In an age of superteams, Oakland A's built a winner without tanking

ByDavid Schoenfield ESPN logo
Wednesday, September 18, 2019

Watching the Oakland Athletics play the past two nights, one feature stood out, aside from the baseball itself: the football yard lines still visible on the field at the Oakland Coliseum. This signifies two important things:

1. The A's are unlike any other franchise;

2. The Raiders apparently have not yet moved to Las Vegas.

The A's are the only team that still shares its stadium with a football team. This, of course, was commonplace for much of baseball history, especially for the three decades beginning in the 1970s when municipalities built multipurpose stadiums that might have lacked charm but served a useful purpose. In 2019, however, the yard lines are symbolic of the issues the A's face when competing against the rich kids of the sport.

Yet, somehow, under Billy Beane and David Forst in the front office, and Bob Melvin as manager, the A's continue to plug along and have success. They've won 91 games so far and currently hold the lead in the American League wild-card race, a tense three-team battle with the Tampa Bay Rays and Cleveland Indians. After 2018's surprising 97 wins and appearance in the wild-card game against the New York Yankees, this season's run isn't as much of a shock given the weakened nature of competitive balance in the AL, but it's still impressive. The A's have had to overcome issues in the rotation, the demotion of 2018 All-Star closer Blake Treinen, and the even tougher season of 2018 major league home run leader Khris Davis.

What they've received is four superlative performances that have been mostly ignored in the dust of theHouston Astros' romp to the top of the standings. Consider:

Matt Chapman: He finished seventh in the MVP voting in 2018 and has followed that breakout campaign with another season. The batting average is down from last year, but he's going to win the Gold Glove again, has hit 34 home runs, has more than 70 extra-base hits and has missed only five games. He also has killed it in high-leverage situations: .287/.358/.617 entering Tuesday's game.

It's the defense that makes him so valuable. After leading the majors with 29 defensive runs saved last season, he ranks seventh this season with 17. He won the AL's Platinum Glove as the league's top defender and he could win it again (only Indians catcher Roberto Perez has more DRS in the AL). Because of that defense, Chapman ranks fifth among AL position players in Baseball-Reference WAR. He might be the most underrated player in the game.

Marcus Semien: Chapman does not, however, lead the A's in WAR. His left-side infield mate has had a monster season with 7.1 WAR entering Tuesday -- that's higher than Miguel Tejada's MVP season of 2002, is the best in A's franchise history and the second best by any shortstop this decade, behind Francisco Lindor's 7.9 in 2018. Some of that is quantity: Semien has played every game. But he also has popped 31 home runs, has already scored 117 runs, has 76 extra-base hits ... oh, and has become a solid defender at shortstop.

In Semien's full first season as the Oakland shortstop in 2015, he made 35 errors -- including 24 in the first three months. The A's stuck with him, believing in his athleticism and work ethic, and with help from then-A's coach Ron Washington, Semien improved. This year, he has emulated Chapman and started each pitch in a lower crouch. He has a career-high .980 fielding percentage and plus-1 defensive run saved, so the metrics regard him as an average shortstop and the eye test says he's even better than that. Excellent bat, good defense, durability. That's a potential top-five MVP candidate.

Matt Olson: One reason the A's got off to a slow start -- they were 19-25 on May before embarking on an 11-game winning streak -- is Olson injured his hand in the second game of the season in Japan against the Mariners and didn't return until May 7. It took him awhile to get going and that's when the A's started taking off. Olson has 34 home runs in 117 games -- that's a 44-homer pace over the 151 games the team has played.

Oh, he's also a terrific defender. Some regard him as the best defensive first baseman in the majors (he also won a Gold Glove in 2018) and his 10 DRS in 2019 lead the majors. With Chapman and Olson anchoring the defense, the A's have the fourth-best defensive efficiency in the majors (that's simply the percentage of balls in play turned into outs). They rank just 12th overall in DRS -- but first in UZR, a different defensive metric.

Liam Hendriks: Last June, the A's designated the veteran reliever for assignment. "The A's are set to part ways" with Hendriks, according to The club had seven days to trade him, release him or put him on waivers. When Hendriks eventually cleared waivers, he accepted an assignment back to Triple-A Nashville. He worked his way back to the majors and even ended up starting the wild-card game against the Yankees as the opener (that didn't get go so well).

Forward to 2019, and I'm watching him against the Astros last week and he fires two 100-mph fastballs to Jose Altuve. Yes, the guy who averaged 90 mph with his fastball when he reached the majors with the Twins as a starter in 2011 is now reaching triple digits -- at least on rare occasions. "The more I think, the worse I am," Hendriks told The Athletic's Ethan Strauss in August. "This year, I don't care who's hitting."

With Treinen failing to duplicate his stellar 2018, Hendricks became the Oakland closer and is 4-3 with a 1.68 ERA entering Tuesday, with his 80 innings ranking second among more traditional relief pitchers. Maybe this year he pitches the ninth inning of the wild-card game instead of the first inning.

Maybe the most remarkable aspect of the long-running Beane regime is this is now his third block of success with the A's -- all on shoestring budgets and all without reverting to tanking, like the Astros and Cubs did to spearhead their rebuilds (and like so many other teams are now attempting or recently attempted). He had the original Moneyball powerhouse team that made the playoffs from 2000 to 2003 (with the remnants of that team winning one more division title in 2006). They made the playoffs from 2012 to 2014, although that 2014 season ended with the bitter loss to the Royals in the wild-card game. And now they've built the 2018-2019 contenders.

In all those years, the A's have had only three top-10 picks in the draft and none in the top five. They took A.J. Puk sixth overall in 2016, Austin Beck sixth in 2017 and Kyler Murray ninth in 2018. Yet here they are. No sure-fire first-round studs, no big free agents, just a fun, exciting and gritty team that has gone 43-22 since the beginning of July. Yes, that elusive World Series appearance is still out there and getting past the Astros, Yankees and Twins won't be easy -- and they have to first get past the Rays and Indians to get that shot at the AL powerhouses anyway. Still, if you like a good underdog story, this is one to root for.

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