A team that wins its division and 60.0 percent of its games is typically wide awake. That is not the case with the Oakland Athletics.
Yes, they’re going into the 2020 Major League Baseball playoffs for a third consecutive season. That said, the feat is a misleading storyline for how this team has fared in 2020.
Even without Matt Chapman, who suffered a season-ending hip injury two weeks ago, the A’s have a deep offense of proven, well-rounded ballplayers: Marcus Semien, Matt Olson, Mark Canha, Khris Davis, Ramon Laureano, Stephen Piscotty, and Robbie Grossman, among others. How is this group doing? They finished the regular season 16th in MLB in runs (274), 17th in OPS (.718), 18th in home runs (71), 24th in hits (430), 25th in batting average (.225), and 27th in BABIP (.269).
Semien, who finished third in American League Most Valuable Player Award voting last season, finished the regular season hitting .223 with a .680 OPS; Olson hit .195; Canha hit .246; Laureano hit .213. These individuals epitomize manager Bob Melvin‘s 2020 offense: struggling to get runners on base.
This wasn’t an issue last season.
The grouping of Sean Manaea, Mike Fiers, Frankie Montas, Jesus Luzardo, and Chris Bassitt made for one of the best starting rotations in baseball back in spring training. To date, they’ve been far from it.
Bassitt has been great; he recorded a 2.29 ERA while holding opponents to a .233 batting average across his 11 starts this season. Outside of Bassitt, it has been a mess.
Manaea, Fiers, Montas, and Luzurdo all recorded ERAs above 4.10, surrendered baserunners at alarming rates, and provided minimal length. The bullpen, spearheaded by Liam Hendriks, Jake Diekman, Yusmeiro Petit, and Joakim Soria, has bailed their rotation out, performing among the elite units in the sport.
Oakland’s rotation is young which means they’re not a finished product. The issue is they’re going through a rough patch in a shortened season where they have to play four opponents to win the World Series. It has been a regression campaign for many on this pitching staff.
Despite all the individual and collective struggles they’ve endured, the A’s finished 36-24, winning the AL West. How did that happen?
The AL West, a projected pillar for the sport this season, has been an enormous letdown. The Astros finished 29-31 which is worse than both AL Wild Card teams, the Chicago White Sox and Toronto Blue Jays; the Los Angeles Angels came out of the gate slow and didn’t recover in time to make a playoff run; the Texas Rangers were sluggish from the outset.
The A’s were a respectable 26-14 in divisional play (a 65.0 percent winning percentage). Could they have done better? Yes, they should have. It became evident in the opening weeks of the season that they were the best team in the AL West, and it wasn’t close, especially after Astros right-hander Justin Verlander went down for the year with an elbow injury.
Oakland tripped its way into a division title partially because of their rivals playing below the weather, therefore masking their struggles.
The A’s are supposed to be the modern-day MLB team: hit for power with efficiency, shuffle several versatile pitchers, and employ bullpen days on a consistent basis. They won 97 games in both 2018 and 2019 doing the above at a high level. Even if Chapman was healthy their record isn’t astronomically better; albeit he has mostly made his mark in the power department, Chapman was hitting just .232 before hitting the injured list.
The Tampa Bay Rays, Minnesota Twins, Cleveland Indians, New York Yankees, Houston Astros, Chicago White Sox, and Toronto Blue Jays are Oakland’s challengers for the AL pennant. All seven teams have the talent and are playing at a level where they can eliminate Oakland.
The A’s are better than this.
Semien, Olson, and Canha alone should be a stout offensive trio. They have smooth, line-drive swings that produce a lot of slug. The power is there; the consistency is not. This offense has to get more runners on base, rather than relying on the long ball.
This pitching staff is about as deep as they come from a talent and upside standpoint. They need to return to their old ways. That entails inducing weak contact and providing more length, an issue Oakland can’t afford to face in postseason play.
The last two seasons have produced convincing AL Wild Card Game losses for the A’s where they’ve been outscored 12-3. This year they host the White Sox in a best-of-three series. This is the opposite of a shoo-in series: it’s a coin toss. There’s no margin for error. The AL has been extremely top-heavy in recent memory, and essentially all of its depth gets to compete for the pennant. The talent and matchups are thin, and the A’s can’t slip up.
The Oakland Athletics need to wake up. They have the talent to do so but no more time for lollygagging.