It’s been almost two months since we did a deep dive into the 2018 Mariners. Way back when, they were 43-24 and pacing the Astros, and it seemed totally reasonable to discuss postseason prospects. Things have played out in an all-too-baseball way since, and the longest postseason drought in major American sports is back in jeopardy. Going back to when we I was young and naive and wrote such things (June 12, 2018), the Mariners have gone 22-26 and are currently looking up at their divisional opponents in Oakland, who have gone 34-13 over the same time frame.
Mediocre play from Seattle (and the best results in baseball from the Athletics) have swung the likelihood of a postseason appearance from Puget Sound down to a slightly more notorious bay. But, enough about Seattle for now. Time to move on to the team that currently has the same number of wins (68) that they had on the season as a whole in 2015, with no rebuild required. The team with the lowest 2018 Opening Day payroll in all of MLB. Let’s mull over the A’s.
Talking about the 2018 A’s without mentioning Chappy would be akin to a roundtable about NSYNC sans discussing JT, something that shan't be done. With 4.8 fWAR, Matt Chapman is tied for second among third baseman, behind only a possible MVP (Jose Ramirez), and he still comes in tied for sixth overall among all position players. While he’s only in fifth place amongst third baseman by wRC+, the defensive stats are more into him than Camille Preaker is into vodka. He’s second in all of MLB by UZR (12.5), after only Andrelton Simmons, and he comes in first by DRS (25). He also meets the old eye test. Chapman has been Oakland’s best player, and there are certainly a large number of teams (currently somewhere in the neighborhood of 24) regretting their decisions in the 2014 draft.
While Chapman’s ascendancy into a defensive wunderkind has clearly been the biggest part of it, the team as whole has improved their defensive prowess in nearly unfathomable ways. Last year, the team as whole ranked 27th in DRS (-48) and came in dead last by UZR (-35.4). This year, their DRS (3) isn’t particularly impressive, but it bumps them into a much more respectable 16th place, while their UZR (19.9) notches them 7th place. Baseball Prospectus currently has the A’s in first place in MLB for both defensive efficiency and park-adjusted defensive efficiency. While making too much out of less than a season’s worth of team-wide defensive stats is far from wise, it’s clear that Oakland’s defense has not been the abyss of suck that it was last year. That’s been especially important, given the rotation that Oakland has been rolling out.
That rotation as a whole ranks 17th by ERA (4.21) and 19th by both FIP (4.34) and fWAR (6.2), but that might undersell what Oakland has done with what they’ve had to work with. Only Sean Manaea (144 IP) has broken the 100-inning threshold, and swingman Yusmeiro Petit, who has not started a single game, has the fourth-most innings of any Athletic this season. They’ve employed 13 different starting pitchers on the season, and we’re not even halfway through August.
The team that is five games ahead of them in their division has the rotation with the collective MLB-best ERA (2.99), FIP (3.24) and fWAR total (16.8) has literally used just five starters all year. The Astros have enjoyed a healthy, extremely productive rotation all year, but it’s not really fair to make that sort of comparison. Shall we use the Dodgers, who have employed almost as many starting pitchers as Oakland, with 11? Probably not, since those starters include Clayton Kershaw, Kenta Maeda, Rich Hill, Alex Wood and others. The A’s have Trevor Cahill and Edwin Jackson.
Cahill came back to the team that drafted him way back in 2006 on a $1.5 million, one-year deal in March. Over 75 IP, he’s not only put up a 3.12 ERA, but also a career-best 3.23 FIP, putting him slightly ahead of some pitchers from Cleveland whose names also feature hard “C” sounds (Corey Kluber, 3.37 FIP, and Carlos Carrasco, 3.27 FIP). Simply put, Cahill was one of the steals of the offseason. And while Jackson has inexplicably fallen into the category of having done pretty damn alright, posting a 2.87 ERA while pairing it with a 4.00 FIP and only striking out 6.70 per nine, the starting pitching has not been the main ingredient in Oakland’s recipe for success on the pitching side of things.
Instead, they’ve favored a formula that’s extremely popular in this modern MLB era: a weaponized bullpen, although they‘ve done it more in the model of the progenitor, small budget Royals rather than the teams which they begat. And it’s worked out pretty well for them as of late. For the last thirty days, Oakland’s bullpen has collectively rolled out a 2.30 ERA and a 3.13 FIP.
Like Cahill, Blake Treinen has also returned to the team that drafted him, although he’s taken it a little further in results-orientedness. He leads all Oakland pitchers (not just relievers) in fWAR (2.8), and has a 0.93 ERA that leads all qualified relievers. Lou Trivino has also been excellent and the aforementioned Petit has delivered plenty of value in round two of his $10 million two-year deal. On the year, Oakland’s bullpen ranks 6th in fWAR (4.5), and that’s at a fraction of the cost of most of the teams ahead of them on the leaderboard.
Their lineup has been (extremely) sneakily good as well, and with a window seemingly open, the A’s made some appropriately Moneyball-ish moves both before and after the deadline to shore up the pitching, even if they didn’t necessarily need it on the relief side of things. They fleeced the Mets when they acquired Jeurys Familia (who has a 0.00 ERA and a 1.35 FIP over his admittedly small sample size of 10 IP in Oakland) to further strengthen that already strong bullpen. And this just week, they made a low-cost, post-deadline move to improve the rotation, sending either cash or a couple of low-level prospects to Detroit to acquire Mike Fiers (3.48 ERA/4.66 FIP).
I, for one, don’t know what’s going to happen over the next seven-plus weeks of regular-season baseball, much less the damn playoffs. Despite the A’s seeming unstoppability as of late, there are some concerning macro-level trends, many of which also applied to our much earlier discussion of Seattle. Oakland is 10-4 in extra inning games, for a .714 winning percentage that is the third best in MLB. They’ve also gone 22-9 in one-run games, for a .709 winning percentage that leads both leagues. It doesn’t hurt that they’ve feasted on the quality of competition, going 43-11 against teams that are under .500 (first in MLB), and only 25-36 against teams with winning records (which puts them in a much more pedestrian 18th place).
But, there are positive signs, too, and those make the prospect of their hanging on to their three-game lead over Seattle for the second Wild Card spot extremely likely. Oakland actually has a positive run differential, for one. Their +58 mark is good for fifth in the AL, whereas Seattle’s -29 is, well, not so good, even if it’s good enough for eighth in a pretty terrible league. Those run differential numbers mean that Oakland is only slightly overperforming (+4 for both Pythagorean and BaseRuns records), while Seattle’s numbers are wildly out of proportion (+11 for Pythagorean and +9 for BaseRuns).
While the A’s have have caught some breaks, they don’t really look lucky, as it were. After all, as they say, luck is the residue of some smart folks building a competitive team on a shoestring budget. Then, you know, catching some breaks. The A’s front office definitely deserves some credit for setting up the teams recent run, in terms of drafting, making bargain basement signings and making shrewd trades. With a well-timed, win-filled week (with some losses on the other side), they could catch the Yankees for the first Wild Card or even threaten the Astros’ preordained AL West victory. Is it going to happen? Probably not, but at least we’re getting a little bit of excitement in a boring-ass American League postseason-chase this season.