The Oakland A’s Spice Up The American League Playoff Race

In the last three weeks leading up to the All-Star break, the American League playoff landscape finally got a sixth contender. A race that looked to have the five teams (Astros, Mariners, Indians, Red Sox, Yankees) locked into October saw the Oakland A’s get hot and move up close into Seattle’s rearview mirror. The A’s closed the first half on a 15-4 run, including seven wins in ten games against Cleveland and Houston. The result is that Oakland is now within three games of Seattle for the final wild-card berth.

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The key to the A’s 55-42 record—one that would have them leading three different MLB divisions—has been some good young power hitters and quality bullpen work. The key to their future success will be back-end starting pitching and getting a lift from some currently underperforming veterans.

Oakland has got a nice young tandem at the corner infield spots. Matt Olson, 24-years-old, has hit 19 home runs at first base. Matt Chapman at third has a stat line of .342 on-base percentage/.434 slugging. That’s not All-Star caliber, but it’s steady—and when you consider that Oakland Alameda-Coliseum is one of the worst parks in the American League to hit in (deep dimensions combined with vast expanses of foul territory), Chapman’s production looks even better.

The A’s are also witnessing the revival of Stephen Piscotty’s career. The rightfielder, once a promising young star in St. Louis, was cut loose. The Cardinals’ mistake has been Oakland’s gain, with the 27-year-old rightfielder slugging .457. And designated hitter Khris Davis was stolen from Milwaukee three years ago for two minor leaguers who have done nothing since. Davis merely slugs .503, has 21 home runs and is the most underrated power hitter in baseball.

Speaking of underrated—closer Blake Treinen has 24 saves with an 0.94 ERA, as he slides under an American League closers’ radar dominated by Aroldis Chapman in New York and Craig Kimbrel for Boston. Treinen is set up superbly by Lou Trivino, with a 1.21 ERA. Depth in the pen is provided by Emilio Pagan and Yusmeiro Petit.

While I don’t want to make too much of one outing four years ago, I can’t help but think of Petit’s six shutout innings for San Francisco in a marathon playoff game in Washington in 2014. Petit’s performance essentially swung that series and set the stage for Madison Bumgarner to deliver the Giants a World Series title. Given that this year’s Oakland team is going to be filled with young pitchers working the biggest innings of their careers, we’ll see if Petit’s veteran experience pays any dividends.

If this Oakland run is to be more than just a pleasant high point on the way to a winning season (something that would be an undisputed success for the organization), they’ll need a couple starting pitchers at opposite ends of the career spectrum to step up. The most important is 34-year-old Edwin Jackson, who has made four starts with a 2.59 ERA.

The other pitcher I’ve got my eye on is 25-year-old Frankie Montas. He’s been temporarily sent to the minors, but that’s to ensure he keeps getting work during the All-Star break. Montas has a 3.35 ERA in his eight starts and is the kind of young pitcher that has to come into his own if the A’s are to make the playoffs.

Finally, we come to 32-year-old catcher Jonathan Lucroy. A few years ago in Milwaukee, he was threatening to join the Buster Posey and Yadier Molina in the race for best catcher in the NL. Now he’s on his third team in less than three years and posting a meager stat line of .297/.312. Lucroy has to show there’s still something left in his tank.

The smart money isn’t overreacting to Oakland’s recent hot streak. They’re 40-1 to win the American League pennant, which becomes most noteworthy when you compare it to Seattle’s 10-1. Odds to win the World Series or even just catch Houston in the AL West are similarly proportioned—the A’s are seen as about 4-5 times less likely than the Mariners to do it. Clearly, no one is expecting them to make the playoffs.

I won’t predict it either, but this Oakland time is arriving ahead of schedule and if nothing else, they’ve given some juice to a previously predictable American League landscape.