The A's are in the midst of a horrific slide, but fans and media alike are directing the blame to strange places. The Yoenis Cespedes trade, in-game managerial decisions from Bob Melvin, a lack of clubhouse chemistry (how anyone outside the clubhouse could have any idea what goes on inside is beyond me), and a few other storylines are being conveniently touted as principal causes of Oakland's woes. They all might be legitimate, but there's a way in which many are overthinking things.
One trend is going surprisingly under-thought and undiscussed, though, and it's the fact that a substantial chunk of Oakland's production has been injured for the past month, or longer.
Sean Doolittle, for instance, has missed two weeks with a strained intercostal muscle. Since his injury, the A's have lost by one-run margins eight times. Eight! While Doolittle's absence obviously has nothing to do with the coincident lack of offensive production, it certainly helps to have your shutdown closer available in the late innings of deadlocked contests. Oakland did win two one-run games out of the 10 played since Doolittle went down, but if he gets a few chances against the Astros, White Sox, and Mariners, it's hard to imagine Oakland not squeaking out at least a few more of those nail-biters.
Then there's John Jaso, who also hasn't appeared in a game since August 23. His wRC+ of 127 against right-handed pitching is missed especially when Brandon Moss simply isn't producing, though Adam Dunn is replicating Jaso's production perfectly (Dunn's wRC+ against righties is also 127).
But add Stephen Vogt's injury to the mix and Jaso's becomes all the more substantial, especially because the duo's collective inability to catch has destroyed a remarkably effective platoon between Derek Norris and one (or both) of Vogt and Jaso, both of whom bat left-handed.
Geovany Soto is a fine catcher, and whether by cause or coincidence, he seems to have orchestrated a 180-degree turn for Jason Hammel's stint in Oakland. But Vogt's wRC+ against RHP in 2013 stood at 136 before his injury, and Soto's career (sample size issues with yearly) wRC+ against righties is 92.
The outfield isn't in great shape, either. Coco Crisp missed five games (four of which were losses) recently with neck issues, and his absence pushes outfielders like Sam Fuld or Craig Gentry into the lineup, sometimes against same-handed pitchers. Aside from anecdotal evidence that when Coco plays he often scores, and when Coco scores the A's often win, Crisp is simply more productive than Sam Fuld, and he switch-hits. And now, of course, Craig Gentry is concussed. That means Josh Reddick will face lefties more often (his career wRC+ is 86 vs. LHP, as opposed to Gentry's 105).
Jed Lowrie also missed 20 games in a 25-game stretch in August. The impact Lowrie's absence has on offensive productivity from the infield is massive. Instead of Lowrie at shortstop, you get Eric Sogard, even occasionally against left-handed pitching. And then instead of Sogard or Nick Punto at second base, you get Alberto Callaspo. And when that happens, Alberto Callaspo is in your lineup.
And then there's Punto! Beyond taking away a large degree of defensive flexibility, Punto hasn't been available to spell Callaspo in the midst of his funk, or replace Jed Lowrie defensively in the late innings, or do anything, all thanks to a severe hamstring strain sustained August 2.
No, you can't blame a skid like the one Oakland has been on entirely on injuries, especially when those injuries aren't to players like Josh Donaldson or one of the Athletics' elite starting pitchers. But the simple reality is that the A's best lineup and their current lineup are barely similar, and it's going largely ignored.
Callaspo is scuffling. Where's Nick Punto? Geovany Soto isn't good against right-handed pitchers. Where are Jaso and Vogt? The A's have played 10 one-run games, and lost eight, in the past two or so weeks. Where was Sean Doolittle? Eric Sogard at shortstop, Sam Fuld as a full-time (Fuld-time?) outfielder, Eric O'Flaherty closing games...the list goes on and on. No, the A's aren't playing well. Much of the cause boils down to a simple reality: the A's aren't playing well because their best players have been hurt.
Those who feel that this A's team is drastically different from the one we all enjoyed watching two months ago are completely right. But it's not because Yoenis Cespedes plays for the Red Sox and has rendered every A's player incapable of performing because they miss him so darn much and can't stop thinking about him. It seems like a different team because it's actually a different team. The 2014 A's of best-in-baseball fame are still quite capable of winning a World Series. They just aren't playing.