The Oakland Athletics opened their season with two losses, but then enjoyed a thrilling 9-game winning streak in which the offense exploded against some questionable pitching. Since then, they've been pounded in back-to-back games by an extremely talented Detroit Tigers team. Their once-mighty 9-2 record has fallen to a slightly-less-mighty 9-4, which means that it's time for every baseball fan's favorite past-time (other than baseball): freaking out about small sample sizes! Let's go through a few current sources of panic for A's fans.
Holy Crap, the Tigers made mincemeat of Oakland's pitching!
Yep, the Tigers scored 20 runs on 36 hits over the 3-game series. That's a lot of offense. Sure, the A's are supposed to have good pitching, but have you seen the Tigers lineup. I mean, have you seen it? It starts with Austin Jackson, who put up a 130 OPS+ and a 135 wRC+ last year while hitting 16 homers. He's leading off. Then you get to Torii Hunter, who is still one of the most underrated players in baseball, and whom many feel the Angels should have kept rather than signing Josh Hamilton. Then you have to deal with Miguel Cabrera, who is currently on the short list for Best Hitter in the World and just homered using a herring as a bat. Follow that up with Prince Fielder, who's going to have 300 career homers before he's 30 and has the ability to maintain a .300/.400/.500 slash line (or better).
If you somehow make it through those four nightmares, the rest of the lineup includes Victor Martinez (career .302 hitter with four 100-RBI seasons), Jhonny Peralta (shortstop with 146 career homers at age 30), and Alex Avila (catcher with a career 114 wRC+ entering his age 26 season). I'd be pretty comfortable calling Detroit's offense the best in the AL, with only the Reds and Nationals as possible contenders in the NL. Plus, Hunter and Fielder were both on 6-game hitting streaks already when the Tigers got to town and Cabrera was hitting 378, so it's not like they were scuffling to start the season. Before freaking out too much about getting mauled by the Tigers in April, remember that their lineup is an absolute Murderer's Row and that they were already hot to start 2013. It's totally OK that they had a big weekend.
Good Lord, Jarrod Parker is terrible at baseball!
When I got in my car to drive home from the Coliseum yesterday, I turned the radio to 95.7 to listen to the post-game show. Not surprisingly, most of the callers were adamant that Jarrod Parker is horrible and needs to be sent away immediately. When I got home and pulled up Nico's game recap, most of the comments were about how Parker is horrible and needs to be sent away immediately. Jarrod Parker is not a popular man in the Bay Area right now.
You guys. It's April 15th. Parker has made 3 starts, and thrown 11 innings. Calm. Down. His ERA is an unsightly 10.80. Here are the current ERA's of some other terrible Major League pitchers: Matt Harrison (8.44), Brandon McCarthy (7.71), Roy Halladay (7.63), Cole Hamels (7.56), Ryan Vogelsong (7.15), Yovani Gallardo (6.61), Matt Cain (5.94), R.A. Dickey (5.82), David Price (5.82), Ian Kennedy (5.79)...and so on. These things happen in small sample sizes. When you have an uncharacteristically bad start in April, there aren't a bunch of characteristically good starts to balance it out in the stats. Sure, a couple of the pitchers on that list might end up having poor seasons or turning out to be injured. Most of them will be fine, however, because they're really good pitchers who just had one or two really bad starts.
But Parker is different, right? He's been even worse than those other guys. His ERA has an entire extra digit! And his peripherals (4 strikeouts, 8 walks, 2 homers in 11.2 innings) back up his poor performance! And he's giving up line drives like crazy! Those things are all true, but so are these things: He's throwing the same pitches at roughly the same frequencies as he did last year, when he was really good. His velocity is the same as it was last year, when he was really good. Given those two facts, it is extremely unlikely that he is injured. And, given that he was a top prospect whose 2012 success was within the range of his reasonable career expectations, it's not likely that that success was an inherent fluke. Therefore, there is only one likely explanation: Jarrod Parker is a young pitcher working through a rough patch.
I don't know exactly what that rough patch is. Maybe he has a glitch in his mechanics which is causing him to leave the ball up. Maybe he's tipping his pitches. Maybe he's distracted by something in his personal life. Maybe he's bogged down by high expectations and needs to loosen up. I don't know, and neither do you. What I do know is that Parker is a 24-year-old pitcher who just made his 33rd Major League start, and that the development of young pitchers is most often compared to a rollercoaster ride. Specifically, it's a rollercoaster ride with no seatbelts or restraints, such that some riders fall out and land on their ulnar collateral ligaments, but that's beside the point. It's a rollercoaster, and last year was one giant, prolonged "up" phase. Right now, he's on a "down" phase. These things happen with virtually every young pitcher, and you don't just get to skip the growing pains because the guy had one good year. You just hope that the down phases are relatively brief and painless.
So, if we're going to trust that Parker is still a very talented pitcher, and that his career isn't over because of three bad starts, then what happens next? You could send him down and recall Dan Straily. Folks are eager to see Straily again after he dominated the Astros at a point when their offensive strategy was "strike out as many times as possible." (A bold strategy to be sure, but ultimately ineffective.) However, Parker isn't a fringe talent who is unjustly taking the #5 spot from a more talented youngster. He is a former top prospect who was awesome last year and is supposed to be the team's #2 starter this year. When a player is that talented and is somewhat proven at the MLB level, you need to let him work it out at the MLB level. Watching him mow down some AAA hitters isn't going to tell you anything about whether or not he has fixed his issues; he may be making the same mistakes but getting away with them against inferior competition. He needs to be allowed to adjust at the MLB level, and fix his problems against real MLB hitters. Don't want to ruin his confidence by leaving him out to dry in a bunch of failed starts? Well, I don't want to ruin his confidence by quickly sending him to the minors 6 months after he started Game 1 of a playoff series. Granted, he spent time in AAA last April, but that was last year and this is this year. He's not tuning up to start his MLB career; he's trying to build on his resounding MLB success. Let's give his talent the benefit of the doubt, and give it a fair chance to blossom again.
Of course, there is a limit to this patience. Jemile Weeks got 500 plate appearances last year before Oakland pulled the plug, but Parker can't be given nearly that much rope. There is a division to be won, and you can't throw away too many games waiting for Parker to come around. What is the magic number, then, if not 3 starts? Well, that's a very complica....wait, no, it's 6. The magic number is 6 starts. Did I just make that up out of the blue, or is there something scientific to it? I'm not telling. But I want to see 6 starts out of a youngster like Parker before I start to think about sending him down. It's not that 6 starts provides a sufficient number of innings to gauge anything in particular, but it is enough starts to make the same mistakes a few times, try to adjust but still fail, and then try to adjust again and fail again. It's enough starts that, if there were one or two uncharacteristic or unlucky disaster starts mixed in, their statistical significance would begin to become diluted. Really, I would prefer 10 starts, but if Parker is still walking more hitters than he strikes out in his next three games, then I'll be ready to call for his demotion in early May.
One last thing about Parker: I keep hearing that his poor performance isn't truly a small sample size because he was bad in Spring Training as well. It's still mind-boggling to me that anyone even looks at spring stats, so all I will say is this: Spring Training stats don't suddenly start mattering because of confirmation bias. Your life will be much happier if you just accept the fact that spring stats are meaningless, and move on accordingly. Seriously, pretend like they don't exist. Remember how Eric Sogard was hitting .500 for most of the Cactus League? And Andy Parrino had a 1.047 OPS? And A.J. Griffin had a 5.40 ERA? And Ryan Cook had a 6.14 ERA and more walks than strikeouts? Meaningless, all of it. Same goes for whatever Parker did in March.
Sweet Jesus, Chris Young can't catch a fly ball!
I'm going to be honest with you. I've been a bit busy this month, and I've missed several of Oakland's games already. So, I haven't seen much of Chris Young in the outfield. However, my understanding is that he has already made several bad plays, from clanking fly balls off of his glove to not diving for potentially catchable hits. Naturally, folks are starting to freak out. Was his highly-touted defense a big hoax? Is UZR a filthy liar? Did a piece of sky literally just fall and hit me on the head?
Let me present my argument about why we should cut Chris Young some slack on his April defense. First off, UZR works best in samples of at least 3 seasons. Young has consistently posted monster defensive metrics over the last three seasons, both in terms of UZR and Defensive Runs Saved. I will trust those three years worth of data more than 73 innings of play in 2013. More importantly, though, here are the number of innings that Young has played at different defensive positions:
Prior to 2013, Young had literally never played any position other than center field in the Majors. He hadn't spent a single inning in either corner. Now, the A's have him moving around from place to place on a daily basis. A guy who is talented enough to play center is usually talented enough to play the corners, but that doesn't mean that he can transition immediately to that new role without any previous experience at all. It will take time for him to adjust to his new digs, from learning how the ball comes off the bat to learning...I don't know, other outfieldy stuff. I'm a writer, not a player. These things take time and practice. Let's give Young more than 2 weeks of intermittent playing time to simultaneously learn two new positions while also learning all of the pitchers in a new league before we decide that his defensive reputation was all a big lie.
Dagnabbit, Yoenis Cespedes is hurt again and we're all going to die!
Cespedes missed three weeks last year with an injury to virtually the same body part, and Oakland still won the division. This time around, there are actually other good hitters in the lineup to pick up the slack while he's out, instead of guys like Kila and Hughes and Penny and Suzuki and Cowgill. This team can win without Cespedes for a few weeks. It'll be fine.
By Zeus's Beard, Josh Reddick forgot how to hit!
Reddick is off to a terrible start. However, he is walking more and striking out less than he did last year, and I'll bet you any amount of money in the world that his .103 BABIP will go up sooner than later. Maybe he won't repeat last year, and maybe he will. He's already hit an absolute bomb this year and come up with a key hit with RISP, though, so let's give him more than 43 plate appearances (and wait for his recently sprained wrist to fully heal) before we freak out too much. Also, and I can't stress this enough: His batting statistics are completely unrelated in any way to his beard length. I'm as superstitious as the next baseball fan, but c'mon. His beard his not ruining his offense. His ego is not ruining his offense. He's a fan favorite and team leader, so yeah, he's going to be high-profile in the media. That does not mean that he has developed a crazy ego which is ruining his game. It just means that he's embraced the spotlight and is having a good time with it. That's a good thing, and it's an important thing which someone on the team has to do.
Also, athletes were growing huge beards long before Brian Wilson came around - Johnny Damon leaps to mind as an immediate example. The Giants do not hold territorial rights on beards; in fact, Wilson isn't even on the team anymore. It's OK that the A's have a player with a big beard.
The A's are 13 games into a 162-game season. We know very little about this team so far, and it will be several weeks before we truly have any grasp on individual player performances. You can panic if you want, but I'm not going to. Oakland's roster looked awesome two weeks ago, and it still does now. Call me on June 1st, and we can have our first meaningful conversation about 2013 season stats and team standings.