It is quite possible, perhaps probable, that the Oakland Athletics will lose Wednesday night in Yankee Stadium, ending their postseason journey just three hours after it begins.
It is quite possible that the Yankees will bash home runs like they have all season long, that the Athletics’ bullpenning pitching strategy will sputter in the spotlight, that Oakland’s worst-in-baseball performance against elite velocity will bring only doom against the Yankees’ historically great bullpen.
But it is also quite possible that Oakland will beat the Yankees, in the tradition of road teams winning wild-card upsets, and move on to the next obstacle in the AL’s grueling playoff field. And that description works in reverse, too, as the A’s themselves pose a formidable obstacle to the Yankees and, if they advance, their subsequent playoff opponents. The A’s aren’t a walkover or a relatively lacking, happy-to-be-there wild-card winner, like the Twins last season. Don’t let a low payroll and Moneyball memories fool you: In the 2018 playoffs, the Oakland A’s are far from an underdog, but rather just another member of the AL’s elite.
Consider first that the A’s won 97 games—more than any NL team this year and the most for the franchise since 2002, the year that Michael Lewis followed the team for his best seller. But Oakland’s record is even more impressive given the full season’s context, as the A’s were below .500 as late as June 16. They went 62-29 the rest of the way, though—that’s a 110-win pace—and have been the best team in baseball for 3.5 months now. That doesn’t sound like an underdog.
When I wrote about the Athletics’ rise at the All-Star break, I identified three key areas where they were succeeding: defense, where third baseman Matt Chapman was the sport’s newest star; offense, where a deep lineup ranked just outside the top tier of teams in overall production; and the bullpen, which helped the team overperform in close games. All three areas have remained strengths and should serve the team particularly well in the playoffs.
No team was better at turning batted balls into outs this season, and no pitching staff outperformed the results it would have expected to allow with the actual results it allowed more than Oakland, which is a credit to consistent glovework. Chapman finished the season leading all third basemen in UZR and all fielders at any position in DRS (the two most prominent public defensive metrics). Starting in August, he was joined on the highlight reel by Ramón Laureano, the new starting center fielder, who might have the best outfield arm in the majors, among a host of other skills.
On offense, designated hitter Khris Davis led the majors with 48 home runs, the most for any Athletic since Mark McGwire hit 52 in 1996. The A’s as a team finished with a 110 wRC+, nudging them up against the rather closely grouped top of the leaderboard: The Dodgers and Yankees led all teams with a 111 mark apiece, while the A’s, Red Sox, and Astros all managed 110s.
Collectively, then, Oakland matched the performance of more highly touted offenses, and, individually, of the nine Athletics who batted at least 300 times this year, seven posted a wRC+ of 113 or better, meaning they hit at least 13 percent better than the league average. (For reference, active players with a career 113 wRC+ include Andrew Benintendi, Carlos González, and Marcell Ozuna.) The only two who didn’t—shortstop Marcus Semien and catcher Jonathan Lucroy—could be forgiven for their relatively lackluster offense, given that they occupy the two most important defensive positions on the diamond.
With that combination of unimpeachable defense and offense, the A’s ranked second to the Dodgers in overall position-player WAR at both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference. Last year, the top two at both sites were the Astros and Dodgers, who met in the World Series. That company makes the A’s sound like a favorite, not an underdog.
They lack both top-tier talent and depth in the starting rotation, especially with regular-season innings leader Sean Manaea out due to shoulder surgery, but that weakness has never mattered so little. Even in the regular season, the A’s navigated this obstacle with ease, winning 97 games despite throwing the third-most bullpen innings of any team in MLB history. (The top two, the 2018 Rays and 2012 Rockies, are both outliers who experimented with new ways to deploy relievers.)
In the playoffs, that bullpen strength can play up even more, and manager Bob Melvin is already setting up a bullpen game against New York on Wednesday, in which he seemingly won’t need to rely on any starter at all. The midseason additions of Jeurys Familia, Fernando Rodney, and Shawn Kelley bolstered an already-strong reliever corps, and closer Blake Treinen, who finished with an 0.78 ERA and ranked second to Jacob deGrom among all players in win probability added, could be a breakout star on a national stage this month.
Oakland’s roster includes perhaps the best defense in baseball, perhaps the best offense in baseball, and perhaps the best bullpen in baseball. That doesn’t sound at all like an underdog. The money involved, though, does.
Even this factor, however, does not qualify the Athletics as a typical Cinderella story. A’s owner John Fisher, scion of the Gap clothes fortune, boasts a personal wealth in the range of $3 billion, making him one of the sport’s richest owners. But he has never pushed his team into the top half of payroll expenditures, and, this offseason, with the club entering Opening Day spending around $20 million less than it had in recent seasons, the MLB Players Association filed a grievance against the A’s—along with the Rays, Pirates, and Marlins—for misappropriating revenue-sharing funds.
The A’s make less money than many of their peers, to be sure, and attract a lesser attendance than any other playoff team, but they still spend disproportionately little on the on-field product. With a $10.5 million salary this year, Davis is the team’s first player since 2015 to earn eight figures. Bay Area columnist Ray Ratto called Oakland “a team that cries poverty but ingests wealth,” writing in February, “the A’s have been moderate to generous cash cows, and only intermittently have plowed the earnings back into the visible product.”
The dissonance between on- and off-field commitment, and between the Billy Beane–led front office that spins straw into gold and the ownership group that withholds its gold in the first place, is an uncomfortable reality for A’s fans that can’t help but influence perception of the club. Fisher’s reluctance to spend doesn’t detract from Chapman’s glorious glovework or Davis’s dazzling dingers. But it doesn’t by itself make the A’s an underdog, either, any more than if David had inexplicably kept a crossbow in reserve when he strode to face Goliath with a pebble in a pouch.
Goliath, in this case, is the sport’s most Goliathan opponent: the Yankees, with—victory pending—Boston and possibly Houston and possibly the Dodgers to follow. The playoff path is never easy, and that reality is exacerbated in a season so defined by a split between haves and have-nots. But at least in the first round, the A’s are uniquely well-equipped to face the Yankees. On offense, the A’s hit more road homers than any team since the 2001 Giants, who benefited from Barry Bonds’s record-setting season—and they just happen, in the wild-card game, to be playing in the most homer-friendly park in the majors. And on the mound, their succession of reliable right-handed relievers will face a lineup that includes seven righties, giving the A’s an important marginal advantage in a game that is so evenly matched that marginal advantages will decide it.
Again, Oakland is far from a sure bet to beat the Yankees and advance any further; Beane’s plans, after all, tend not to work in the playoffs, no matter how intelligent their design. The wild-card game is a toss-up, as would be a Boston-Oakland series, and so on—specifically because Oakland isn’t an underdog, but rather a scorching-hot team with incredible production in three phases and depth throughout the roster. Oakland is just as strong as the other AL elites, and it has just as much of a claim on the pennant.