It’s quite easy to zone out a bit on baseball this time of the year. The season is a marathon, as we’ve been told thousand of times, and this is mile 24. Your highway hypnosis is at its peak. Most fans are tuned into the playoff race and maybe their fantasy baseball championship match ups, but it’s easy to lose track of teams who are out of playoff contention, even if there are some interesting signs of life bubbling below the surface.
With that in mind, would it surprise you to know that only one team in baseball has had a better offense, by wRC+, in the second half of 2017 than the Oakland Athletics? You’ve probably read a bit about noted fly ball enthusiast Matt Olson, and maybe you’re aware that Khris Davis just topped 40 home runs for the second straight season, but their overall production is likely startling to most baseball fans.
In addition to the long balls of Olson and Davis, the A’s have received all-around excellence from Jed Lowrie (.278/.361/.453 for a wRC+ of 120 and 3.5 fWAR in 2017), a breakout pre-trade performance from Yonder Alonso (.266/.369/.627 for a wRC+ of 137 and 1.9 fWAR), and strong freshman campaigns from Boog Powell (wRC+ of 134 in 29 games) and Matt Chapman (2.4 fWAR in 77 games) this season.
With the exception of Alonso, the majority of that success has come in the latter half of the season. In the first half of 2017, the A’s were a below-average offense, sporting a team wRC+ of 95, good for 16th in baseball. They weren’t bad, but they weren’t great. With a rather pedestrian rotation and a truly heinous defense, it was no surprise that the team went 39-50 (a .438 winning percentage) before the All-Star break. Since the Midsummer Classic, thanks to their offensive surge, the A’s are playing .500 baseball, with a record of 33-33 through Sunday’s games. That sort of record wouldn’t have led to the baseball intelligentsia crowning the A’s the next up-and-comers if it had happened in the opening half of the baseball season, but it almost certainly would have drawn more attention than the very little notice it has drawn in the second half so far.
Part of this is human nature. When a new sports season starts we are all at our most dedicated to the minutiae of the sport. As the season wears on, our visits to FanGraphs slow down a bit, and some trends start to slip through the cracks. A brand new sports season (be it Premier League in August or the NFL in September) steals a bit of our attention, and baseball hits its mid- or late-season lull.
There’s also the fact that it is simply easier to notice some of these trends when they are all we have to notice. If the A’s were posting a wRC+ of 112 at the All-Star break, we wouldn’t have to even check the splits bar; it would be all we had to notice. The production would likely come with the “potential small sample size” caveat, but there is no doubt in my mind that first-half team and player success hold a higher cache in our collective baseball memory than second-half team and player success, as we have to actively search out the latter. (It’s why looking at second-half player splits can be such a useful fantasy baseball tool for drafting in the next season.)
Of course, we need to be careful not to over-inflate this second half success too much. For a pertinent example, we need go no further back than 2016. In the second half of last season, the Atlanta Braves posted a wRC+ of 104, third-best in all of baseball after the All-Star break. This was useful information for the world of fantasy baseball, where the Atlanta-based baseball team was no longer a good option to stream pitchers against, but did it matter in 2017? Not so much.
The Braves are likely to finish the 2017 season in the bottom tier of offensive production, currently sporting a wRC+ of 92, 23rd in all of baseball. The Tigers were the second-best offense in the second half of 2016, and although they have numerous trades that have played a role in their fall off, they rank as a below-average offense in 2017 as well (98 wRC+). Even the Red Sox, who were the top offense in the second half of 2016, have struggled to maintain that success in 2017, coming in 21st in wRC+ this season.
In the case of the A’s, the second-half success is a bit more intriguing, however. Their top two second-half producers, by fWAR, are both rookies, and Khris Davis is yet to reach the big 3-0 and is proving himself to be a consistent performer (with the bat). It would be fair to question this production if it was coming exclusively from 33-year-old Matt Joyce and 36-year-old Rajai Davis, but even 33-year-old Jed Lowrie has some intrigue as one of baseball’s most improved players.
There’s a decent chance the A’s come out in 2018 and are suddenly a below-average offensive unit again — they ranked 27th in baseball with a wRC+ of 89 in 2016 — but there’s also a chance Chapman/Olson/Davis become one of baseball’s best power trios, and we look back at the second half of 2017 as a jumping off point.
Worst case scenario: the A’s second-half offensive outburst is useful information for those of you battling it out in the final week of your fantasy baseball leagues. Avoid facing the A’s in 2017 (and maybe beyond).
Jim Turvey is a baseball diehard who also writes for DRays Bay. You can follow him on Twitter @BaseballTurv.