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ALCS Team Preview: Those Dreaded Athletics

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The Oakland A’s, who play the Yankees in the Wild Card Game, could face the Astros in the ALCS. Let’s take a look.

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Oakland Athletics Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

As one of three potential teams the Astros might play after the Astros wipe the floor with Cleveland celebrating a three-game sweep via trolling Trevor Bauer with a drone that Josh Reddick controls while wearing the speedo I can’t unsee, the Oakland A’s are certainly the most familiar team the Astros could face.

Most of us are familiar with their season arc, but let’s dig a little deeper. After starting the season 5-10, they won 8 of 9, including 2 of 3 against Boston, to get above .500. They were 14-12 on April 28. They were the definition of average for almost seven weeks, never getting more than 3 games over, or 2 games below .500. On June 16 they stood at 36-36, and then embarked on a road trip where they went 8-2, before winning a home series against Cleveland. After June 24, when they were 40-38, they never felt the gravitational tug of .500 again, and ended the first half at 55-42. Because the Mariners were so good, and one wild card was virtually guaranteed from Bos/NYY, most pundits didn’t take Oakland seriously at the ASG break. They kept on winning. Other than succumbing to a fluky sweep @ Colorado, nothing slowed them down until they eventually caught your Houston Astros, at one point even going up .5 games. After the Astros took 2 of 3 on August 17-19, to start their upward assent, the A’s continued winning, including 6 in a row Sept 5-12, to get to 32 games over. They stumbled from that point on, finishing the season 8-8, which robbed them of a 100-win season. Still, 97-65 ain’t bad for a team that’s 28th in payroll, and has one player, Khris Davis, making more than 7 million.

What makes the A’s so good, given the lack of a star player? Were they simply lucky? On one level, yes. They were 31-14 in one-run games. On another level, no; they had the 5th-best run differential, and put teams in a chokehold when they got up after the 7th inning. Elite bullpens help in close games. Their pythag was only one game behind their record, so they were far more good than lucky.

I must confess, where I grew up Oakland was the hometown team, and it’s been hard to root against Billy Beane since I moved from the area a quarter-century ago. I always wanted the Zito/Hudson teams to take down Boston and New York, and that sentiment hasn’t changed, despite the fact they share a division with my one true love. They’re the only other team in the division that I like, and I consider them objectively likable.

On offense they’re one of 5 teams who finished the 162 game season with a wRC+ between 110-111. So there are five teams with elite offenses, and Oakland is one of them. They boast nine players with a wRC+ above 113 (min 150 PAs). None of these catch, where both backstops are well below average. But the team mashes collectively, with home run champ Khris Davis (wRC+ 135) and a third baseman so good that Josh Donaldson is now a distant memory. That’s Matt Chapman (wRC+ 135), who looked like a glove-first guy last year, until he got moved to the 2-slot in June and became an MVP candidate. Marcus Semien, who looked like Jonathan Villar at shortstop last year, is mediocre at the plate (wRC+ 95), but stellar in the field. In between, the A’s bring to the plate a mix of high-K, high power guys (Davis, Matt Olsen, Chapman), and no-names who seem to blend together (what’s the difference between Chad Pinder, Mark Canha, and Nick Martini?). They have been hugely aided by mid-season callups, Martini and Laureano, who combined to play 103 games and post 3.3 WAR. Laureano is tough to watch. The ex-Astro farmhand strikes out too much (28%) , but provides enough hitting and elite base running/defense to make for an intriguing profile of an everyday CF. We gave him away! He and Martini both have high unsustainably BABIPs. Old Astro Jed Lowrie, below-average at SS for years, somehow grades as well-above average at 2b, and rode that, along with a very good offensive season (267/353/448) to a 4.9 WAR. That’s .1 WAR higher than the reigning MVP, who also plays 2b.

The A’s boast a mix of really good hitters (haven’t even mentioned the bounce back season of Piscotty) and elite defense up the middle (Lucroy is good again) to overcome very weak defense at all of the corners (Davis, Piscotty, Olsen) with the exception of 3b. Can they hide that weak OF defense against NYY/Boston? Can Lucroy/Fowler control the running game. These are key questions. But on offense, the A’s are good and deep, and their bench bats don’t represent a drop off.

On the mound, the A’s rotation is a mess. Blake Treinen, the Mariano Rivera of 2018, is the only pitcher with a WAR above 2.0. Manea is their ace, but he was having a mediocre season. In September, they experimented with using an opener. Only 3 pitchers topped 16 IP in September (Fiers, Jackson, Mengden). Brett Anderson had some BABIP issues in September, and may get a playoff start. Mengden was elite and saved their bacon in long relief (WHIP of 0.8 and ERA of 3 in 21 IP). Treinen gave up no ER in 13.1 IP. Those two rescued the staff whose team ERA was 3.99 with those pitchers. The pitching was mediocre for the whole season, 17th in Fangraphs WAR, 3.82 team ERA masked by FIP and xFIP above 4). The big home park help guys like Edwin Jackson and Mike Fiers, but does that tandem play in New York or Houston? In September they were 23rd in Fangraphs pitching WAR, although it seems all of MLB was outperforming their FIPs (has anybody looked into this?). In the bullpen, big-name acquisitions were shaky (Familia) and earth-quakey (F Rodney, with a WHIP of 2.5) down the stretch. But the no-name guys (Hendricks, Petit, Buchter, Bassitt) were all really. If September is a suitable sample-size I would leave Rodney off the post-season roster, and be very cautious with Familia.

I favor the A’s against NYY, provided their SP doesn’t get bombed. I like their team athleticism. They would be a heavy underdog against the rested Red Sox, but since they have no ace, or even reliable SP, lack of rotation organization doesn’t hurt them. Some combination of Cahill, Jackson, Fiers, Mengden, and Anderson will need to come up huge. If they do complete the upset, a best-of-seven ALCS matchup will surely tip me over the edge and help me learn to hate the A’s.