Inside Pitch: A’s right on pace at the quarter pole

The 2018 Oakland Athletics are not a playoff team. But they are closer to a postseason berth than the AL West cellar.

This iteration of the A’s (20-21) is an 80- to 85-win team, one that will earn its chops by remaining in the postseason race well into September. So, being one game under .500 one-quarter of the way into the season puts Oakland right where it needs to be, particularly when considering that the offense, which is expected to shoulder much of the burden and did in April, has been frost-bitten in May.

Since finishing April among baseball’s top five in runs (130), home runs (33), average (.265), on-base percentage (.339) and slugging percentage (.449), the A’s O has disappeared in early-May — it is in the bottom 10 in each of those categories except home runs.

Jed Lowrie has helped keep things afloat in the season’s second full month, seeing his slash take on minimal slides from .339/.397/.583 to .313/.358/.521. That has made Lowrie the A’s most valuable player through the first 41 games.

MVP: Jed Lowrie

Lowrie’s .331 season batting average is baseball’s seventh-highest. He is also tied for second in RBIs (36) despite being well outside of the top 10 in home runs and slugging percentage. The reason is his .348 average on 16 hits with runners in scoring position — more than one-fifth of the A’s 78 hits in those situations (.252 team average).

He has also mixed in some plus defense to earn a 2.1 WAR, good enough for 12th-best in the game.

Much like last season, Lowrie is the lone constant in the middle of the Oakland order. Khris Davis (12 home runs, 36 RBIs) has been his normal powerful and productive self, but during his dry spells Lowrie has been there to clean things up.

The catcher tandem of Jonathan Lucroy (.353) and Bruce Maxwell (.364) have both seen upticks in May, combining to go 16-for-45 (.356) in 15 games, though they are still without a homer and have driven in just 13 on the season.

No matter what has going on around him, though, Lowrie, who has been in the starting lineup in all but one game and batting third in all but three, has been the motor of the A’s offense.

Biggest surprise: Marcus Semien

Sean Manaea (5-4, 2.35 ERA), fresh off a down second big league season, has been one of the league’s top hurlers. He threw the season’s first no-hitter, silencing the game’s top offense, and boasts top-15 totals in ERA, WHIP (0.80), innings pitched (61-1/3) and pitching WAR (2.2). He could easily be the pick here, but Semien has gone in the opposite direction of the league to maximum his production.

In a time when every hitter, even those with limited power potential, is focused on launch angles and swinging for home runs, Semien has gone away from the power that took him to 27 homers to lead all shortstops in 2016.

Semien, a career .249/.309/.406 slasher in six seasons, is slashing .273/.325/.381 in 2018 — his slugging percentage is down 25 points despite his average being up 24.

The result of this mentality has been 29 runs scored, good enough to tie for 11th-best in baseball, and a pace that should see him crush his previous single-season best of 72.

Semien has embraced the leadoff spot, where he has slashed .280/.328/.411 in 25 games — a team high — and nothing is more important than touching the plate for the lead-off man. Semien has touched the plate more than any other Athletic and has helped the team in doing so. He has scored in 18 games leading to a 12-6 team record in those games. And in games in which he has crossed the plate more than once, Oakland is a sizzling 7-1.

If Jed Lowrie is in fact Oakland’s motor, Semien is its engine — turning Lowrie’s power into motion via a 0.9 WAR.

Mark Canha deserves an honorable mention here, not just for his .271/.327/.510 slash with six homers and 16 RBIs but also for his flawless defense while bouncing around four positions to earn a 0.5 WAR after starting the season with Triple-A Nashville.

Team improvements needed: Performing better against the division

It’s easy to say that the A’s need to do better than their .249 team average, or .321 team OBP. But, as a team, Oakland is 13th and 15th respectively in those areas — thanks largely to a monster April. It’s even easier to say that the club 4.36 ERA (19th) and 1.31 WHIP (14th) need to come down.

But the problem has been a 9-17 record against AL West foes — 11-4 against the rest of the league, including a 3-1 record against the 28-13 Red Sox.

If the A’s to challenge for a playoff berth they will need to finish at or neat a .500 record against the teams they play most. That way a dominance over the White Sox and Orioles of the world will push them closer to the 85-win mark, which got the Twins a Wild Card berth last season.

In fairness, six of those games (1-5 record) have come against the Astros, who appear poised to make a run at back-to-back titles. But 2-5 against the Angels and 2-4 against the Mariners are not good enough — the Mariners took a hit Tuesday when Robinson Canó received an 80-game PED suspension two days after fracturing his hand.

Kendall Graveman (1-5, 7.60 ERA), who is 0-4 against the AL West, is a key to that. And he has been significantly better in his last three big league starts, with each of those starts better than the previous.

If Graveman, who brags a 3.00 ERA and .196 opponent batting average in his last two starts, can supplant Manaea on the mound while Lowrie and Davis reignite the offense driving in Semien, the A’s are certain to be a force down the stretch.


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.