For any professional sports franchise in throes of complete rebuild, there are certain checkpoints offering promise of a corner turned.
None among them signifies a closer proximity to success than getting significant contribution from those young, highly drafted players acquired through the misery of defeat, along with the cultivation of a home-field advantage.
Take, for example, the American League-leading Houston Astros, a team whose developmental system has become something of a north star for those teams looking to achieve their recent success — a team built around athleticism, power and starting pitching. In 2014, the last of nine consecutive seasons without a postseason berth following a World Series loss in 2005, current roster mainstays Jose Altuve, Dallas Keuchel and George Springer each emerged as the stars they have since become. As a team, their 38 home wins were a four-year high.
The Oakland Athletics have gotten both, in spades. Rookies Matt Olson, 23, (2012 first-round selection) and Matt Chapman, 24, (2014 first-round selection) have carried the A’s (63-80) to an 18-12 home record in the second half and Oakland’s first full-season home winning record since 2014, its last postseason berth.
Manager Bob Melvin stopped short of likening this group to the one that rattled off three straight postseason appearances, but did say that there is a special feel to this season:
“There’s a lot of real unity in the dugout and the clubhouse that maybe we haven’t seen here in a while, because it is a group of guys that have played together — and there is something to that.”
Kendall Graveman, who has been in Oakland since 2015 making him the longest tenured (continuous) Athletic, told SFBay that the future is very bright for this upstart team, adding:
“I think we’re going to win a lot sooner than people think.”
But how soon? Is next season out of the question? Considering the fact that Melvin and the A’s seemed confident in handing the keys over to the youngsters this year, and those youngsters’ positive response to that confidence, 2018 is definitely within the realm of possibility.
Since acquiring former Oakland 20th-round draft selection Boog Powell, 24, from the Seattle Mariners in exchange for All-Star Yonder Alonso one month ago, the A’s have permanently inserted Powell, Chapman and Olson into the everyday lineup, going 12-15 since Aug. 12 Powell’s first game with Oakland.
That trio has combined to bat .311 (79-for-254) with 20 home runs and 46 RBIs in the 27 games since, and .333 (33-for-100) with 10 homers and 25 RBIs in August.
Ryon Healy, whose 206 career games played places him among this squad’s elder statesman, called Olson the big money hitter fueling the team’s emergence:
“I’m the biggest believer in ‘hitting is contagious.’ You have guys that are doing what they’re doing, starting with Olson and kinda just trickling down to everyone else, it’s definitely been contagious and everyone is trying to get a piece of it right now.”
Olson’s second half eruption, which has rendered him too scary to look in the eyes, according to a jesting Healy, includes 13 home runs, tops among AL rookies since the All-Star break. His season total of 17 bombs finds him tied for fifth among rookies for the season despite his 149 at-bats being just over the 1/3 the number of trips by anyone else in the seven.
With 14 in 257 at-bats and 12 in 226 at-bats respectively, teammates Chad Pinder, 25, and Chapman join Olson rounding out the top-10 power outputs among rookies with fewer than 287 at-bats. By comparison, AL home run leader, Yankees rookie Aaron Judge, has homered 41 times in 484 at-bats — one homer per every 11.8 at-bats.
Pinder’s rate: one home run per every 17.6. Chapman’s: one to 18.8.
And Olson’s: one per every 8.8 at-bats.
“Olson, I’m still trying to come up with some adjectives for what he’s done.”
Furthermore, Olson has slashed .314/.385/.744 over the past month — Chapman: .289/.361/.546 and Powell: .338/.407/.521 — and .308/.386/.795 in August — Chapman: .314/.415/.600 and Powell: .385/.414/.692.
That is what Oakland’s tomorrow holds, not to mention the production of Healy, 25, (24 homers, 74 RBIs) and Khris Davis, 29, (39 homers, 101 RBIs).
Next in the A’s growth will be that of the starting pitching, which has not produced up to expectations this season. Sean Manaea, 25, (10-9, 4.33 ERA), the presumed ace of the future, has stumbled down the stretch. Graveman, 26, (5-4, 4.48 ERA) is looking for his groove following a shoulder injury. And Jharel Cotton, 25, (7-10, 5.82 ERA) is currently in a scramble to figure out how he is tipping pitches.
Those issues, Melvin is confident, will be ironed out.
The immediate focus is developing an ability that would put this team over the top, and make it a serious contender as soon as next season — finding ways to win on the road. The A’s, 42-33 in Oakland, will play 13 of their final 19 games of the 2017 season on the road, where they are currently 21-47.
While Healy told SFBay that the entire focus of his team is to win any and all games in front of it, no matter the situation in preparation for a 2018 postseason run, Graveman said the club’s final stretch will offer a good test for the youngsters:
“Let’s finish these last three weeks and see what we have ahead of us. … Let’s see how we can adjust and play good, quality games on the road — I think that’s one of biggest thing for guys that are young and it’s their first time in the league.”