We don’t have time to fool around in 2020. We don’t have time to play that little game where the Oakland A’s warm alongside the weather and suddenly become a fun story come midsummer. This is midsummer, and I’m here to tell you the A’s are a viable candidate to win the American League pennant from the jump.
I’m well aware of the A’s October history, and I’m well aware of the juggernauts that exist elsewhere, both inside and outside of their division. But the time comes when we should face facts and stop talking about the A’s as pesky little underdogs and call them out for what they are:
Here are five reasons why the word fits the 2020 A’s:
1) They are a legitimate threat to win the AL West
Three tries in six seasons, and the A’s have proven themselves unable to clear the hurdle of the sudden-death Wild Card Game. The most reliable way to conquer that coin flip of a postseason round is to avoid it altogether. And for the first time in a long time, the A’s have a legitimate chance to do so.
It is true that, 60 games into 2019, the Astros had opened up a 10-game lead on the third-place A’s (the Rangers were in second, 8 1/2 back), and the season finished with the A’s again 10 games back, in second place. Making up 10 wins’ worth of ground is a huge challenge -- one the absence of Gerrit Cole from the Astros alone does not account for. Furthermore, the scrutiny and the vitriol the Astros were going to face as visitors in normal times feels like a non-issue now, with limited or no fans in attendance.
But each season is an entity unto itself. The Astros do have some serious question marks in the back end of their rotation and don’t quite have the same level of upside available on their 60-man list that is available to the A’s, who have a stronger farm system at present. I’m not going to go all Chicken Little on you and suggest that the Astros are suddenly terrible, but FanGraphs projects only a three-game difference between Houston and Oakland. The gap between these two clubs has narrowed.
2) The rotation will be a strength
Oakland has advanced to October the past two years despite a rash of bad luck that routinely tested the rotation depth. The A’s used 15 starting pitchers in 2018, 14 in ’19. The only two pitchers to make more than 32 starts combined over those two seasons were Brett Anderson (48) and Mike Fiers (42).
The A’s, essentially, contended ahead of schedule. But now the pitching prospects who were expected to carry this club up the ladder in 2020 are meshing with a lineup and a clubhouse that has already figured out how to win big league ballgames.
While a big piece of the pitching plan -- 22-year-old lefty Jesús Luzardo, the A’s No. 1 prospect per MLB Pipeline -- has been held back from the start of camp after testing positive for COVID-19, here’s hoping he can still impact this team as advertised. In his first 12 innings in the bigs last year, Luzardo had a 1.50 ERA, 5.33 K/BB ratio and 0.67 WHIP.
In Luzardo and A.J. Puk (their No. 3 prospect), the A’s have two young power lefties who add big upside to their pitching plan. They’ve got a third lefty in Sean Manaea, who is healthy and ready to return to his 2016-18 level, when he gave the A’s an average of 155 innings with an ERA+ a few ticks better than league average. They’ve got Frankie Montas, who had a resplendent 2.63 ERA and 164 ERA+ before serving a half-season suspension last year. They’ve got the veteran Fiers, who has been solid for them since his mid-2018 arrival, and they’ve got the insurance of swingman Chris Bassitt.
Under ordinary circumstances, the A’s would have had to limit the innings of Puk and Manaea. No such trouble now (same goes for Luzardo if he can make it back relatively soon). So while the A’s did manage to post the AL’s fourth-best ERA (4.09) over the past two seasons, they have a group capable of better in 2020.
3) The schedule appears favorable
Given the uniqueness of a short, regional-based schedule and the vagaries of the virus, none of us is really in a position to accurately assess the schedule. But the A’s schedule appears much more favorable than what they usually encounter, and that could help them halt a trend of sluggish starts.
The A’s won 97 games each of the past two years despite going a combined 28-32 in March/April those seasons. In this burst of baseball, however, they’ll be playing 20 of their first 29 games in the Bay Area. And the uneven home/road split of their intradivision matchups gives them more home games than road games against the two teams perceived to be their chief competition in the AL West -- the Astros and Angels.
By the way, Oakland has ranked in the top three in MLB in travel miles for every season Baseball Savant has data available. This year, the A’s are scheduled to rank fourth, but, for the first time, the Astros (who ranked eighth in 2019) will be ahead of them.
4) The offense will again be among the best in MLB
Weighted runs created plus (wRC+) is the best means of comparing club or individual offensive outputs, because it accounts for ballpark conditions. The A’s play in a big ballpark that typically profiles among the most pitcher-friendly in MLB, but their adjusted wRC+ has ranked in the top five in baseball each of the last three seasons, per FanGraphs.
We have no reason to believe the A’s won’t rank that high again in 2020. Not only do they return all the principal figures of their offense, Marcus Semien, Matt Chapman, Mark Canha, Ramón Laureano and Matt Olson all had at least 450 plate appearances and wRC+ marks at least 26% better than league average last year.
Big improvement is possible here, too. In 2019, not only did designated hitter Khris Davis not hit exactly .247 for the fifth straight season (I’m still not over that), but he also saw precipitous drops in his on-base percentage (from .326 in ’18 to .293 in ’19) and slugging percentage (from .549 to .387). He was dealing with a power-sapping injuries that are now healed. A Khrush Komeback is in order.
5) They won’t give games away
Oakland has Gold Glove winners on the infield corners in Chapman at third and Olson at first and a Gold Glove-caliber center fielder in Laureano, whose arm is one of the great weapons in the game. Combine this with the vast defensive improvements made by Semien at short in recent years, and the A’s have ranked among the top 10 teams in MLB in Outs Above Average, per Statcast, over the last three seasons.
As for the bullpen, closer Liam Hendriks is one of the best relievers in baseball, having added velocity across his arsenal and posted a 0.97 WHIP, 124 strikeouts and 1.80 ERA in 85 innings last year. The A’s are well-equipped to account for shortened starts in the early portion of the season because Bassitt, Yusmeiro Petit and Lou Trivino can all give them multi-inning outings. Last year, the A’s led the Majors in blown saves (30), but that feels like a fluke because they were top 10 in MLB in relief ERA, K/BB ratio, expected weighted on-base average, WHIP, homers per nine, etc.
I went out on a limb and picked the A’s to win the AL West when things were still fairly normal in our baseball world. I feel better about that pick in a 60-game sprint. The A’s can’t afford the slow start of years past, but they’ve got all the ingredients to avoid it and be the kind of force they’ve been in the last two second halves (.652 winning percentage). That’s what makes them dangerous.