I understand that the stats will contain lots of surprises so early in the season. You will see a lot of comically high and comically low performances because of small sample sizes that have yet to reach their equilibrium. When I was researching my recent article on the Red Sox, I came across something that really surprised me, and it still holds ten days later.
The A’s have been one of the best offenses in baseball, following up on their great second half of last year. As a team, they are hitting .251/.331/.438. Their 111 wRC+ is tied for second in the majors with the Yankees, and just behind the Braves. That number would be even higher if the Athletics’ ball park did not play flukishly well for hitters last year, which influences the five-year park factors that FanGraphs uses to calculate wRC+.
Last year, the A’s won just 75 games, and it was the first time they had won over 70 games in the past three years. Their offense was quite good, though. They hit .246/.319/.436, and their 102 wRC+ was tied with the Mariners and Twins for fifth-best in baseball. It was even better than the Cubs and the Nationals!
The FanGraphs projections measured the Athletics’ true talent as a 78-win team, which is roughly one more win than they were projected at last year. It makes sense because the A’s were more or less returning the same team from 2017. A.J. Puk going down with Tommy John surgery dealt a blow for the team to have a surprise season, but even then they would have needed a lot of things to break right.
They did well in acquiring Stephen Piscotty, whose down year in 2017 might have been caused by a son worrying about his mom (who sadly passed away yesterday). I am sure that having Mike Matheny as a manager did not help either, as he has always been prone to sitting young players who seem to be struggling just for a few games. So far, he is not performing much better in 2018. He is hitting .259/.322/.380 with just one home run. What is really odd is that a fielder who can be described as in the 50-60 range on the 20-80 scouting scale has had atrocious defensive numbers this season. I do not know if that passes the eye test, and one month of defensive metrics is a microscopic sample size, but it’s striking.
One of the biggest contributors to this surprising offensive run is Jed Lowrie of all people. Lowrie is hitting .356/.406/.614 with 8 HR while playing full time at second base. Last year he quietly put up a 4 bWAR season, hitting .277/.360/.448, and he played in over 150 games for only the second time in ten seasons. The talent had always been there for Lowrie, he could just never stay healthy.
Besides the fact that his current performance is wildly out of sync with his track record, Lowrie is also sporting a .402 BABIP and 20.5 percent HR/FB ratio. Oddly enough, he is not adhering to the flyball revolution. If anything, that is what he was doing last year. In 2017, his launch angle went up to 18.6 degrees after it was 11.3 degrees the year before. Now it is down to 13.9 degrees. His groundball rate is up ten percentage points.
Lowrie is definitely hitting the ball harder. Per Statcast, his 49.5 percent hard-hit rate is 12.5 percentage points higher than last year. His exit velocity is 91.4 percent, up from 88.8 percent the year before.
Even with a .413 xwOBA, it is hard to believe that Lowrie will continue having a 177 wRC+. It will be interesting to see how his season plays out if he continues to crush baseballs.
Mark Canha did not start the season until April 10th, but he has made it abundantly clear that he does not want to be sent back down to the minors. It has only been 18 games, but he has hit .299/.347/.567 with 5 HR, one of which was a game winner off of Edwin Díaz on Wednesday night.
Even more impressive is Canha’s versatility, which you usually do not see from players who came up primarily as first basemen. He has even put time in center field! And he has at least been passable there! It was a foregone conclusion that Canha’s time in center would be temporary until Dustin Fowler comes back, but his play is forcing the A’s to reconsider. Of course, Canha will not continue to have a wOBA that is ~80 points better than his career wOBA. Being 29 years old, he is likely more or less a finished product. That being said, you can’t just demote somebody who is hitting like this.
A platoon with Fowler is probably the best option going forward. I would not feel great about taking plate appearances away from a young player like he is. With Canha hitting the way he is, it is a good problem to have.
If the A’s are going to go anywhere this year, they are going to need their former first round picks, Matt Chapman and Matt Olson, to produce. The results are mixed so far.
Chapman is an excellent defensive third baseman — he might be solid 70 on the 20-80 scale — so he does not need to hit much to be a productive player. Thankfully for A’s fans, he is hitting. He had a nice debut last year, hitting .234/.313/.472 with 14 HR in just half a season. He is doing even better than that so far this year, walking more and striking out less while hitting .246/.341/.475 with 6 HR. He is never going to hit for much average, but if he can continue hitting for power while maintaining his plate discipline, that combined with his defense could make him a 4-5 WAR player.
I doubt that anybody was expecting Olson to maintain his line of .259/.352/.651 over 216 PA from last year. The good news is that he is hitting a solid .264/.352/.418 for a first baseman, though that is with a high .373 BABIP! With a hard-hit rate at 49 percent and a line drive rate all the way up at 25 percent, it looks like Olson has been suffering a lot of bad luck.
So why is a team hitting so well doing no better than hovering around .500? The team’s 4.86 RA9 and 4.80 DRA rank in the bottom third of baseball, and their 20 K% ranks even worse than that. This is where not having Puk for the season is really impacting them.
The A’s are certainly surpassing expectations in this young season. Unfortunately, their odds at making the playoffs are at only seven percent, per FanGraphs, and they have virtually no shot at winning a division they share with the Astros. If they want to have any chance at being 2018’s biggest surprise in baseball, the pitching is going to need to catch up to the offense.
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Luis Torres is a Featured Writer at Beyond the Box Score. He is a medicinal chemist by day, baseball analyst by night. You can follow him on Twitter at @Chemtorres21.