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Top 25 Baseball Stories of 2018 — No. 6: The A’s improbable 97-win year

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We’re a few short days away from 2019 so it’s a good time to look back at the top 25 baseball stories of 2018. Some of them took place on the field, some of them off the field and some of them were more akin to tabloid drama. No matter where the story broke, however, these were the stories baseball fans were talking about most this past year.

Before the season began a large number of so-called experts — including your author — predicted that the 2018 season would be a lost one for the Oakland A’s. It made sense at the time. The A’s had finished last in the AL West for the three straight years heading into this season. The projections of the smart set over at Fangraphs and Baseball Prospectus calculated that Oakland would either finish in last again or come within a game or two of it. The lineup looked pretty healthy but the rotation looked like a disaster, with Brett Anderson and Trevor Cahill being signed off the scrapheap in an effort to, I dunno, relive the glory of 2010. The bullpen looked strong enough, but there are limits to how much you can rely on a bullpen, right?

At first they seemed to be playing, more or less, to expectations. As of June 15, the A’s were 11.5 games back of first place, with a 34–36 record, which was actually better than expectations, but the arms would eventually tire and the bottom would fall out. We were certain of it.

That’s when the A’s went on a five-game winning streak. Then they won 12 of 15. Then they went on a 50+ game tear that brought them into Wild Card position by early August. They’d continue their excellent play that month, tying the Astros at the top of the AL West standings on three occasions in mid-late August before eventually falling back. They’d only fall back a little bit, though, and in the end their season was phenomenal: a record of 97-65 and the second AL Wild Card, six back of the 103-win Astros. All with a league-low $66 million payroll.

How did the A’s do it? For one thing, they bashed. They featured the third-best slugging percentage in the American League and 4th best overall, were third overall in home runs hit and were fourth best overall in runs scored per game as well.

While their overall pitching was middle-of-the-pack, that was way better than expected, especially given how many injuries the pitching staff sustained before and during the season. They got a career year out of Sean Manaea, at least until his season ended with an injury. They likewise got career years out of Blake Treinen and Lou Trivino. Something else that helped: in midseason they bolstered the staff with starter Mike Fiers and relievers Jeurys FamiliaFernando Rodney and Shawn Kelley.

With the fresh arms in tow, Bob Melvin relied more and more on his bullpen as the season wore on, turning to a full-blown bullpenning approach in September and in the Wild Card Game. There was some good fortune involved as well, as Oakland went a majors-best 31-14 in one-run games and notched 10 walk-off victories. Everything broke just right, at least until they faced the Yankees in the Wild Card Game.

That last game aside, it was an amazing year for the Athletics. With a respectful nod to the NL East champion Braves, the surprisingly good Rays, the Wild Card-winning Rockies and the second-half-surging Cardinals, the A’s were the best team story all season long if you ask me.

Report: Angels to sign Cody Allen

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Ken Rosenthal of The Athletic reports that the Angels and reliever Cody Allen are in agreement on a one-year contract, pending a physical. The value of the contract is not yet known.

Allen, 30, was looking for an opportunity to close and the Angels can certainly provide that. He will likely be the favorite to break camp as the closer. 2018 was the roughest year of his career, however, as he finished with a 4.70 ERA, 27 saves, and a 80/33 K/BB ratio in 67 innings. Among Allen’s six full seasons, his 27.7 strikeout rate and 11.4 percent walk rate represented career-worsts. FanGraphs also shows him losing nearly a full MPH on his average fastball velocity.

The Angels lost closer Keynan Middleton to Tommy John surgery early last season and he likely won’t return until the second half of the 2019 season. Blake Parker, who handled save situations in Middleton’s place, was non-tendered by the Angels in November and ended up signing with the Twins. The closer’s role is Allen’s to lose, it seems.