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What to Make of the Oakland A’s

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Sizing up the enemy

Houston Astros v Oakland Athletics Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

General Overview

The 2020 Oakland A’s are a well-rounded club. They lack the superstar talent that other contenders such as the Dodgers and Yankees possess, but they resemble a team that won back-to-back pennants and a World Series title several years ago: the Kansas City Royals. While the A’s are not totally identical to the Royals of five to six years ago, it’s not difficult to see the similarities.

The A’s’ offense is unspectacular and their rotation is merely average, but their defense is solid and their bullpen is formidable, as it is both deep and extremely effective. The lineup does its job by making pitchers work. Oakland hitters rarely chase pitches outside of the zone and they make a good amount of contact. The rotation isn’t going to rack up strikeouts, but it’s also not going to give opposing batters free passes to first base. The pitching staff as a whole gave up the sixth fewest number of long balls this year. The defense finished 4th in fielding percentage.

Notice a trend? This team does not make many mistakes. They grind games out and do it well with an elite bullpen that they ride to the end. The bullpen, while outstanding, is not going to be discussed here. They’re a top-notch unit and it’s not really necessary to analyze why. The Athletics’ lineup and rotation, on the other hand, are far more interesting.

All Bark and No Bite

The A’s’ lineup is 3rd in the league in chase rate. Only the mighty Dodgers and Yankees expand the zone less often. Unlike the Dodgers and Yankees, however, the A’s have a problem when it comes to pitches inside the strike zone.

The A’s are 28th in the league in batting average against pitches in the zone. How about slugging percentage? 24th. Naturally, they’re 25th in wOBA. Are these low rankings due to bad luck? Not quite. While the xwOBA is slightly higher than the wOBA, it still ranks 27th in the league. No other lineup in baseball relies more on its collective plate discipline than Oakland’s does. (Fun fact: the Astros have the highest BA and xBA against non-strikes)

It is paramount that the Astros’ pitching staff throw strikes this series. The A’s do most of their damage by grinding out ABs and getting guys on base via the walk. Their team batting average is only .225 and they produce mediocre power numbers. They must be forced to swing the bat.

Gladiators in the Coliseum

The A’s finished the season at 36-24, with 22 of those 36 wins coming at home. At 22-10, their home record was the third best in the league. Away from the spacious Oakland Coliseum, they were 14-14, good for the 10th best road record in baseball. This is relevant because the Astros and the A’s are going to play their five-game series at a neutral park: Dodger Stadium. It is especially relevant because the Oakland rotation is particularly vulnerable away from the fortress that is the Oakland Coliseum.

At home, Oakland’s rotation was 3rd in wOBA and 4th in xwOBA. On the road, it was 28th in wOBA (28th and 29th in batting average and slugging percentage, respectively). That being said, it also finished 13th in xwOBA. The Athletics’ starters posted the highest wOBA - xwOBA discrepancy, making them the unluckiest rotation on the road this year. We’ll see if that begins to even out at all. What awful timing that would be.

Secret Weapon

The A’s had a couple of budding superstars in their lineup in Marcus Semien and Matt Chapman in 2019. An injury cut Chapman’s 2020 short, and perhaps no other hitter in baseball has regressed more this season than Semien. So, how have the A’s still managed to be a fairly competent offense? Their 9-hole hitter who is still hitting 9th for reasons unknown.

The team’s catcher, Sean Murphy, has been tremendous this season. Murphy has arguably been the top hitter for the A’s in 2020 and is a big reason why they’ve stayed afloat offensively. Despite hitting .233, Murphy’s posted a .364 OBP thanks to an absurd 17.1% walk rate that is likely unsustainable. He’s also 91st percentile in average exit velocity and hard hit rate, with an above-average launch angle to boot. That potent mixture has culminated in a fantastic 12.7% barrel rate, which has resulted in 7 HR and an impressive .224 ISO.

While Murphy’s contact skills are mediocre at best, his plate discipline has improved significantly. It’s also notable that he’s dropped his pull rate by more than 20% and is driving the ball up the middle a ton. A year ago, he was strictly a fastball masher. Now, he’s able to do damage against more pitch types.

Murphy was a top prospect just a few years ago, so this breakout isn’t too surprising. I sincerely hope Bob Melvin continues to bat him 9th.

Summation

I could have detailed more in-depth numbers about how the Astros can defeat the A’s, but suffice it to say that fastball command alone might be what determines the outcome of this series. It can’t be emphasized enough how vital it is that the Astros’ pitching staff throw strikes. Additionally, the Astros’ lineup must put up crooked numbers against the Oakland starting pitchers and chase them early. Since this series isn’t just best-of-three but best-of-five, exhausting their bullpen early on is key.

If this were a normal season and the A’s had actual home field advantage, I’d give them the clear edge, as they’ve been one of the best home teams in baseball for some time now. But, at a neutral park, I like this series to go the distance.

What do you all think? How does this series play out?

The data in this article was compiled via Baseball Savant and FanGraphs