- The Oakland A's were below .500 and 11.5 games out of first after 70 games. Now, they believe they can unseat the defending World Champion Astros atop the AL West.
This story appears in the Aug. 27, 2018, issue of Sports Illustrated. For more great storytelling and in-depth analysis, subscribe to the magazine—and get up to 94% off the cover price. Click here for more.
“He’s good. Actually, he’s really good.”
Oakland outfielder Matt Joyce is discussing the talent of teammate Blake Treinen. The All-Star reliever has a sinker that can touch triple digits, dropping cartoonishly out of the strike zone, and a slider that elicits violent swings with absurd misses. His 0.87 ERA is the lowest in baseball, and he has not allowed a home run since the first week of the season.
But Joyce isn’t talking about any of that. Instead he’s critiquing the pitcher’s skills as an artist. Treinen has just put the finishing touches on a portrait of the team’s catcher, Jonathan Lucroy; his medium of choice today is marker, and his canvas is a fully inflated balloon. The final product bears a striking resemblance to the backstop, with his full beard and a few crinkles sketched in around the eyes. When Lucroy enters the clubhouse and finds the balloon taped to the wall next to his locker, he declares the effort “impressive.”
It’s not that the catcher’s locker needs further decoration. The balloon is just the most recent addition to a makeshift gallery in Lucroy’s corner of the clubhouse, an eclectic collection that’s grown through the season to include everything from inspirational posters to team mementos. “I got here, and there was this big open wall,” says Lucroy, who left the Rockies and signed with the A’s last winter. “I was like—you know, I’m going to start decorating because it’s kind of sparse in here. So I just went on Amazon and got some stuff.”
One poster declares: Pardon My Swag: Epic Content. Another is an advertisement for the men’s clothing brand Chubbies, known for short shorts (“Sky’s out, thighs out”). There are snapshots of the season’s biggest clubhouse celebrations: after Sean Manaea’s no-hitter against the Red Sox on April 21, and Edwin Jackson’s 100th career win on July 30. There’s a card that the team made for rookie pitcher Lou Trivino back in June, when he gave up his first home run. You’ve Still Got It, Babe, the loopy script reads, complete with an illustration of a ball leaving the yard.
“Everything kind of started with the cat poster, and it grew from there,” says Joyce, whose locker is next to Lucroy’s. The cat referred to is clinging to a rope, Hang In There! written above its head—the archetypical cheesy motivational sign.
The cat poster may have been hung as a joke, but the team has taken its message seriously. As September draws near, the A’s are doing more than hanging in there. They’re near the top of a competitive division, and they’re one of the hottest squads in baseball. Just how much ground have they covered? On June 15, Oakland was 11.5 games back of first place, with a 34–36 record and postseason chances so slim they were almost invisible (hovering around 3%, according to MLB.com projections). Then the A’s won their next five games. That streak became a stretch when they won 12 of 15, and that became a stretch when they won 40 of 54. As a result, Oakland has been holding down a wild-card spot since Aug. 2, and, more than that, after taking two of three from the world champion Astros on the weekend of Aug. 17–19, the team has emerged as a true challenger to Houston for first place in the AL West.
If this sounds like a story that you’ve heard before, well, in a sense, it is. The A’s have found a way to win—again—despite having every reason to lose. The team is operating under the same set of financial and physical constraints that has ruled it for years. The A’s began the season with baseball’s smallest payroll, $66 million, less than a third of that of their rivals across the Bay (the Giants) and less than half of each of the other teams in their division. They have a .597 winning percentage while San Francisco is at .488, the Angels are at .500, and the Rangers are at .444. The Oakland ballpark is a crumbling dinosaur of concrete, which can most charitably be described as unfashionable and more accurately described as uninhabitable. In a move that feels almost a little too on-the-nose, the A’s latest beverage deal is not with Coke or Pepsi, but instead with the company behind RC Cola. Meanwhile, low attendance remains a concern, as it does every year. Despite its success, the team is averaging 18,850 fans per game at home, second lowest in the AL (ahead of only Tampa Bay). The sparse crowds at Oakland–Alameda County Coliseum have been the backdrop for all of the franchise’s on-field successes and failures, as they have been for some time.
Yet Oakland has made eight trips to the playoffs since 2000. Why should a ninth, in 2018, feel surprising?
The A’s last postseason push was just four years ago, but you could be forgiven for thinking that it seems like ancient history. The current team bears little resemblance to the one that lost a one-game wild-card playoff to the Royals in 2014, with only one player from that squad remaining in the clubhouse today. (That’s 34-year-old infielder Jed Lowrie, though even he spent one season with the Astros before being traded back to Oakland.) If the roster turnover wasn’t enough to make that postseason trip feel distant, then the team’s performance over the last few years should have done the trick. The A’s finished last in 2015, and again in 2016, and yet again in 2017. In the half-century since the franchise moved west, it had never before had such an extended stay in the basement, and a stretch like that is enough to make competitive baseball seem like a very faint memory indeed.
What has stayed in Oakland, through that roster churn and last-place seasons? Skipper Bob Melvin, who has managed the team with an avuncular calm since 2011, and the front office, which has been familiar to fans since the publication of Moneyball in 2003. Executive vice president of baseball operations Billy Beane has been in charge for more than two decades now; general manager David Forst, Beane’s right-hand man, has held a central leadership role for nearly a decade and a half.
The 2018 A’s were built to be better than the 2017 A’s, in large part through a young core that would only benefit from more time to develop. Most preseason projections had the team improving by two or three wins—moving from last place to fourth, maybe with a win total pushing 80. Certainly nothing like this.
“We knew the way we played the last two months of the season last year that we were hopefully going to get better,” says Forst, referring to the team’s 23–20 record after last Aug. 15. “We thought we were better than some of the external voices were giving us credit for. Which is not to say that I expected us to be holding down a playoff spot in August, but we liked the group we had.”
As the team recovered from a lukewarm start and began its hot streak in the weeks leading up to the July 31 trade deadline, Beane and Forst began to get questions about what course they wanted to pursue. At first, they weren’t sure. In early July, the team took two of three in Cleveland and three of four in Houston. “At least in the short term, that made up our minds to do what we could to add to this group,” Forst says.
The additions were modest, but they came in crucial spots. Right out of spring training, starter Jharel Cotton and top pitching prospect A.J. Puk both went down and required Tommy John surgery. A few months later, Opening Day starter Kendall Graveman was sidelined with the same injury. Only Manaea has been healthy enough to stick in the rotation all season, so 13 different pitchers have started a game in 2018. The list includes veteran castoffs Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson, who over his last three starts has allowed two earned runs in 19 2/3 innings. Then there’s the 34-year-old Jackson, who was cut by the Nationals’ Triple A Syracuse team on June 1, signed by the A’s on June 6 and called up from Nashville three weeks later. Over his last three starts, he has allowed a total of 13 hits and two earned runs in 182⁄3 innings. “The fact is, we needed starting pitching wherever it was available,” says Forst.
The bullpen got a three-headed boost from acquisitions Jeurys Familia, Fernando Rodney and Shawn Kelley. The players took those moves as a vote of confidence—particularly in an era when a club on the verge of contention is just as likely to rebuild as it is to gear up for a run.
“The organization got behind us,” says Treinen. “They never weren’t, but when you make moves—it just shows that much more support when you’re bringing guys in as opposed to shipping guys out. That’s what baseball needs: more teams willing to buy into what they have, as opposed to saying, ‘We’re going to sell out for losing 100,’ or ‘We’re going to sell out for winning 100.’ This is a kind of model team to look back at and say, Everybody in the big leagues is talented; you’ve just got to get the right guys in and mesh as a team.”
Perhaps no team in recent history has been revisited as often as the famed 2002 A’s of Moneyball. (Of course, people are inclined to look back at a team whose GM is played by Brad Pitt.) But in a decade and a half, any advantage the A’s had in assembling their club the way they did have disappeared. Now, in every front office there’s a legion of analysts with access to a wide variety of data on players at every level. There’s a strong industry consensus on which metrics communicate meaningful information. There’s a wealth of public scholarship available on all of this. The legend of the Moneyball A’s was based on identifying players with skills that were undervalued by the baseball market, but it’s an awful lot more difficult to do that when the entire market calculates value the same way.
It’s increasingly tricky to identify players who are under-valued. Maybe the next model team won’t be one that finds value in individual players. Maybe it will be a team that finds value in how players fit together—in getting the right guys in to mesh well, as Treinen puts it.
Look at Oakland’s starting pitching. The rotation doesn’t strike out too many guys. Hardly any, in fact—their starters are 28th in strikeout percentage. Instead, they generate a ton of ground balls, second most of any rotation in the league (behind the Rangers’), and few fly balls. They have the highest ground-ball-to-fly-ball ratio in the league. How to make the most of this? With a stellar defense to make sure those ground balls get put away. The A’s have that. They’re first in defensive efficiency, which measures the percentage of balls in play that a team converts into outs. Another way to complement this rotation: a deep bullpen that can be trusted. As of Aug. 19, Oakland relievers’ 3.34 ERA is the fifth lowest in baseball and the team is 51–0 when ahead in the seventh inning or later.
The offense, meanwhile, is the opposite of the rotation: The A’s hit more fly balls than any other team, and fewer ground balls than all but the Twins. Four of the team’s everyday hitters—Lowrie, Khris Davis, Matt Olson and Matt Chapman—hit fly balls on more than 35% of their swings making contact. Oakland batters work deep into counts, averaging more pitches per at bat than any other team in the league. When they finally see something that they like, they bring some serious power to it, with baseball’s fourth-best slugging percentage (.432).
“There’s a lot of talent here, but there’s no big-name guy,” says Lucroy. “There’s no $20 million-a-year player. Nothing like that. We’ve got guys who I call ‘blue-collar grinders.’ Guys who just play hard and are good teammates with good chemistry. I think that’s why we’re playing so well, because of how tight we are.”
That’s not to say that there aren’t players on the roster with standout skills. Treinen is emerging as one of baseball’s best relievers, and Trivino isn’t far behind him. Davis is a bona fide slugger, and Olson is a slick-fielding first baseman with some serious pop. Perhaps most dazzling is Chapman, who makes defense at the hot corner look like fine art. The 25-year-old, in just his second year in the big leagues, has impressive range, quick reflexes and a killer arm. In fielding runs above average, Chapman is the only third baseman in double digits, at 14.1—almost twice the mark, for example, of elite fielder Nolan Arenado (7.3) of Colorado. “He just seems, defensively, like a once-in-a-generation player,” says Lowrie, who played in infields with Carlos Correa in Houston and Dustin Pedroia in Boston.
Chapman’s defense was never in question; the uncertainty lay at the plate. But he has cut down on strikeouts this season (from 28.2% in 2017 to 22.5%) and boosted his OPS by nearly 100 points. After shortening his swing and restructuring his BP routine to include hitting off a tee before stepping into the cage, he’s been moved up from fifth or sixth in the order to the two-hole, and he’s taken well to it. Chapman’s ceiling is no longer becoming baseball’s best defensive third baseman; it’s quite possibly becoming baseball’s best third baseman, period.
There’s more to a team’s connectivity than complementary components. There may not be a way to quantify clubhouse chemistry—yet—but it’s an element that comes up repeatedly in discussions of Oakland’s success. And it’s one area where their obsolete stadium might actually be an asset.
“This place is different from most clubhouses,” says shortstop Marcus Semien. “It’s only this room here. There’s not a players’ lounge or multiple rooms where people can hang out, so I think that has a lot to do with why we’re so close.”
There’s no room for a pool table or fancy gaming equipment. Instead, there’s a Nerf basketball hoop taped over the lockers, next to a single sheet of paper that serves as a running scoreboard for both free throw contests and P-I-G. (Scrawled at the bottom, a reminder of the fine for dunking: $100.) There’s some space to play cards in front of a television; there’s some space to sit down and eat; for the more intellectually inclined, there are fresh crosswords and sudoku puzzles printed every day. That’s about it. But no one seems to mind.
“This is one of the tighter groups I’ve ever had, if not the tightest,” Melvin says.
It’s a close team that thrives in close games. More than a third of A’s victories have come by one run, and their winning percentage in one-run games is .722, best in the majors. In a crucial series recently against division rival Seattle, they won two games by one run and lost the third by two runs in extra innings. Even after that loss, the team’s mood was light, with guys taking turns picking the music on the clubhouse stereo. Lucroy had done the math, and he had a simple message to share with his teammates: