For a few years in a row, it was a race for second place in the AL West. The Houston Astros weren’t going to be stopped and the hope would be that the teams futily chasing Houston would at least win enough games for a playoff appearance.
As it turns out, the 2020 Oakland Athletics actually won the AL West, becoming the first team since 2016 to take the top spot. Not only did the A’s find out how the West was won, but they won their first playoff series since 2006. Sure, it was the Wild Card Round, but it counted all the same. The unfortunate irony in it all was that the A’s then lost in four games to the Astros to get bounced from the playoffs in the Division Series. The Astros, as they had so many times before, had the last laugh.
The Athletics certainly earned their first division title since 2013 with a 36-24 record, but the underlying metrics paint a little bit of a different picture. Oakland was actually 32-28 by BaseRuns, the alternate standings metric I have cited a lot in these intros, and they were effectively a 31-29 team by 3rd Order Win%, which takes into account a variety of factors to spit out wins and losses.
Rather than complicate the process by explaining exactly what 3rd Order Win% is, all you need to know is that teams that often outperform these alternate standings are regression candidates. The A’s offense fell off sharply from 2019 to 2020. Some of that may be the imbalanced schedule, which put Oakland into traditionally bad hitter’s parks for most of the schedule. On the other hand, wRC+ is park and league-adjusted, so the A’s falling from fifth to 15th in wRC+ is a pretty telling indicator.
BaseRuns, which had the A’s down for over five runs scored per game last season, hacked off more than .6 runs per game in its 2020 calculation. This is especially troubling. BaseRuns eliminates context from the calculation, so plate appearances with men on base are not differentiated from those with the bases empty. Usually, we’ll see a BaseRuns discrepancy from a certain element of Cluster Luck, a concept outlined in Joe Peta’s excellent book, Trading Bases.
Cluster Luck essentially highlights how a team overperformed or underperformed with men in scoring position, both on the offensive side or the pitching side. In the case of the A’s, they weren’t really that much better with RISP on offense, which suggests that there is no direct cause for their actual +42 run differential and +22 BaseRuns differential. In a 60-game season, a 20-run gap between the two is a lot.
But, as we all know, Oakland Coliseum has its own quirks and few teams maximize their home park factor as well as the A’s, hence the 22-10 record at home and the 14-14 record on the road.
Interestingly, a lot of people seem to have picked up on these concerns. Hopes for the A’s are lower than we’ve seen in recent seasons. Are we getting a cheap price on the over or is this truly a sign of things to come?
2021 Over/Under Season Win Total Odds
Odds To Win AL West
|Team||Odds To Win|
|Los Angeles Angels||+375|
|BaseRuns Run Differential||+22 (4.41/4.05)||+122 (5.03/4.27)|
|3rd Order Win%||30.9-29.1||94.6-67.4|
|Record in One-Run Games||7-6||27-22|
Additions: Mitch Moreland, Trevor Rosenthal, Sergio Romo, Jed Lowrie, Deolis Guerra, Francisco Pena, Jacob Wilson, Domingo Acevedo, Trey Supak, Frank Schwindel, Pete Kozma, Cristian Alvarado, Argenis Angulo, Montana DuRapau, Matt Blackham, Adam Kolarek, Cody Thomas, Aramis Garcia, Elvis Andrus, Cole Irvin, Nik Turley, Ka’ai Tom, Dany Jimenez
Losses: Jake Lamb, Tommy La Stella, Robbie Grossman, Yusmeiro Petit, Joakim Soria, TJ McFarland, Liam Hendriks, Mike Minor, Marcus Semien, Sheldon Neuse, Gus Varland, Jonah Heim, Khris Davis, Dane Acker, Nate Orf
Nobody really noticed because of the focus on the big markets or the big-name trades of Francisco Lindor and Jameson Taillon, but the Oakland Athletics quietly shed a good bit of payroll. Trade acquisition Elvis Andrus will be the only player making over $7.6 million on the roster for the A’s, though Trevor Rosenthal signed an $11 million deal with a bunch of deferred money. They lost a lot of Major League players and only really signed a lot of minor league free agent guys.
The upshot for the A’s is that their core group is pretty good and they’re getting a lot of production from guys just hitting arbitration or those that have yet to reach that point. The bullpen will look a lot different this season without guys like Yusmeiro Petit, Joakim Soria, and Liam Hendriks. All three were top five in relief innings pitched and Hendriks was far and away the most valuable reliever on the roster.
Grossman, Semien, and La Stella were three of the top eight in fWAR among position players in the 60-game sprint. The A’s need to replace a lot of production and it would not appear that they’ve done that with the offseason that they’ve had. I’m a bit surprised that what they’ve done, or, well, not done, hasn’t gotten a ton of run.
They were very active right before Spring Training with a trade to acquire Adam Kolarek and then free agent signings of Sergio Romo, Trevor Rosenthal, and Mitch Moreland.
|Batting Average (BA)||.225 (25th)||.249 (16th)|
|On-Base Percentage (OBP)||.322 (15th)||.327 (11th)|
|Slugging Percentage (SLG)||.396 (21st)||.448 (10th)|
|Weighted On-Base Avg (wOBA)||.314 (16th)||.327 (10th)|
|Weighted Runs Created Plus (wRC+)||102 (15th)||107 (5th)|
|Batting Avg on Balls In Play (BABIP)||.271 (26th)||.282 (28th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||23.8% (16th)||21.3% (6th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||10.8% (3rd)||9.2% (9th)|
The Oakland A’s are an organization that I trust. Billy Beane and his staff have already found ways to work in and around the financial constraints placed on them by ownership. With a new ballpark coming in 2023, keeping a consistent contender on the field is of the utmost importance because moving out of Oakland Coliseum should spike attendance, at least in the short-term. We’ll see how long it lasts.
Several teams in baseball have to thread the needle and few have done it better than the A’s, who actually have three straight playoff appearances and six playoff appearances in the last nine years. They haven’t had much success when they’ve gotten there and just won a playoff series for the first time since 2006, but they’ve been able to get there and it is a big accomplishment with their financial limitations.
The offense fell off a bit in 2020. Grading the West Division teams in both leagues from 2020 is a challenge because the park factors were so bad. Angel Stadium and Oracle Park got better, but Globe Life Field in Texas was a final resting place for fly balls. Oakland Coliseum is traditionally not a great hitter’s park. T-Mobile Park is bad for hitting in Seattle. Places like Petco Park and Dodger Stadium are better than were, but we’re not talking about Fenway or Yankee Stadium or anything like that.
It isn’t surprising to see a lot of offensive declines from AL West teams. The Astros had a massive one themselves. Oakland’s power production dropped significantly with a 52-point decrease in SLG. Because wRC+ is park and league-adjusted, the A’s still managed to be a little better than league average relative to their peers with those major decreases. Without a big spike in BB%, though, a bleak picture would have been even bleaker.
The A’s were second in fly ball percentage, but 22nd in HR/FB%. They were fourth in FB% in 2019 and 10th in HR/FB%. Oakland was one of the teams at the forefront of the launch angle push and it gave them an advantage at home because they were able to elevate and hit home runs at Oakland Coliseum, while other teams were still stuck hitting lots of ground balls. I’m not sure if it is some gamesmanship from the grounds crew or the cooler air, but Oakland Coliseum regularly rates as one of the worst in baseball for ground ball batting average. The A’s do annually have a good infield defense, so that is a contributing factor, but they found a way to use the park to their advantage.
Last season that advantage disappeared. The A’s tied for 18th in home runs hit at home. They were 13th the previous season. To make matters worse, the A’s went from fifth in road home runs in 2019 and ninth in HR/FB% to 13th in road HR and 18th in HR/FB%. Reports of a deadened baseball in 2021 are going to hurt Oakland’s offensive profile. I’m not sure how big of an impact it will have, but it will have some and this is a team that typically runs a low batting average with a high walk rate and above average power.
When we look at the offensive personnel returning, there are a lot of guys that walk a lot and hit for low averages. The thing about walking a lot is that you also typically see a lot of strikes. Whether you are taking pitches or fouling them off, you hit in a lot of deep counts. Hitting in deep counts lowers your ability of making high-quality contact because you have to protect with two strikes and therefore can’t be as selective.
I am not a big batting average guy, but I cannot overlook the fact that the top nine in plate appearances for the A’s posted batting averages of .195, .246, .223, .213, .241, .225, .232, .233, .247 for two reasons. The first is what I already talked about. Power production is likely to drop this season with the changes to the baseball. While the A’s are likely to see gains or at least stay put because they’re going to have the chance to play in better offensive environments by not being pigeonholed into playing the AL West and the NL West, I’m still concerned.
The second is that walk rates around the league should go down. Walk rates rose sharply last season, likely due to the disjointed lead-up to the year. We’ve also seen fewer fastballs than ever thrown to hitters and that increases the probability of a ball being thrown. While the A’s had virtually nobody that hit for a high average, the top five guys in plate appearances all walked over 10.5% of the time and the eighth and ninth guys in PA also had big walk rates.
The problem is that Robbie Grossman and Marcus Semien were two of those guys and they are now gone. That’s not to say the cupboard is bare, though the more I dig in, the more concerned I get.
Matt Chapman is a very consistent offensive player that also happens to be the best defensive third baseman in baseball. Chapman saw a massive K% increase and a big drop in BB% last season that don’t quite jive with his full body of work over 1,764 plate appearances. We did see a power spike from him in that his HR/FB% was over 20% for the first time. He hit a lot more fly balls, too.
I like Chapman’s adjustments and I’ll like them even more as his BB% and K% positively regress. I’d trust that his career-worst 15.2% swinging strike rate is an outlier. I’d expect something closer to his 2018 season if everything normalizes as it should, just with more power.
Sean Murphy is a great asset as a well above average offensive catcher that also plays great defense. He is a weapon for this team and one of the areas of surplus value for them because he’s likely to outshine most catchers around the league. He also made really good contact last season, but he only has 200 PA at the MLB level, so we’ll have to see how he adjusts.
Matt Olson was another guy plagued by a K% spike. He, too, struck out over 30% of the time. Olson always had a bit of a penchant for strikeouts because he walks a lot, but last year’s offensive drop-off was far bigger than anybody expected. I would expect him to get back to his normal offensive ways.
Ramon Laureano accomplished something I would not have thought possible last season. He increased his BB% from 5.6% to 10.8% and finished with a lower on-base percentage. Laureano’s contact quality fell off in a big way and he went from a .521 SLG to a .366 SLG. He saw a drop of two miles per hour in his average exit velocity. Even with good speed, he ran just a .270 BABIP and saw a 75-point drop in his batting average. He swung and missed a lot less, but also made lower-quality contact when he swung. I’m not sure if this was an injury situation or a lack of adjustments, but I’m starting to worry about a few of these A’s players.
Mark Canha has proven to be a useful offensive piece, but I worry about what we saw in 2020. He posted a .405 wOBA and a 160 wRC+ against right-handed pitchers in 2019. That did regress to a .330 wOBA and a 113 wRC+ in 2020, as his power production decreased dramatically. That will be a development to watch this season and one that does worry me, given that 2019 looks like a massive outlier relative to his career numbers. In 2018, he had big platoon splits as well.
Elvis Andrus is a bad hitter. Tony Kemp isn’t anything special. I’m still waiting for Stephen Piscotty to stay healthy enough to be a consistent contributor. As I look at this total package for Oakland, I’m more worried than I initially expected. There are some players here that could see increases and jumps, but not ones that I think will be able to overshadow some of my concerns.
This is still a very good defensive team, but offensively, I wonder if what we saw last season is closer to the new normal for Oakland. It is still a league average offensive profile, but I’m not seeing reasons to be optimistic about a big spike in production.
|Earned Run Average (ERA)||3.77 (5th)||3.97 (6th)|
|Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP)||4.02 (8th)||4.34 (13th)|
|Adj. Fielding Independent Pitching (xFIP)||4.38 (13th)||4.72 (19th)|
|Strikeout Percentage (K%)||23.4% (15th)||21.1% (25th)|
|Walk Percentage (BB%)||7.6% (4th)||7.8% (7th)|
|Left On Base Percentage (LOB%)||75.6% (5th)||75.1% (5th)|
If the offense isn’t going to get back up to its top-10 ways, the pitching staff is going to need to figure out a way to be better. The starting staff finished 16th in ERA and 14th in FIP, so those full-season numbers that you see were greatly enhanced by what the Oakland bullpen was able to do. Year in and year out, the A’s have focused heavily on the bullpen, seeing that as a way to gain an edge over the rest of the league. The A’s were one of the teams that put their meager free agent budget towards relief pitching around 2015 and 2016 to start capitalizing on what was an emerging trend.
Like I’ve talked about in a few previews, especially the one for the Tampa Bay Rays, teams have been much more cognizant recently of the third time through the order penalty. The commonly held belief used to be that the last guys in the bullpen were roster filler and predominantly hot garbage. The goal was to run up a starter’s pitch count to get into the bullpen. Nowadays, with increased specialization and a much greater focus on bullpen depth, that is not the case. Elite starting pitchers will remain elite relative to their peers in most cases for the third time through, but most relievers are better options than starters.
The A’s were one of the first teams to really put this thought process into practice. So, they spent on the bullpen. They developed relief arms. They traded for prospects with relief profiles at a depressed cost because most teams view having to convert a starter to a reliever as a developmental failure. The A’s? They saw gold.
This year’s bullpen will look a lot different. Reinvigorated southpaw Jake Diekman, who used Twitter to fix the grip on his slider, looks like a big piece of the puzzle after posting a 0.42 ERA in his 21.1 innings last season. Diekman and Lou Trivino looked like the top two closer options for this bullpen before the signing of Trevor Rosenthal.
However, Liam Hendriks and Joakim Soria are both gone. They were the team’s top fWAR guys last season and Hendriks may very well have been the best reliever in baseball. Rubber-armed Yusmeiro Petit led the team with 26 appearances.
Guys like Burch Smith and Jordan Weems showed promise, albeit in 12 and 14 innings, respectively. Weems pitched almost exclusively in low-leverage spots. J.B. Wendelken also had a lower leverage index with the presence of Hendriks and Soria. What that means is that the A’s will be slotting some new guys into some bigger roles, though Sergio Romo and Adam Kolarek will feature prominently after the late trades.
I don’t think Oakland’s bullpen transforms into a weakness, but I would be stunned if the bullpen is close to as good as last season’s.
Because I can’t give the bullpen a ringing endorsement, I have real worries about this staff. Chris Bassitt shined with a 2.29 ERA in his 63 innings, but that came with a 3.59 FIP and a 4.49 xFIP. There is nothing to scoff at with a 3.59 FIP, but what I like to do with my win total analyses is look at improvement or regression in the aggregate. The more areas and individuals of the ballclub that can improve, the better. On the flip side, each little bit of regression adds up in a negative way.
Bassitt is pretty good in the contact management department and has done well to avoid the barrel. He may simply be a guy that outpitches his FIP and xFIP because of his command profile. He did that in 2018 and 2019. I am concerned that he’s topped out at 144 innings, too. Health is a big factor in these things.
Speaking of health, Sean Manaea managed to make it through and make all 11 starts for the A’s. He wasn’t going to be available at the start of the season had it not been pushed back due to an injury. Manaea had a 4.50 ERA, but unlike Bassitt, who was lucky, the southpaw was unlucky with a 60.5% LOB%. Manaea has positive regression signs to his profile, especially if he can keep up that high GB% with a good defensive infield.
Jesus Luzardo could have that breakout season this year. Everybody knows his potential. A 22% HR/FB% is what held him back last season, leading to a 4.31 FIP. With a high GB%, he’ll be fine, though not having the AL West parks all over the schedule could cause his HR/FB% to stay a little high. The bigger question to me is Frankie Montas, who was excellent for 16 starts in 2019 and then bottomed out in 2020. His velocity was down and he threw more fastballs, which is never a good thing.
The A’s rotation is littered with injury risks and guys that don’t really have very high projections. Depth is an issue, as Mike Fiers is back for another go-round. Maybe Grant Holmes and Daulton Jefferies can step in if need be, but I’m not buying much from oft-injured righty James Kaprelian.
Positives & Negatives
The A’s could really benefit from the fact that I think Texas just might be the worst team in all of baseball this season. The Mariners aren’t any good either. But, the Angels look a lot more legitimate than usual and the Astros are a good team yet again. As a whole, the AL is better. In previous seasons, we could name all five playoff teams with a high degree of certainty. Now, the teams in the middle of the pack have gotten better.
Life as a small-market team is hard. Not only do you have to thread the needle with a low payroll, but you also have to consistently seek out new edges and new ways of finding surplus value or improvement at the margins. Nowadays, MLB teams aren’t just wildly spending money. Even those with deep pockets are hiring Ivy Leaguers to run things. They are expanding analytics departments. They have closed the gap on the smart teams that survive by winning the game off the field.
I’m concerned that Oakland’s window is coming to a close for this cycle.
Oakland Athletics Pick & Prediction: Under 87.5
This one is a bet for me. I think the shine has come off of Oakland to a degree. It is a bit concerning that the Rangers and the Mariners are two bottom-feeders that the A’s can pile up some wins against, but Oakland is loaded with question marks. Health is an issue. Regression is an issue. The fact that several teams in the AL seem to be taking a greater interest in analytics also cuts into what Oakland has done really well the last several seasons.
Small-market teams have to manufacture their own edges and I don’t think Oakland stands out as much anymore. Most teams are hitting more fly balls now. Most teams are paying more attention to relief pitchers and bullpen spending. Most teams are more closely monitoring the times through the order penalty. In order to stay sharp and stay ahead of the curve, it now boils down to internal development of talented players.
I’m not saying that Oakland lacks talent. I’m just saying that the statistical profile looks to be littered with red flags, injury concerns, and overall mediocrity. If any team can outperform a projection or a narrative, it is Oakland, but I don’t think this team’s ceiling is much higher than 88-90 wins. I think there is a realistic possibility that this is more of a .500 team.
I won’t call it a hunch, but I’ve been high on Oakland a lot in the pages of this Guide the last few years and this season I am not. In my mind, when that happens, it is time to flip the script.
That means taking Oakland under 87.5 as a bet.