Inside Pitch: A’s last-place finish anything but tragic

A funny thing happened on the way to 87 losses.

Sure, 75 wins weren’t enough for the Athletics to emerge from the American League West cellar, where they have now finished each of the past three seasons. No, a six-game improvement from their 2016 record isn’t something to write home about, particularly in the wake of Minnesota’s rise from 100 losses to a postseason berth. And, yeah, a climb to the peak of the division calls for Oakland overcoming one of baseball’s best teams in the Astros and one if its best players in Mike Trout.

But there is more drama to the season that was for the A’s than tragedy or comedy. Drama that should have A’s fans on the edge of their seats this offseason, salivating in anticipation for the season that is to be.

Oakland created a starting lineup over the final two months of the season that came it at an average age of 27.1 years old, playing 12 of its 17 series’ against teams which were, at the time, in the heat of a postseason race.

The outcome was a .500 record (28-28), including a run of 17-7, pushing the A’s season record against opponents with a record of .500 or better to 24-25 — 11th-best in the league behind only one postseason non-qualifier, the Milwaukee Brewers (37-38).

There are many ways to frame Oakland’s latest rough season in a positive light. Among those, the individuals who enjoyed success, and the successes they enjoyed.

MVP: Powerful Davis leads the charge

Had it only been for 10 more points on his batting average and 10 more tallies in his team’s win column, Khris Davis would have found himself in the thick of the American League MVP race.

The 29-year-old left fielder has proven to be a model of consistency, batting .247 in each of his first two seasons in the green and gold. He also slugged .528 in 2017, one year after slugging .524 and homered 43 times to back up a 42-homer campaign. Not only is he consistent, he’s consistently powerful at a rate last seen in more than 80 years.

Said manager Bob Melvin:

“You’re talking about Jimmie Foxx and Khris Davis in organizational history. That’s with guys like (Mark) McGwire and Reggie Jackson and Jose Canseco, it’s pretty impressive numbers that he put up.”

The man once known as “Double-X” was the last to swat 40 or more home runs in consecutive seasons (1932-34) while in an A’s uniform, albeit the Philadelphia A’s. McGwire’s best back-to-back output came in his first two full seasons (49, 32) when he hit four fewer than Davis has in his first two years with the club.

One number that did fluctuate drastically was Davis’ on-base percentage, which shot of from .307 in 2016 to .336 this season. Another modest improvement came in his defense. Davis’ fielding percentage jumped 25 points, from .970 to .995 (just one error in 215 chances), while his range factor increased, from 1.84 to 1.94. His total range factor and defensive runs saved (-13) are still both below the league average but his improvements are worth noting.

To be fair, Jed Lowrie, who slashed .277/.360/.448, bolstered his season with a franchise-record 49 doubles making him very deserving. But Davis finished second in the AL in home runs and third in RBIs (110) and that cannot be overlooked. Matt Joyce enjoyed career-highs in home runs (25), doubles (33), runs (78) and total bases (222), and rebounded from a rough first two months, in which he slashed .191/.287/.348 to post a season .243/.335/.473 — .265/.355/.527 from June 1.

Cy Young: The little lefty, everyday Daniel

Not one pitcher reached the 30-start mark. Only two — Sean Manaea (29) and Jharel Cotton (24) — made 20, and only Paul Blackburn made as many as 10 and finished the season with an ERA below 4.19 (3.22).

So, in summation, the starting staff, which general manager David Forst call disappointing, didn’t have any one standout. What Forst’s team did have was a lefty who led the team in appearances (72) while putting up a very respectable 3.48 ERA — good enough for fourth-best among A’s pitchers who finished the season in Oakland.

Daniel Coulombe emerged as not only the sole bullpen lefty following the departure of Sean Doolittle but a very useful one.

He won just two games, matching his loss total, and he suffered a blown save without ever being credited with a conversion, but in a season that held little reliability on the mound Coulombe became rock-steady.

Daniel Mengden (3-2, 3.14 ERA), the owner of Oakland’s only complete game and shutout, came on down the stretch and offered a light at the end of a dim tunnel in his seven starts. Like Blackburn, who ended the season on the disabled list, Mengden will play a key role in the staff’s potential turnaround next year.

Rookie of the Year: A case of two Matts

Matt Olson and Matt Chapman¬†each played a role in solidifying the A’s, both offensively and defensively.

Offensively, they combined for 38 home runs and 85 RBIs in 143 games. Defensively, the two combined to save 23 runs above average (Chapman, 19 and Olson, four as a first baseman).

While Olson’s offensive numbers (.259 average, .352 OBP, 24 home runs and 45 RBIs in 59 games) were incredibly mesmerizing and awe-inspiring, Chapman’s defensive impact is immeasurable.

Chapman took over at third for Trevor Plouffe, who had committed six errors in 52 games and saved just one run above average. He committed more errors (13) but got to more balls (3.40 to 2.67 per nine innings) and saved 19 runs to Plouffe’s 1.

Said Melvlin:

“Some of the metrics that you look at — Nolan Arenado is kinda the standard at the position — in basically half a season statistically, his numbers matched up to a full season of (Arenado’s). … And what we saw definitely suggested that.”

What isn’t measured, though, is the impact the rookie had on the rest of the infield defense, which improved almost overnight upon his arrival. And just for good measure, he finished fifth on the team in doubles (23), tied for seventh in home runs (14), tied for eighth in RBIs (40) and ninth in OPS (.785) in 84 games.

All things considered, Olson brought more excitement to the team — excitement that made Ryon Healy unable to look the big first baseman in the eyes — but Chapman offered more in the way of tangible substance. Both showed that they have the potential to carry the team in both facets moving forward.

On deck: Long offseason, short shopping list

Speaking of looking forward, the A’s front office has targeted pitching as the main offseason need.

A veteran starter, situational lefty to supplant Coulombe in the bullpen and perhaps another late-inning righty top the list, according to Melvin.

General manager Davis Forst said:

“We’ll spend the next month or two evaluation and analyzing exactly who the guys are that are everyday players … and where we still have to upgrade. …Starting pitching was up and down all year, we’re going to have to spend some time talking about that.”

Still, with his current group of position players, a solid mix of veterans and youngsters, Melvin said that it is no Shakespearean fiction that after everything his team put together this year, especially how it came on strong in the final two months, it will come back next year with much higher expectations:

“We feel like, coming to spring next year, we’re going to win. And I don’t think there’s anything that happened in the second half that wouldn’t suggest that that is going to be the mindset.”


Kalama Hines is SFBay’s sports director and Oakland Athletics beat writer. Follow @SFBay and @HineSight_2020 on Twitter and at SFBay.ca for full coverage of A’s baseball.