Kolsky: Explaining the A’s — How the Oakland Nine became contenders

It’s August, and the Oakland Athletics are 64-46, sitting 18 games over .500. This plain statement of fact feels important — the 2018 A’s are not a cute story of some scrappy young grinders flashing in the MLB pan; they are a very good baseball team. Novelty items don’t have 28-7 stretches.

When the season began, “cute story” was the consensus ceiling on this A’s team. Even MLB writers savvy enough to hint at a potential Wild Card run hedged hard against it — The Ringer’s Ben Lindbergh picked Oakland as his surprise team, but finished his blurb by saying he “would be, well, surprised” if the A’s played postseason ball. ESPN’s season preview cited 83 wins and finding a “core four” as goals for the season. Bleacher Report told you that this group “might not see much of a change in the win-loss department, but they’re headed in the right direction.”

One of the boldest — and closest to correct — was SB Nation’s Grant Brisbee, who did pick the A’s to go to the playoffs, but began his comments on that prediction by calling it his “Intentionally Irrational Pick™ for the year.” He was imagining contributions from AJ Puk and “a dramatic, bold deal” at the deadline.

It’s worth trying to sort out how we got here: what great surprise or massive progression turned a group that was a year away into a serious contender in baseball’s best division?

What We Knew

Every positive preseason article about the A’s cited last year’s second half, when they outscored opponents with major contributions from young sluggers Matt Olson and Matt Chapman. Sure enough, impressive run production has been the key element of the 2018 A’s, led in part by the young Matthews, but more so by two steady standby’s.

Khris Davis is on pace for a third straight year of 40-plus homers and 100-plus RBIs. Jed Lowrie is having his best season at 34, already passing his homer and RBI totals from last season with his first All-Star selection to show for it.

Still, it’s the overall team production that stands out. Oakland has seven hitters with double-digit homers, eight with 35-plus RBIs and nine with at least 30 runs scored. Those numbers could be even bigger if guys like Dustin Fowler had logged more time.

Without discounting the efforts of Davis and Lowrie, it’s fair to say the A’s are without a traditional star hitter — yet they are fourth in baseball in homers, sixth in runs scored and seventh in OPS. It’s the definition of a team effort, especially when you note that 13 different hitters have played at least 20 games.

What We Hoped

Certainly any vision of this year’s Athletics in the playoffs involved significant progression from young players, and there has been enough of that to make an impact.

Olson couldn’t possibly hit with the power he did in 59 games last year, but his 21 homers and 52 RBIs are nothing to sneeze at. Chapman’s homers and RBIs per game are down, but his average and OPS are up and he’s scoring more runs (thanks to being on base more with a team full of run-producers). Brilliant defense at third has his WAR at 5.8 (per Baseball Reference), good for best on the squad by more than two full runs.

Stephen Piscotty, Mark Canha and Chad Pinder have been pleasant surprises for the offense — all hitting between .255 and .265 with OPS between .780 and .815, and combining for 39 homers, 116 RBIs and 124 runs scored.

The biggest jump, though, comes from now-ace Sean Manaea. The only Oakland starter to cross the 100-inning threshold so far, Manaea is 10-7 with a career-low 3.38 ERA, including that no-hitter against the best team in baseball.

Many thought the key to Manaea making this sort of leap would be a big boost in strikeouts, but it seems to be more about control — he strikes out just 6.2 hitters per nine innings, but has reduced walks dramatically, from 3.12 per nine last season to 1.65 this year. As a result, he has the AL’s fifth-best WHIP and eleventh-best K/BB ratio.

Eleven pitchers have made at least five starts for this Oakland team; five of them have ERAs over five. Opening Day “ace” Kendall Graveman was unable to compete at the major league level, and has joined Andrew Triggs, Paul Blackburn, Daniel Gossett, Daniel Mengden and others on the DL.

Manaea’s breakout season has been key in helping the A’s weather the storm of injuries and inconsistency they’ve dealt with from the rest of the starters.

What We Never Saw Coming

In the morass of ineffective and unavailable pitchers, the A’s have unearthed a couple of forgotten gems.

Trevor Cahill, five years and five teams removed from his last significant stretch as an effective starting pitcher, has been a boon. The team is 7-5 in his 12 starts, and his 3.39 ERA is the lowest of any starter with double-digit appearances — not to mention his lowest since his 2010 All-Star campaign here. Perhaps an even bigger surprise is the well-traveled Edwin Jackson, whose 3.32 ERA is the lowest of any A’s starter. Oakland is 5-2 in his seven outings, and he has allowed three runs or less in six of them.

It’s not the starting pitching that has carried the staff, though — it’s the emergence of one of the league’s most dominant bullpens.

All-Star Blake Treinen, who has always been good, is now incredible. He sports a 5-2 record, an ERA of 1.00 and an already-career-high 27 saves. He’s given up six earned runs all year long, and has a ridiculous 69 strikeouts in 54 innings. Right behind the closer is rookie setup man Lou Trivino with a 1.22 ERA and 61 K’s in just 51.2 innings.

The A’s have also had solid contributions from Yusmeiro Petit, Emilio Pagan, Ryan Buchter and the now-released Santiago Casilla. All have ERAs of 3.80 or lower, with a combined 106.2 innings pitched. Oakland also added Jeurys Familia, who has yet to allow an earned run since his mid-July trade.

Oakland has the fourth-best relief ERA in the AL, despite needing the third-most innings out of relievers. Of the seven most-used bullpens in the league, the A’s have the lowest ERA by nearly half a run.

Oakland is heading down the stretch with a nearly bulletproof back end, which should serve baseball’s best late-inning offense quite well.

Where We’re Going

The A’s ultimate destination depends on the results of ten specific games — the remaining matchups with the division-rival Seattle Mariners, who sit mere percentage points ahead of Oakland for the second Wild Card spot.

In the first half, the A’s dropped two of three in each of three series against the Mariners. That was the Oakland that went 34-36 through 70 games and lost 25 of their first 35 within the division. Since then, the A’s are 9-1 against the AL West and 28-7 overall — arguably the best team in baseball.

That’s significant; that’s more than a cute story, it’s great baseball. All they have to do is take care of business against the Mariners, and we’ll be watching the A’s in the postseason for the first time in four years.

Matt Kolsky is a sports media professional (or something like that) and lives with an aging Shih Tzu/Schnauser mix in Berkeley. You can hear him on the Bay Area sports radio station 95.7 the Game, usually on weekends. You can listen to his podcast, The Toy Department, on iTunes or wherever else fine podcasts are free. You can find him on Twitter @thekolsky to share your personal feelings about this article or any other topic, he will respond to most tweets that do not contain racial slurs.

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