Oakland Is Following Its Tried and True Moneyball Formula, With a Few Tweaks

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The Oakland Athletics have established a tradition of starting slow before finding their form. The 2001 A’s started 8–17 before winning 102 games to qualify for the playoffs. The next year, Oakland went 20–25 before winning 103 games and inspiring an Oscar-nominated movie (including Jonah Hill's first nomination). The 2006 and 2012 teams were both under .500 after 50 games before battling back to win the AL West.

But this A’s squad has taken that pattern one step further and crammed a year’s worth of thrills into the first month of the season. After losing their first six games while being outscored 50–13, the A’s were given just a 10% chance of qualifying for the playoffs by Fangraphs. It was surprising to see Oakland flounder so much after winning the AL West last year, but also not shocking after Marcus Semien, Liam Hendriks, Tommy La Stella and Robbie Grossman weren't retained in free agency. They've since have reeled off 11 straight wins, outscoring opponents 77–42 since their season-opening skid and bumping up their Fangraphs playoff odds to better than a coin flip: 51.5%.

Oakland is the first team in MLB history to forge an 11-game winning streak at any point of the season after starting 0–6; and they did it in April. Can they also become the first team since the 2011 Rays to qualify for the playoffs after losing their first six games?

The answer will likely depend on if the Athletics stay true to the offensive formula they popularized during the Moneyball era: the three true outcomes. Though the sport has changed greatly in the nearly two decades since Oakland’s front office ushered in the sabermetrics era—largely due to that very act—the A’s are still heavily reliant on walks and home runs while not sweating the strikeouts.

Despite trotting out a lineup whose biggest star, Matt Chapman, has yet to heat up, the A’s rank second in the American League in both home runs (25) and walks (71) while ranking sixth in strikeouts (170). The A’s are 9–0 when they outhomer their opponents, and just 1–7 when they’re outhomered. The result is MLB’s sixth highest-scoring offense, featuring an underappreciated cast of characters.

Oakland Athletics Jed Lowrie (8) celebrates his two-run double

Oakland second baseman Jed Lowrie (8) celebrates a two-run double.

First baseman Matt Olson excelled in spring training after adjusting his swing path, and he’s shown it wasn’t just a Cactus League fluke. He’s slashing .316/.394/.684 with an AL-best six homers, and his 13.6% barrels rate ranks behind only Shohei Ohtani, Rafael Devers and Ronald Acuña Jr.

Second baseman Jed Lowrie, 37, accumulated just seven at-bats for the Mets over the last two seasons due to injuries. But he’s enjoying a brilliant comeback season with the team he made his only All-Star team with in 2018, boasting a career-high .916 OPS. His 54.9% sweet-spot rate ranks second in the majors behind Seattle’s breakout slugger Ty France.

Left fielder and part-time first baseman Mark Canha, a 6’ 2” 32-year-old who's never swiped more than seven bags in a season, may not seem like the stereotypical leadoff hitter. But he’s drawn 14 walks with four hit by pitches (both second in the AL), leads the Junior Circuit with 20 runs and is averaging nearly five pitchers per plate appearance. He even has four stolen bases already, putting him well on pace to top his previous career high. So he’s certainly doing the job.

That’s signaled one way in which the A’s have been more willing to stray from the traditional analytic path. Oakland’s 18 stolen bases are the second-most in the majors, and Ramón Laureano’s eight swiped bags are three more than any other player. Outs are often considered too valuable these days to risk being thrown out on the basepaths. But Oakland runners have only been thrown out three times for an 85.6% success rate.

If the A’s are to stay on the right side of .500, their pitching staff will need to look to their Moneyball predecessors for inspiration. Oakland doesn’t need Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder or Barry Zito to walk through that door, but a 4.71 team ERA (25th in MLB) won’t cut it. 

The rotation will have to draw more quality starts from its two promising youngsters, Frankie Montas and Jesús Luzardo, who both recovered from disastrous starts early on to flash their potential during the winning streak. The oldest active bullpen in the majors (average age: 32.5 years) will have to withstand the loss of closer Trevor Rosenthal until sometime in the summer. GM David Forst also may want to trade for a shortstop to displace Elvis Andrus, acquired from Texas during the offseason, the only regular seemingly without a prayer at the plate who isn't as good with the glove as he used to be. 

Speaking of defense, it's also worth noting Oakland is the only team to rank in the top five of both fielding percentage and defensive fWAR. While defensive metrics aren't always reliable, that sort of consistency across traditional stats and sabermetrics is reassuring.

How long can this streak keep going? The road will soon get tougher with sweeps of the Diamondbacks, Tigers and COVID-affected Twins in the rear-view mirror. We should find out more about Oakland’s true talent level over the next few weeks, when the A’s play 20 consecutive games against the AL East, including 14 against the Red Sox, Rays and Blue Jays. There’s a chance they extend this streak for a little while, though; this weekend begins a stretch of two series against the rebuilding Orioles sandwiched around a three-game set against the inconsistent Rays. 

The short-term goal will be to match the 2002 Moneyball A’s with 20 straight wins. The long-term goal will be to better them by winning a couple of playoff series.

Quick Hits:

  • The Padres and Dodgers combined for another dandy at Dodger Stadium on Thursday, the opener of a four-game set. San Diego claimed a 3–2 victory on the back of Ryan Weathers's 17 outs of shutout ball, during which the only LA hit was poked through the infield by his counterpart Walker Buehler. The key moment came in the eighth when Jake Cronenworth and Fernando Tatis Jr. combined for one of the prettiest and most clutch double plays you'll ever see to get out of a bases-loaded jam.
  • The Cubs aren’t dead yet. In fact, they’re back at .500. Jason Heyward ripped a walk-off single in the 10th inning off Edwin Díaz, working a second inning for the first time this season, to clinch Chicago’s three-game sweep of the Mets at Wrigley Field. Next up: the first-place Brewers come to the North Side.
  • The Reds launched six home runs on Thursday … and lost, for the first time in franchise history. That’s quite an accomplishment, considering the Reds are the oldest U.S. sports team, having been founded in 1869. Arizona defeated Cincinnati 14–11 in 10 innings, with David Peralta driving in half of the Diamondbacks’ runs. The Reds were previously 24–0 all-time when hitting six home runs, and all MLB teams were 394–31.
  • The Mariners became the only team to move to 4–0 in extra-inning affairs this season by defeating Boston, 7–3, in 10 innings. The topsy-turvy A’s have drawn the most eyeballs in the AL West thus far, but Seattle owns an identical 12–7 record and a superior +1 run differential.

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