The Oakland A’s might be something of America’s team in 2020. Their torrid start to the season has pushed them past the besmirched Houston Astros in the American League West standings and in our prediction model. Every time the A’s excel on the field, we’re reminded of “Moneyball,” the best-selling book that helped accelerate baseball’s information age with its focus on how the early-2000 A’s used market inefficiencies to find wins at the margins. What is often overlooked in the “Moneyball” discussions, though, is just how talented those A’s were. This year’s version may be even more so.
The low-payroll Athletics have continued to find new ways to win on a budget, with only two players on full-season contracts of more than $10 million,1 compared with the six such contracts on the Astros. And they’re also always looking for an edge in their play. For instance, their hitters again have one of the lowest ground-ball rates in the game, and they’ve owned the lowest ground-ball rate in MLB since 2013 — hitting balls into the air before “launch angle” was part of the baseball vernacular. They’ve had pitchers develop and lean on new pitches. But these next-generation A’s aren’t successful just because of finding and creating value. They’re also once again laden with legitimate star talent.
When the A’s won three division titles from 2000 to 2003 — with Barry Zito, Eric Chávez and Miguel Tejada roaming the East Bay — they ranked third in the majors in pitching WAR and 10th in position player production. The current crop of A’s trails only the Yankees and Astros in position player WAR since 2018, and ranks third early this season. On the pitching side, the A’s trail only Cleveland in WAR in the AL.
Oakland’s pitching staff finished last season tied for 20th in club history in ERA-, a statistic that takes into account seasonal league and ballpark run-scoring effects. It was a largely veteran group, but it included the debuts of young starters Jesús Luzardo, who came to Oakland as a prospect in a 2017 deal that sent closer Sean Doolittle to Washington, and A.J. Puk, whom the club selected sixth overall in the 2016 draft. Last season also saw the breakout of 26-year-old Frankie Montas, who began using a split-finger fastball to increase his strikeout rate. They are arguably the A’s most talented young collection of starters since Zito, Mark Mulder and Tim Hudson.
Early this season, Montas and Luzardo are helping the staff to what would be its seventh-best ERA- performance in club history, and the best since the 2003 group. Among pitchers to have thrown 10 innings this season, Luzardo ranks 11th overall, and first among left-handed pitchers, in fastball velocity. Montas ranks 16th. Luzardo’s darting two-seamer has produced an overall groundball rate of 55 percent. His changeup rates as a plus pitch that works well off the fastball along with his slider at the bottom of the zone. Houston’s hitters struggled against the combination last week:
Luzardo and Puk were each considered one of the top 20 prospects in baseball entering last season, and Puk was garnering comparisons to Randy Johnson in the spring before being placed on the injured list with a shoulder strain just prior to opening day. Chris Bassitt has filled in admirably in his absence, but Puk is making progress in his rehab. Meanwhile, Montas has looked like an ace with a splitter he added that produced the fifth-best whiff-per-swing mark of its kind last season. The A’s bullpen has again been excellent.
The A’s are also loaded in their position player group.
While A’s first baseman Matt Olson and third baseman Matt Chapman have established themselves as stars with their bats and gloves, Marcus Semien emerged as an MVP candidate a year ago. Five-tool threat Ramón Laureano keeps getting better and has even improved his plate discipline early this season.2 Mark Canha has quietly become a source of patience and power. Combined they give the A’s five players who rank in the top 23 of AL position player WAR. It’s reminiscent of when the A’s had four players rank in the top 30 in 2001. The 2001 A’s rank 37th this century in WAR by individual AL teams and have been surpassed by the 2018 (20th) and 2019 (33rd) A’s. In extrapolating their performance this season, the A’s could challenge their 2018 mark.
After failing to advance to a World Series earlier this century, longtime A’s general manager Billy Beane famously said, “My shit doesn’t work in the playoffs.” While these A’s look similar to that group, maybe this time, with this blend, outcomes will be different.
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CORRECTION (Aug. 13, 2020, 1:29 p.m.): An earlier version of this article misidentified Oakland player Mark Canha as Matt Canha.