The Red Sox may have won the World Series, but in many ways, it was the Oakland Athletics that were baseball’s hot summer jam. Winning 97 games, the most since the heady Moneyball days of yore, Oakland returned to the penthouse from the outhouse. And quite literally, given that the 2018 version featured stories of a possible privately financed new ballpark rather than tales of raw sewage befouling the clubhouse. No, their…stuff…doesn’t yet work in the playoffs, but getting there is half the battle.
The A’s were largely a victim of their own success, with their stathead shenanigans and a movie in which their GM was played by an A-list actor helping to usher in a new era in baseball, one in which every team in baseball has embraced modernity to at least some extent.
Much of the praise Oakland received 15 years ago had to do with a front office that was largely playing in a world in which many of their opponents didn’t know all the rules. Once the people you’re playing Monopoly with realize that they too can build houses and hotels on properties, things get a lot harder.
Baseball got a lot smarter and the A’s saw their edge harder to maintain. It’s one thing to be smart while the other guy is rich, but what happens when the rich teams are also smart?
Times have been lean in Oakland since the frustrating finish to the 2014 season, when the team lost ten games to the Angels over a two-week period in late summer, falling from a first-place battle to nearly missing the playoffs entirely.
The A’s have generally been content to just survive on a yearly basis, holding their head safely above baseball’s true pits of despair, but never keeping together enough of a core to win consistently. The front office is far from incompetent and has continued to cleverly acquire under-appreciated talent like Blake Treinen and Khris Davis, even if it’s frequently more expensive to do so than it used to be.
Coming into 2018, if the A’s believed they were on the cusp of a 97-win team, they certainly didn’t act like it. After all, Yusmeiro Petit was the team’s biggest free agent signing, inking a two-year, $10 million contract. 2018 had all the looks of another patchwork season.
ZiPS projected 97 wins for the A’s! It just thought it would take them until May 2019. The projection for Oakland was for just two fewer wins than that of the Mariners, but that was mostly damning with faint praise; ZiPS wasn’t exactly a fan of the Mariners either, feeling that the additions of Ohtani, Cozart, and Kinsler and some healthy pitching from the Angels would make Los Angeheim the upside contender in the AL West.
A playoff appearance wasn’t impossible — 5.9% is still about the probability that a really good power hitter jacks a homer — but at a 21-win miss, I’m certainly not doing any bragging.
Oakland didn’t just win 97 games, they snuck up on 97 games. As late as June 17, the team was still just at .500, at 36-36. In an increasingly bifurcated American League, it was the Seattle Mariners that were coasting to the second wild card while making the Houston Astros feel a bit uncomfortable atop the West.
Oakland went 61-29 from this point on, good for a .678 winning percentage and the best record in baseball. Fluke is a bit of a dirty word — nobody can win 61 of 90 games in baseball without some serious, ability-based reason. But unlike some teams — the 2017 Arizona Diamondbacks having a whole rotation of legitimate Cy Young contenders come to mind — it’s still not entirely obvious how they got where they did when you consider where they started.
The team’s offense led baseball in wRC+ over those final 90 games, with 10 of the 12 players with at least 100 plate appearances at least matching a wRC+ of 100, the only exceptions being the post-good Jonathan Lucroy and Dustin Fowler, who just barely squeaked over the playing time threshold.
Compared to preseason projections, four players (Chapman, Piscotty, Martini, and Laureano) exceeded their projections by at least 40 points of wRC+; only Olson and Davis hit around where they were expected over this period.
While the pitching was better in this second-half-plus-a-side-dish — dropping from a 4.05 ERA and a 4.50 FIP to a 3.64 ERA and 3.93 FIP is an improvement — it was nothing that made you rub your eyes in disbelief like a stock cartoon character from the 1930s. Well, except for the re-emergence of Edwin Jackson, who I’d swear was born in the 1930s given how long it seems he’s been around if I didn’t already know he just turned 35 somehow.
What Comes Next?
Teams like this are maddening to predict, because you’re never quite sure whether you assumptions were wrong going in or if a lot of stuff just happened to go right at a convenient time.
|Year||Team||Predicted W%||Actual W%||Next Year W%||New Year WPCT|
To see how ZiPS did with this issue historically, I went back and looked at all of the largest ZiPS misses on the positive side. Of the 25 teams that beat ZiPS by the most, 20 had a worse season than the following year. Overall, the year-old projections did just as good a job predicting the future of the team (without knowing anything about the roster construction changes over that first year), as the team’s actual record did.
But if you’re an optimist, teams did keep roughly half their gains. ZiPS projected these teams to play .472 ball, compared to their actual .576. They dropped down to .527 the following season, but that’s still a 50-point improvement over the previous expectation. If the A’s keep half of their over-performance in the 2019 projections, they’re an 86 or 87 win team.
And the roster that crushed expectations in 2018 largely returns in 2019, with one current major exception in Jed Lowrie. (Technically, Edwin Jackson is a loss, but they probably wouldn’t get his 2018 performance in 2019 even if he was signed.) The offensive core returns and, except for Khris Davis, were all under 30 in 2018.
That’s not to say the team doesn’t have weaknesses. The still-preliminary ZiPS projections put the A’s in the bottom five in the league for rotation WAR, so there’s considerable work to be done there. (The lineup and rotation project in the top-half of the league.) But I’m unusually sunny here. The fact that the A’s appear to be closer to a new stadium than they have been in decades, and have a proposal with a stronger chance of surviving given the private financing, suggests there’s at least a chance that ownership is more willing to spend on the team’s needs than they have been in the past.
Preliminary ZiPS Projection – Khris Davis
For some odd reason, the projection I’ve asked about the most lately is whether Khris Davis is projected to hit .247 for the fifth straight year. Hell, I’m curious about that myself.
I’ve never been prouder of my creation than I am at this moment. 2018 was truly the season that Khris became the one true Crush/Khrush and with Crash Davis already taken, Chris Davis is going to have to now choose between Crosh and Cresh. The A’s will have a tough decision to make on Davis at the end of 2019, because while he’s damn good at his one dimension, he still remains one dimensional, and he’ll be looking at his age-32 season in 2020. Until the A’s have a deeper pocketbook, it’s hard to justify putting a lot of resources into a very good DH.
Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.