Series Preview: Have the A’s taken care of the Bay Bridge Trophy?

San Francisco Giants v Oakland Athletics Photo by Michael Zagaris/Oakland Athletics/Getty Images

Or did they anticipate holding onto it for another year and stick it in a utility closet?

The 1989 reunion over the weekend was another reminder to me that for the seventies, eighties, and nineties, the A’s were Bay Area baseball royalty. Usually, I only think about that when a stray A’s fan drive-by comments or I see something like this Online:

Ah! But this isn’t about A’s fans, it’s about the A’s. And the A’s are fine, like always. They usually start out the season slow, then we all wonder if this is the year when their cheapness finally gets to them, and then they’re fine. It’s not the same as their 20-year championship era, but they’re very competitive in a top-heavy league.

They’ve gone 53-33 since starting the season 14-18. That’s good enough to be a good team but not good enough to compete in the AL West with the Astros, who are up on them 10 games. Like the Giants (lol), they are battling for the second Wild Card spot, just two games behind Minnesota (71-47) and Tampa Bay (70-50).

How do they do it? Through the draft and their player development. The winning becomes incidental, an outcome of successful drafts and development. That hasn’t led them to a roster of homegrown talent, but the players they’ve drafted and developed over the years have been traded away to gain much of the talent that now buoys them.

This is the model track the Giants will be on soon enough, meaning it might not be much longer before a Giants manager can hoist the Bay Bridge Trophy.

Yes, there’s a Bay Bridge Trophy Twitter account. It was started on the day the A’s won the trophy for the year. And it tweets out a count of how many days the trophy has been held, in this case by the A’s. If the Giants win the trophy this year, will the account continue?

But what about the A’s? Can they continue to compete against the top of the American League? They’re not doing it with smoke and mirrors, but they are doing it unconventionally. The A’s don’t feature a lot of high octane starting pitching, but a group of pitchers who succeed by mixing up their pitches. They’re a sequencing-dependent pitching staff, because “velocity is expensive”.

As Owen Poindexter wrote for The Athletic this week (subscription required):

None of the A’s starters throw any pitch more than half the time [...] None of them rely heavily on two pitches, either — they are all middle of the pack and below on second-pitch frequency. [...]

That’s not the entire formula, of course, but unpredictability helps the A’s put up similar numbers to rotations with a lot more raw power.

Offensively, it’s been a mixed bag. Khris Davis might be past the point of no return for achieving a .247 batting average for the fifth straight season. He’s down to .228 and his overall line in an offensive era looks alarmingly power-free: .228/.299/.392 (.691 OPS).

But Matt Chapman has followed up his stellar 2018 with a great 2019. Marcus Semien has blossomed into the third-best shortstop in baseball, behind Xander Bogaerts and Alex Bregman. His defense has even improved from head-scratching to stellar.

The offseason trade for Jurickson Profar hasn’t quite worked out (.651 OPS in 395 PA) nor has the Robbie Grossman signing (.705 OPS in 362 PA), but look! There’s Mark Canha and Chad Pinder being mixed and matched to provide a boost. Stephen Piscotty missed a month and has come back to hit like an All-Star. Matt Olson has the second-highest isolated power in the American League, behind only Edwin Encarnacion. The A’s as a team have the sixth-most home runs (184) in the American League, tenth-most in baseball.

So, the A’s are fine. The A’s are always fine. And they’re going to need these wins against the Giants to keep it all going. They’re well-managed, play great defense, and they have the Bay Bridge Trophy, which should be all the fire they need to play hard to hold onto it another year.

That trophy is a tacit symbol of the A’s still being the better franchise. This entire thing — the mere idea of an annual trophy based on the season series — was created for ratings, sure, but it’s not hard to imagine it also as a Trojan Horse for A’s fans to smuggle in the media war they’re trying to win.

The team that advertises across the street from their market rival’s stadium isn’t looking to play it safe. This series is free advertising for them. If they’re seen beating the Giants year after year after year after year after year after year after year then they’ll be able to turn a few impressionable minds in their favor, they’ll be able to wrest away the market’s focus on a losing franchise (the Giants) and create a situation where their efforts are recognized a bit more often.

It’d be great if the Giants didn’t play into the A’s plans here, but we might have to settle for them playing a worthy heel to their would-be face. The A’s have won 9 of the last 14 games in the series.

Pitcher to watch

The Dodgers traded for Homer Bailey just so they could trade away Yasiel Puig. They cut Bailey and his $23 million salary, that’s how much they wanted to move Puig, and so it was the Royals who wound up giving him a chance to revive his career.

Last year, the Christian Bale lookalike had some harsh times, putting up a 6.09 ERA in 106.1 innings to go with a 1-14 record. He gave up 23 home runs in that sampling. His last four seasons in Cincinnati, in fact, were one long dark night: 9-27, 6.25 ERA in 231.2 innings pitched. Injuries and awfulness.

But he entered a new world in Kansas City, posting a 4.80 ERA in 90 innings (18 starts) in what I think you’d agree is a tougher league. He held the Yankees to one run in six innings back in April, the Twins to one run in June, and pitched seven shutout innings against Cleveland, too.

The A’s traded for him mid-July as a cheap depth add to their rotation, and while he hasn’t been good (8.17 ERA in 25.1 innings pitched — five starts), he has managed to be good at times. He also no-hit the Giants back in 2013, which would perhaps seem besides the point, but consider this: Buster Posey, Pablo Sandoval, Brandon Belt, and Brandon Crawford were in that same lineup. The year after the no-hitter, he pitched a shutout against the Giants.

He hasn’t faced them since. Will Wednesday afternoon be his prestige?

Hitter to watch

Matt Chapman (he’s the third base Matt. Olson is first base Matt) has a .661 OPS (just 11 extra base hits) since July 1st — still better than Brandon Belt (.625 OPS), but still not all that great. Since the start of August, he’s hit just .147/.256/.353, although three of his five hits have been extra base hits (two home runs and a double). In 10 career games against the Giants, though, he’s hitting .306/.419/.389 (.807 OPS).

It’s doubtful that one Matt could have all that power, but keeping him stifled will be critical if the Giants are going to win either game of this series.

Prediction

The Giants have yet to be swept by the A’s in this interleague series (yes, the A’s swept the crap out of them in the 1989 World Series), but the A’s have swept in San Francisco as recently as 2016.