The Oakland Athletics are making their charge. The team has been on fire since June, and sits 11 games over .500 as the All-Star Game quickly approaches.
This was unexpected. The Athletics finished in last place in the American League West in 2017 with 75 wins. While the team made upgrades during the offseason, there was no blockbuster move that hinted at it suddenly becoming one of the best teams in baseball.
So, how are the A’s doing it? We’re glad you asked. Here are three reasons why the Athletics are the most surprising playoff contenders in Major League Baseball right now.
Jed Lowrie has played like an MVP candidate for the A’s
The entire Athletics offense has been better than expected in 2018. The team’s wRC+, an advanced stat that measures offensive performance, ranks eighth in baseball.
Lowrie has been a huge part of that. The 34-year-old is on pace for a career season, hitting .288/.358/.504, with 16 home runs, over 388 plate appearances.
While his numbers have taken a step forward, it’s worth noting that Lowrie has shown glimpses of strong offensive performances in the past. He hit .277/.360/.448 last season and posted a similar stat line in 2013.
Injuries have been the big reason Lowrie hasn’t been able to post those numbers consistently. Early in his career, Lowrie struggled to stay on the field. He didn’t top 100 games played in a single season until his sixth year in the league. He’s only topped 100 games played three times in his 11-year career.
If he can stay healthy, Lowrie might get some down-ballot MVP votes. He currently ranks 11th in the American League with a 3.3 fWAR. He’s been much better than people realize.
The Athletics’ bullpen has picked up its injury-riddled rotation
Here’s a simple stat that shows how hard the Athletics’ rotation has been hit by injuries thus far. Only one of their starters has pitched enough innings to qualify for the ERA title. That would be Sean Manaea, whose breakout has been a huge key to the team’s success.
The rest of the rotation has been riddled with injuries. The team currently has Trevor Cahill, Pete Blackburn, Daniel Gossett, Daniel Mengden and Andrew Triggs on its disabled list. Those five players have combined for 41 starts with the club in 2018. That figure doesn’t include Jharel Cotton, who may have opened the year in the rotation if not for Tommy John surgery.
The Athletics have been able to soften that blow by employing a strong bullpen. Closer Blake Treinen has been exceptional, posting a 0.79 ERA in 45 2/3 innings. He’s been joined by rookie Lou Trivino, who has a 1.34 ERA on the season.
The team has also received underrated contributions from Yusmeiro Petit, Santiago Casilla and Emilio Pagan. Each member of that trio has shown the ability to pitch multiple innings in relief, giving the A’s reliable options to bridge the middle of games.
The Athletics have performed better than expected in one-run games
The Athletics have gone 14-7 in one-run games in 2018. That is both a good and bad thing. Research suggests most teams perform at a .500 clip during one-run games. A team may occasionally over or under perform that figure, but that performance isn’t usually sustainable. Teams that dominate in one-run games one year may perform horribly in one-run games the next season.
The one thing the Athletics have going for them is that the team’s bullpen has been strong. Teams with good bullpens should be more effective at holding one-run leads. If the A’s are due for some bad luck, it’s possible they can still sustain a better record in tight games than expected based on the strength of the bullpen.
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