Sean Murphy

Three observations from A's first three games of 2020 MLB season

Three observations from A's first three games of 2020 MLB season

The sheer satisfaction of baseball’s return might have overshadowed what actually transpired in the A's first three games of the 2020 MLB season.

While the A’s will go for their first series win Monday at the Coliseum, we already have some early observations about how the team is shaping up.

The A’s have yet to out-hit the Angels, but have still won two of three games

Outfielder Ramon Laureano has hit safely in all three games for the A's, but most of his teammates are on the opposite side of that success, so far.

It’s no surprise arms are generally ahead of bats here early in this jump-started MLB season, but consistent run production is something the A’s got away from last year down the stretch, when the games mattered most. 

“It’s not how many hits you get, it’s when you get the hits,” analyst Dave Stewart said Sunday on A's Postgame Live. “To score runs, you have to hit with runners in scoring position. And it takes multiple hits to score runs.”

[BALK TALK: Listen to the latest episode]

Sean Murphy’s contributions this season will be critical

Murphy’s 455-foot moon-shot on Sunday caught everyone’s attention, and gave the A's a timely insurance run. Much as his bat is highly touted, his work with the pitchers may be less visible but even more valuable to the A's.

After Sunday’s win, Murphy explained that he was versed in all the scouting reports on Los Angeles, but still prioritized the veteran instincts of his starter Mike Fiers. 

“At this point, I’ll defer to Mike,” Murphy said. “Just because he has seen these guys so much, and he knows how his [stuff] plays to them.”

“They feel confident that one - he has the ability to work this staff. And two - to offensively get this job done,” Stewart said. “This guy, at his position is going to be an All-Star at some point, and I think it’s going to happen really soon.”

The constant reminder that none of this is normal

Manager Bob Melvin admits he keeps coming out of the A’s clubhouse expecting to see fans, and still isn’t totally adjusted to the exclusive presence of cardboard cutouts in seats.

The level of abnormality is even greater for players, who are already making huge changes to their preparation and routines. And now, their execution in heat-of-the-moment situations is only commemorated with pre-recorded crowd noise.

It’s difficult to be too critical of anyone’s individual performance, knowing these are uncharted times - personally and professionally for A's players.

[RELATED: A's diverse bullpen could be key to season]

“You’ve got guys on the team that are in all sorts of spots right now,” outfielder Mark Canha said after Sunday’s win. “It feels like were trying to all figure it out, and get our bearings, and get our legs under us.”

Fortunately for the A's, travel is convenient during the first month: 23 of their first 29 games will take place in the state of California.

A's position battles to watch as MLB Summer Camp gets ready to start

A's position battles to watch as MLB Summer Camp gets ready to start

Heading into Summer Camp, the only problem the A’s have is the fact that the team possesses too many good players. It’s ultimately a blessing, but there are still two major position battles heading into Opening Day.

Across the roster, everything looks tidy, but the questions remain at catcher and second base.

Here are breakdowns for the two positions.

Catcher

Starter: Sean Murphy

Backup battle between: Austin Allen, Jonah Heim

Sean Murphy looks to be the starting catcher after 20 games last season with the A’s. The rookie slashed .245/.333/.566 with four home runs puts him pretty solid behind the plate with a strong spring outing -- he didn’t get a lot of exposure as he was coming off knee surgery in the offseason. He’s one of the organization’s top prospects, and while he doesn’t pay attention to those lists, he’s more than ready to take on starter responsibilities.

Behind Murphy is a different story, however. 

Austin Allen came to the A’s in the offseason in a trade with the San Diego Padres along with Buddy Reed for second baseman Jurickson Profar. 

In 34 games last season, Allen batted a .215/.282/.277 line with 14 hits in 34 games. He has a little power and was pretty hot in the Cactus League. 

Allen, for the moment, has the slight edge over Jonah Heim, but that battle might be a little more close than I originally realized.

Heim also possesses a lot of power and proved that by taking advantage of the PCL batting .358 last season. That improvement has been over the last couple of years. Prior to that, he was more known for his productivity behind the plate than at it.

Second Base

Battle between: Franklin Barreto, Tony Kemp

Also: Vimael Machin

One fewer player is involved in this battle after the A's traded Jorge Mateo to the Padres on Tuesday.

Franklin Barreto is a guy A’s manager Bob Melvin wants to see succeed. During spring training (the first one) Melvin said if Barreto can play at his best, he’s a game-changer in any lineup that he’s put in. His numbers were pretty rough last season, but he has some sneaky power and speed.

He looks to platoon with Tony Kemp who was acquired by the Chicago Cubs in the offseason. The A’s were in search of an infield lefty bat to make up for the loss of Profar. And he will make a great addition thanks to his athleticism and his diversity -- a characteristic very much associated with the A’s.

In 2019 across the Cubs and Houston Astros, he hit with a .212 average. He had a bit of a boost from Minute Maid Park and possessed more power during his time there. 

There is also Vimael Machin who was acquired during the Winter Meetings’ Rule 5 Draft. He too hits left-handed and was seeking a roster spot heading into spring training. It appeared he made his presence known going 10-for-30 in 15 Cactus League games.

[RELATED: A's allow cutout fans for 60-game MLB season]

They could also always use Sheldon Neuse and Chad Pinder. You know, since they don’t have enough options. 

Why A's excellent defense should provide great value in 60-game season

Why A's excellent defense should provide great value in 60-game season

Matt Chapman has played three major-league seasons and has two Platinum Gloves. He’s clearly the American League’s best third baseman, an elite defender in every sense. That’s why he was the 2018 Wilson Defensive Player of the Year, someone who saves runs (and games) with his glove.

Matt Olson has played two full MLB seasons and has won a Gold Glove in each one. The A’s first baseman is in the Chapman class at his position.

Those two alone wouldn’t make a defense rock solid. A pronounced weakness or two can downgrade a defense in a hurry.

There are none on this A’s squad.

That’s clear from last year’s metrics, where the A’s ranked high among baseball’s best fielding teams.

They were fifth in fielding percentage in 2019, only .02 points off the lead and were third in defensive efficiency. They were baseball’s best using advanced, signature metrics from FanGraphs that would take a long time to explain.

We can confidently project similar numbers to 2020, with only two positions expected to have new starters.

[RELATED: Why A's pitching depth could prove beneficial in 60-game MLB season]

One of them is catcher Sean Murphy, someone who should be a defensive upgrade over what the A’s had last year. He has thrown out 38 percent of potential base stealers over his professional career. That percentage would have put him in the top 5 in the major leagues last year.

While analyzing defensive metrics isn’t as sexy as a dominant pitching staff or a lineup full of mashers – the A’s have those, too – it’s a virtually slump-free enterprise that can a team can fall back on while struggling in other areas.

The A’s defense has spiked the last two seasons –- Olson and Chapman had something to do with that –- and turned a solid unit into a potentially great one.

"That’s when we turned the corner,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said a few weeks ago on A’s Cast. “We were not a very good defensive team [in 2017], and the psychology of that can really play on a team over 162 games. It can certainly impact the pitchers, too; they pitch a bit differently. Not only are we versatile and good defensively, we have some guys who have changed positions and become really good in the field. … Not only are our guys talented, but they work hard to be good defensively. They take it seriously."

[RELATED: A's GM David Forst details challenges preparing for season in pandemic]

That will be vital during a shortened 60-game season where prolonged lulls can crush playoff hopes even for the deserving teams who likely would qualify over the traditional 162-game slate.

Chapman and Olson are as steady as they come. Shortstop Marcus Semien has improved into a quality defender. Ramon Laureano has a cannon for an arm in centerfield. The corner outfield spots are steady enough to keep the unit strong.

Having confidence in that makes the A’s better overall and should keep them afloat if the pitching or offense falls behind.