Roughly a month ago, I wrote an article trying to get the A’s to the playoffs. We’re roughly a month into the season, so sample sizes be damned, but there are some fairly important indicators shining through already that continue to make the A’s more interesting than people think.
It’s easy to see where the A’s are constrained, and when looking at the general roster makeup, it’s depth. The hope in my previous article was that A.J. Puk would come up in June or July and put up roughly 1.6 WAR. In the offseason he added a couple pitches, bringing him to five total. He also got into pretty good shape after leaving Florida. The stuff was electric and it looked like he at least found some semblance of control (~3.5 BB/9), good enough to vault him up to 13th overall on Keith Law’s Top 100.
Unfortunately, Puk went under the knife recently for the infamous Tommy John surgery, robbing the A’s of a very important 2018 piece, and Puk a year of development. Puk likely would have been sixth on Fangraphs’ depth chart for the A’s, and after the top five starters, things start to get ugly.
Now, I don’t mean to toot my own horn, but I also completely do.
“Health withstanding, Manaea should be an anchor at the top of Oakland’s rotation. While he may never be a clear ace, developing into a solid #2 would be huge for Oakland. A 3.65 ERA with 8.5 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9 would be enormous. I’m going to be extremely bullish on Manaea here and improve on his 2.2 WAR projection, bringing him to 3.7 WAR, and bringing our total to 3.5 WAR left to go.”
Not sure if any of you are baseball fans, but lately Sean Manaea made history in the form of a no-hitter. He also did it against the historic 17-4 Boston Red Sox who were 16-2 at the time of his start. This isn’t exactly a one off, either. And don’t look now, but his bWAR is an excellent 1.6 on the season. As of now, Manaea looks like the guy to lead what is a generally mediocre rotation.
I tried kicking around some ideas for starters they could acquire, and that’s an option, but the A’s aren’t exactly a team that tries to shell out for a big ticket item. Also, given the fact that the teams that aren’t competing don’t really have arms (sans maybe Tampa Bay), the market is a little dry.
But hold on.
Co-lead prospect analyst Rhys White has been high on Jesus Luzardo for awhile, and he slotted in at 78th on Six Man Rotation’s Top 150 Prospects. He was recently promoted to AA after dominating Single-A (to say the least). Many prospects make the jump from AA to the majors, and if the A’s remain somewhat competitive by the end of June, I expect to see Luzardo up sometime soon after that. It’s difficult to project how well he’d do, but he could be a potential impact piece to watch out for.
Obviously the rotation is only one part of a pitching staff, with the bullpen comprising of the other. The A’s are currently 19th in bullpen fWAR which is…not ideal. What’s even less ideal is minus Blake Treinen’s fWAR, the A’s sit at a paltry -0.2 fWAR.
But here’s what is ideal is Treinen’s been really good. A 0.75 ERA is backed by strong ERA estimators (2.68 FIP, 2.87 xFIP), as well as a 10.5 K/9 and a 2.25 BB/9. He has three saves but has blown two, which is unfortunate, but isn’t indicative of his body of work so far. He looks like a stalwart in what has been a very underwhelming bullpen so far.
There have also been a couple main position players who have impressed so far, led by 34-year old Jed Lowrie. Now, for those of you who think his performance is unsustainable, it is. The .403 BABIP is likely to fall, as well as his 183 wRC+. But last year he was at a 119 wRC+ with a .314 BABIP. He hit forty-nine doubles last year.
He currently is tied for 65th in average exit velocity (minimum twenty-five batted ball opportunities for this article) at a very good 91.1 MPH. He’s currently tied with Paul Goldschmidt, Ryan Braun, Nomar Mazara, and Jesse Winker (interesting). He also ranks third behind Jose Abreu and…DJ LeMahieu in balls hit 95+ MPH. He has forty so far.
Now, because we’re in the area of expected stats, let’s take a look at what he’s done so far. His current average is .357, but his xBA (per Baseball Savant) still sits at an excellent .306. His slugging percentage has even less of a gap, with his current SLG% at .612 and his xSLG at .595. To wrap it up, he has a wOBA of .430 and an xwOBA of .406. These are all still excellent numbers despite some added luck. Lowrie is a really good player and has been worth 5.1 fWAR over his past 176 games.
The other guy you’ve heard of because he made waves with an excellent week or so, and he’s quickly becoming a household name. Defensive wunderkind Matt Chapman has already been worth 5 DRS which puts him on pace for roughly 35 DRS. Though what he’s doing on defense is still incredible and should be lauded, it’s been his offensive performance that has stood out to people.
Again, I’ll reference my previous article to an extent. Despite the high strikeout rate last year (28.2%), Chapman had a surprising 73.2% contact rate. This led me to dig a bit into some of his advanced stats, specifically pitches per plate appearance. Last year he sat at 4.12, putting him at 20th overall. I figured he might be one of those weird Miguel Sano/Yoan Moncada types and it looks like that could have been the case. Except, here’s the thing. He’s already both raised his walk rate by 2.3% from last year (now 12.1%), and cut down his strikeout rate by 7% (now 21.2%). These are both backed by an increased pitches per plate appearance which he’s raised to 4.29. He’s tied with Carlos Correa and Billy Hamilton at 18th, and is right below Giancarlo Stanton.
In addition to these potential plate discipline gains, Chapman has remained excellent on the Statcast leaderboards. His maximum exit velocity of 114 MPH ties him for 29th overall, and he’s tied for 42nd overall with an average exit velocity of 92 MPH. He’s tied for 28th in balls hit 95+ MPH (he’s hit twenty-nine; remember Lowrie’s hit forty).
Surely, 108 wRC+ Matt Chapman last year who hit .234 can’t keep these gains. Well, his expected stats are still really good. A .282 batting average is propped up by a .280 xBA. A .553 SLG% is backed by a .535 xSLG. And a .395 wOBA? Backed by a .395 xwOBA.
So what does this all mean? Well, Matt Chapman is really good. In fact, he’s starting to display shades of another previous Oakland third baseman. Across the board he looks excellent, and should continue to be one of the most exciting players in baseball moving forward. Do yourself a favor and watch an A’s game sometime. Matt Chapman is fundamentally perfect.
Across the diamond lies a player who was fairly hyped up during the offseason in fantasy circles in Matt Olson. While he hasn’t been a 140 wRC+ player, it’s not like he’s been bad. A 116 wRC+ still plays, but here’s the thing. We like expected stats now, don’t we?
Folks, listen. I don’t want to continue to be right in this article. It hurts me knowing how well I’m doing right now. Which is why it hurts me to say that Matt Olson should actually be worse in batting average. With a nice .282 average, his xBA sits at .267. Which is still actually pretty good, especially considering his SLG is a poor .412 vs. an xSLG of .543. Huh? Uh oh. Looks like we have one of our biggest regression candidates of the year so far. He’s also got a .334 wOBA compared to a .374 xwOBA.
Unfortunately, this is where xStats falters a bit. Olson currently ranks last, yes, last, in contact percentage at a lowly 61.9%. He’s striking out at a 35.8% clip. He’s also tied for the seventh-worst SwStr% at 16.5%, and worst of all ranks last in Z-Contact% and by a large margin. He sits at 65.8%, while Brandon Crawford comes in second at 70.5%. The good news is he’s still crushing the ball in terms of exit velocity, but without that contact, and without that power, he’s not a very valuable player. I’m doing a very bad job at being very right.
I didn’t think there was anything interesting about Marcus Semien; he currently sports a wRC+ of 106 which is nice. He’s slashing .270/.327/.420, all above his career norms. It’s a nice line, but we all already thought of Semien as roughly a league average shortstop, at least on offense. It’s still a valuable profile. But this year he’s already been worth 0.8 fWAR.
Apparently Semien has a UZR/150 value of 14, which is ridiculous. A couple years ago he was almost universally considered the worst shortstop in baseball, putting up a combined fifty-six errors between 2015-2016. Despite this, he was only worth -1 DRS. Maybe Semien has actually never been that bad of a shortstop. He’s only sitting at 0 DRS this year despite the 14 UZR/150. Just so everyone knows, fWAR (unsure about bWAR) is UZR based, so the 0.8 fWAR is pretty aggressive considering the fluctuation of defensive metrics. He already has four errors this year, but here’s where I get to flex my muscle about the company I work for.
If you look a little lower on the fielding stats for a player, you see Inside Edge Fielding. Now, while not nearly as scientific as something like DRS or UZR, I like to think we do a pretty good job. We classify a “likely” play as a play that 60-90% of fielders make. Now, commonly, this is where we’ll see a lot, if not most, of the errors. Semien for his career has been able to convert 61.3% of these, but this year sits at 75%. The eye test is aligning with what some of the advanced statistics are trying to tell us.
The last player that fascinates me is Matt Joyce. There’s no particular reason he’s so fascinating to me, but he’s put up 15.9 career fWAR and I feel like I’ve never noticed him playing. He has a 139 wRC+ on the back of a .411 OBP and has been worth 0.4 fWAR so far this year. He hit twenty-five home runs last year and is walking 21.6% of the time and striking out at only a 14.9% clip. These plate discipline gains are kind of fun, but he’s hitting the ball with absolutely zero authority. This makes him a great offensive player if he keeps those plate discipline numbers. It’d be kind of fun to see a player completely change around his offensive profile to be a more valuable player than he has been for his whole career by only walking and not striking out. I don’t know.
Anyway. It’s not very far into the season, at all, but the A’s are 12-11 with an expected 13-10 record from both BaseRuns and the Pythagorean algorithm and just took two out of three from a very good Red Sox team. Matt Chapman, Sean Manaea, Jed Lowrie, and Blake Treinen are very good players. Marcus Semien looks like he’s maybe figured something out at shortstop. Matt Joyce will likely continue to confound and then put up literally the most average season of all time, from the most uninteresting player ever.
But the key to the A’s even having a fighting chance at having a fighting chance, is Matt Olson. They need him to hit, and hit a lot. They also need A.J. Puk to recover from Tommy John surgery in the next month or so, but given recent history, is not likely to happen. Maybe Jesus Luzardo comes up and makes Rhys proud. Or maybe he doesn’t and Rhys disappoints me.
We’ll check back a little later in the season to see if the best jerseys in baseball get to play under the lights in October.
Or we won’t.
It’s not up to you.