OAKLAND — I can’t blame you if you didn’t pay attention to the A’s this September.
After all, why would you carve out time for a team entered the month heading towards a third-straight last-place finish in the American League West?
Watching the NFL or preparing for the long haul of Warriors season was a much better usage of time this month, right?
Well, while your attention was probably elsewhere, the A’s played their best baseball in years. For the first time since the middle of the 2014 season (before the trades and the near-collapse) the A’s are — dare I say it? — fun.
Before losing a few key players to injury early this week, the A’s had won 14 of 17 games, which included a season-high seven-game win streak. Mark Canha’s walk-off homer in Wednesday’s home finale guaranteed the A’s will finish September with a winning record — their only winning month of the year.
But, more importantly, the A’s won in a manner that appears to be sustainable year-over-year.
The A’s will probably finish in last place again this season, but if the momentum garnered by this young team this month can indeed be carried into the 2018 season, the A’s won’t be a team you can ignore next September.
It all starts with the Matts.
Matt Olson has no idea how he posted one of the best power-hitting streaks in baseball this year. The A’s 23-year-old first baseman had made a big adjustment to his swing before this season — keeping his hands further away from his body in his stance, so the bat didn’t have to move as far — and that was making a difference, but he never expected that difference to be quite so dramatic.
He certainly never expected that the change would help go on a home run tear like the one that capped his 2017 campaign.
Olson his 15 homers over a stretch of 18 games this September, an incredible run of form for any Major League player — much less a rookie.
“It’s just one of those things where I tried to stay in the moment and not think too much about it. I wanted to block everything out and see how long I could ride it,” Olson said, smiling.
Olson’s season ended when he injured his hamstring in the A’s Sunday win over the Rangers, but he closed 2017 with 24 homers in 59 games, the seventh-best OPS (1.003) of all Major Leaguers with more than 200 plate appearances, and an elite average exit velocity of 91 miles per hour.
The A’s found their first baseman of the future this September, and while no one should expect 60-plus homers out of Olsen next season, they shouldn’t expect a massive regression next year, either.
Paired with 24-year-old third baseman Matt Chapman — who has the makings of a rock-solid, middle-of-the-lineup bat and who already has a glove that he had no problem calling elite during our conversation Wednesday (he’s right) — the A’s have two franchise cornerstones at the corners.
Add in outfielder Khris Davis, who — unbeknownst to anyone outside of the East Bay and fantasy baseball players — put up a second-straight 40-homer, 100-RBI season in 2017; designated hitter Ryon Healy, who hit 25 homers in his first full Major League campaign; shortstop Marcus Semien, who had a career year at the plate and in the field; and a young rotation that’s overdue for a breakout, and you have the core elements of a playoff team.
Yes, a playoff team.
And, unlike in years past, you can expect those core elements to return to the A’s next season.
And that’s what made this September so important for manager Bob Melvin. The first five months of the season were for his young team to experience growing pains, but September needed to be the month they started winning games.
“We’ve had a period here where we’ve felt good about how we’ve played,” Melvin said, noting that was the first time the A’s had experienced that all year. “The expectation was there to win, and that’s important going into next season.”
After the disastrous mid-season trades in 2014 and the two last-place seasons that followed, A’s head honcho Billy Beane came into 2017 with a new game plan: With the team’s plan to move into a new ballpark in 2021, Beane’s goal was to make sure that the team that occupied the new park was worthy.
He wanted to establish sustainability.
This season hinted that Oakland might be ahead of schedule in that department. Only time will tell if these A’s are sustainable, but it appears this roster has the right roster building blocks in place well before any concrete has been poured.
Perhaps the September run was an outlier — a late-season tease. But I can’t help but think if the A’s play their cards right this offseason — if Beane and GM David Forst make a few pitch-perfect tweaks here and a put dash of energy from the strong farm system there — this A’s team has a chance to be more than just interesting in 2018.
They could even find themselves in the middle of a playoff race next September.
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