We are all familiar with the old adage that “defense wins championships. For the 2018 Oakland Athletics, it won them the 2nd Wild Card, which given expectations, certainly qualified as a personal victory.
In 2017, the A’s finished with a 75-87 record, stuck in baseball purgatory, where the team isn’t good enough to compete but isn’t bad enough to tear down. Despite a losing record, the A’s showed signs of promise by finishing with 227 home runs, good for 3rd in Major League Baseball. Lead by a core of young sluggers, the A’s were starting to build a team that might even be able to contend in 2018,
Fast forward to 2018 and the now more experienced powerful A’s lineup had elevated their game to the next level. At one point during the summer, the A’s had actually overtaken the defending World Series Astros in the AL West. In 2018, the A’s offense finished with a team 110 wRC+, which ranked second only to the 108-win Boston Red Sox. So while it is easy to look at this team and credit the offense for their unexpected sense, the real credit for the A’s unlikely turnaround lies in their much-improved defense.
Last season the A’s finished first in the American League in Defensive Runs Saved with +61 , an impressive feat for a team that had ranked last in baseball just two years prior with -83 DRS. This transformation does not just happen. It is an example of a front office identifying a glaring problem and taking the necessary steps to solve it.
This shift in defensive mindset started when the A’s traded Ryon Healy to the Mariners in November of 2017 to ensure Khris Davis the DH role permanently for the 2018 season. Davis had his issues in the outfield, especially when it came to throwing the baseball. He even published an article on the Player’s Tribune last season discussing the mental obstacles he must every time he needs to rear back and make a throw. If you are familiar with what is described as “the yips” in baseball circles, Davis has a textbook case. While Davis may never overcome the mental block that has cursed him with what might statistically the worst throwing arm in MLB history, the 40+ bombs, 100+ RBIs and exactly .247 average makes him the anchor of Oakland’s prolific lineup.
Moving Davis into a role as the full time designated hitter may have been the first move towards the A’s shifting defensive philosophy, but the transformation truly began when Matt Chapman was called up from Nashville to man the hot corner at the Coliseum.
Matt Chapman was, without a doubt, the most electrifying player on the A’s in 2018. In fact, he may have just been the most electrifying player in all of baseball. With so many plays on his highlight reel, it was hard to narrow it down to just a few, but here are some of my favorites/
— Oakland Athletics 🌳🐘⚾️ (@Athletics) March 30, 2018
Matt. Chapman. Is. Ridiculous. 😮pic.twitter.com/kkJjIKAQcd
— Yahoo Sports MLB (@MLByahoosports) August 1, 2018
— Oakland Athletics 🌳🐘⚾️ (@Athletics) May 26, 2018
After playing 84 games in 2017, the A’s knew they had something special their hands as Chapman dazzled with web gems on a near nightly basis. By the end of the season, Chapman had accrued a 19 DRS, falling just one run saves short of Nolan Arenado for the record among rookie third baseman. While this is impressive in its own right, Chapman did so playing just 84 games, whereas Arenado suited up 157 times for the Rockies. In a half of a season, there was already an argument to be made that Chapman was the best defensive third baseman in baseball.
The 25 year-old finished first in MLB with a 3.5 defensive WAR after an impressive 2.2 defensive WAR in 2017 in less than 90 games. Before Josh Donaldson in 2014, the last A’s players to finish in the top 10 in MLB in defensive WAR were Kurt Suzuki and Mark Ellis in 2008. An average baseball follower would say “Hey, Chapman also had 20 errors. That has to mean something.” Well, 5 of the top 10 AL third basemen error-leaders also made the playoffs. One of the defensive metrics I value most is Range Factor, which incorporates (putouts + assists)/innings played. Matt Chapman led all AL third basemen with a 3.20 Range Factor with Yolmer Sanchez in 2nd with 2.77.
The other piece to the puzzle was across the diamond in first baseman Matt Olson. With Healy gone for the final 43 games, Olson took over at first base and capitalized on the opportunity.
While Healy wasn’t terrible at first base, his lack of athleticism limited his upside defensively. Olson, on the other hand, possessed well-above-average range for a first baseman. In fact, his 9.18 Range Factor (RF) ranked 6th in all of baseball. While Olson’s range allowed him to field balls that would end up as hits for another first baseman, he also excelled in scooping low throws. In fact, the A’s first baseman leads all of baseball with 44 scoops, outpacing Eric Hosmer by 13. After suiting up for all 162 games in 2018, his durability is yet another attribute the A’s budding start has working for him. At just 24 and 25 years old, I can confidently say that there is no better corner infield tandem when it comes to flashing the leather,
Perhaps the biggest defensive question mark heading into this season was shortstop Marcus Semien. Normally, I am opposed to basing someone’s defensive performance by using outdated statistics such as errors, but between 2015 and 2017, Semien’s 65 errors were nine more than the next closest shortstop. Sometimes, all it takes is the right coach to make it all click for a player and for Marcus Semien, Bay area native and infield guru Ron Washington was that coach. I used to work for the A’s a couple years back and would arrive hours early to catch batting/infield practice. Sure enough, Semien was out there taking grounders from Wash with a pancake glove every single day trying to improve. Semien still had his trouble this season with 20 errors, but he’s getting better every day. And do you really think 20 errors is all that bad? Some of your favorite shortstops weren’t far behind. Jean Segura had 17, 3-time Gold Glover Brandon Crawford had 17, and arguably the best shortstop in baseball Francisco Lindor had 14. Lastly, Semien has also ranked top 5 for shortstops in Range Factor in each of the past 3 seasons.
With most of the starting roster set in stone heading into Spring Training, the A’s left the question of who was going to catch games until Just 3 weeks before the start of the season. While Lucroy has experienced a significant drop-off offensively in recent seasons and is not the elite pitch framer he used to be, the nine-year veteran is still a tremendous asset behind the dish, This season, Lucroy led all catchers in caught stealing with 31. The A’s haven’t had a catcher lead MLB in caught stealings since Terry Steinbach in 1995. Lucroy also added the most assists in MLB and provided the mostly young pitching staff with a veteran presence behind the plate.
The A’s have two perennial Gold Glovers with Chapman and Oldon (with Chapman being perhaps the best defender in baseball). A catcher that is capable of completely shutting down the run game. A shortstop that has improved each year he has been in the big leagues. And August call-up Ramon Laureano who ranked in the top 10 in the AL in runs saved with his arm (rARM), despite playing just over a third of a season. Oh, and he also made perhaps the most incredible throw in MLB history.
Laureano is the clear front-runner to secure the starting centerfield job next season but lets the A’s are equipped with ample outfield depth including Nick Martini and Dustin Fowler. With Piscotty holding down right field for the foreseeable future, it appears the A’s have a solid defensive core heading into 2019.
The 2018 A’s will be remembered for the surprising season and outrageous home run numbers, but everyone in the front office will remember how the team was built on defense. Despite four starting pitchers suffer season-ending injuries, the guys that took over were able to pitch to contact knowing that one of the best defenses in Major League Baseball was backing them up.