The start of this Oakland Athletics season started out in unsurprising fashion, by which I mean everything went wrong.
Promising young guy Jharel Cotton hurt his elbow and was forced to sit out the 2018 season after Tommy John surgery; four days later, the team announced that their top prospect, southpaw A.J. Puk, would also have Tommy John surgery. Injuries continued to mount—the rotation was especially cursed—and though the team walked it off against the Angels on opening day and ruined Shohei Ohtani’s MLB debut, they never seriously flirted with anything other than .500 baseball. Little moments like Sean Manaea’s no-no against the Red Sox stood out, but the team was far from a threat to anyone’s playoff spot. For a team missing an entire rotation’s worth of starting pitchers and clearly focused on rebuilding for the 2019 season, .500 was just fine.
And then they started winning. Since getting swept by the Astros a month ago, Oakland has gone 19-5 in their last 24 games, the best record in the majors over that span. They fattened up on bad teams like the Padres and White Sox, then turned around and took two series from the Indians. This week’s four-game series against the Astros loomed large, especially since Houston has spent the entire season kicking Oakland’s ass in both teams’ ballparks, winning eight straight since April by a combined 49 runs.
Were it not for the flukiest baseball play of the season, the A’s may very well have swept the second-best team in baseball. There’s been some understandable quibbling about the sustainability of Oakland’s hot July, since they’re doing it with a remarkably ramshackle rotation, but a great deal of that uncertainty has been put to bed with this series win against the Astros. The Oakland A’s are for real. They’re the hottest team in baseball, with a 53-41 record and an ever-shrinking gap between them and the Mariners for that second wild card spot. The young core of hitters that was expected to show out in 2019 has arrived early.
A pair of Matts leads said core. Matt Chapman and Matt Olson both came on strong late last season, smacking a whole bunch of dingers and locking down the corner infield spots. Both have regressed slightly this year, but both appear to be legit MLB starters who can hit for power even in the cavernous A’s ballpark. In between the Matts, the A’s have Marcus Semien and his steady production at shortstop and Jed Lowrie, who has been an absolute beast for the team all season and will make his first all-star appearance at 34 after being named as a replacement this week.
Lowrie has posted an OPS of 1.038 over the last 28 days, and Stephen Piscotty (.999 over that period) and Mark Canha (.925) have been nearly as hot. Oakland’s lineup has gelled as Chapman and Khris Davis have settled back in after DL stints. The A’s have one of the best 10 or so lineups in baseball, and over the last month, it’s probably closer to one of the best five. Consistency and production across the board have buoyed them through their hard recent schedule. Yesterday’s 6-4 comeback was a perfect encapsulation of the sort of team they are, as everyone in the lineup besides Jonathan Lucroy got a hit, and Canha and Chapman completed the four-run comeback with a pair of eighth-inning RBI knocks.
While the success of the offense makes some sense, Oakland’s pitching has been shockingly solid. Blake Treinen spent three and a half seasons in Washington struggling to find a role or much success, only to stand out in his first full season in the Bay Area. He earned an All-Star nod with 23 saves and an ERA and WHIP that both start with 0. Yusmeiro Petit and Lou Trivino anchor a surprisingly stout bullpen.
I can’t pretend that the starting rotation makes any sense. Manaea is the only steady presence—he’s one of only nine starting pitchers in the majors with a WHIP below 1.0. He was lights out in April, and after a rocky patch, he has steadied himself and hasn’t dropped a decision since May. The rest of the rotation, though, has been in constant flux. Puk, Cotton, Paul Blackburn, Trevor Cahill, Daniel Gossett, Daniel Mengden, and Andrew Triggs have all spent time on the DL this season, and the slack has been picked up by improbable veterans Edwin Jackson and Brett Anderson and unproven youngsters Frankie Montas and Chris Bassitt. Oakland now has a short series against the Giants and the all-star break to get their rotation back in shape, and they’ll hopefully hit their stride down the back half of the season. They are even in position to acquire a pitcher before the deadline if they want to accelerate their timeline.
FiveThirtyEight says the A’s have a 28 percent chance of making the playoffs; I say it’s much higher. If we assume the Yankees will lock down the top wild-card spot and the Astros will continue dominating the AL West, the A’s are just chasing the Mariners. Seattle has the fourth-hardest schedule over the second half of the season, while Oakland’s is much softer (they don’t play a current playoff team for another 19 games). The Mariners just lost their ace, while Oakland is only getting healthier.
The A’s aren’t a World Series contender or anything, though making the playoffs a year ahead of schedule would be a fantastic result for a young team in a rough division with organizational uncertainty aplenty. All of this comes as a great surprise, but that doesn’t make it any less real. The A’s are going to go for it this year, and you can discount their chances at your own peril.