Don’t you dare blame the MLB Postseason format for allowing the A’s into October, it’s a blessing we should all cherish.
Most of the time, you know how and why a team is in the playoffs. And then every so often there’s a team like the Oakland Athletics, where everyone else at the party is glancing uncomfortably and whispering to themselves asking if they’re in the right place, as the intruder loads the oue d’oeuvres into their pockets.
The current playoff system allows for a team or two that look a little ragged and certainly would wear a brown belt with black shoes into the party. Most years, there’s an 88- or 87-win team that simply was in the right spot when a wildcard berth was tossed out the back door for anyone to have. The Twins and Rockies of last year would be just the latest examples.
So that’s the inclination with the Oakland Athletics this year. They were never fancied before the year, they have no one the casual fan would be able to identify in a lineup even if you covered them in neon lights, and mostly they’re in the press when their dugout gets filled with sewage.
And yet, this team won 97 games. They did it while seeing their entire starting rotation get hurt. They’ve basically gone through two starting rotations. And really no one in either of them is any good.
So what are they doing here?
Well, on a cursory level, they hit a lot of homers and they catch everything. And neither is easy to do in the park they play in.
The A’s have the second-most homers in the AL, and though they’re 40 behind the Yankees, they don’t have the advantage of a devil’s wind-tunnel blowing out to a short right field as it is as the Yankees do in The Bronx. In fact, Mount Davis in Oakland is actually one of the tougher home-run environments in the league. It ranks only ahead of Marlins Park and Citi Field in Park Factor, which measures the park’s effect on run-scoring. So the fact that the A’s have been escaping its clutches with impunity on the reg is nothing short of astounding.
Second, the A’s catch everything. They rank second in Defensive Runs in the AL behind only the Angels. Matt Chapman and Marcus Semien turned the left side of the infield into Ft. Leavenworth for ground-balls. Jonathan Lucroy was excellent behind the plate, and Jed Lowrie and Matt Olson more than serviceable on the right side. Which helps, because five of the cavalcade of whosits and whatits that started games for the A’s had ground-ball rates of 45% or higher (Manaea, Cahill, Anderson, Fiers, Triggs).
You may remember Ramon Laureano from such throws as “Destroying Half Of Anaheim From The Centerfield Wall.” So you get it. They lead the league in defensive efficiency, meaning they turn balls-in-play into outs better than anyone. They turn grounders into outs more than anyone, and they turn line-drives into outs more than anyone in the American League.
The A’s aren’t really the patient, work-the-count, bore-everyone, kill-the-bullpen teams of yore. They’re middle of the pack when it comes to on-base percentage and walks. But that matters less when you’re bashing the ball into someone’s waiting beer every eight minutes.
But the real story with the A’s is that bullpen. They’ve built a sterling unit out of used band-aids, snot, and hope. 12 pitchers have made more than 19 appearances out of the pen this season. Some are aging veterans who seemingly got lost and just ended up here and figured they might as well pitch (Yusmeiro Petit, Fernando Rodney, Santiago Casilla). Some are having historic seasons (Blake Treinen). And the rest are…well, the rest.
Somehow, only two of those carry an ERA over 4.50. Other than Treinen and Familia, they don’t even really strike out hitters at an alarming rate. Treinen is the only one who gets a ton of grounders.
So what’s the secret? It might just be a horseshoe inserted or jammed in a sensitive area.
The A’s pen has the lowest BABIP in the AL, and by 12 points at .265. That usually normalizes at .300, and it’s not really a test of skill so much as luck. A lot of that is the A’s otherworldly defense, especially on the infield. But .265 goes beyond that.
But other than Treinen, Petit, and Lou Trivino, none of this pen is overworked. They’re just properly slotted, and removed before any opposing lineup can figure out who they are and that they shouldn’t be getting away with this.
As always, the A’s are the underdog. It’s their lot in life. But in the playoffs, if you hit homers and you catch everything, and you get a slice of luck out of your pen and don’t overexpose anyone, you can go anywhere. The A’s aren’t even supposed to be here, so why can’t they go other places they’re not supposed to be?