The Oakland Athletics have established a tradition of starting slow before finding their way. The 2001 Athletics started 8-17 before winning 102 games to qualify for the playoffs. The following year, Oakland went 20-25 before winning 103 games and inspiring an Oscar-nominated film (including Jonah Hill’s first nomination). The 2006 and 2012 teams were under .500 after 50 games before battling to win the AL West.
But this Atlético’s team has taken that pattern one step further and built up emotions for a year in the first month of the season. After losing their first six games while being outscored 50-13, Fangraphs gave the Athletics just a 10% chance of qualifying for the playoffs. It was surprising to see Oakland falter after winning the AL West last year, but it wasn’t surprising either after Marcus Semien, Liam Hendriks, Tommy La Stella and Robbie Grossman were not retained in free agency. Since then, they have racked up 11 straight wins, outscoring opponents 77–42 since their season-opening streak and increasing their Fangraphs playoff odds to better than a coin toss: 51.5%.
Oakland is the first team in MLB history to forge an 11-game winning streak at any point during the season after starting 0–6; and they did it in April. Can they also become the first team since the 2011 Rays to qualify for the playoffs after losing their first six games?
The answer will likely depend on whether the Athletics stick with the offensive formula they popularized during the Moneyball era: the three actual results. Although the sport has changed a lot in the nearly two decades since Oakland’s headquarters ushered in the sabermetric era, largely because of that very act, the Athletics still rely heavily on walks and home runs without worrying about strikeouts.
Despite pulling out a lineup whose biggest star Matt Chapman has yet to warm up, the Athletics rank second in the American League in both home runs (25) and walks (71), while ranking sixth. in strikeouts (170). The Athletics are 9-0 when they outperform their opponents and only 1-7 when they outlast their opponents. The result is MLB’s sixth-highest-scoring offense, with an underrated cast of characters.
First baseman Matt Olson excelled in spring training after adjusting his swing trajectory, and he’s shown it wasn’t just a Cactus League fluke. He’s cutting .316 / .394 / .684 with six home runs, the best in the American League, and his 13.6% barrel rate is behind only Shohei Ohtani, Rafael Devers and Ronald Acuña Jr.
Second baseman Jed Lowrie, 37, had just seven at-bats for the Mets in the past two seasons due to injuries. But he’s enjoying a brilliant comeback season with the team he was his only All-Star team with in 2018, with a career-high .916 OPS. His 54.9% rate is second in the majors behind Seattle great slugger Ty France.
Left fielder and part-time first baseman Mark Canha, a 32-year-old who has never stolen more than seven bags in a season, may not seem like the stereotypical leadoff hitter. But he has drawn 14 walks on four hits per pitch (both second in the American League), leads the Junior Circuit with 20 runs and averages nearly five pitchers per plate appearance. He even has four stolen bases already, putting him on his way to breaking his previous career record. So it’s certainly getting the job done.
That indicates a way in which A’s have been more willing to deviate from the traditional analytical path. Oakland’s 18 stolen bases are the second most in the majors, and Ramón Laureano’s eight stolen bags are three more than any other player. Outings are often considered too valuable these days to risk being scrapped on base trails. But Oakland running backs have only been eliminated three times with an 85.6% success rate.
If the Athletics are to stay on the right side of .500, their pitching staff will have to look to their Moneyball predecessors for inspiration. Oakland doesn’t need Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder or Barry Zito to get through that door, but a 4.71 team ERA (25th in MLB) won’t cut it.
The rotation will have to get more quality starts from its two promising youngsters, Frankie Montas and Jesús Luzardo, who bounced back from disastrous starts early on to show their potential during the winning streak. The oldest active bullpen in the majors (median age 32.5) will have to endure the loss of closer Trevor Rosenthal until sometime this summer. GM David Forst may also want to trade for shortstop to displace Elvis Andrus, acquired from Texas during the offseason, the only regular seemingly without a plate sentence who isn’t as good on the glove as he used to be.
Speaking of defense, it’s also worth noting that Oakland is the only team to rank in the top five in fielding percentage and Defensive FWAR. While defensive metrics aren’t always reliable, that kind of consistency between traditional stats and sabermetry is reassuring.
How long can this streak continue? The road will soon get more difficult with sweeps of the COVID-affected Diamondbacks, Tigers and Twins in the rearview mirror. We should find out more about Oakland’s true level of talent in the coming weeks, when the Athletics play 20 consecutive games against the AL East, including 14 against the Red Sox, Rays and Blue Jays. However, there is a possibility that they will extend this streak for a while; This weekend begins a two-series streak against the rebuilding Orioles sandwiched in a three-game set against the inconsistent Rays.
The short-term goal will be to match the 2002 Moneyball Athletics with 20 consecutive wins. The long-term goal will be to improve them by winning a couple of playoff series.
- The Padres and Dodgers combined for another dandy at Dodger Stadium on Thursday, the first game of a four-game set. San Diego claimed a 3-2 victory thanks to Ryan Weathers ’17 shutout outs, during which Los Angeles’ only hit was crossed by his counterpart Walker Buehler’s infield. The turning point came in the eighth when Jake Cronenworth and Fernando Tatis Jr. combined for one of the most beautiful and decisive double plays you’ve ever seen to get out of a jam with the bases loaded.
- The Cubs are not dead yet. In fact, they are back at .500. Jason Heyward started a single in the 10th off Edwin Diaz, working a second inning for the first time this season, to secure Chicago’s three-game sweep of the Mets at Wrigley Field. Next: the Brewers first come to the North Side.
- The Reds hit six home runs Thursday … and lost, for the first time in franchise history. That’s quite an achievement, considering the Reds are America’s oldest sports team, having been founded in 1869. Arizona defeated Cincinnati 14-11 in 10 innings, with David Peralta. driving in the middle of the diamondbacks races. The Reds were previously 24-0 all-time when they hit six home runs, and all MLB teams were 394-31.
- The Mariners became the only team to move to 4-0 in extra inning matters this season by defeating Boston, 7-3, in 10 innings. The Upside Down Athletics have drawn the most eyeballs in the AL West so far, but Seattle owns an identical 12-7 record and a higher +1 run differential.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.