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The Oakland A’s Have Managed To Exceed Expectations … Again

The Oakland A’s don’t spend much time in the spotlight. They have few household names on their roster, and they’re the No. 2 team in a West Coast market in a stadium that they’re trying to leave as soon as possible. Even as the A’s have climbed to rank as the fourth-best team in the majors by FiveThirtyEight’s Elo ratings, in recent weeks the club might be most known for the G-shaped beard of Mike Fiers that captured the public’s attention. But Oakland should be able to keep baseball’s attention now, as it is again on the cusp of securing an American League wild-card spot, one of the few unsettled postseason races in the majors. Despite owning just the sport’s 25th-ranked payroll, Oakland has a 96 percent chance of making the playoffs.

Prior to last season, we saw the A’s as a 76-win team, FanGraphs had the A’s at 78 wins, and Vegas placed the over-under at 74.5 wins. The A’s would win 97 games. This spring, we pegged the A’s as an 83-win team, FanGraphs made an 85-win call, and Las Vegas placed the club’s over-under win total at 83.5. The A’s are on track for another 97-win season. How are they again exceeding expectations? It’s a formula similar to last year’s — with a few different players leading the charge and a new unconventional strategy.

The A’s have already changed baseball once: In the early 2000s, they helped accelerate the embrace of analytics in baseball by exploiting market inefficiencies. And now, they’re arguably at the forefront of major shifts in the sport once again. Last season, they got ahead of other teams in keeping balls off the ground on offense and leaned on a strong bullpen that combined for the second-most innings in the majors. This year, the A’s again have a strong bullpen and an offensive lineup with one of the lowest ground-ball rates in baseball.

The A’s position players are again excellent, ranking fifth in the majors in wins above replacement1 and offensive efficiency (107 weighted runs created plus)2 entering Wednesday. The team has already set a franchise record for home runs in a season, but they’re also fourth in baseball in defensive efficiency, which is the share of balls put in play by opponents that are turned into outs.

After five A’s players posted at least 3 WAR last year, they’ve already matched that this season. The A’s have five of the 66 players who have produced at least 3 WAR this year; only the division rival Astros have more, with six.

Sluggers Matt Chapman and Matt Olson have been standouts for multiple years, but the best player on the A’s this season has been shortstop Marcus Semien, who has broken out for 6.8 WAR. He ranks seventh among the most improved players by WAR this season. He’s reduced his strikeouts while adding power, and he’s also gone from being a below-average defender earlier in his career to an above-average one, according to advanced metrics like ultimate zone rating. Outfielder Mark Canha is another unlikely star — acquired by the A’s with a Rule V draft selection — who has become a middle-of-the-order slugger, and outfielder Ramón Laureano is yet another improved hitter who also boasts a tremendous throwing arm.3

The A’s pitchers are also zigging in another area where clubs have zagged. Teams are favoring four-seam fastballs up in the zone, and the league, as a whole, has moved away from throwing sinkers. But the A’s lead baseball in sinker usage, which has perhaps helped them sport the lowest home run-to-fly ball ratio in the majors, as well as the fourth-best differential in home runs hit versus allowed (55), through Sunday.4

And while the A’s have dominated this season without a rotation ace, they did recently welcome back Sean Manaea, perhaps their most talented arm, who has been excellent in his return from shoulder surgery. Maybe Manaea and the rest of the relative unknowns can keep up momentum going into where A’s haven’t exceeded expectations: the playoffs.

Check out our latest MLB predictions.

Footnotes

  1. By the FanGraphs version of the metric.

  2. Where 100 WRC+ is considered average.

  3. And might have made the throw of the year.

  4. They also get the effects of playing in a favorable pitcher’s park.

Travis Sawchik is a sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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