A’s offense in good hands with nucleus of Davis, Olson

Since he joined the Athletics in 2016, no American Leaguer has hit more home run than Khris Davis. Only four have driven in more runs.

Yet somehow “Khrush” is not the focal point of the Oakland offense as the season nears. Nope, that distinction goes to a 23-year-old with just 70 games of major league experience.

Matt Olson took the baseball world by storm last August when he mashed 16 home runs and drove in 28 runs in just 23 games. Along with fellow second-year slugger Matt Chapman, who is coming off an impressive rookie campaign of his own, Olson will be expected to play a key role in the A’s offensive attack in 2018. But can the young duo shoulder that type of responsibility? Manager Bob Melvin believes so. Still, there is some hesitancy:

“They’ve put up numbers, for young players, that are absolutely fantastic. … You’d hate to put unrealistic expectations on these guys — like these are the two saviors.”

That is where veterans like Jed Lowrie, Marcus Semien and especially Davis will come in — as something of a tempering shield. All signs point to the mashing Matts growing into franchise talents, including a combined 60 homer-type expectant production in the middle of the lineup. But the fact of the matter is, the expectation that they will provide that level of output this season is a bit cumbersome.

Said Melvin:

“The one thing that I cringe a little bit about is the expectations that are put on these guys. You talk about less-than-one year big leaguers and they’re not going to be their best next year.”

Even with the dreaded sophomore slump in play, however, the corner infield tandem will have much to say about where the conclusion of the upcoming season will find the A’s. Starter Sean Manaea, who admitted to SFBay that he would be a little nervous to face the “big bopper” Olson, confirmed:

“If they can do anything like what they did toward the end of the season it’s going to be a big year for us. I’m really looking forward to seeing what they can do.”

Along with Chapman, who is the closest thing this roster has to a five-tool talent, and Olson, who Melvin said will be in the heart of the Oakland order from day one, will look for continued production from Lowrie, who is coming off the best all-around season of his 10-year career.

Lowrie, who Melvin expects to be another constant in the middle of the A’s lineup, slashed .277/.360/.448 with 14 homers and a franchise-record 49 doubles. Not only will that level of production be needed from the switch-hitting second baseman, but his leadership as well, according to the skipper.

The batting order amoeba that is Semien, while just as important to the offensive production, will not have a solidified home on the lineup card. As Melvin said, his combination of abilities make him a productive weapons in several spots.

The shortstop has the power to homer with the best middle infielders, as prove by his 27 homers in 2016 — the most among AL shortstops — while also bringing the ability to swipe a base, which he has done 10 or more times in each of the past three seasons. In fact, he is coming off a career-high 12 steals in 2017 despite plating just 85 games.

A continued uptick in ob-base percentage — career-best .325 last season — is the next step in Semien’s offensive development. For all the power and production he brings, the five-year veteran doesn’t need a huge increase in batting average (career .246) but he does need to find a way to limit the strikeouts and improve his contact rate. The same can be said for the entire Oakland lineup, which finished third-worst in the AL with a franchise-high 1,491 strikeouts.

That, Melvin said, has been a preaching point of his since midway through the 2017 season.

Alas, even as the darlings of the East Bay, Olson and Chapman will be led by Davis whose consistency for power is something the Athletics franchise hasn’t seen in 84 years — when it laid its hat in Philadelphia. That consistency made him the first Athletic to hit 40-plus bombs in consecutive season since Jimmie Foxx.

Davis, who on Monday was named the sixth-best left fielder in the game right now by MLB Network, is another powerful swinger whose high strikeout totals contribute heavily to a less-than-ideal average. A career .248 hitter, Davis has been consistent batting .247 in each of his two years in the green and gold.

There is positive, however. After posting a horrendous .307 on-base percentage in 2016, Davis pushed his walk total from 42 to 73 in 2017 raising his OBP to .336.

While still lower than Melvin would like, an improved eye in the box makes the slugger much more dangerous — and not just in a higher on-base clip, but also in his hunt for hittable pitches. Continued growth in that area will put his above-average speed on base more in front of Olson and Chapman, a fear-strickening proposition, as Manaea said.

With a jump in the A’s team OBP (.319 last season, 11th-worst in MLB) combined with the power potential from guys like Davis, Olson, Chapman and Semien in the middle of the order, the Oakland offense could be more than scary. It could be downright productive.


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.