The Oakland Athletics are in the middle of a statement homestand. The A's took three of four from the AL West rival Astros last weekend before sweeping three games from the Yankees this week. The Yankees led for two half-innings in the entire series. Two games with the Giants remain on the homestand.
"What we've done this homestand so far is very impressive," starter Tanner Roark told reporters, including MLB.com's Martin Gallegos, following Thursday's win (OAK 5, NYY 3). "It shows what these guys in the clubhouse and the coaches are all about. We're fighters, and we're not going to give in. We're going to have fun and play together, do the small things right."
At 38-17, Oakland has the highest winning percentage in baseball since the admittedly arbitration date of June 16. That surge has moved them into the top American League wild-card spot. Here are the wild-card standings as of Friday morning:
It is a tight three-team race, though I'm sure the Indians still have their eyes on the AL Central title and view the Wild Card Game as a backup plan. (Cleveland is 3 1/2 games behind the Twins in the division.) Right now, the A's sit in the top spot and would host the Wild Card Game if the season ended today.
"You keep looking at the scoreboard, and the Rays keep winning. It just tells you that we know we have to play well for five more weeks," outfielder Mark Canha told Gallegos. "There's no letting up. This is going to be a fight. We have to keep doing this for five weeks. We're not in this to slip into the Wild Card and play a Wild Card Game. We're in this to win the World Series."
The season is far from over, but the Athletics have made it known they are not just a plucky underdog story. They're a legitimate contender and perhaps the one wild-card candidate no team wants to face in October. Here are five reasons the Athletics look like the most dangerous team in the American League wild-card race.
1. Their infield is championship caliber
We can't call it the best infield in the American League given Jurickson Profar's poor season and the second base hole, but gosh, the A's have a monster infield otherwise. Few teams boast a core this good at first base, third base, and shortstop:
1B Matt Olson
3B Matt Chapman
Chapman, Olson, and Semien are all well-above-average hitters with power, and oh by the way, they're all Gold Glove caliber defenders as well. Semien in particular deserves credit for working hard and going from defensive liability earlier in his career to standout gloveman now.
"He's similar to Ichiro. There is precision in their work. Every single groundball. Every single throw," Melvin says. "It started when (former infield instructor Ron Washington) got here and he was on his knees just learning how to fundamentally field the ball into his glove, look it into his glove. And then he would get up in a fielder's position, legs underneath him.
"It was an incremental process. And when Wash left, he stayed with it. Every day, he works on every play he's going to make during the game."
Including pitchers, Chapman and Semien both rank in the top nine in baseball in WAR. The Athletics are the only team in baseball with two 5 WAR infielders and join the Indians and Yankees as the only American League teams with three 3 WAR infielders. Olson would likely be pushing 4-5 WAR himself had he not missed six weeks with a broken bone in his hand earlier this year.
The strength of the A's is very obvious. It's their infield. Chapman, Olson, and Semien are all impact hitters and impact defenders. They provide thump in the top half of the lineup and vacuum up everything behind a pitching staff that is increasingly relying on ground balls. The Athletics have a championship core on the infield.
2. They addressed their rotation
No, they are not the sexiest names, but Roark and Homer Bailey have brought much needed stability to a rotation that lacked it the first three months of the season. Roark came over from the Reds and has a 2.63 ERA in four starts with the A's. He held the Astros to two runs in six innings last Friday and the Yankees to two runs in 6 1/3 innings Thursday.
Bailey sports an unsightly 5.68 ERA in seven starts since coming over in a trade with the Royals, though one disaster start (nine runs in two innings) skews things. In his other six starts with the A's, Bailey has a 3.75 ERA and has completed six full innings four times. Tuesday night he limited the Yankees to one run in 5 2/3 innings.
Roark and Bailey join the reliable Mike Fiers, the sneaky good Chris Bassitt, and ground ball machine Brett Anderson to give the Athletics their steadiest rotation in several years. Even last year, during their molten hot second half stretch, the A's had to use an opener to fill in the rotation gaps. (Current closer Liam Hendriks started the Wild Card Game, remember.)
The Athletics may lack that no-doubt ace like Justin Verlander or Gerrit Cole, but they are now sending a quality starting pitcher to the mound every day, and that is a big improvement from where they were earlier this year. The Bailey and Roark pickups were low-cost, easy-to-overlook trades that nonetheless addressed a major weakness.
3. Help is on the way
The single July 31 trade deadline has come and gone, so aside from waiver claims and minor free agent signings, every team will have to stay within the organization to bolster their roster. The Athletics called up hard-throwing lefty and top pitching prospect A.J. Puk earlier this week to give Melvin another bullpen weapon, and in his MLB debut Wednesday, his fastball averaged 97.8 mph.
Puk missed last season with Tommy John surgery. Despite that, MLB.com ranks him as the 43rd best prospect in baseball, and calls him a potential "No. 2 type starter."
He'll throw his fastball up to 96-97 mph and he uses one of the best sliders in the Minors to miss a ton of bats. He mixes in a curveball and his changeup, once a distant fourth pitch, has become a devastating out pitch as well, flashing plus at times. He uses his 6-foot-7 frame very well, with excellent extension ... Assuming he can get back to where he was in terms of that and his feel for all of his pitches, he should still be able to reach his ceiling as a No. 2 type starter.
With Blake Treinen and Lou Trivino, last year's bullpen stalwarts, still struggling a bit, the A's are giving Puk a chance to make a difference out of the bullpen down the stretch. They want to see if he can be what Carlos Martinez was for the 2013 Cardinals, or David Price for the 2008 Rays. When you have a highly talented pitching prospect like Puk, why not see if he can help?
Furthermore, the Athletics expect center fielder Ramon Laureano back fairly soon, likely once rosters expand in September. He's been out with a stress reaction in his leg since July 31. Also, lefty Sean Manaea has made seven minor league rehab starts in recent weeks as he works his way back from shoulder surgery. He could give the club a boost in September.
The current version of the Athletics are really good. They'll be even better once Laureano returns, and if Puk and Manaea prove useful in whatever capacity, Oakland will be that much more a complete team.
4. The schedule works in their favor
Oakland has 11 series remaining this season -- they have an off-day Friday and begin a two-game Bay Bridge series with the Giants on Saturday -- and exactly two are against teams with winning records:
- Aug. 30 to Sept. 1: Three games at Yankees (the team the A's just swept)
- Sept. 9-12: Four games at Astros (the team the A's just beat three times in four games)
That's it. No other winning teams on the schedule. The Athletics still have two series remaining with the Royals as well as a bunch of intra-division games with the Rangers, Angels, and Mariners. Their .469 remaining opponents winning percentage is second lowest in the American League:
- Twins: .429
- Athletics: .469
- Orioles: .472
- Indians: .476
- Astros: .477
Any team can beat any other team on any given night in this game. We know that.. That said, I'd much rather face losing teams already planning their winter vacations in September than winning teams fighting for a postseason spot. The A's have the most favorable schedule among American League wild-card contenders. It's up to them to capitalize.
5. Their clubhouse culture is elite
Talent is the single most important thing in baseball. The marathon 162-game season separates contenders from pretenders and the most talented teams are usually the ones left standing at the end. Talent trumps all.
Clubhouse culture is not insignificant, however. Baseball players spend more than seven months together each year and having a good core and good relationships can raise a team's game. How much? That's difficult to quantify, but a good clubhouse is not to be dismissed, and the A's have one. From The Athletic's Andy McCullough:
"Bob Melvin is just a super chill manager to play for," Canha said. "He lets everyone do their thing."
Melvin, 57, does not aim to bridge the divide with his players in grand gestures. He aims for consistency and subtlety. He tries to greet each man each day. He tries to discuss topics outside of baseball. He tries to treat them like adults. He tries to be frank.
Melvin applies the lessons he learned from (Roger) Craig and (Buck) Showalter: Be direct and be clear. When the A's called up utility man Corban Joseph last week, Melvin made sure to discuss Joseph's impending arrival with fellow utility player Jurickson Profar. With Joseph on the roster, Profar would lose playing time. When Joseph hit his first big-league home run later in the week, Profar bounced up the dugout steps to bump forearms with his new teammate.
This isn't to say the Indians, Rays, or other contenders have a bad clubhouse. Teams with poor clubhouse cultures usually wind up out of the race. There is no better example of that the 2012 Bobby Valentine Red Sox. The A's are in a unique situation because their ballpark is decrepit and their roster features many reclamation projects and overlooked players trying to make a name for themselves, and yet, day after day you see a group all pulling in the same direction. It can be impactful.
"It's a lot of fun," Roark told Gallegos. "All these guys love to mess around and I'm right there with them, trash-talking them back. No matter what it is, there's always some type of game or competition going on in here to keep it loose. It's a tight clubhouse that makes you get to know each other and become better teammates."
Taking three of four from the Astros and sweeping the Yankees certainly counts as a statement homestand. Those are the two best teams in the American League and two of the best teams in baseball in general, and the Athletics just beat them six times in seven tries. It's not easy, and while mid-August isn't necessarily predictive of October, it is a reason to take notice. The A's are showing they are one of the league's most dangerous teams.