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How the Oakland A’s surged back to the playoffs

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Improvements from former Cal teammates fuel Oakland’s run to the postseason

Marcus Semien and Mark Canah smile on their A’s uniforms as they walk off the field.
Marcus Semien and Mark Canah carried the A’s all season.

The Oakland Athletics find themselves back in the American League wild card game for a second straight season, marking the first time the franchise has made consecutive trips to the postseasons since 2012-14. Oakland owes its resurgence to a core of players who excel on both offense and defense, especially a pair of former college teammates who took sizable leaps in production.

Oakland’s two best offensive players in 2019 were outfielder Mark Canha (.273/.396/.517, 146 wRC+) and shortstop Marcus Semien (.285/.369/.522, 137 wRC+). Both showed tremendous improvement over 2018 while highlighting just how deep these A’s are. Last year Khris Davis and Jed Lowrie were two of the club’s three best hitters. This year Lowrie is gone and Davis slumped, but the A’s still won 97 games thanks in large part to strides made by Semien and Canha.

Marked improvements in 2019

Player BA/OBP/SLG wRC+ HR BB rate Chase rate bWAR fWAR
Player BA/OBP/SLG wRC+ HR BB rate Chase rate bWAR fWAR
Semien 2018 .255/.318/.388 96 15 8.7% 23.5% 4.3 3.8
Semien 2019 .285/.369/.522 137 33 11.6% 19.2% 8.1 7.5
Canha 2018 .249/.328/.449 114 17 8.3% 27.2% 1.6 2.1
Canha 2019 .273/.396/.517 146 26 13.5% 22.1% 4.5 4.1

“You look at our record this year, kind of similar to last year, but we’re doing it in different ways, which means we use our entire roster,” says Bob Melvin, in his ninth season managing the A’s. “We aren’t pigeonholed into ‘this is the way we have to have success.’ We can do it in a number of ways.”

The improvement from Semien is the most stark. After four years as a steadily above average regular with an OPS+ in the narrow range of 95-99 from 2015-18, the A’s shortstop took a star turn in 2019.

In addition to setting career highs across the board on offense, Semien’s work at a premium defensive position has him third in the American League in WAR, in both the Baseball-Reference (8.1) and FanGraphs (7.5) versions.

“Every big league player evolves. It just takes time” Semien told SB Nation. “Some guys do well right when they get here, other guys struggle and learn something about their swing, or find something on defense that they can roll with for the rest of their career.”

Semien is chasing fewer balls outside the strike zone, down from 23.5 percent last year to 19.2 percent per Statcast. The result is fewer strikeouts (K rate down from 18.6 percent to 13.7), more walks (up from 8.7 percent to 11.6 percent), and punishing more of the pitches he gets to hit. His 83 extra-base hits are 27 more than he’s had in any other season.

“He was always a great athlete. From a pure evaluation standpoint, the talent was always there. That, combined with his make-up, makes him the player he is today,” Canha told SB Nation. “He’s a hard worker, he’s smart, he’s a competitor. He’s kind of got the perfect make-up, as well as being a great athlete. Those things combined turn him into the caliber of player we’re seeing right now.”

Canha should know. He played with Semien at Cal for two seasons before getting drafted by the Marlins in the seventh round in 2010. One year later, Semien was drafted in the sixth round by the White Sox.

The two returned the Bay Area in the span of three days in late 2014, with the A’s acquiring Semien in the Jeff Samardzija trade on Dec. 9, then getting Canha from the Rockies on Dec. 11 for a minor league pitcher and cash.

Oakland averaged 91 losses in Semien and Canha’s first three seasons on the team, but rebounded to make the wild card game in 2018. They are back in the postseason again this year, with those two playing larger roles.

“Those years are valuable because you have to fail a little bit in order to learn something and become better players,” Canha says. “It’s a testament to our organization that they let us fail at the big league level, and I believe that’s how great players become great. You have to learn from your mistakes in the past.”

Canha has made fantastic strides himself, smashing his career bests in home runs, runs scored, walks, batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage, and OPS. Like Semien, Canha is chasing fewer pitches as well (down from 27.2 percent to 22.1 percent) while his walk rate has skyrocketed from 8.3 percent to 13.5 percent, the latter 10th in the AL among players with at least 400 plate appearances.

“I tried to be a little more selective, trying to get pitches that I could do damage with instead of just trying to hit singles or put the ball in play. I worried less about striking out looking, and told myself to do damage,” Canha explains. “The idea is to make the zone of pitches that I swing at smaller, not try to cover the whole strike zone.”

Defense is another area Canha has gotten better. He’s still rated as slightly below average in the outfield by Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved, but that’s up from previous years. Total Zone Rating loves Canha, pegging him at 14 runs above average in 2019 after totaling two runs below average through his first four seasons. Statcast says Canha is two outs above average.

“Nobody wants players who can’t play defense. Guys are paying attention to that and trying to become as complete a player as they can,” Canha says. “We know that with all the advanced analytics we’re being evaluated constantly, day in and day out, with everything we do. It just raises the stakes.”

It fits a pattern for the A’s, whose best players happen to excel on both offense and defense. Semien ranks fourth in the AL in Ultimate Zone Rating among shortstops, and through mid-August was the seventh-best fielder in the league at any position according to the SABR Defensive Index, which counts for 25 percent of Gold Glove voting.

Matt Chapman and Matt Olson were also ranked on that SABR Defensive Index, with the third baseman Chapman rated as the top overall fielder in the league and Olson the only first baseman rated in the top 25. Both Chapman and Olson each averaged over 30 home runs the last two years and won a Gold Glove in 2018. A second Gold Glove for each seems likely in 2019, highlighting how well rounded Oakland’s roster is.

“The guys we brought up — Chappie and Olie on the infield are cornerstones and great defenders, but our outfield’s been great, too. We take a lot of hits away in the outfield, everybody can throw. It’s not just our infield,” Semien says. “With the offense we can have, everybody can hit a home run, and when you add in the defense we’re well balanced.”

As a team, the A’s have a defensive efficiency of 71.0 percent, turning batted balls into outs better than almost anyone. That is tied for second in baseball with the Dodgers, just behind the Astros (71.4 percent). The MLB average is 68.8 percent, so over the course of a full season Oakland prevents about 90 more hits than the average team just on balls in play alone.

The defense has to be strong, because A’s pitchers have the sixth-lowest strikeout rate in baseball (21 percent). The other nine teams in the bottom 10 in strikeout rate have a combined winning percentage of .407, averaging 96 losses. Oakland’s defense is winning games.

For Semien and Canha, it’s a long way from their days at Cal, and from their losing years with the A’s. But the similarities remain.

“At Cal we really didn’t have the greatest stadium. We embraced who we were, and had fun. We made sure we had fun off the field. We made sure we were a team, and played some good baseball as well,” Semien says. “I think the team we had at Cal was well balanced, just like this one.”

Being well balanced got the A’s back into the postseason for a second straight season, thanks greatly to Semien and Canha shining in the Bay Area once again.