Midpoint Analysis: "What's The Deal With ___?"

"Simpson, eh? I'll remember that name..." - Mike Ehrmann

That's "blank" not "Blanks" ... Welcome to the season's halfway point, where the A's find themselves on pace to finish 102-60 despite A's fans' constant hand-wringing about the starting pitching, the disappointing bullpen, lack of offense at 2B, SS and RF, that stretch where the A's seemed to always score 1 run every game, defensive lapses and base running gaffes ... Let's see, what else has this potential 100+ win team given us to fret about?

Let's examine some of the worries one by one and I will explain where I think the A's actually do, or don't, need to be concerned...

The Starting Pitching

I kind of don't get the worry over the A's rotation. I do fully understand the worry about adding depth, but it seems to me that many fans are worried not just about how the rotation will look if someone gets hurt, but rather that the current rotation, as is, cannot be expected to win in the ALDS, or cannot win a World Series.

The fact is, this very rotation (Gray, Kazmir, Chavez, Milone, Pomeranz, Straily, Mills) has been the one behind which the A's, matched up against other teams with their rotations, have garnered the best record in major league baseball. This means that Oakland's starting pitchers are going deep enough into games and giving up few enough runs to partner with the A's offense, the A's defense, and the A's bullpen in a way that wins Oakland games really often.

This will not magically change in the post-season. Do Oakland's starting pitchers benefit from pitching in front of a terrific outfield defense? They sure do, and they sure will in October. Are the starting pitchers able to convert solid 6 IP outings into team wins the lion's share of the time because Oakland's bullpen has several excellent pieces? They sure are, and they sure will be able to in October.

The rotation has hit some speed bumps the past two weeks, like every rotation does. (Remember how the Tigers' rotation looked when the A's came for a 4-game series last September?) Oakland has every reason to guard against a key injury, because key injuries happen to starting pitchers a lot. But this group is fine overall. Let's look at a couple of them one by one...

Sonny Gray

I don't have any concerns around Gray. His recent struggles need to be seen in the context of a pitcher who still has less than a full year of major league experience. This past start, I felt like if anything Gray suffered from being "too strong" after 9 days' rest. His fastball was perfectly lively but seemed to lack the natural sinking action that makes it so difficult to square up. His breaking pitches were still sharp, his changeup solid. I think he'll be fine going forward.

Jesse Chavez

Perhaps because it's still hard to believe he is actually "really good" and not just an acceptable swing-man, a lot of fans seem to believe that Chavez got off to a fast start and then tanked in May only to continue struggling -- right down to the 6th inning on Friday when he faced 4 hitters, gave up 4 hits, and was charged with 4 runs.

This is not accurate. Yes, Chavez was on fire in April (2-0, 1.89 ERA), but he really wasn't bad in May. If you're going to have a "bad month" you can do a lot worse than to post a 3.90 ERA with peripherals to match (30 IP, 10 BB, 23 K). In June, Chavez has rebounded: Remember that prior to the 6th inning on Friday -- and bad innings just sometimes happen out of nowhere -- Chavez had thrown 5 shutout innings on the heels of blanking the Yankees over 7 IP his previous start.

In fact for June, even with the forgettable 6th in Miami Chavez has a 3.30 ERA over 30 IP, during which time he has allowed all of 1 HR. (interestingly, not only is his June inning total of 30 identical to May, so are his BB and K totals at 10 and 23.) Just a product of pitching in Oakland? Hardly: On the road is where Chavez has a 9.45 K/9 IP ratio (56 K in 53⅓ IP).

So while the "career high and then some" innings total will become a factor to watch in the second half of the season, really if anything Chavez has been very consistent so far this season: Consistently really good. His 2.94 ERA currently ranks 9th in the American League. Closer to being an All-Star than to being a concern, every team should have Jesse Chavez to worry about most.

The Offense

I don't think the offense will necessarily get any better in the second half, but I don't see why it should taper off either. Who has likely performed better in first half than they will in the last 81 games? Probably Coco Crisp. Probably "A's catchers," whose cumulative triple slash line of .333 (Vogt)/.406 (Norris)/.458 (Jaso) is due for some tragic regression. At the same time, Jed Lowrie's .217/.314/.327 slash line, buoyed by the worst luck on the planet, will not last and it's highly probable that Oakland will get more offense from 2B and RF in games 82-162 than they have so far.

Really as you go around the diamond, the "will improve"s, the "will stay about the same"s, and the "will regress"es, are about 1/3, 1/3, and 1/3. Overall I foresee pretty much "more of the same" going forward.

The Bullpen

Bullpens are volatile -- somewhat inconsistent and unpredictable by nature, and rarely do they even consistt of the same guys from start to finish. That's why the signing of Eric O'Flaherty was genius. The A's paid for 2 years to get 1.5 years of O'Flaherty's services and his return to the big leagues couldn't come at a better time. Which is predictable because when a good reliever returns to the fold, it always seems to be at "a really good time."

Sean Doolittle will have to regress because he is not, in fact, God. He is, however, really good. I worry a bit about Luke Gregerson because he not only has shared the league lead in appearances in 2014 but IIRC he is the MLB leader over the past 4 seasons. For a pitcher whose wipeout pitch is a sharp slider, this feels like a ticking time bomb.

Fernando Abad has come back to earth after a sensational April, while Ryan Cook has bounced back from a scary May and wobbly June to finish the month stronger than ever. And Dan Otero just keeps getting batters out in a variety of situations.

Mostly, my assessment of the bullpen is that like all bullpens it has areas of strength and areas of concern, but where the A's are sitting pretty is to have such a good bullpen piece being added to the fold in the next 2 weeks. It's like making a significant trade to bolster the bullpen, and O'Flaherty is the main reason I am bullish on the bullpen going forward.

Summary

What does this all mean? It means that for each place to be pessimistic there seems to be one place to optimistic, one piece will probably get worse while another gets better. Ultimately, to me it signals that the best guess for Oakland's record the next 81 games, barring major injuries that can always change the landscape, is probably 51-30. Works for me!

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