These days it’s difficult for Oakland Athletics manager Bob Melvin to imagine his lineup operating with anything less than the timed efficiency of a jack-in-the-box. Over the past month, he’s witnessed a blur of comeback victories and clutch hits, the spurts of offensive activity seemingly auto-activated each time the A’s need a boost.
“It kind of feels like the same game [repeating],” Melvin said earlier this month. “We get down, and there’s an even better feeling. Not that that’s ideal or that’s where you want to go with it, but we’ve been pretty resilient and it doesn’t seem to bother us.”
While Melvin has often placed his least productive hitters near the top of the order and some of his most productive hitters lower down, the A’s are 55-42 and within three games of an American League Wild Card spot at the All-Star break.
Oakland has already hit 127 home runs, surpassing its total output from 2008, 2010 and 2011. That puts the team on pace to hit 212 long balls, which would rank fifth-most in franchise history. Seven A’s hitters have at least 10 home runs.
As a result, Oakland has won 15 of its past 19 games, and 21 of its last 27, despite injuries to more than a half dozen starting pitchers.
Given the offseason addition of right fielder Stephen Piscotty and the continued maturation of a young core, the team’s recent success at the plate hasn’t shocked members of the clubhouse.
“I thought that we would have one of the better lineups in the game,” said second baseman Jed Lowrie, who made the first All-Star appearance of his 10-year career on Tuesday.
The success Oakland has had, though, runs contrary to how lineups are typically put together. Over a 162-game season, players hitting higher in an order can receive up to 60 or 70 more plate appearances than those closer to the bottom. There’s an obvious benefit to loading the top-half with boppers and on-base machines.
Here’s how the A’s compare with the rest of the league at various batting order slots by wRC+, a park- and league-adjusted measure of offensive output. Notice that the fifth and sixth spots, most often occupied by first baseman Matt Olson and third baseman Matt Chapman, have performed far better than the MLB average, while the top of the lineup scuffles.
Batting 1st: 80 wRC+ (league average: 103)
Batting 2nd: 83 wRC+ (league average: 112)
Batting 5th: 104 wRC+ (league average: 102)
Batting 6th: 127 wRC+ (league average 96)
According to a statistical analysis completed by The Athletic this past spring, the difference between an optimized lineup and an imperfect batting order like the one A’s have used amounts to about half a win per season.
With the A’s are in a tight playoff race with the Seattle Mariners — a race that could come down to a single win — there’s an argument that with such a small margin separating the teams, any edge is important.
Oakland’s recent surge, though, might have reduced the incentive for Melvin to change the batting order, though, as his high-caliber offense has already proved itself capable of carrying the team for long stretches.
The A’s are hitting .267 in the seventh inning or later this year, lead the major leagues with 69 runs in the eighth inning and have staged several late-game comebacks over the past few weeks. They’re one of the most potent groups in the league, regardless of the order Melvin places his hitters in.
“This offense right now is unbelievable,” said starter Chris Bassitt after Oakland’s comeback win against the San Diego Padres earlier this month. “There’s no quit to them, and just one through nine … you just don’t know who’s going to come through and when.”
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