Back in July, when the Oakland Athletics won a million games, suddenly emerged as this year’s most surprising ballclub, and roared towards a wild card berth, it still seemed that they could go bust at any moment, thanks to an obvious Achilles heel. The starting rotation was so comically injured that old farts like Edwin Jackson were shouldering huge roles for the club. The conventional wisdom cautioned that all of Oakland’s fun young sluggers could only do so much before the overperforming, undertalented rotation regressed hard and maimed a beautiful season.
We are now mere weeks away from the start of the playoffs, and while Oakland’s rotation is somehow in an even sorrier spot than it was when they broke out in July, it hasn’t really slowed them down at all. The A’s are a ridiculous 34-15 since the all-star break, 55-21 since their low point in mid-June, and only one game behind the suddenly mortal New York Yankees for the top wild card spot. The Houston Astros have stopped losing much at all, so the AL West crown has remained tantalizingly out of reach, but Oakland is firmly entrenched as the fourth-best team in baseball.
And they’ll have to make their postseason run without Sean Manaea, the only survivor from the opening-day rotation, after he had to have shoulder surgery that will knock him out until 2020. Somehow, this team, the coolest club in the majors, has, uh Mike Fiers as their ace? How did we get here?
Here’s how things looked in January, from an MLB.com blog entitled “A’s rotation will hold key to success in ‘18”:
Graveman and Cotton had Tommy John surgery, Blackburn started six games before returning to the DL with elbow issues, Daniel Gossett also had Tommy John surgery, Andrew Triggs has been out since May with nerve damage, and top prospect A.J. Puk missed the entire season after, you guessed it, Tommy John surgery. Manaea was the only consistent member of a makeshift rotation, until his shoulder went out this month.
The A’s signed veterans Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill in March and uber-veteran Edwin Jackson in June, and traded for Mike Fiers in August. That’s it, that’s the whole rotation. Cahill was the best of that group for a while, and now he has a back issue that will keep him out of at least his next start. Anderson is just getting back from a two-week stretch on the DL, which means the A’s have between two and four healthy starters. Bob Melvin has been filling in the fifth spot with bullpen starts, most of which heavily feature Daniel Mengden and his cool mustache and weird windup.
No contender should be able to credibly stay afloat with such an inexplicable cast of starting pitchers, and it’s hard to call it a “rotation” when the team has more or less never been able to cycle through a consistent five starters all year. The most critical component of Oakland’s sustained success has been a rock-solid bullpen. Closer Blake Treinen is having one of the best statistical seasons for a reliever in baseball history, and the A’s pen leads the majors in opponent batting average in high leverage situations by a comical margin. Lou Trivino, Jeurys Familia, and Yusmeiro Petit have been studs, and the front office loaded up by acquiring Familia, Shawn Kelley, Fernando Rodney, and Cory Gearrin at the deadline. By any statistical measure, this is one of the best bullpens in decades, and it’s unbelievable deep.
Last night’s 10-0 shellacking of the Orioles was a perfectly illustrative late-season A’s win. Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, and Khris Davis all came up with big hits in the same inning, rookie center fielder Ramon Laureano reached base four times, and the bullpen pitched nine innings of one-hit ball, led by five no-hit innings from Mengden.
At this point in the season, with the wild card game just over two weeks away, I’m done questioning the A’s. Matt Chapman is a superstar, the offense is formidable, and the bullpen will fuck anyone up. They have a weird way of doing business, but it’s worked all summer long, and it would not be out of character for them to somehow make a postseason run with Mike Fiers and Edwin Jackson alone.