Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Flyover: Oakland A's

This continues a series of looks at each team over the past month. Having looked at the Milwaukee Brewers in the last one of these, let's stay on the theme of total train wrecks: May I present the Oakland Athletics.

How Are They Doing Lately? Let's go back to the morning of July 31, the trade deadline. The A's had the best record in baseball, 66-41. They had scored the most runs (535) and given up the fourth fewest (373), giving them by far the widest run differential (scored - allowed) in baseball. On that day, they pulled off a blockbuster trade, giving up left fielder Yoenis Cespedes for Red Sox pitching ace Jon Lester and outfielder/DH Jonny Gomes. If I had told you that from that point forward:

  • Lester would post a sparkling 2.30 ERA, with the A's winning two thirds of his nine starts
  • The team trailing the A's in the American League West, the Los Angeles Angels, would lose their best starting pitcher, Garrett RIchards (13-4, 2.61 ERA), to a season-ending knee injury on August 20
  • The Angels' highly-paid ($17 million this year, $25 million next year, $32 million in each of 2016 and 2017) left fielder, Josh Hamilton, would bat just .207 with a .269 on base percentage and just four homers, and was described by his manager as "not the same [player] that we saw when we were looking at the other dugout [before signing a free-agent contract with the Angels prior to last year]" before going out with a shoulder injury in early September
...wouldn't you have guessed the A's would be at this point be on cruise control, sequencing their starting pitchers for the playoffs? Instead the Angels are the first team this year to clinch a playoff spot, the A's are hopelessly (10.5 games) behind in the AL West, and they are in a dogfight for American League wild card, a game ahead of Kansas City and three games ahead of divisional rival Seattle. As I said with the Brewers, what happened?

What's Going Right? The raw pitching stats haven't been that bad: 3.25 ERA over the past 30 days, fifth best in the league, including a 2.57 ERA for the relievers, which is fourth best. About the best thing you can say about the offense, though, is that they've probably been unlucky. They're last with a .258 batting average on balls in play (i.e., not homers), way below the league average of .294. Such a wide deviation is usually as indicative of luck as it is of skill.

What's Going Wrong? The relief pitchers' nice ERA is misleading. By one measure of calculating runs allowed based on strikeouts, walks, and home runs, they've been fourth worst, not fourth best. They've blown six saves, tying them with Tampa Bay for the most in the league over the last 30 days, and their four saves ties them for the fewest in AL. And the offense has been terrible: last in batting, fourth-worst in on base percentage, second-to-last in slugging percentage. Remember, this was the team that was leading the majors in scoring at the trade deadline. Over the past 30 days, they've scored 3.5 runs per game, fourth-fewest in the league. 

Who's Hot? As noted above, Lester has delivered for the A's, with a 2.20 ERA over the last 30 days, though a lack of run support's saddled him with a 2-3 record over his last six starts. Starting pitcher Jason Hammel, who was initially terrible after joining the club in a July trade with the Cubs (0-4, 9.53 ERA in his first four starts), has righted himself, with a 2.36 ERA over the last 30 days. When healthy (keep reading), closer Sean Doolittle has been lights out, with nine strikeouts, one walk, and four hits over 4.2 innings.

Who's Not? Picking the worst A's batter over the last 30 days is hard. Here are the nominees and the their slash lines (batting average/on base percentage/slugging percentage);

The average American League batter over the period hit .249/.310/.384. When five of your starters are well below average, you have a problem on offense.

Closer Doolittle has 21 saves and a 2.20 ERA this year, but he was out with a strained ribcage muscle from August 24 through September 12. The A's went 5-14 in his absence, with only one reliever, Eric O'Flaherty (who also blew a save on September 8) getting a save. Fernando Abad gave up no earned runs but blew two saves, and Luke Gregerson also combined a superficially good ERA (1.64) with two blown saves. 

Starting pitcher Scott Kazmir was the A's best starter through the end of July (12-3, 2.37 ERA) but he's turned into a pumpkin since, and over the past 30 days he has a 6.57 ERA, with 23 hits and 15 walks over 24.2 innings.

What's the Outlook? The popular narrative has been to blame the A's meltdown on the departure of the popular Cespedes, viewed as the offense's sparkplug. I'm more inclined to point to Doolittle's absence, which threw the bullpen into chaos. He's back now, and I expect the A's to hang onto their wild cart berth. The schedule helps: They host the Angels for three games next week but the rest of their games are against two last-place teams, the Rangers and the Phillies.

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