Oakland's Balanced, Multi-Matt Attack Boosting Playoff Hopes After Dismal Start

The A's have overcome offseason losses and an inauspicious start to the season behind a smooth blend of effective pitching and opportunistic hitting.
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On April 7, the A’s did something that, to that point, seemed inconceivable: They won a baseball game.

Oakland’s extra-innings win over the Dodgers must have felt like a massive relief for a team off to an 0–6 start—tying the franchise mark for worst in team history—but it did little to alter the club’s 2021 forecast. FanGraphs pegged the A’s with a 1-in-3 chance of making the playoffs on Opening Day, a number that cratered to 9.2% after those six straight losses. For a team that lost a lot of talented players this past winter, it seemed like the franchise’s three-year streak of making the postseason was in grave danger.

Two months later, though, and the A’s have put to bed the deluge of early-season overreactions. Now, they simply cannot lose.

With their three-game sweep of the previously hot Angels, the A’s have now won six straight and 12 out of 14 to start the month, securing their perch on top of the AL West. Since that 0–6 start, Oakland has outscored its opponents by 67 runs in 64 games, bumping their FanGraphs playoff odds north of 70% and making that miserable first week look more like a harmless blip on the radar as the ship rolls on, full steam ahead into October. 

Oakland Athletics second baseman Jed Lowrie (8) high fives teammates after scoring a run against the Los Angeles Angels during the sixth inning at RingCentral Coliseum.

Oakland Athletics second baseman Jed Lowrie high-fives teammates after scoring a run.

The reasons for the A’s ascendence is multifold, but we can begin at arguably the cornerstones of the franchise: the corner infielders. The Matts—Olson and Chapman—are each in their prime and coming off down 2020 seasons. Olson was ineffective yet durable, while Chapman missed more than half the year with a hip injury.

Were it not for Shohei Ohtani’s two-way star turn and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.’s unprecedented start, Olson would be included in talks about early-season MVP frontrunners. The 28-year-old is second in the AL in wRC+ (168) and third in isolated power (.306), trailing only Guerrero and Ohtani. He’s back to punishing fastballs again after batting just .207 against them in 2020.

Most importantly, Olson is thriving by severely cutting down on his whiffs. He’s cut his CSW% (percentage of called strikes and swinging strikes) from 28.6% last year to 24.6% this year. His strikeout rate has accordingly plummeted from 31.4% in 2020 to 16.7% in '21—easily the biggest year-to-year decrease among qualified hitters.

Player2020 K%2021 K%Difference

Matt Olson

31.4%

16.7%

14.7%

Ryan McMahon

34.2%

24.3%

9.9%

Erik González

26.4%

17%

9.4%

Tommy Edman

21.1%

11.8%

9.3%

Nick Castellanos

28.5%

19.7%

8.8%

Chapman, meanwhile, would love to forget the first two months of the reason rather than simply the first week. Staying on the field has not been an issue for the two-time Gold Glover—he’s appeared in all but one game so far—but his bat has lagged behind. Chapman hit .203/.315/.341 in April and May, striking out nearly 32% of the time with just 13 extra-base hits in 219 plate appearances.

The precise cause of Chapman’s struggles is difficult to diagnose, but a look at the data tells us he’s simply not hitting the ball nearly as hard as he used to. He ranked among the top 4% of the league annually in average exit velocity in each of the previous three seasons, never dropping below 92.7 miles per hour. This year, he’s dipped to 88.3 mph, and he’s been trending downward as the season has progressed.

Whether this is a lingering side effect from the hip injury that limited him last season is unknown, but he’s still played his typically excellent defense at the hot corner. Lately, the bat’s been heating up, too. Chapman’s hitting .300/.373/.500 in 14 games this month, cutting his strikeout rate down to 27.1%—much more in line with his career rate. It’s a small sample size, sure, but a rejuvenated Chapman gives an already-deep Oakland lineup that much more added firepower.

Oakland Athletics third baseman Matt Chapman (26) hits a solo home run during the first inning against the Kansas City Royals at RingCentral Coliseum.

Oakland Athletics third baseman Matt Chapman hits a solo home run.

As always, the A’s boast a deep cast of productive players. Mark Canha, Ramón Laureano, Chad Pinder and Tony Kemp have stepped up to replace the production of Marcus Semien and Robbie Grossman. A quartet of starters—Sean Manaea, Chris Bassitt, Frankie Montas and Cole Irvin—have been consistent throughout the year. Rookie James Kaprielian (2.51 ERA, 35 Ks in 32.1 IP), a former first-round pick acquired four years ago in the Sonny Gray trade, has shined through his first six outings.

The key for Oakland’s success thus far has been balance. The A’s are one of five teams—along with the White Sox, Dodgers, Rays and Red Sox—to rank in the top 10 in both pitching and hitting fWAR this season. While no singular addition this offseason made significant waves, improvements by the collective group have replenished the club to make up for the absences of guys like Semien, Grossman, Liam Hendriks and Joakim Soria, among others. The lineup has also taken advantage of promising scoring situations, with a .269 batting average with runners in scoring position ranking second in MLB. 

Will the A’s have enough to win back-to-back division crowns? The Astros are the more talented team on paper, and Houston has won seven of 10 head-to-head matchups this season. Though Oakland has looked nearly invincible in June, the road ahead gets trickier, as the A’s embark on a 10-game road trip this weekend against the Yankees, Rangers and Giants.

The longer they maintain a hold of first place, though, the stronger the belief will grow. That opening week in which the A's could do nothing right now feels like a distant memory. These days, it’s hard to imagine them making a misstep.

Quick hits:

  • The Orioles' tank-a-thon continued with their seventh consecutive loss on Wednesday. This one featured a performance art pickle involving Cleveland's José Ramírez that must be seen to be fully appreciated:
  • Speaking of streaks, the Diamondbacks dropped their 22nd (yes, twenty-second) straight road game on Wednesday evening, one night after blowing a 7–0 lead to the Giants. That ties them for the longest such streak in MLB history, joining the 1963 Mets and '43 Philadelphia Athletics. Overall, Arizona has lost 36 of its last 41 games.
  • A moment of recognition for Sandy Alcantara, who pitched an 8.1-inning complete game against the Cardinals Wednesday but was saddled with a loss after giving up an unearned run in the bottom of the ninth inning. It was Alcantara's fourth loss of the season when he allowed two earned runs or fewer, and the Marlins have lost six times overall in such games.

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