As we prepare for the 2021 season, Diamond Digest writers will be taking a look at each team’s off-season and previewing the season to come. Today, Callie Tsai takes a look at the Oakland Athletics!
The Oakland A’s are a fascinating team for two reasons: the players themselves and how those players will fit together on the team. There is a lot of opportunity to mix and match in this lineup. The A’s could have one lineup one day and a completely different yet still competitive lineup the next. The group itself is a collection of players coming off both career bests and worsts, injuries that made it so that some couldn’t even finish the year, and those on the precipice of breaking out. When I say they are a must-watch team, I say that without any bias. Not only do they have plenty of players with many questions surrounding them, but they also have a roster filled with some of the most visually spectacular players competing right now. Even if the A’s finish out of a playoff spot, even if they finish under .500, there will be a reason to pay attention to them. And if they live up to their potential? Let this article be a warning.
2020 Record: 36-24, 1st Place in AL West
Team MVP: Mark Canha
Team Cy Young: Liam Hendriks
How fitting is it that for the most successful A’s season in 14 years, fans weren’t allowed to be there in person? And what a season it was: a strange but exciting one. Instead of being led by the Matts (Chapman and Olson), Mark Canha, Sean Murphy, and Robbie Grossman led the A’s offense. And instead of top prospect Jesus Luzardo or 2019 breakout Frankie Montas being the A’s ace, it was Chris Bassitt who grabbed the mantle with the best season of his career by far. It was a season that inspired hope and concerns, as Matt Chapman was unable to finish the season or play in the postseason due to a hip injury, and the continued struggles of Stephen Piscotty are not a good sign. How the A’s are able to reconcile their breakouts with their underperformers will determine how their season will end up and whether they are able to hang another banner soon.
You can pinpoint the exact date this offseason turned for the A’s. February sixth. After letting the fans marinate in the afterbirth and agony of seeing beloved players leave, the A’s traded Khris Davis and prospects to the Texas Rangers for shortstop Elvis Andrus, catcher Aramis Garcia and a truckload of money. I was too hasty in my criticism of the trade, although my complaint that the A’s catcher position is less stable than the stock of a company Reddit takes a special interest in remains unaddressed. While Andrus is nowhere near the top-level shortstop Marcus Semien was, he gives the A’s someone with significant major league experience at the 6. Aramis Garcia is most likely nothing more than a backup catcher, but in the best-case scenario that is all he will be used as. But the real asset the A’s acquired from the Rangers was no player. It was this trade that made it so that Oakland was finally able to go after free agents thanks to the money freed up by trading away Davis, as well as the money Texas sent to them, with which they signed Mitch Moreland (1 year, $2.5 million); an unspectacular but solid rock at the DH position who can play Gold Glove-level first base in a pinch, as well as bringing back Jed Lowrie on a minor league deal. On the pitching side, Oakland strengthened an already strong bullpen by re-signing the ageless RHP Yusmeiro Petit (1 year, $2.55 million) and his fellow vampire-esque brethren LHP Sergio Romo (1 year, $2.25 million). To further their monopoly on the soft-throwing yet effective relievers who’ve already celebrated their 30th birthday market, the A’s traded for lefty Adam Kolarek from the Dodgers. And to top it all off, the A’s were able to swoop in and sign RHP Trevor Rosenthal (1 year, $11 million), arguably the best reliever in the free agent class, in order to replace the departed Liam Hendriks. It was an interesting approach to the offseason by the A’s. Filling their position player holes with cheap and unspectacular signings while going all-in on restocking a bullpen that already looked to be one of the best in baseball. With the unique challenges of the 2021 season and the ever ticking clock on the A’s window of contention, it’s hard to say if this strategy is right, right now.
2021 Season Preview
1) Mark Canha, LF
2) Matt Olson, 1B
3) Matt Chapman, 3B
4) Ramon Laureano, CF
5) Sean Murphy, C
6) Mitch Moreland, DH
7) Tony Kemp, 2B
8) Stephen Piscotty, RF
9) Elvis Andrus, SS
There are many questions in baseball. Every moment of on-field action is dictated by them. What should a pitcher throw? How should a defender position themself? Should the runner try to take the extra bag? Do these questions extend all the way up to the front office? Should a team sign a free agent or make a trade? What if they called up a prospect? In a game of questions, there are few certainties. One of them is that Mark Canha will be an on-base machine. Since 2019, Canha’s .393 OBP is eighth-best in baseball among qualified batters. Thanks to his extra choosy approach at the plate (Canha’s 39.6% swing rate is the second-lowest in baseball), the Cal grad has broken out and become one of the best hitters in baseball. Canha is more than just a patient hitter, though. Canha is able to overcome his pedestrian exit velocities and barrel rates due to a designed to pull the ball in the air. His ISO of .211 since becoming a full-time player in 2018 might not set the world on fire but it is the fourth-highest ISO among active players with at least 200 plate appearances. Even if the deadened baseball turns Canha into a doubles hitter, his ability to draw walks means he would still be an impact hitter deserving of being at the top of the lineup.
Canha is also no slouch when it comes to the other side of the ball. His catch in the second game of the AL Wild Card series drew comparisons to Joe Rudi, and the advanced analytics are in favor of his visually stellar play. It’s fitting that Canha emulated Rudi in the Wild Card series, as he has had a similar story when it comes to his glovework in the outfield. In his first 715 innings from 2015-2017 as a corner outfielder, Canha put up -2 Defensive Runs Saved, -1.8 Ultimate Zone Rating, and -3 Outs Above Average. He’s turned it around since, with his 901.2 innings since 2018 seeing him be worth 7 DRS, 6.3 UZR, and 7 OAA. Mark Canha’s breakout year coming on the wrong side of 30 prevents him from being treated like a franchise player in a sport placing more emphasis than ever on younger players, but don’t be surprised when he outhits those he is an elder to and makes catches in the outfield that will have you wondering if the clock turned back some years
Matt Olson was a league-average offensive player in 2020, but that’s still a massive downgrade from someone who was in a position to claim the crown of best first baseman in baseball after a career year. What’s unfortunate is that Olson’s 2020 was a casualty almost entirely due to the small sample size of the covid shortened season. His BABIP, a minuscule .227, and strikeout percentage of 31.4% were both career worsts, but Olson is very unlikely to carry those numbers past 2020. His BABIP is obvious. Between 2018 and 2019, his BABIP was .296, and his career average is still .277. As for the strikeouts, Olson was still disciplined when it came to swinging at pitches. In fact, his swing rate on outside pitches in 2020 was the lowest mark of his career since getting his feet wet in 2016. He just made less contact. A lot less. Olson was never the best at making contact, but his contact rate falling from 75% in 2019 to 68.1% is drastic. But just like his BABIP, I have no doubt that this is just an issue of a small sample size with Olson. Pitchers weren’t pitching him any differently, with pitch locations and types being very similar to his 2019 season. 2020 was an anomaly for Olson, one that he should bounce back very quickly from.
When it was announced that Matt Chapman was to be placed on the IL and have season-ending hip surgery in early September, it was an abrupt end to a bizarre season – a disappointing one for someone who’s a perennial MVP contender. But finally getting time off to get surgery might’ve just been what Chapman needed. His 117 wRC+ was his worst mark since his 362 plate appearance cup of coffee in 2017, the end result of both a sky-high strikeout percentage only rivaled by his equally towering ISO. Among hitters with 150 plate appearances, both Chapman’s strikeout percentage, as well as his ISO, were among the top ten for hitters, with his 35.5% strikeout rate coming in at seventh on the leaderboards, while his ISO of .303 ranked eighth. Chapman has always been a power hitter, but 2020 saw him take it to new extremes. Both marks were obviously career-highs for him, but he also set a career-low for BB%, dropping to a lilliputian 5.3%.
This all comes with the caveat that Chapman was reportedly playing through a torn hip labrum. That would explain why Chapman had a 138 wRC+ through the first half of 2020, but just an 18 wRC+ in the second half. But Chapman’s strikeout and walk issues were still present in that first half. That can’t be explained by any injury. What it can be explained by is a new swing. Prior to 2020, Chapman’s batted ball profile wasn’t anything particularly interesting. He had a 0.92 GB/FB rate and a 17.5 line drive percentage. That changed in 2020. Not only did Chapman’s GB/FB drop to a .51 rate, but his line drive rate also rose to 23.6%. He also hit a lot more pop-ups, going from a 16.5% infield fly ball rate to 24.4% in 2020. And while this change did lead to Chapman being in at least the 95th percentile in average exit velocity, barrel percentage, and hard-hit percentage, it also led to a cratering of Chapman’s ability to make contact. See, despite Chapman’s major regression in drawing walks and striking out, his plate discipline didn’t show any major changes. His O-Swing% and Z-Swing% were 25% and 64% respectively prior to 2020 and rose to just 26.9% and 66.6% respectively. That won’t cause a 67% rise in strikeouts. Instead, we must point a finger at swings and misses. Chapman went from a 9.5 swing and miss rate prior to 2020, to posting a 15.2% swing and miss rate in 2020. His contact rate was another casualty of this change, from never dropping below 73.2% to bottoming out at 66.1% last year.
It’s unclear if this swing change is just a result of the shortened 2020 season, but if it is it would be a complete overhaul in how Chapman is as a hitter. Going from someone who was above average at both getting on base and hitting for power, to transforming into a Joey Gallo-type slugger. He would still most likely be an effective hitter, but a lowered OBP does limit what peaks he could potentially reach. Chapman is still the A’s best player thanks to his defense, but only time will tell if he is still their best hitter.
Ramon Laureano is very hard to evaluate. The speedy Dominican doesn’t get very high exit velocities despite barreling up the ball at a consistently above-average rate, which makes him reliant on his legs to turn outs into hits and hits into extra bases. And despite his highlight-reel plays, he grades out as below average by many defensive metrics. But while 2020 was the worst season of Laureano’s young career, he made strides to improve on both sides of the ball, strides that will hopefully contribute to a career year for Laureano in 2021. Last year, Laureano was dreadful at drawing walks. His 5.6% walk rate was a result of his high swing rate and his high swing and miss rate. But 2020 saw Laureano raise his walk rate to 10.8%, in the 71st percentile of MLB players. Laureano got a lot more choosy when it came to what pitches to swing at, going from a 48.6% swing rate to 40.2%. With that lowered swing rate came a lower swinging-strike rate and a higher overall contact rate, with Laureano posting career-bests in both categories, with an 8.9% swing and miss rate and a 77.8% contact rate.
Laureano has also made strides in the outfield. Prior to 2020, stats like DRS, UZR, and OAA pegged him as a below-average defender, despite high home run robberies and outfield assists. But after an adjustment to start further back than he did in 2019, advanced metrics started to sing praise for Laureano, with his 447 innings in center field seeing him accumulate 5 DRS, 3.4 UZR, and 3 OAA. His improvements put him in a position of being better than ever in 2021, and even his struggles in 2020 are most likely a fluke. For one, his .270 BABIP and .153 ISO were his lowest marks in both stats at any level since Laureano was a 22-year-old playing Double-A in the Astros organization. A strong season is on the horizon for Laureano in 2021, one where he can have a big impact on the A’s playoff hopes.
Even after his torrid 20-game stint in MLB in 2019, it’s hard to imagine very many people predicting Sean Murphy to not just be the A’s best rookie, but also be one of their best players. Murphy’s 1.5 fWAR was second-most among all A’s players in 2020, even more impressive when you realize Murphy played just 43 games, about two-thirds of the season. Murphy was able to combine strong defense behind the plate as well as a powerful bat, which allowed him to put up such a high WAR total in just a fraction of the playing time. His offense was driven by his incredible plate discipline, with his walk rate being in the 97th percentile. He complimented that patience with raw slugging power, with his barrel percentage and average exit velocity falling in the 91st and 83rd percentile respectively. Combined, Murphy was able to put up a 132 wRC+, the best mark of any A’s player with more than 100 plate appearances.
His defense is twofold as well, as he has arguably the strongest arm among catchers as well as being a good framer. Murphy’s 2020 pop time to second base was measured by Statcast as being 1.92 seconds, in the 100th percentile for pop time. His framing holds up quite strongly as well, as he was tied for second among qualified catchers in Runs Extra Strikes, a stat that measures how many runs a catcher prevented by framing extra strikes, with three. All this combines to make Murphy not just an incredibly valuable player, but one of the best on the A’s roster. The only concern when it comes to him is his injury history. And unfortunately, the injury bug bit Murphy at the start of Spring Training, when he reported to camp with a collapsed lung. This could potentially jeopardize Murphy’s ability to start the season on time. But should he be ready by Opening Day, there is no reason he can’t be a key contributor to an A’s playoff run.
Mitch Moreland has spent the last three years chugging along as a solid but unremarkable hitter, with the potential to play Gold Glove-level defense at first base. The veteran lefty seems like an obvious A’s signing for multiple reasons. He gives Oakland flexibility in roster construction and a desperately needed left-handed bat to balance out their righty-heavy lineup. Right now, Moreland is poised to take Khris Davis’s spot as a designated hitter. But, in the case of injury, he can slot in at first base and be a fitting replacement for Matt Olson, at least when it comes to defense. Moreland won a Gold Glove playing first base in 2016, and those defense skills have not deteriorated. In the 3,061.2 innings Moreland has played at first base since 2017, he’s been worth 17 DRS, 5.9 UZR, and 4 OAA. On the offensive side of the ball, Moreland is nothing special. He’s your typical slugger, slightly above average when it comes to walks and strikeouts, but his power is what makes him his money. Moreland has posted a 110 wRC+ over the past three years, with his .228 ISO being the big reason why. Moreland barrels up the ball a ton, with his 11.5 barrel% since 2018 being 27th out of the 196 batters with at least 900 plate appearances. Expect Moreland but be a no-frills contributor to the A’s lineup this season
Tony Kemp has an interesting and volatile spot on the A’s roster. The former SEC Baseball Player of the Year is projected to man the keystone for the A’s, much like he did in 43 games last year. But the A’s front office obviously was not satisfied with Kemp at second, as they traded for Tommy La Stella at the deadline. La Stella would be the one to play in between Marcus Semien and Matt Olson in the playoffs, with Kemp not getting a single plate appearance in the postseason. But with La Stella signing across the bay with the San Francisco Giants, Kemp was slotted back in as the projected starting second baseman. Kemp has also been discussed as a potential leadoff hitter for Oakland, no doubt a result of his 2020 season where he walked more than he struck out. But even with a BB:K rate over 1, he was only able to post an OBP of .363 – above the league average but still less than what Mark Canha was able to put up. That .363 mark was also the best OBP of Kemp’s career; His career average OBP is a paltry .320.
Unfortunately, Kemp doesn’t supplement his meager OBP with significant power numbers. He’s listed at 5’6” and hits like it. He’s never had a season with a slugging percentage greater than .400, his career SLG is just .359, and his career ISO is .124. For his entire career, Kemp has been a below-average hitter, reflected in his 89 wRC+. The one redeeming quality for Kemp on the field is that OAA likes his defense. He’s at +3 for his career at second, but DRS and UZR have him at -6 and -0.9 respectively. Kemp being the left-handed part of a platoon with Chad Pinder seems like the most likely outcome at the current moment, but if Jed Lowrie is healthy enough to man second base when the 2021 season starts, Kemp might not even be on the A’s opening day roster. Chad Pinder’s right-handed swing can complement Lowrie’s switch-hitting bat, and Vimael Machin is younger and can play more positions than Kemp. Kemp can play outfield, but the A’s already have a glut of outfielders at both the major league level and in the minors. The clock may be ticking on Kemp’s time in Oakland
Stephen Piscotty has been one of the most disappointing players on the A’s over the last two years. Once a key member of the A’s, his performance has degraded to the point where he wasn’t one of the A’s primary outfielders in 2020, with Mark Canha taking over his spot in right field. Injuries have played a part in it, but his plate discipline has also been the worst of his career. Between 2019 and 2020, Piscotty had a 6.7% walk rate to a 24.3% strikeout rate, whereas he had an 8.6% walk rate to a 20.4% strikeout rate in the four years before that. He’s also hitting for less power, going from a .187 ISO in the first four years of his career to a .153 ISO since 2019. This downturn in offensive production is disappointing, as he doesn’t have the glove to make up for an 87 wRC+. I have him pegged as the A’s starting right fielder right now due to his seniority but don’t be surprised if Ka’ai Tom takes his spot in the lineup.
Elvis Andrus spent two decades opposing the A’s as a member of the Texas Rangers, but he has now joined the green and gold after the Khris Davis trade brought him to Oakland. Andrus has the unenviable task of taking over for the departed Marcus Semien, and unfortunately, it doesn’t look like he will be able to fill the white cleats Semien left behind. Andrus’s 2020 was dreadful, with a 58 wRC+ and -0.3 WAR in 29 games. But, in Andrus’s defense, that was likely a short-season fluke. His BABIP was just .200, his xwOBA was .295, and his BB% and ISO were at their best since his 2016 and 2017 seasons, respectively. Andrus is most likely not going to be a plus hitter, with his 2021 performance likely to match his career wRC+ of 86. What Andrus could match is Semien’s defense, in that he will be inconsistent and nerds with nothing better to do with their life will argue over whether he is good or not (AKA me). Andrus’s career defensive stats are mystifying. He sits at -2 DRS but has 26.6 UZR and 6 OAA (OAA metrics go back to 2016). Over the past three years, Andrus has been worth -9 DRS, 3.4 UZR, and 5 OAA, which is just as confusing as his career stats. Playing next to Matt Chapman should help Andrus, but the fact remains that he is an extremely poor hitter with inconclusive defensive stats. It will be interesting to see if the A’s trade for another shortstop at the deadline if they’re still in the hunt for the division, or if they’ll stick with the veteran Venezuelan.
I am obsessed with Chad Pinder. He has some of the greatest raw power in baseball as well as great defensive stats in the limited time he’s had in the outfield. What’s been his undoing is his poor plate discipline and ground ball-heavy approach. But 2020 saw Pinder make some small but significant changes when it came to his hitting that could potentially make him into a well-above-average player. So far in Pinder’s five-year MLB career, he’s been about league average with the bat, with a 98 wRC+. Most of that is thanks to his .186 ISO compensating for his paltry .302 OBP. Pinder strikes out a lot and unfortunately doesn’t have the walk rate to justify that. His 6.5% career walk rate isn’t abhorrently low, but it is tied for 55th-worst among the 260 players with 1,000 PAs since 2017. He also struggles to get much out of the balls he puts in play, a result of his 45.4% career groundball rate. Pinder crushes the ball, with a 90.6 MPH career average exit velocity and 10.9% barrel rate. But since he hits so many ground balls, he is unable to get extra bases out of them.
There are reasons to be positive though. 2020 saw Pinder post an 8.2% walk rate while striking out just 21.3% of the time, both large improvements on his career norms. And there are hints of this being sustainable. Pinder was swinging basically the same amount he was for his career in 2020, but he was making plenty more contact. His swinging-strike rate went from 13.3% prior to 2020 to 10.7% and his contact rate on pitches in the zone jumped from 84.0% to 91.5% in the shortened season. And while his ground ball rate didn’t see much of a change, Pinder’s launch angle did rise to 13.7 degrees, the highest of any season of his career. These changes are exhilarating, because if Pinder is just 10% above league average hitting-wise, he can be an All-Star thanks to his defense in the outfield. In just 1,243 career innings between left field and right field, Pinder has already racked up 22 DRS, 11.2 UZR, and 9 OAA. The fact that Chad Pinder hasn’t been given the opportunity as a full-time outfielder is honestly a travesty. If the changes to his hitting mean he can force his way into a lineup, we will be blessed.
I already wrote about one Rule 5 draft pick in this article with Mark Canha. The A’s are hoping to strike gold twice with Blaze Ka’ai Tom (No, “Blaze” is not his nickname). The former Cleveland farmhand lit up the upper levels of the minors in 2019, mostly thanks to an increased focus on pulling the ball in the air more. Between Double-A and Triple-A, Tom slashed .290/.386/.532 with a walk rate of 11.5% and a strikeout percentage of 22.7%. The lefty combines impressive contact skills with a pulled flyball approach to generate such an impressive slash line, as he’s only 5’9”. It results in a fascinating profile, as even with his .233 ISO, Tom only hit 23 home runs in 479 at bats. Tom’s high slugging percentage comes from his ability to get extra-base hits of all kinds. Home runs made up 17% of his hits, while doubles and triples made up 19% and 7% respectively. Tom also gives the A’s plenty of versatility in the outfield, having over 1,000 career innings roaming all spots of the outfield. Should Ramon Laureano get injured or Stephen Piscotty continue to struggle, Tom gives the A’s someone they can slot into those positions. Being a Rule 5 draft pick, Tom has to stay on the A’s active roster otherwise they risk losing him. Thanks to his left-handed bat, strong track record of minors performance, and outfield versatility, Tom gives the A’s plenty of reasons to keep him on their roster.
Oh Jed Lowrie, what to think about you. Given how he’s hit in his career with the A’s, it’s hard to believe Lowrie is just only barely an above-average hitter for his entire career. It’s also hard to believe it’s been almost three years since he last took the field in a regular-season game. That’s the main question for Lowrie. With his track record, ability to switch hit, and the A’s poor infield depth, the only barrier to Lowrie making the A’s roster and potentially starting for them is his health. After that, it’s just a question if he’s still the same Jed Lowrie we saw back in 2017 and 2018. That’s still a massive question. Almost a full two-year layoff from playing baseball at any level is a huge obstacle to overcome. There are many question marks for the A’s this season, many players with the potential to be both incredibly good and substandard. But I would argue that no player is a bigger X-factor for the A’s success in 2021 than Jed Lowrie.
Vimael Machin is another A’s player I find incredibly interesting. Acquired in a trade during the Rule 5 draft, the former Cubs prospect had an inauspicious debut season, racking up a 59 wRC+ in the 71 plate appearances he had. But between Machin’s time in the majors, as well as his past seasons in the minor leagues, there are inklings of Machin having the potential to be a valuable player off the bench for the A’s, one whose true ability is more than just a 59 wRC+. First, let me extol the virtues Machin already possesses that made him a player the A’s wanted to acquire in the first place. Not only does Machin bat left-handed, he has a great eye at the plate and is able to draw an above-average amount of walks while also not striking out at a significant rate. In the field, Machin has the ability and experience to play all infield positions, with his skillset more geared towards third base and second base. Those attributes alone are enough to give him a good chance at earning a bench spot with the A’s, but there is underlying potential in Machin’s bat that can elevate him into another level of player.
Over the first two years Machin played in the minor leagues, he didn’t hit a single home run. Machin is 5’10”, without a large muscular frame. He will never be a power hitter. But he has made changes to his swing that makes him more than a slap hitter with good patience. In Machin’s 2018 season between High-A and Double-A, he started to hit the ball in the air more, letting the Puerto Rico native tap into the power that he did have. Machin’s home run totals were still well below average, with just 14 round-trippers between his 2018 and 19 seasons, but his ISO hit the triple digits consistently for the first time in his career. And that’s all that Machin needs to be an effective hitter. His contact and plate discipline are at the level where he can hit for minimal power and still be an average to above-average hitter. Combine that with his defensive versatility and Machin has a player profile that is not only incredibly unique but also quite valuable.
Aramis Garcia, acquired from the Rangers in the Khris Davis trade, currently seems to have the edge when it comes to the backup catcher role. He’s started more games than Austin Allen so far, and he has a much better glove than Allen. Garcia was able to put up 6.6 FRAA, Baseball Prospectus’s framing metric, between Triple-A and MLB in 2019, but his poor hitting ability limits him to backup catcher. Garcia has had sky-high strikeout rates ever since reaching Double-A, without the walks or power to offset them. Garcia’s glovework at a key position gives him some value, but it’s hard to see him ever coming off the bench outside of when Sean Murphy needs a rest.
Before I go on to talk about Oakland’s pitching, I want to quickly suggest a change to the lineup the A’s could use, albeit a very unlikely one. Should Jed Lowrie be unfit to play second base but still able to bat, the A’s could have Lowrie DH, move Moreland to first base, and have Olson roam right field. It seems unwise to move arguably the best defender ever at first base away from the position he’s known for, but Moreland himself is a former Gold Glove first baseman, and Olson has 1,351.1 innings in right field between the minors and majors. It’s not a completely absurd idea, but it is a far-off one that has a near-zero percent chance of happening.
What a difference a year makes. At the tail end of 2019, Chris Bassitt made a handful of appearances out of the A’s bullpen, a result of an overcrowded starting rotation due to trades and players returning from injury. But just a year later, he was the A’s best starter. His 2.29 ERA was the sixth-best in baseball and he finished 8th in Cy Young voting. But it’s hard to believe that this level of play is reflective of Bassitt’s true talent level. Outside of Bassitt’s ERA and FIP, none of his 2020 stats were above career average, indicating that this breakout year is more likely a result of the small season sample size. He’s still a good pitcher, with a 3.59 ERA and a 4.07 FIP in his major league career, but his pitch-to-contact approach puts a cap on how great he could be. For his career, Bassitt has only struck out 20.2% of batters, and his best season for K’s saw him strike out just 23% of batters.
These low strikeout numbers are all a result of Bassitt’s inability to get swings and misses. His career mark for swing and miss percentage is a modest 8.5%, and his only pitch that generates an above-average amount of whiffs is his curveball, a pitch he only throws that around 10% of the time. With his low amount of strikeouts and mediocre walk numbers, Bassitt relies on generating weak contact to succeed. He is quite good at that, with his 5.3% barrel rate since 2018 being tied with Charlie Morton for sixteenth-best in MLB among pitchers with 250 IP, so he will always have value. He just won’t be the ace we saw in 2020. An interesting development to Bassitt is his adoption of a slider, one that was reportedly taught to him by new teammate Sergio Romo. Should Bassitt’s new toy prove to be a pitch that can miss bats while also being thrown at a relatively high frequency, it would help Bassitt in the one aspect he truly struggles in.
Sean Manaea did something for the first time in his career in 2020: he underperformed his peripheral stats. A surface-level glance at his ERA of 4.50 does not paint an encouraging picture for a pitcher looking to reclaim pre-injury form. But his 3.71 FIP shows that Manaea was simply one of the most unlucky pitchers in baseball in 2020. That 3.71 FIP was Manaea’s best mark in a season with at least 50 innings pitched, a result of a major lowering in free passes handed out by the Samoan. So while Manaea’s 2020 strikeout percentage of 20.3% was nearly identical to his previous career average of 19.6%, his 16.7% K-BB percentage was an improvement on his previous average of 13.2% thanks to a 3.6% walk rate. Limiting walks is imperative to Manaea, as his low strikeout rate and average quality of contact given up don’t give him a lot of wiggle room. That could change though in 2021, as Manaea has been sitting 93 and 94 on his fastball in spring training. The last time Manaea was averaging anything close to those levels in his career was all the way back in his rookie season in 2016 when his fastball averaged 93.3 MPH. If Manaea is able to maintain that velocity in the regular season, there’s a chance his strikeout numbers see an increase. That would give Manaea more room for error as well as raise his potential ceiling. As it stands, it’s hard to imagine Manaea being anything worse than league average in 2021 and a solid rock in the A’s rotation.
Jesus Luzardo didn’t have a bad rookie season, but it was an interesting one. It started off with a COVID-19 diagnosis that caused him to miss Opening Day and start the season in the bullpen, and when he got on the field, he was simply average. His ERA+ and FIP+ were both 103. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being average, and it was impressive for a 22-year-old to not look overmatched in the bigs, but I wouldn’t be surprised if fans were disappointed with the A’s top prospect not living up to his hype. But Luzardo’s debut season gave A’s fans plenty of reason to be excited. First off, his secondary pitches are simply unhittable. Statcast recorded Luzardo’s curveball and changeup as having whiff rates both over 40%, and he threw them a lot. Combined, Luzardo threw his curveball and changeup 46.8% of the time, a surprising amount for a pitcher whose fastball lives in the upper-90’s.
What makes it even more impressive is the amount of control Luzardo had over those pitches. His 6.9% walk rate ranked among the 72nd percentile for pitchers in 2020, a great sign for someone with just four years of experience in professional baseball. The only damper to all this is the fact that Luzardo needs to throw his secondary pitches that much because his fastball is simply not that good. Despite the above-average velocity and spin rate Luzardo’s fastball possesses, batters had a whiff rate of just 19.8% on the pitch. For perspective, the average fastball has a 22.6% whiff rate. This can be explained by the fact that Luzardo’s fastball doesn’t have the movement you would hope from a power pitcher. While it does have above-average horizontal movement, the below-average vertical movement limits how good Luzardo’s fastball can be. With his strong secondary offerings, Luzardo already has a very good floor for how good he can be. But if he can improve the life on his fastball, he can become the ace you dreamed about when he was a prospect.
Frankie Montas was one of the A’s biggest surprises in 2019, with a 2.96 ERA in 96 IP. Unfortunately, his season was cut short due to a PED suspension, and he didn’t get to finish that breakout season. Compared to 2019, 2020 had to be a disappointment. His ERA ballooned to 5.60 as he struggled with both command and back injuries. But much like Manaea, Montas’s peripheral stats were much more encouraging than his surface-level stats. Montas’s FIP was 4.74, and his xFIP, which is a pitcher’s FIP if their HR/FB rate was 10.5%, was 4.36. Hitters also were swinging and missing at a very similar rate against Montas as they were in 2019, and they actually made less contact. Hitters had a 76.6% contact rate against Montas in 2019 and had a 73.8% contact rate in 2020. Montas had just unfortunate home run luck, with his 1.70 HR/9 was the second-highest of his career. Of all the pitchers on the A’s, Montas was likely the one most affected by the shortened season in 2020. Look forward to him being an effective pitcher come the 2021 regular season.
Mike Fiers is unlikely to start the season on time with the A’s, as he is dealing with inflammation in his hip. That might be a blessing in disguise for Oakland, as the veteran right-hander has continued to solidify the argument for him being the worst starter in baseball. In his 59 innings pitched in 2020, Fiers had his worst career K% (14.4%), xFIP (5.73), and average fastball velocity (88.4 MPH). The A’s might be the one team in baseball where Fiers can be successful, a result of the fielders behind him. Due to Fiers’s low strikeout rate, he gives up a lot of batted balls. Since 2019, Fiers has had the sixth-most balls in play, with 766. Luckily for Fiers, Oakland led MLB in UZR over that same timeframe. That’s how, despite his high number of balls in play, Fiers’ .264 BABIP was tied for the fourth-lowest over the past two years.
Limiting as many hits given up by Fiers is critical, as even with his above-average walk rate he still has a WHIP of 1.23 since 2019, tied for 20th-worst in MLB. Fiers has to limit as many baserunners as possible because he quite simply allows home runs like it’s still the steroid era. Even in the cavernous Oakland Coliseum, Fiers 1.44 HR/9 is still the seventh-worst in MLB since 2019. He’s been able to scrape by thanks to an above-average walk rate and pitching in front of one of the best defenses in baseball, but Fiers has been on the downturn for a while. His strikeout numbers have been decreasing since 2017, and his walk rate isn’t good enough to make up for it or his inflated home run rate. Fiers can eat innings, but for a team that’s fighting for a playoff spot in a competitive division, do you really want to give him more innings than necessary?
One of the biggest surprises of the offseason was the A’s signing Trevor Rosenthal, arguably the best reliever on the market, right under everyone’s noses. The presumed heir to the vacated closer throne, Rosenthal is just three years removed from Tommy John surgery and two years removed from forgetting how to throw a baseball and having a 6.87 FIP and walking 30.6% of batters. But after a strong 2020 campaign where Rosenthal posted both the best swinging-strike rate of his career, he looks poised to reclaim the form of his Cardinals days. Rosenthal’s 2020 FIP of 2.22 was driven by his 41.8% strikeout rate, which in turn was driven by his 16.5% swinging-strike rate. Unlike fellow bullpen mates Yusmeiro Petit or Adam Kolarek, Rosenthal’s success doesn’t come from his command or particularly strong secondary pitches. He just overpowers opposing hitters with some of the hardest thrown fastballs and sliders in baseball. According to Fangraphs, Rosenthal averaged 98.1 MPH on his fastball and 87.5 MPH on his slider in 2020. Rosenthal needs to throw his pitches as hard as possible, because even after his dreadful 2019 season, he still doesn’t have great control or quality of contact prevention. In 2020, Rosenthal’s 8.8% walk rate and 6.8% barrel rate ranked in the 47th and 53rd percentiles, respectively. Unlike his predecessor Liam Hendriks, Rosenthal’s elite strikeout rate is his only pillar to lean on. He’s still one of the top relief pitchers in baseball, but his one-dimensional profile and dreadful 2019 season give reasons to be hesitant about how elite he can truly be.
Jake Diekman is the embodiment of the phrase “effectively wild”. The lefty put up a 14.3% walk rate in 2020, ranking in the 7th percentile among pitchers. And yet, thanks to his 36.9% strikeout rate, Diekman was able to post a 0.42 ERA and 2.72 FIP. What propelled Diekman towards this incredible season wasn’t his new slider grip, which was what got a lot of attention early in the season, but his fastball being more unhittable than ever. Diekman’s fastball was already quite devastating, with a whiff% regularly at 25% or above. But 2020 saw him reach a new level, with a career-best 37.9% whiff rate. It isn’t clear how he had such an increase, as his velocity, spin rate, and movement were all in line with career norms, but if Diekman is able to maintain that whiff rate on his fastball, he would obviously be deadlier than ever. Diekman was already an All-Star level reliever due to his strikeout rate and ability to avoid barrels, with his 4.5% career barrel rate being well below MLB average, but this increased strikeout and whiff rate could put Diekman into an elite tier of relievers.
J.B. Wendelken had a history of success prior to 2020, logging a 2.55 ERA and 3.01 FIP between 2018 and 2019, but he reached another level last year. With a 1.80 ERA and 3.07 FIP, Wendelken became the A’s second-most-used reliever next to Liam Hendriks. He posted a career-best K% and second-best contact rate of his career, in large part thanks to his increased use of his slider, which Wendelken almost never threw prior to 2020. It was a good rookie year for the pitch, as it became his go-to secondary offering and posting a 32.7% whiff rate. There were some growing pains, as the introduction of the pitch might be the reason Wendelken had a career-worst 10.4% walk rate, but the slider gives Wendelken the one thing he didn’t have prior to 2020: a true strikeout weapon. That doesn’t mean there isn’t any more room for improvement for Wendelken. He still throws his sinker way too much. As in, he throws it at all. It is his worst pitch by far, with hitters teeing off on it. Hitters slugged 1.000 against it in 2020, and while it did generate an above-average amount of whiffs, hitters were still able to do damage against it. If Wendelken were to stop throwing his sinker and instead throw his curveball or changeup more, he would reach even greater heights, because Wendelken’s sinker is the only thing holding him back. With his slider, he now has a strikeout weapon to complement his ability to limit good contact, and there is no reason to believe his walk rate won’t return to his career norms. As it stands, Wendelken is still one of the better relievers in baseball and will be great in whatever role the A’s put him in, be it set up man or fireman.
It’s been 13 years since Sergio Romo debuted in the major leagues, and 13 years later he’s still chugging along as an effective relief option thanks to his devastating slider. While he’s long past his prime years shutting the door on opponents at the end of games as a member of the Giants early-2010’s dynasty, his slider and changeup are still good enough to get enough swings and misses to compensate for his 86 MPH fastball. Over the past three seasons, Romo has compiled a 3.84 ERA and a 3.93 FIP, with a 25.5% strikeout percentage, 7.1% walk rate, and 1.28 HR/9. Romo has the chance to be even better this year, though, as his flyball heavy approach could benefit greatly from the deaded baseball. Since 2018, Romo has had a 45% flyball rate and 0.79 GB/FB rate. Even if there is no significant change in how the deaded ball affects Romo’s home run rate, he will still be an effective reliever for Oakland.
Yusmeiro Petit is still with the A’s and still as solid as ever. While his 2020 FIP was his highest in four years, it was still an above-average and very respectable 4.11. What you see is what you get with Petit. He doesn’t strike people out, but his ability to limit walks and hard contact brings him success. His increased use of his cutter in 2020 is interesting, as the pitch had a 38% whiff rate compared to his fastball’s 11.5%. An increased strikeout rate could help Petit counteract any potential increase in his walk rate. Petit could also be a major benefactor from the deaded ball, as his groundball rate is just 33.4% for his career. Even if those changes don’t amount to much, Petit will still be a strong option for the A’s out of the bullpen, even if he is no longer fit for the highest leverage situations.
Lou Trivino is one of the most frustrating pitchers in the A’s organization because he has such great potential he just can’t seem to reach. 2020 finally saw the Slippery Rock alumni come close to his 2018 breakout, but there is still so much more room for growth. Trivino posted a 3.86 ERA and 3.92 FIP in the abbreviated season, with his 28.0% strikeout rate being even better than his 2018 rookie year. What’s concerning about Trivino’s 2020 season however is the amount that hitters were able to barrel up the ball against him. His 10.5% barrel rate was easily the worst of his career and well above the MLB average of 6.4%. This could be a result of Trivino throwing his sinker at the highest rate of any year in his career, with the 28.1% usage rate topping his previous high of 20.7% in 2018. What’s incredibly frustrating about this is that like Wendelken, Trivino’s sinker is his worst pitch. The lowest wOBA hitters have had against it in a single season is .340, and it’s one of his worst pitches at generating whiffs, never topping 18.8% and bottoming out at 10% in 2020. The fact that he has eschewed his cutter, which regularly gets a whiff rate of 40% or greater, in favor of his sinker is maddening. Trivino is still a good reliever, one who can be relied on in high leverage situations, but his potential remains unreached and it’s so irritating.
Adam Kolarek joins Jake Diekman as the only other lefty in the A’s bullpen, but the two couldn’t be more different. While the elder Diekman is a hard thrower with high strikeout and walk totals, the younger Kolarek is a soft thrower with a pitch-to-contact approach. The former Dodger has a career 3.87 FIP, but his career ERA of 3.32 is much lower due to his ability to keep the ball on the ground and use the players behind him. In seasons with at least 10 IP, Kolarek has never had a groundball rate of less than 59.1% and his career rate of 62.7% is the eighth highest of any pitcher with at least 100 IP since 2017. Kolarek won’t be setting any strikeout records, but he can serve as a lefty specialist and a good middle innings guy, but don’t expect to see him in many high leverage situations.
FanGraphs Projected Record: 83-79, 3rd place in AL West
PECOTA Projected Record: 82-80, 3rd place in AL West
Personal Projection: 97-65, 1st place in AL West
Screw it. The A’s are a deeply flawed team. It can be argued that they have at least four positions of weakness, four well-below-average. But this team always finds a way to compete. This team is always able to somehow overperform preseason predictions, almost always due to unexpected contributors. But this year, they have a strong enough core that the level the A’s need those unexpected contributors to play at will be lower than previous years. Since 2018, the A’s have won or been on pace to win 97 games. In the not especially competitive AL West, I see no reason why they can’t make it four in a row and maintain their reign on the West.