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The Athletics may strike out on a new path

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If Oakland does make it to October, things have a shot to get weird in a hurry.

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Oakland Athletics Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

If the season ended today, the Oakland Athletics would find themselves traveling to the Bronx for the American League Wild Card Game. In a season with a host of teams rising unexpectedly into contention, the Athletics are perhaps the most surprising. One of their two All-Star representatives was Jed Lowrie, a 32-year old re-re-tread who is neither their best overall player nor one of their top three hitters, the other Blake Trienan, an out-of-nowhere reliever with one of the silliest sinkers in history.

And yet they compete.

Despite a big silly, oft-flooded anachronism of a stadium, and despite a collection of misfits across the roster, they’re in the thick of things in the AL playoff hunt. In an era of home runs and strikeouts, the A’s are flouting that style of play better than most.

Okay, so the A’s are sixth in baseball in home runs, powered by the likes of Khris Davis and Matt Olson. The A’s are actually ahead of the Astros by 20 homers as a team despite Oakland Coliseum being able to fit two Minute Maid Parks in its confines. They’re also fifth in doubles, so they get their extra bases beyond home runs as well. On the other side of that coin, this is an era of home runs – which the A’s get their fair share of – and strikeouts. For a team that has so long been powered by pitching, this is the A’s greatest weakness.

Playoff teams strike people out. It’s the most efficient out, the safest play in the game. Basically every playoff team is in the top five or ten in strikeout rate:

Playoff contender team strikeout rates

Rank Team K%
Rank Team K%
1 Astros 28.90%
2 Yankees 26.70%
3 Red Sox 25.50%
4 Dodgers 25.00%
5 Indians 24.80%
6 Phillies 23.80%
7 Nationals 23.80%
8 Diamondbacks 23.50%
9 Rays 23.20%
10 Braves 23.20%
A bunch of numbers
24 Athletics 20.20%

At 24th, the A’s are sandwiched between the Giants (who are mired around .500 and unlikely to make the playoffs) and Tigers (who are atrocious). That’s one team that can’t figure out who or what it is but is caught in purgatory due to contracts and expectations, and another terrible team in the first stage of a long rebuild. And yet, Oakland contends.

They even have a solid team 3.84 ERA, good for 11th in baseball. Their home park does benefit them in that regard of course, with a home 3.39 ERA offsetting the 4.27 ERA they’ve posted on the road.

So they take advantage of their home park in the regular season, and it helps them contend. It helps to be able to take advantage of a unique park over a long season.

Billy Beane (or was it Brad Pitt?) famously said, his shit doesn’t work in the playoffs. It probably doesn’t work as well in general anymore now that he’s not the only one shaving off wins by taking advantage of unexploited edges nobody else notices, but that’s not the point. If the A’s make it to October, even their first game is in the antithesis of Oakland Coliseum, as they’ll be traveling to New York.That bandbox in the Bronx may eat up their non-K throwing starters, though that might not be a problem.

The A’s do have a pretty terrible strikeout rate as a team, but that belies two things. First, Treinen by himself strikes out a third of all hitters he faces, and also happens to own the lowest reliever ERA in baseball. The A’s actually have the 10th highest reliever strikeout rate, the fourth best reliever ERA, and the way they compile their season stats it doesn’t take into account the full seasons of work by Juerys Familia or even Fernando Rodney. Rodney in particular isn’t that exciting as a closer – you might even say he’s just nerve-wracking – but if he’s your fourth best reliever you have something special. It’s not quite the Astros or the Yankees’ relief corps, but it’s pretty solid.

We’ve seen the “bullpenning” become the big thing in the playoffs, and who knows, maybe the A’s just plan on taking it to extreme. They don’t have the top end talent in the rotation of other teams with stunning bullpens like the Astros or Yankees, and teams need to lean on their strengths when each inning matters. And only two of their top four starters by innings pitched –Trevor Cahill at 2.97 and assumed ace Shean Manaea at 2.51 - have an ERA under 3 the first time through the order. Though Edwin Jackson does have a 1.80 ERA in a smaller sample.

That would be a neat approach, and something you have to wonder if a team is going to eventually try it in earnest. The Indians sort of did this back in 2016 when they had to start Ryan Merritt in the ALCS, but two of their other three healthy starts in Trevor Bauer and Josh Tomlin at least gave the team five or six. It’d be a major change for a team to go to the bullpen after only one time through the order. If it’s successful. The way the A’s are built – middling starters, excellent relievers – and with their need to do things outside of the norm just to succeed, it would be an expected sort of unexpected move. Strikeout rate isn’t everything, but maybe the A’s are telegraphing their plans, if only due to their own situation.

Merritt Rohlfing writes baseball for Beyond the Box Score and focuses on the Indians at Let’s Go Tribe. He also co-hosts their podcast, Let’s Talk Tribe. Follow him on Twitter @MerrillLunch.