and around the club were panicking.

Sure, it wasn’t ideal. The club was swept in an Opening Weekend four-game set by the Astros, and then lost the first two games of a trio against the Dodgers, before eking out an extra innings win in the 10th to get their first win of the campaign in their 7th game.

And I’ll admit, as the guy responsible for having predicted Oakland as the eventual AL West champions in the PitcherList season preview, the club in green and yellow had me clutching a few pearls before the second week of April was up. Since then, however, the club has been, well, exactly what we thought they’d be. Once again, Oakland is a top team in the AL West — in spite of not seeming like they really should be.

 

Matt-VP

 

Let’s start with the guy who is the straw in the piña colada this year: Matt Olson. 2020 was a particularly arduous campaign, one that saw him end the year with a .195/.310/.424 slash line, alongside a career-high 31.4% K-rate and some really unlucky underlying numbers. Sure, there was some sense that he didn’t deserve to wear the albatross for the club — he had 14 home runs, 42 RBI, and a respectable .336 xwOBA — but he didn’t exactly buoy the team in what was an otherwise-successful season.

2021, however, has been a different story for Olson. In fact, it’d be fair to say in the early-going that he is emerging as a dark-horse MVP candidate in the American League.

Going into action on Tuesday, Olson is among the top-10 in the American League in a handful of major categories: HR (18), SLG (.606), OPS (.981), and wRC+ (167). Much of this has to do with what seem to be some minor tweaks to his approach — changes which have led to an immensely-reduced strikeout rate (17.0%, down from 31.4% in 2020). His unique ready stance — one of baseball’s most unique, wherein he hoists the bat vertically above the middle of the strike zone, before hauling it back in to swing — is visually aggressive, and when combined with his bulk (6’5″, 225 lbs) and his power stroke, he is the prototypical 40-home-run first baseman. Those kind of power-first guys are seldom MVP candidates, but when they are, it’s usually because they’ve put up 40+ home runs on competitive teams, while flirting with .300. To see Matt Olson transform into that kind-of play in 2021 has been a definite treat, and the central reason (at least in the batting lineup) that the club has achieved what they thus far have

Beyond Olson, it is the typical by-committee approach from the Oakland bats. Mark Canha is having a strong year — .252/.378/.462 with 11 HR, 27 RBI and 7 SB — and is firmly ensconced at the top of the order. Before going down with an injury last month, Ramon Laureano was second on the team in OPS+, and was rebounding from a rough 2020 campaign. There is balance, with contributions from the likes of Sean Murphy (7 HR, 28 RBI, 105 OPS+), Seth Brown (9 HR, .426 SLG) and Jed Lowrie (30 RBI, 104 OPS+). Former All-Star and erstwhile MVP candidate Matt Chapman has had a poor start to the season (.221/.322/.376, 7 HR, 29 RBI, 31.1% K rate, .155 ISO) by his standards, but he has the pedigree to bounce back.

As is often the case with this team, what they lack in obvious superstar talent, they make up for with situational hitting, and scoring distribution. The team is in the top-10 in several major hitting metrics: Runs, HR, Slugging %, OPS, BB%, wRC+, xwOBA, and collective WAR. This is all to say that the way the roster is constructed — to paraphrase everyone’s favorite Oakland A’s-centered movie — “gets on base”. But it’s particularly important that, 1-9 (and in substitution roles when necessary), the club has effective, above-league-average hitters. This may be the most fundamental difference from past seasons, when the club often struggled with negative-WAR anchors in the 7/8/9 spots.

 

Unexpected Arms

 

Coming into this season — as has been the case for what feels like a few years now — the most-hyped A’s pitcher was 23-year-old Jesús Luzardo.

For his part, 2021 has been a step back for young man. Luzardo had a respectable 2020, showing definite potential with a three-pitch arsenal that yielded a respectable Swinging Strike rate (12.7%). His CSW% of 30.3% was also above league average amongst qualified starters. It all portended well for the kid in his rookie season, despite his counting stats (4.12 ERA, 1.27 WHIP, .254 OPP AVG) being mostly mediocre.

This season has started off drastically different for Luzardo, however. Through six starts, he allowed 18 earned runs, 33 hits, and 5 HR. This, it should be noted, is despite notching 30 strikeouts across those starts. But opponents were barrelling against him, and have been all season — a 9.9% barrel is a stark increase from 2020’s, and opponents are hitting far more fly balls off of him: he has a 43.5% fly-ball rate, compared to 30.7% in 2020.

Now, it’s important to note that Luzardo’s expected stats suggest that he should be yielding a similar stat line to 2020: his xwOBA of .321 is just five points above 2020, his Hard-Hit% (36.9%) is just 0.2 points above 2020, and his xERA (4.13) is actually a good chunk lower than his 2020 number. But it’s also clear that he’s struggling with getting opponents to chase his formidable breaking pitches (as was also the case in 2020): an O-Swing% of 27.0 is comparable to 2020, and is still below league average. Recent weeks have seen Luzardo shirted to the bullpen, with mixed results. But this is the player on whom the A’s were expecting build their rotation moving forward. At 23, the potential is still there, if tweaks can be made to make his pitches more deceptive, and less meaty to opposing power hitters.

Luzardo’s metrics show a player who is allowing a lot of power hits, while not necessarily yielding ugly overall Hard Hit numbers.

With their prospective ace struggling, emphasis has been put on the rest of the rotation to pick up the slack — and slackline they have. Let’s start with Sean Manaea.

As Max Greenfield noted in his stellar profile article, Manaea is producing some of the best numbers of his career in 2021. Through 81.1 IP and 14 starts, Manaea has pitched two complete game shutouts and has a 2.99 ERA to go along with an 8.63 K/9, 11.7 swinging-strike%, and a career-low 33.1% Hard-Hit rate. 2020 was really a nadir for Manaea’s career to this point, and many had written him off entering this campaign. His expected stats (xERA, xFIP) are all roughly in line with his counting stats, which suggest legitimacy. For a deeper dive into Manaea, Max’s article above is great, but the bottom line is that he has stepped back into the ace role that many had him pegged for in the late-2010’s, and it has been a boon for the club.

Chris Bassitt, whose stellar 2020 numbers resulted in him finished eighth in Cy Young voting (!), is picking up where he left off. While his stuff isn’t overwhelming, a 1.04 WHIP, 9.45 K/9, 19.7% K-BB rate, and .212 OPP AVG are the best of his career. Cole Bailey also has a fantastic article up about Bassitt emerging as a frontline starter, and if there’s any metric that indicates a team’s success, it’s PitcherList profile articles/season.

Traditionally, the bullpen has been one of Oakland’s strengths, and while 2021 isn’t necessarily a departure for that, the success of the team’s starting pitching has actually led to less reliance on the ‘pen than usual. The team entered play on Tuesday with the second-lowest amount of games entered with high leverage — a remarkable stat considering their winning record and competitive early-season schedule. Their go-to closer has been Lou Trivino, but Yusmeiro Petit and Jake Diekman are equally relied upon in late-game high leverage situations. All three are pitching with an ERA+ of above 125, HR/9 rates of <7.5, and FIPs below 4.00.

Now all of this is to say, of course, that Oakland is a team that has been here before. They have finished the past three seasons with virtually identical winning percentages (.600, .599, .599), and have been a playoff team six times in the last 10 seasons. That is, of course, remarkable for a team which is consistently in the bottom-five in the league in payroll, and which seems to have existential crises threatening their long-term viability in the city. Nevertheless, that they have not made a single ALCS in this prodigious 10-year period and have won just five total games. Playoff Oakland, for whatever reasons, does not seem to bite with the same venom or efficacy as the consistent 100-win threat that we see in the regular campaign.

Will 2021 be any different? We’ll have to wait and see. Oftentimes, the playoffs are about situational hitting, reliable hitting, and a pitcher who can dominate a single game for seven or eight innings. The A’s have traditionally been a team that has relied on consistency over time, with platoon hitting, next-man-up pitching, and the netting out of averages over sample sizes. If they can have a guy like Olson hit to MVP-caliber, and perhaps have the duality of both Manaea and Bassitt as top-30 quality pitchers, we could see a different script in 2021.

One has to think, after all this time, that they deserve it.

Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Jacob Roy (@jmrgraphics3 on IG)

Daniel MacDonald

Daniel is a graduate of the University of Edinburgh, Scotland (2014), and has carried his love of baseball drama and storytelling across oceans and continents. He remembers exactly where he was sitting and what he was wearing when Kerry Wood struck out 20. You can find him talking baseball and music on Twitter @danthemacs

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