Something happened Monday that has only happened twice in 40 games this season – the Oakland Athletics won a one-run ballgame! That win improved them to 2-13 in the tight games that define a team’s season. The games have left the A’s in a position no team wants to be in, no matter what point during the season – in 5th place in the division and owners of the worst record in the major leagues (14-26).
I was able to catch a lot of Oakland baseball this weekend as they had a series against the White Sox. The annual trip out to Oakland has been a house of horrors for the White Sox in recent history but it was the A’s who were left with nightmares over their performance. In many ways, the series was a microcosm for how the season has gone for the A’s.
Friday night – the A’s held a four run lead headed into the 7th inning. Starting pitcher Jesse Hahn had scattered four hits and retired Alexei Ramirez to start the inning. He then coaxed Geovany Soto to ground out to the left side, but the ball was booted by Brett Lawrie. Second baseman Carlos Sanchez followed with a single and Hahn’s outing was over. The bullpen came in and allowed five runs before retiring the third out of the seventh. The lead was gone and the White Sox held on for victory.
Saturday night – Billy Butler hits a first inning homerun giving the A’s a two run lead. Starting pitcher Jesse Chavez allows two to cross the plate in the third but that’s all he allows and he leaves after the sixth in a tie game. Reliever Fernando Rodriguez takes over and retires the first two hitters. Adam Eaton then tries to bunt to get on, reaches, but Rodriguez throws the ball away and Eaton gets to third. Melky Cabrera hits Eaton in on the next at-bat and then Jose Abreu knocks him in to give the White Sox a two run lead, which they again hold for the win.
Sunday – Scott Kazmir allows a run (unearned) in the first inning, but the A’s get the lead in the 4th on a 2 run homer by Max Muncy. Adam Eaton reaches on yet another error to lead off the 5th inning. Eaton comes around and scores before Kazmir loads the bases. After walking one run in, Alexei Ramirez hits a potential double play ball to end the inning. The ball ricochets off Kazmir’s glove into left field and two runs score. The White Sox complete the sweep.
Such is life in Oakland now but GM Billy Beane spoke to the press Monday and said the team will be staying pat. The well-known aggressive general manager can pull the trigger at any time but there seem to be enough reason to back-up his stance now.
Even though the team literally has to jump over every other team in the AL, they are only eight games out of the second wild card. With the season a quarter complete, there is still plenty of time for them to make up ground. Not to keep heaping the bad news on Athletic fans, but on May 19th last year, their team was winning the division by 3.5. They ended the season in second by 10 games. A lot can happen in the season’s remaining four months.
I have a little extra incentive in keeping the faith in the Athletics as they were my World Series champion prediction before the season began. There are some key factors that must happen from keeping me to continue to look ridiculous.
Defense – clearly this was the major factor in the weekend series which I defined as a microcosm of the entire season. The numbers are jarring at first glance – Oakland leads the majors with 43 errors committed on the season. Texas and Milwaukee are second worst, but their 32 errors seem miniscule in comparison. The three teams with the fewest errors (Miami, Tampa, Detroit) have 44 errors combined. That number is not good, but fortunately this is not 1950 and we have a few more statistics to help show the whole story. Oakland is actually above league average in DRS (according to baseball-reference.com) and ranks 14th in the league. As bad as the defense has been, it may simply be a case of bad luck at this time. Most defensive sabermetrics show Oakland as an average team, but the errors have come at bad times. The 15 one-run games have already been discussed but in those games they have 12 unearned runs, including five games with multiple errors.
Bullpen – The Athletics pitching is ranked 12th in FIP and 15th in ERA+ but a lot of that success is attributed to the starting pitchers. All five of the starters have FIP’s under 4.06 and not surprisingly, have faced a fair share of bad luck. Jesse Hahn alone has had seven unearned runs occur while on the mound this season. The bullpen has been a different story. Temporary closer Tyler Clippard has somehow only had five save opportunities and has converted four of them albeit with a FIP of 4.26. Evan Scribner has been the best part of the bullpen but it falls off quickly after that. It has fallen so much so that the A’s were forced to pick up Red Sox cast-off Edward Mujica already this season. Oakland’s relievers have accounted for a 29th best -1.6 Wins Above Average according to baseball-reference.com.
Injuries – Billy Beane brought up the bad fortune with the defense and one-run games but he also focused a lot of his argument on the length of his disabled list. I also believe that when these injuries heal, the previous two bullet points may begin to disappear. A big part of the offseason was the acquisition of Ben Zobrist. Many pundits thought this was the piece that put the whole puzzle together and it was a large part of the reason why I made my prediction. Zobrist has been on the DL since game 18 (April 24th). Zobrist is currently undergoing a rehab assignment and should be back to the team soon. Zobrist is as much of a utility player as anyone in the league and the A’s have already played him in left, right, and second this year. He is a plus fielder almost anywhere you put him and can surely start to help improve the team’s error rate upon his return. The other big name on that disabled list is closer Sean Doolittle. Doolittle started the season on the DL but is also poised to return very soon. Returning a closer to a team can be a cure-all for a hurting bullpen. With Doolittle returning to his 9th inning position, Clippard can move back to the 8th and all other pieces should fall in place.
There are a lot of and, ifs, and buts so far on the season for the Athletics. However, there does seem to be a light at the end of the tunnel with the return of a few big pieces. It’s hard for any team to win or lose 13% of their one-run teams and one would think there should be some regression in those contests. I still have hope and am not budging on my prediction…for now.