They’re either the best in MLB or the worst in MLB or somewhere in between
We’re three weeks into the 2021 season, just over 10% of the way through. So far the Oakland A’s have alternated between occupying the role of worst team in MLB, and hottest team in MLB, and April isn’t even over yet.
The A’s lost their first six games, tying their worst start in franchise history and getting outscored by a thousand runs along the way, and eventually found themselves at 1-7. They were easily the coldest team in the league standings, and panic set in early.
Then they reeled off 11 straight victories, and almost completely flipped the script on the run differential. The streak is still going and could yet grow, and suddenly they’re the hottest team in the sport, a preseason contender who is firing on all cylinders and showing every ounce of why they can make it to their fourth straight October.
Where does that initial burst of data leave us? The A’s are somewhere between the very worst team in the majors, and the very best team in the majors. Got it.
Overall they’re 12-7, with a minus-2 run differential that is effectively even, and they’re tied for first place in the AL West. It was a weird road to get here, but this is right around where most of us on Athletics Nation thought they’d be. Winning record but not an immediate juggernaut, and at the top of the standings but not running away with anything. Nobody was expecting the Mariners to be the team Oakland was tied with, but Seattle did pull a similar April mirage two years ago before disappearing.
Here’s what has actually happened.
- Swept by good team that came out hot (Astros)
- Lost 2-of-3 to defending champs (Dodgers), who opened 13-2
- Won 2-of-3 in payback of Astros
- Outslugged also-ran team (D’Backs) in two games on road
- Swept rebuilding team at home (Tigers)
- Swept contender who was having a weird week (Twins) at home
Note: Before you write off the 8-10 Astros, remember they already went through a coronavirus scare that removed multiple stars from their lineup, helping fuel five losses in six games.
Oakland’s opening skid began with getting hammered by a quality opponent, but they got back at that same opponent a few days later on the road. They lost a series to another top heavyweight, but nobody could beat Los Angeles for the first couple weeks, so taking one game was perfectly fine for now.
On the other hand, beating the D’Backs and Tigers is something Oakland was expected to do. Against Arizona they added the adversity of being on the road and playing under NL rules. And it’s always hard to sweep four games from anybody no matter who the opponent, even a rebuilding project like the Tigers. But these were wins that get you back on track, not ones that prove you’re heading to the World Series.
Even the Twins series comes with serious asterisks. Minnesota is a contender who won their division last year, but they’re also in the middle of a COVID outbreak that removed a couple players from their lineup, forced them to sit out a few days leading up to facing the A’s, and delayed their travel to the Bay until the last minute. Then they played three games in the span of 26 hours, on the road, mostly in the afternoon sun, a thing they don’t have in the North. They deserve a mulligan, and we can reevaluate the next time they play Oakland.
None of this is meant to temper any excitement about the 2021 A’s. The wins count and they were earned. They’re playing out of their minds right now, and it’s because they have a ton of talent and this is what it can look like on full display. We should absolutely keep riding the wave and enjoying every minute of it, and there should be more good times like this as the summer progresses.
But as someone who scoffed while writing off the entire awful first week of the season, I must admit that we shouldn’t get too cocky about this latest win streak. This too shall pass, to some extent, as the opposition strengthens and at least a couple hot A’s cool off.
So since it’s not news that Oakland can beat the Tigers but still have work to do against the Dodgers, what have we learned?
The lineup has a new dimension. The past few years we lamented their struggles in clutch spots, often striking out with runners in scoring position when a simple productive out might have helped. But now there are some professional hitters in there providing tougher and more situationally appropriate at-bats, like Apparently Fully Healthy Jed Lowrie and Coliseum Legend Mitch Moreland. Even though Elvis Andrus isn’t producing yet, he’s putting the ball in play and that alone has helped on multiple occasions.
Among the incumbent crew, Matt Olson has slashed his whiff rate, not only helping his numbers skyrocket but also potentially making him more effective in high-leverage. Mark Canha has continued his ascent toward plate discipline nirvana, ranking second in MLB in pitches per plate during marathon at-bats in which he never gets cheated unless the umpire expands the zone.
They still have a heap of power and they aren’t afraid to use it, but that was always the case. Now they might be getting better at all the other things, like making contact, and running the bases — they lead the league in steals, and have hustled nonstop in every situation. That’s a concept to get excited about, even before factoring in the possibility that slugger Seth Brown might be breaking out into the next star outfielder.
Another thing we’ve learned is that the bullpen can keep ticking without expected closer Trevor Rosenthal, who’s on the 60-day injured list. Situations can change on a dime, but for the time being there are a pair of legit 9th-inning options in righty Lou Trivino and lefty Jake Diekman, with enough other arms behind them to set up. And at least for now, Father Time still hasn’t come for Yusmeiro Petit, who is still routinely spinning 88 mph fastballs into zeroes in whatever inning you want, just like always.
Next up is the defense, whose excellence was a brief question mark after Matt Chapman’s hip surgery. But after knocking off some initial rust, Chapman looks back to his superhuman self at third base, and so does first baseman Matt Olson, and the short-season 2020 improvement of Ramon Laureano in CF looks real as he chases down everything hit into his general region. The other outfielders beyond Laureano are all decent fielders or better, the middle infield is old but sturdy enough, and both catchers have plus gloves with Sean Murphy being considered elite. We were hoping the defense would be great again, and it’s already clear we can cross that off any list of worries.
The area we’re learned least about is the rotation. All five have gone through good days and bad days already, so nobody is off to a purely amazing start and nobody is in worrisome slump territory. Entering the year everyone was a good bet with high upside but something to prove, and for now that’s what they all still are.
It’s safe to say the 2021 A’s are good. We can’t call them great yet based just on an early 11-game win streak, especially against mostly weak or compromised competition, no matter how exhilarating the wave has been. But when the overall success matches the high expectation, it’s OK to assume they are in fact the AL West contender we hoped for until further notice.
What we can tentatively be optimistic about are some early building blocks of what it might take to reach the next level. Improved lineup balance and contact skills, the return of their airtight defense, and enough bullpen nastiness to reliably make it through the 9th inning. It’ll require more than that going right to win a ring, but it’s as promising a start as you could hope for after three weeks.