The Dogged A’s Turn Around Their Awful Start

The end of Wednesday’s A’s-Twins game was, fittingly for an up-and-down Oakland team, absolutely wild. After the A’s tied the game in the bottom of the ninth, Twins manager Rocco Baldelli pulled Josh Donaldson, who was set to be the runner on second base in the 10th, in favor of rookie infielder Travis Blankenhorn. That speed upgrade proved inconsequential when Byron Buxton hit a towering home run to score Blankenhorn, but Baldelli’s move ultimately proved unintentionally costly.

In the bottom of the inning, Twins closer Alex Colomé got two quick outs, then walked the next two batters to load the bases. A weakly-hit ground ball to second should have ended things, but Blankenhorn, now at the keystone after pinch-running, bobbled it to allow one run to score and bring the A’s within one. Ramón Laureano followed that up with a hard-hit grounder to third, where Luis Arraez had taken over for Donaldson after playing the previous nine innings at second. He fielded the ball cleanly but overthrew first base for a game-ending two-run error. The A’s won without collecting a single hit in the inning.

It’s not unfair to chalk that win up to luck. But winning 11 games in a row takes a lot more than luck, and that’s just what the A’s have done — an especially impressive feat, considering the team’s historically horrendous start. Losers of six straight to open the year, they’re now tied with the Mariners for first in the AL West. How exactly have the A’s been able to turn their season around in such dramatic fashion?

After their first win of the season, Tony Wolfe examined what exactly wasn’t working for Oakland in those early games. There were a number of contributing factors: an abysmal -36 run differential and .264 slugging percentage (the worst in baseball on both fronts at the time); the virtually non-existent contributions of the back half of the lineup; and the compounding mediocrity of the starting rotation. The natural conclusion was that the A’s were feeling the effects of ownership’s unwillingness to address their lack of depth, caused largely by the big names they’d lost in the offseason and the low-cost alternatives who seemed unlikely to fill their shoes.

Since the start of their winning streak (April 9), the A’s have done a complete 180 and are leading all of baseball in slugging percentage at .501. They’ve outscored their opponents 71–33 — a run differential of +38 — in that span. They also lead baseball in home runs (22), a stark improvement from the mere three they hit in their first six games.

The A’s have collectively come back to life at the plate, but who is contributing to this current offensive burst? The expected stars were doing their part during that rocky start, but that hasn’t prevented them from improving upon their previous numbers. Since the streak began, Matt Olson has bumped his wRC+ up to a whopping 277, the best in the AL, and second only to Ronald Acuña Jr. in all of baseball. But over the last eleven games, three A’s other than Olson have posted a wRC+ above 200: Jed Lowrie (203), Seth Brown (212), and Mitch Moreland (245). This is a welcome bout of production from Lowrie, and a much-needed turnaround after a rough start for Moreland. But of particular note is Brown, who was recalled from the team’s alternate site after Chad Pinder went on the IL. He’s slugged .720 with three home runs in the eight games he’s played during the win streak, and his hot bat earned him a regular spot in the lineup over struggling Rule 5 acquisition Ka’ai Tom, who has since been DFA’d (and subsequently claimed by the Pirates). Additionally, Sean Murphy has a 163 wRC+ since coming back from a wrist contusion, allowing the overworked Aramis Garcia to slot back into the backup catcher role.

While the burst of run production has been perhaps the main contributor to Oakland’s hot streak, the pitching has tightened up as well. A’s starters are second in the AL in both ERA (2.86) and FIP (3.18) since April 9, allowing only 19 hits and six homers in sixty innings. In the first six games of the season, they averaged just 4.2 innings per start, with only one pitcher — Chris Bassitt — making it through the sixth inning, and that didn’t come until game No. 6. During their 11-game win streak, that’s improved to 5.45 innings per start (including a seven-inning complete game from Sean Manaea in a doubleheader on April 20), and only four times in that stretch has a starter failed to reach or get out of the sixth. Oakland’s bullpen has also played a part: Of the eight relievers who have appeared in the last eleven games, six of them have posted ERAs below 2.00, and they’ve stranded more than 80% of runners on base.

As good as this run has been, the A’s likely lack the depth to maintain this success. If anything, the six-game skid followed by the eleven-game surge may simply be separate case studies illustrating what happens when everything goes right and, conversely, when everything goes wrong. And at least a portion of both is due to the schedule. The first three series of the season were against the Astros, Dodgers, and the Astros again; the next two were against the Diamondbacks and Tigers, both of which the A’s swept. Their series against the Twins was likely to be the most difficult of the bunch, but Minnesota’s roster was significantly depleted by players lost to COVID-19 infection. That’s not to say that winning eleven in a row is unimpressive: The 2021 A’s are the first team ever to start a season 0–6 and go on to have an eleven-game win streak at any point in the season. But it is wise to keep this context in mind when assessing whether it’s indicative of how they’ll perform this season.

Just as important, though, is what this hot streak has done to keep the A’s alive in the early going. On April 8, their playoff odds were a measly 10.9% after starting the season at 33.4%. Since then, they’ve completely made up for the ground they lost and then some: Oakland now has a 50.7% chance of reaching the postseason, tied with the Angels for second best in the division behind the Astros’ 57.7%.

 

The A’s begin a three-game series against the Orioles tonight, so don’t be surprised if this win streak reaches 14, but after that, they’ll face the Rays in a four-game series that will pose a more significant threat to the streak. But even if the last eleven games are unlikely to be an indicator of a monster 2021 season, at the very least, Oakland has dug itself out of the hole it was in two weeks ago, and has done what, at the time, may have seemed impossible by positioning itself to contend once again.





Tess is a contributor at FanGraphs. When she's not watching college or professional baseball, she works as a sports video editor, creating highlight reels for high school athletes. She can be found on Twitter at @tesstass.

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Sculpin
Member
Sculpin

Thanks for the analysis and stats, but…

The A’s turnaround could have been a good opportunity to talk about how silly it is to even think about how playoff odds change at the beginning of the season with a six game losing streak.

outdrawed
Member
outdrawed

Disagree. The playoff odds didn’t change because they think they are worse than they are, but moreso because they no longer have to have the fifth best record going forward but be better than the fifth best team by a couple games. Said differently, if 88 wins gets them into the playoffs, they would have had to play like a 91-92 win team the rest of the way