Inside Pitch: Assigning Athletics first-half awards
At the midway point of the 2018 season, the only thing keeping the Athletics, a team that has finished each of the past three campaigns in the American League West cellar, out of playoff position is the historic over-achievement currently going on in Seattle.
The A’s started the second half on Thursday the same way they ended the first Wednesday: with a victory over the Tigers.
A four-game sweep in Detroit gives Oakland a 44-38 record, the furthest above .500 it has been since 2014. The A’s are one hot run — or one Mariners drought — from sliding right into the second Wild Card slot, and they put themselves firmly in the hunt by getting contributions from everyone on the roster.
Sean Manaea was the AL Pitcher of the Month in April, and Jed Lowrie could have been named the Player of the Month at the same time. When Manaea went cold in May, Daniel Mengden stepped into the ace role. And with June coming to a close, Lowrie has rediscovered his productive self with help from Matt Olson and Stephen Piscotty. These battling A’s have embodied the “next man up” mentality, and they’ve needed to given the litany injuries they have been faced with.
Choosing top individual performers, for that reason, is difficult. But it has to be done.
Lowrie was impossibly cold through the second-half of May and the first-half of June, slashing .170/.237/.239 with no homers and five RBIs from May 18 to June 14. The A’s went 12-13 in that stretch.
The value of switch-hitting second baseman (turned third baseman), for that reason, cannot be overstated. When Lowrie is swinging the bat well his club is nearly 10 games over .500, when he isn’t it is below.
He has thus far been the most valuable “A.” In 80 games played this season, he is slashing .294/.350/.497 (all tops on the club among qualified players). He also leads the team in hits (94), extra- base hits (38) and RBIs (55), and will almost certainly be making his first All-Star Game appearance come July 17 — though it will have to be via either player or coach selection.
While Lowrie has been the most consistent performer in Oakland this season, and his cold stretches have coincided with the team’s slumps, there have been honorable mentions.
Lowrie is fourth in the AL in RBIs, but Khris Davis is seventh (53) despite missing nine games with a groin injury. “Khrush” is also tied for fifth in the league in homers (20). Olson is just behind him with 17 longballs — Lowrie is third (13) by the way — while mixing in some awe-inspiring defense. And Marcus Semien leads the club in runs scored (46) while currently sitting 10th among MLB shortstops in defensive runs saved (4).
Still, it is Lowrie that has driven the offense, and his near-flawless defense — he has committed just one error in 292 chances — has been good enough even with his limited range leading to exactly average defense (per total zone rating).
Manaea was nearly untouchable in April — and for one night, totally untouchable — but his struggles in May have brought him back to earth. Mengden did his best to match Manaea’s 4-2 record and 1.03 ERA in April with a 4-1 record and 1.51 ERA in May, but his June has been nothing short of a nosedive culminating in a trip to the disabled list this week — joining Brett Anderson, Trevor Cahill, Jharel Cotton, Daniel Gossett and Andrew Triggs.
There has been only one true constant on the pitching staff this season, and it has not been a starter.
Blake Treinen‘s 20 saves are tied for eighth-most in baseball, and he has blown just two chances. His 1.8 WAR is tied for the best among regular closers, and his 0.91 ERA is best among bullpen arms by more than one-quarter run — his 0.88 WHIP is top-five.
Yeah, the Cy Young Award is normally reserved for starters, but it has gone to relievers nine times and two of those to players who dawn A’s caps in the hallowed halls of the Cooperstown, so why not? After all, Dennis Eckersley won the Cy Young as Oakland;s closer in 1992 after converting 51 saves with a 1.91 ERA and 0.91 WHIP, those numbers are within Treinen’s reach.
The 29-year-old fireballer has been the most valuable pitcher in Oakland this season. He has locked down late leads, driving the A’s to a 14-7 record in one-run games (the AL’s second-best mark) and a league-best 29-0 mark when leading after seven frames.
Rookie of the Year
Treinen has recorded more than three outs 13 times this season, so while he has been key to the A’s late-game dominance he has not done it alone.
That’s where Lou Trivino comes in. Dustin Fowler has brought an injection of energy to the offense since being recalled in early-May but measuring his value to that of Trivino, who has assumed the role of set-up man and second-option closer, is a virtual no-contest. In fact, a closer comparison can be made between Trivino and Treinen than Fowler and Trivino.
His 1.59 ERA, 0.97 WHIP and 1.3 WAR are each among the best among all bullpen arms.
Trivino personifies everything that has made an A’s team many though to be a year or two away from competing a contender this season. He was a guy, with limited expectations, who was called upon out of necessity to become a very productive piece. That is the approach that has and will continue to make Oakland baseball’s best kept secret in 2018.