OAKLAND – If it seems like the A’s come back to win a lot of games, it’s because they do.
Friday’s victory over the Astros marked Oakland’s 11th win of the season when trailing after seven innings, the most in all of Major League Baseball. On the flip side, the A’s are a perfect 50-0 when leading after seven.
Oakland also leads MLB with a 26-10 record in one-run games; the Astros fell to 16-22 in such games.
— The A’s improved to 11-5 in extra inning games. The 11 extra-inning wins are tied with the Seattle Mariners for the most in the bigs.
— Friday marked Oakland’s first home win against Houston this season. The A’s are now 1-6 against the Astros at the Coliseum and 5-9 overall.
— The A’s have won 18 of their last 22 games at home and are 36-24 at the Coliseum for the season.
— Oakland snapped a 21-run scoreless streak after scoring two runs in the fifth inning.
— Matt Olson hit the first walk-off home run of his MLB career. It was his second career walk-off hit.
— Jed Lowrie has recorded multiple hits in four of his last five games, the first time he has done that since April. He is 9 for his last 21, with two home runs and four doubles.
— Fernando Rodney has yet to allow an earned run in five appearances with Oakland. Overall, he has not allowed an earned run in his last 10 innings.
— Khris Davis and Jonathan Lucroy are both 0 for their last 13. Lucroy went 0-for-3 with two strikeouts Friday night. Davis was 0-for-4, but did draw a walk.
— Lucroy threw out his 23rd attempted base stealer of the season to lead Major League Baseball.
The club’s sudden and unexpected upturn is a serious threat to American League powerhouses, and confirmation of one man’s skills
Billy Beane, the executive VP of baseball operations and resident mad scientist of the Oakland Athletics, is back disrupting American League powerhouses, safely ensconced beneath 50 feet of crap.
After four losing seasons the ballyhooed Beane, made famous around the globe thanks to his portrayal in Moneyball, has his A’s on the brink of bringing Hollywood storylines back to the Bay Area. And only now, after nearly two months of piling up victories, is the baseball world finally taking notice.
Back in March, who would have targeted 17 August on the calendar for this season’s most compelling series? Now, the reigning World Series champion Houston Astros, who had been expected to flirt with baseball’s regular-season win record of 116, are getting set for a three-game series against a dangerous Athletics team that were all but irrelevant just eight weeks ago.
Yes, Beane has somehow returned his A’s to the forefront, with the usual bottom-barrel payroll, this time roughly $79m. That total is sandwiched between the Miami Marlins and the Chicago White Sox, two teams with zero interest in winning ballgames, and about $150m south of the Boston Red Sox, a team that only wins ballgames.
It all seemed unlikely, or so we thought. After all, the last time most people even glanced at Beane’s A’s was four years ago, when the the Kansas City Royals ran Oakland out of the AL wild card game via bunts and base stealing: unenlightened dreck, left over from baseball’s pre-sabermetric dark ages.
Beane, frustrated by an inability to reach the World Series despite seven playoff appearances in 14 seasons, had gone all-in on 2014 with a series of un-Beane like moves that compromised the A’s immediate future. Some of Beane’s leanest years followed, and it was fair to wonder if we’d seen the last of his small-market magic in Oakland. Perhaps an overextended Beane had been distracted by his many endeavors, which include owning a share of Barnsley FC. Perhaps the Beane era in Oakland was overblown. And maybe it was time to break up the band – the band being Beane, his long-time assistant David Forst and his trusty manager, Bob Melvin, serving his eighth season and without a contract for a ninth.
That was the speculation in mid-June anyway, back when the A’s were 11 games out of a wild card spot. Now, such issues have been tabled indefinitely, which is what happens when your once-floundering franchise rips through a schedule at a 38-13 clip, going 50-0 while leading after seven innings and losing just one of 17 series.
The offense was always the strength of Oakland, but the evolution of Matt Chapman has brought a collective leap forward for the lineup. The third baseman, whose defense drew comparisons to his high-school teammate Nolan Arenado, now has the bat to match the glove in what has been a breakout season: Chapman’s WAR of 6.7, has him in the AL MVP mix.
Then there’s designated hitter Khris Davis, who came to Oakland in 2015 thanks to one of Beane’s biggest heists. Beane, an English soccer fanatic, dealt two players, Bubba Derby and Jacob Nottingham (you can’t make this stuff up), to Milwaukee for Davis, a steal who has pitched in 109 home runs in less than three seasons.
You’d be pressed to pick the rest of their talented order out of a lineup, but generics such as Jed Lowrie, Stephen Piscotty, Matt Olson and Marcus Semien more than stand up to the store brand.
So yes, these A’s can score with the best of the AL, but the real trick has been to create a functional pitching staff from a group that hadn’t sniffed the upper half of the league’s ERA leaderboard since the club were last competitive in 2014.
And despite the fact that Oakland’s current rotation consists of ace Sean Manaea and a group that didn’t even break camp with the club in March, the charmed A’s rotation is well above water, thanks to unexpected contributions from pitchers like Edwin Jackson. Picked up off the scrap heap in July, somehow the journeyman’s first nine starts in green and gold have added up to his best ERA since he was a rookie in 2003.
That the A’s starters are successful makes little sense until you discover that Beane and company have gone to great lengths to limit their exposure. Of AL teams currently in playoff position, only the Yankees have pitched their starters less. Beane has stockpiled closers, dealing for Jeurys Familia from the Mets, and Fernando Rodney from the Twins, to join a deep pen including rookie Lou Trivino, who is 8-2 with a sub 2.00 ERA in relief, and closer Blake Treinen, who has 32 saves and an ERA under one. There’s depth, and a plan to shorten the game and keep their mediocre rotation from throwing more than five innings a start.
But what’s not working is the A’s attendance.
Despite exceeding all realistic expectations, the product on the field is not putting bums on seats. Old Oakland Coliseum, with it’s homage to Al Davis in the outfield, sewage-filled clubhouses and low-fi fan experience isn’t exactly a welcome wagon. Still, considering all these A’s have achieved there should have been more than 10,400 to see the playoff chasing Seattle Mariners in the series opener on Monday.
It has A’s players practically begging fans to come on down.
With a potential to steal the division and upset the once pre-determined power dynamic of the American League, all this baseball story is missing is fans to watch it.
Houston arrives in Oakland after one of the worst weeks of their 2018 season, going 1-5 at home and getting swept by the M’s before splitting two against the Rockies. Houston would find their power stroke in the final game of the home stand, pounding Colorado 12-1 after averaging just 2.8 runs per game in the previous 5.
Tyler White has been an absolute beast and one of the Astro’s offensive bright spots this week, slashing .353/.450/.941 with 3 HR (2 in yesterday’s game) and 3 BB in 17 AB. His surge couldn’t have come at a better time as White is seeing more playing time with all the injuries to the roster. Gurriel has been warming up lately with hits in the last 4 games including two in Wednesday’s match and his first home run since July 7th. Bregman continues to be steady even with his power numbers coming back down to earth while Marwin has also held the line but has cooled slightly in the last few games. Reddick and Kemp would both have somewhat pedestrian weeks while Gattis would break out of a hitless streak in a big way with two bombs in the final game against the Rockies. Correa continues to recover from his injury while Tucker and the catcher position has been quiet this week, offensively speaking.
Injury Note: Springer is doing full baseball activities as of an August 15th update and is expected to be activated today, which certainly has the potential to provide a spark to the offense.
The pen has had a bit of a down week as well, with all but three relievers getting tagged for a run as well as Harris, who has given up 3 between Seattle and the Rockies. Sipp and Smith have both continued strong performances. Each appeared three times for at least 2 total scoreless innings and are both looking quite comfortable on the mound. Cionel Pérez would also work a clean inning in his one outing this week, with a walk and strikeout. Other than that everyone else, except for Harris, seemed to simply have a bad inning as some of the Astros’ numbers trend more towards the norm. Rondón’s would come at a particularly poor time as he would blow a save against Seattle to give up the sweep. McHugh and Peacock would both give up their one run in the first game against the Rockies. Meanwhile, Osuna and Pressly would give up theirs to Seattle, but Pressly would come back to have a strong inning in the final home game, striking out the side in order. Harris has had the roughest week in relief, giving up 3 runs in 4 IP across the two series.
Houston holds their fate in their hands as a sweep would stall the A’s momentum and give them a solid lead in the division with the final sprint of the season looming large.
The A’s come into this series after setting the world on fire since the All-Star Break. Since then they’ve won 7 of 8 series, including three sweeps, and have sauntered to just short of first in the division while passing the Mariners for the second wild card. Coming off of series wins against the Angels and Mariners this past week, Oakland sports an offense that demands respect and has been lead by Matt Chapman and Marcus Semien in recent series.
Semien has been doing it with power, sporting an .833 SLG, while Chapman has been absolutely locked in, getting on base at a .464 clip through 26 PA. Jed Lowrie has also been producing at a high rate this week, slashing .360/.429/.720 to go with a couple of his own long balls. Nick Martini, who got his first call-up this past June, has been impressive so far with a .302 average in a platoon role, but has only seen 72 PA. He had a strong week in his three games, though, with a triple and a homer in 13 AB. Kris Davis continued to do this week what he’s done all season and hit a couple of home runs to make it 34 on the year for him. Matt Olson has been the strongest threat out of the remaining lineup this last week, slapping 3 doubles and driving in a couple runners. Canha, Piscotty, Lucroy, and Pinder have all been having slow weeks at the plate, but they have good enough numbers on the year to still take them seriously.
The A’s have addressed pitching concerns through trades and have gone a long way to shoring up their bullpen with a trio of acquisitions. Oakland first picked up Jeurys Familia from the Mets at the All-Star break and he had pitched well for them until a couple of back to back games where he would surrender 5 runs in just 1 inning of work. They also picked up Shawn Kelley from the Nationals, who has been having an excellent season minus an emotional outburst in one game. Washington would DFA him the next day and Oakland would scoop him up, with whom he’s had a couple of clean outings so far. The A’s finished their shopping with Fernando Rodney from the Twins, who would debut against the Angels. Rodney’s numbers have been trending in the right direction even with a bit of an inconsistent start to 2018, and he has yet to give up a run as an Athletic. Other than that there is not much changed the remaining Oakland relievers have all been with the A’s since the start of the season. Blake Treinen continues to have an elite year as closer with 32 saves in 61 innings and a 0.89 ERA. Lou Trivino also continues a strong run out of the pen while Yusmeiro Petit, Ryan Buchter, and Emilio Pagán are all having decent years with ERAs hovering around 3.45.
The A’s will look to test their strength on the division-leading Astros and come away with either part or sole possession of first place.
Morton has had a string of 4 outings where he’s gone at least six innings into the game. The last start against the M’s was the worst of those where he gave up 3 runs in 6. Before that run he would labor through 4.1 innings in his lone start against the A’s this year, giving up 3 runs in those frames while striking out 5. Morton’s command can be a little spotty at times, driving up his walk numbers, but he’s still sporting a better-than-average 11.21 K/9 while continuing a stellar 2018.
Oakland counters with Edwin Jackson, who has been on fire in his last three starts, getting into at least the 6th in each and only giving up a single unearned run in that time. A 15 year veteran, Jackson’s only seen Houston once since they moved to the AL, where he went 6 innings of 2-run ball in 2017 as a member of the Nationals’ rotation. His ERA and FIP are off by about the same amount as Morton, but with a much lower strikeout rate.
If Jackson stays hot it’s hard to say who could have the better game here, but Jackson’s career numbers suggest he may be more smoke and mirrors at the moment.
Keuchel has been on a roll the last couple of months, going deep into games and showing up as one of the Astros’ better starters in that time. He had a strong outing against Seattle his last time out, scattering 7 hits across 7 innings of 1-run ball. He last saw Oakland in early May where he would face them twice in three starts, getting slapped around for 6 runs in 7 innings the first time before cruising through 8 innings with just a single ER the second. Keuchel’s numbers show that there’s not a lot to fear from regression at this point.
Cahill comes in with a similar story as far as numbers on the year go, though he hasn’t been on as much of a roll recently. He would give up 4 runs in 4.2 innings against the Angels, but has won his previous three starts in spite of a 5 run spanking at the hands of the Rangers. He’s seen the Astros twice and given up 3 ER in each of those, including a 3.2 innings stinker after coming back from the DL in July. Like Dallas, his numbers are right about where they should be and are more-or-less lining up with his peripherals.
Though their numbers on the year are similar, Cahill has been a little more chaotic recently and I think Dallas can fend off the A’s if his recent success continues.
Verlander makes this start after an excellent bounce back outing from his clunker against the Mariners. He would go 6 innings of 2-run ball against the Rockies while striking out 11 in a hard-luck loss thanks to the quiet offense. JV’s had a couple of outings against Seattle, one a 7 inning 3-run affair followed by 6 shutout innings in early July. Justin’s numbers are starting to come a little closer to alignment, but he’s still just ahead of his 2.98 FIP.
Manaea has been cruising through most of his starts minus a 2.2 inning blip against the Dodgers in early August. His most recent start, however, was a 7.2 inning 2-run performance against Seattle where he would walk 2 with 3 K’s. The Astros have been able to ding Manaea when they’ve seen him this year, hitting him 4 runs back in May before chasing him after 3 runs in 4 innings in July. Manaea’s 4.21 FIP and .238 BABIP suggest he may be riding some luck, but he will still be a challenge for the Astros’ offense.
I think Verlander is still the superior pitcher here, especially with how well Houston has hit Manaea in two of their three meetings this year.
Say goodbye to late night baseball as this series marks the beginning of the Astros’ final West Coast road trip.
For You Viewing and Listening Pleasure
Game 1: Friday, August 17th @ 9:05 pm CDT Listen: Astros – KBME 790, La Ranchera 850 AM / Athletics – 95.7 FM The Game, KIQI 1010 Watch: Astros – ATT SportsNet-SW / Athletics – NBCSCA / MLB Network (out-of-market only) / MLB.TV
Game 2: Saturday, August 18th @ 3:05 pm CDT Listen: Astros – KBME 790, La Ranchera 850 AM / Athletics – 95.7 FM The Game, KIQI 1010 Watch: Astros – ATT SportsNet-SW / Athletics – NBCSCA / MLB.TV
Game 3: Sunday, August 18th @ 3:05 pm CDT Listen: Astros – KBME 790, La Ranchera 850 AM / Athletics – 95.7 FM The Game, KIQI 1010 Watch: Astros – ATT SportsNet-SW / Athletics – NBCSCA / MLB.TV
I’m starting to think that a new stadium for the A’s might be a bad idea. Not that we need to worry about that for a decade or two. But it’s possible that the A’s old yard — along with their old-school payroll — might be a potent asset.
In fact, what the A’s could use about now is a timely sewage overflow in their clubhouse, to reinforce their image. To explain:
If the A’s are going to make a serious run in the final quarter-season, they need an identity, and Jonathan Lucroy, their catcher, can help.
The A’s lost Wednesday afternoon to Seattle, 2-0 in 12 innings. But they remain the talk of baseball, moving up the standings with alarming speed, 38-13 in their past 51 games.
After the game, Lucroy mounted a virtual soap box to wax poetic about his team. I asked him if he could explain the surprising A’s to the outside world — how they’re doing what they’re doing with what they’ve got.
“Yes, I can,” Lucroy said.
And in the following paragraph, see if you can spot the team’s new nickname:
Lucroy said: “This is a ballclub (in which) guys are absolute grinders. We don’t have the best of anything here. We don’t, as far as stadium-wise and the facilities, and that’s just the truth. But guys come here every day ready to work, ready to play. We play in a graveyard, the ball doesn’t fly here well at all. The guys come in here hungry, ready to work and ready to win.”
The Graveyard Gang.
Reinforcing that image, the A’s tend to do their best work very late in games — on the graveyard shift. They didn’t get it done Wednesday, but normally if they’re in the game going into the seventh, they nail down that coffin lid.
A run of good luck, or something deeper?
“We have so much talent in here, so much willpower in here,” said Lucroy, a 32-year-old rescue-dog pickup, playing his ninth season with his fourth team. “The guys want it really bad. I think it took us a little while to figure out how good we were. But after we went to the East Coast and we played Boston and New York back-to-back … (what we did there) tells you something as a player — we’re actually a pretty good team.
“When you believe, that’s when crazy things happen.”
Lucroy not only doesn’t mind playing in a graveyard, for a team that doesn’t get a lot of attention, he sees it as a competitive advantage.
I asked him if the underdog image helps the A’s.
“Yeah, it does, and honestly, I enjoy it. I enjoy going in and beating up on people that don’t give us enough credit. I really do. I really do. I love changing people’s minds and I love embarrassing people, I really do.”
Lucroy added that this team grinds and scraps “because we have to. No one’s going to give it to us. Especially here in Oakland. We have one of the best records in the league and you don’t see much of us on TV. No one talks about us.
“Being a player on the other side, when I played in Texas and Colorado and Milwaukee, I hardly ever saw anything about Oakland, hardly ever. That’s pretty sad, because we have an unbelievable team. We have one of the best teams in the league in this clubhouse, and not a lot of people know it.”
Lucroy would be wise to play up that underdog card with his teammates. The last time the A’s were relevant, four years ago, their players used their pauper-like circumstances — ballpark and payroll — as a rallying point. They didn’t have all that fancy newfangled stuff other teams have, like a clubhouse larger than a submarine, but that made the A’s tougher, grittier.
This A’s team embraces that image and backs it up by being a bunch of nobodies.
Take Nick Martini, who hit a triple and two singles Wednesday. He’s leading off for the hottest team in baseball, after starting the season in the minors, then getting called up and sent down twice, before sticking. This guy knocked around the minors seven years before the A’s picked him up and gave him a shot.
Said Lucroy: “It’s a very unique situation for me. … Guys are very blue-collar here, used to grinding, used to fighting for what they want and what they get. The chemistry here is unlike any other team I’ve been on. I told the boys, you win two out of three the rest of the year, we’re going to win the World Series.”
If the Graveyard A’s make it to the World Series, no doubt they will be the under-zombies.
Jean Segura had four hits to help the Mariners closed within 2 1/2 games of the A’s for the second AL wild-card spot.
Seattle’s Mike Leake pitched eight innings of two-hit ball with six strikeouts and one walk. Oakland’s Brett Anderson went 7 2/3 without allowing a run in his longest outing since June 16, 2015.
Nick Martini had three hits for the A’s and Matt Olson added two. Oakland entered the day one game behind first-place Houston.
Both teams squandered numerous scoring opportunities before Seattle scraped together two runs on one hit.
After Petit (5-3) got leadoff man Denard Span to ground out, Mike Zunino walked. Gordon hit the next pitch over the right-field wall.
Gordon’s only other home run was a solo shot against Cleveland on April 1 in Seattle’s third game of the season.
James Pazos (3-1) retired one batter for the victory. Edwin Diaz pitched the 12th for his major league-leading 47th save in 50 opportunities.
The Mariners had two on with one out in the in the ninth and 11th but failed to score. The A’s stranded Olson at second in the 10th, then had two on in the 11th before Pazos got Khris Davis to strike out swinging.
Olson singled leading off the 12th before Diaz struck out Stephen Piscotty, Marcus Semien and pinch-hitter Chad Pinder.
Mariners: James Paxton was placed on the disabled list with a forearm bruise, one day after the left-hander was struck by a line drive. Felix Hernandez, who allowed two runs over 5 2/3 innings in his first career relief appearance, is likely to take Paxton’s turn in the rotation. RHP Christian Bergman was recalled from Triple-A Tacoma.
Mariners: LHP Wade LeBlanc (7-2, 3.80 ERA) pitches against the Dodgers on Friday in Seattle to begin a six-game homestand. LeBlanc is 1-7 in 11 career appearances against Los Angeles.
Athletics: RHP Edwin Jackson (4-2, 2.48) faces the Houston Astros on Friday. Jackson’s ERA is the fourth lowest in the American League since he joined Oakland on June 25.
More AP baseball: https://apnews.com/tag/MLBbaseball and https://twitter.com/AP-Sports
Is Matt Chapman single-handedly propelling the team to greatness on the back of the historically great defense and superb hitting? Is Khris Davis crushing? Has Sean Manaea evolved into an elite starter? Yes, yes and yes.
But perhaps the biggest factor in the Athletics’ success is the A’s bullpen, which has been among the best in baseball.
In the past thirty days, the Athletics bullpen ranks first in ERA, second in FIP, first in fWAR, and fourth in strikeouts. It’s generally believed that superb bullpens can help teams outperform their Pythagorean differentials: given that the Athletics’ Pythagorean record is just 66-53 while their real record sits at 71-48, it’s not hyperbole to say that their pen has catapulted them into the AL wild-card race.
After some ups and downs with the Nationals, Blake Treinen found himself in Oakland last season in the Ryan Madson/Sean Doolittle trade after pitching to a disappointing 6.11 ERA through June. Treinen turned it on down the stretch, pitching to a 2.01 ERA with 13 saves from July to the end of the season, fine-tuning a devastating slider/sinker combo.
Treinen leads all qualified relievers in ERA, is tied for the lead in fWAR and ranks second in FIP and HR/9. Treinen’s slider and sinker have swing and miss-rates of 29.8 percent and 15.6 percent (per Baseball Savant), the fourth-best and best figures in the majors among pitchers who have thrown at least 200 of either pitch. Only Josh Hader and Edwin Diaz have higher Swinging Strike rate than Treinen, according to FanGraphs.
That said, one man is not a bullpen. Rookie Lou Trivino has been a superb setup option for the Athletics, posting the fourth-best ERA by a rookie reliever this millennium (minimum 55 IP). Trivino has been the beneficiary of some generous sequencing — only Kelvin Herrera and Collin McHugh have a higher LOB percentage than Trivino’s 92 percent figure; extremely high figures like those are usually subject to regression.
But the Athletics ‘pen has been especially great thanks to recent acquisitions Jeurys Familia, Fernando Rodney, and Shawn Kelley. Familia profiles as a top-tier reliever, having been a dominant closer for the Mets and helping them to a pennant run in 2015, while Rodney and Kelly have been serviceable middle relievers for the Twins and Nationals this season, respectively.
We’ve seen teams take approaches like the 2018 Athletics in acquiring top-tier relievers for the postseason: the Cubs and Indians acquired Aroldis Champman and Andrew Miller in 2016 respectively, and the 2017 Yankees inked Aroldis Chapman to the largest contract ever for a relief pitcher. All these moves were made to supplement already strong bullpens. All of these teams made deep runs in the postseason relying heavily on relievers.
The latest baseball trend is to lean heavily on your bullpen in the postseason — relievers have thrown an increasing number of innings in the postseason compared recently compared to previous seasons. It’s not hyperbole to think it possible that relievers throw a majority of innings in the postseason this year.
By reinforcing their bullpen at all levels, the Athletics have the depth to pitch the postseason like a modern team without worrying as much about fatigue (a problem that appeared to plague the aforementioned Yankees, Cubs, and Indians).
Of course, the Athletics must first reach the postseason — while currently sitting in a playoff spot, a postseason berth is far from guaranteed in the wild AL West. But with the Athletics’ bullpen on their side, they might just have an edge over competitors.