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The anatomy of the Athletics' two-month slump

We all know that the Oakland Athletics have struggled on offense in the second half of 2014. Let's look at the specific areas in which they have struggled.

"I used to enjoy long trots around the bases, but now I'm more into slow walks back to the dugout."
"I used to enjoy long trots around the bases, but now I'm more into slow walks back to the dugout."
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

It's no secret that the Oakland Athletics are struggling to hit. They led the Majors in scoring for four months, and now they've been in the bottom third since August began. The talk has mostly centered around individuals, focusing on players who got traded or injured or just stopped playing well. Instead, I'd like to know what specific skills the lineup has lacked overall.

The first-half A's were an offensive juggernaut. Here is where they ranked among the 30 MLB teams in some key areas:

Home runs -- tied 6th (98)
Walks -- 1st (360)
Strikeouts -- 26th, or 5th-fewest (668)
Batting average -- 16th (.251)
(BABIP -- 29th, .286)

Those four stats encompass most of the things that interest me on offense. That gives you an idea of their ability to make contact, their ability to get on base, their ability to select pitches, and their ability to hit for power. There isn't a whole lot else to take into consideration for a macro view of an offense. There are stolen bases, I guess, but the A's made up for being middle-of-the-pack in raw steals by boasting the second-best success rate in MLB; consider that the Dodgers racked up 33 more steals in the first half but were also caught 22 extra times, and adding bulk steals to your offense at a 60 percent success rate is objectively detrimental to your chances of scoring runs. If you prefer isolated slugging to raw homer totals, the A's were eighth in that category in the first half.

Bottom line, this was a team who could put the ball in play, get on base, and hit for a lot of power (with enough pesky base runners to satisfy the Dusty Baker fans out there). That's a fantastic recipe for success at the plate. The batted balls didn't always translate into hits, but there were so many more batted balls (due to the low strikeout rate) that it all evened out.

How did August go for Oakland?

Home runs -- tied 14th (22)
Walks -- 3rd (99) (leader had 106)
Strikeouts -- tied 22nd, or 9th-fewest (201)
Batting average -- 29th (.223)
(BABIP -- 29th, .258)

They were still drawing their walks, and they were still avoiding strikeouts -- note that the next four teams on the K list ranged from 192-199, so Oakland wasn't far off from the team with the fifth-fewest strikeouts. More or less, the plate discipline remained the same; they still had the third-best walk-to-strikeout rate in baseball for the month. However, the power decreased and the batting average completely tanked. One reason the average tanked is because the BABIP dropped by 28 points; more on that in a moment.

And September?

Home runs -- 27th (10)
Walks -- 1st (82)
Strikeouts -- 25th, or 6th-fewest (158)
Batting average -- 26th (.220)
(BABIP -- 27th, .264)

The walks and (lack of) strikeouts are still there. In fact, they are remarkably unaffected by anything else. The problem is not that pitchers aren't afraid to go after the hitters, or that everyone is swinging and missing. That is simply, objectively, not the issue here. However, the homers became nearly nonexistent in September and the batting average stayed at a Punto level, again thanks largely to a low BABIP.

Let's start with the batting average. It has dropped along with the BABIP, so is the problem that the hitters aren't making good contact anymore or that their hits are finding gloves at an inordinate rate? (LD = line drive, GB = ground ball, FB = fly ball, IFFB = infield fly ball, aka a pop-up)

1st half -- 19.8% LD, 39.6% GB, 40.6% FB, (10% IFFB)
Aug. -- 19.1% LD, 38.4% GB, 42.5% FB, (10.2% IFFB)
Sept. -- 20.6% LD, 40.4% GB, 38.9% FB, (14% IFFB)

The problem with the team's batting average appears to be mostly luck. The only noteworthy difference at all in the rates is the IFFB% in Sept., but that increase isn't as drastic as it looks. The A's have popped up 33 times in 867 plate appearances this month, compared with 32 times in 1,064 PA's in August. Another way to look at it is that they're popping up an extra four times per 100 plate appearances, or around once per game (and twice on Sundays). That's bad, but it's not enough to lose 30 points of batting average and it's certainly not enough to sink an offense all on its own.

What about double plays? Those don't make your batting average worse, per se, but they definitely hurt your offense. (This is only looking at GIDPs, in which the hitter grounded into a double play, and doesn't include fluky things like lineout DPs.)

1st half -- 17th, 70 in 3,732 PAs (once per 53 PAs)
Aug. -- 27th, 16 in 1,064 PAs (once per 66 PAs)
Sept. -- 6th, 20 in 867 PAs (once per 43 PAs)

That's weird. The GIDP rate actually went down in August before returning with a vengeance in September. But, considering that they are getting on base at a lower rate due to the lower batting average, and that the team's ground ball rate hasn't really changed, isn't this more just bad luck and bad timing than anything else? And really, doubly bad timing since the GIDPs always seem to come in the biggest scoring chances, like bases loaded and one out? I would love to hear an argument to the contrary that consists of more than "they're a bunch of chokers who don't know how to win."

So, the plate discipline remains intact. The batting average has dropped, but not for any good reason. They're still stealing bases at the same excellent success rate (29-for-35, 83% success), though they're only 9-for-13 (69%) in September now that Craig Gentry is out and Coco is hurting. What else is left?

(Oakland) would have needed an extra 36 long balls (in Aug. & Sept.) to match their rate from the first half.

The dingers. The dingers are left. They hit 98 in 3,732 PAs in the first half, and they're at 32 in their 1,931 PAs in Aug./Sept. Expressed as a rate, that's one homer per 38 PAs in the first half, and one per 60 PAs the last two months. That difference is massive. They would have needed an extra 36 long balls in these last 52 contests to match their rate from the first half, which is the equivalent of two dingers every three games. That kind of a drop reaches far beyond one player being gone or hurt or slumping or anything else. A total of 36 homers over just two months requires a complete team-wide inability to put the ball in the seats. Josh Donaldson, Adam Dunn, and Brandon Moss each have two homers in September, and Josh Reddick, Jed Lowrie, Sam Fuld, and Nate Freiman have chipped in one apiece. That's it. No one else on the team has gone deep this month. Stretch that out to include August and September, and Donaldson and Reddick lead with five each while Freiman and Stephen Vogt both have four. No one else has more than two.

This offense thrived on homers in the first half. Donaldson and Moss each hit at least 20, and guys like Derek Norris (8), Coco (7), and John Jaso (7) all pitched in as well. Yoenis Cespedes helped with 14 of his own, and of course you can't analyze this part of the team without conceding that he would have cracked at least a few during this two-month swoon. But he was never a prolific home run hitter in terms of pure quantity -- around four per month on average for his career, including time missed for injuries, and he was matching that same rate this year. If anything I'd point to the fact that his replacement, Jonny Gomes, was supposed to hit a couple and hasn't yet done so. Even with Cespedes here, there was going to be a large gap to make up.

What about other extra-base hits?

1st half -- tied 19th in doubles (160), 9th in triples (19)
Aug. -- tied 20th in doubles (39), tied 12th in triples (5)
Sept. -- tied last in doubles (24), tied 6th in triples (6)

The doubles went down, but not until September. I don't really have an explanation for that, but Donaldson (6), Reddick (5), Fuld (3), Geo Soto (3), and Moss (2) are the only guys with more than one this month. Around 10 more doubles would have put Oakland back in the range of 20th place.

Let's add it all up and describe the team in words rather than numbers at three different stops:

1st half -- The A's have excellent plate discipline and put the ball in play as often as anyone. They get on base a decent amount and have lots of home run power to cash in on quick runs. They don't hit a lot of singles or doubles, but they can pick up an extra base with their legs now and then.

Aug. -- The A's have excellent plate discipline and put the ball in play as often as anyone. They don't get on base enough, but it's because their batted balls find gloves at inordinate rates. Furthermore, they aren't as good at cashing in on quick runs because they don't hit as many homers. They don't hit a lot of singles or doubles, but they can pick up an extra base with their legs now and then.

Sept. -- The A's have excellent plate discipline and put the ball in play as often as anyone. They don't get on base enough, but it's mostly because their batted balls find gloves at inordinate rates. Furthermore, they are incapable of cashing in on quick runs because they can't hit homers, meaning that every single run has to come from a small-ball rally. They don't hit a lot of singles and are virtually incapable of hitting doubles, so those small-ball rallies must be station-to-station every single time and require the opponent helping out with some walks. They aren't particularly good at picking up extra bases with their legs, and many of their rallies are ended by uncannily ill-timed double plays.

Here's my theory. On July 31, the A's traded Cespedes. The team was a bit stunned, and they hit a brief bump in the road. The replacement, Jonny Gomes, did nothing to make up for Cespedes when it could have been reasonably expected that he would do at least something, even if that only meant a couple homers. Instead of stepping up, the rest of the lineup got hurt. The catcher spot, a strength for the entire season, was ruined when Jaso got hurt, Norris fell off a cliff, and Vogt was no longer able to catch due to a foot injury. Moss got hurt but played through it, leading to a long slump after being one of the best pure power hitters in baseball since 2012 (in terms of isolated slugging). Lowrie and Punto got hurt and Alberto Callaspo was forced to play every day at a position he sucks at; Callaspo also suffered a general injury to his talent gland. Coco and Gentry got hurt, robbing the team of its speed angle and its quality table-setters. With one good hitter gone and several more injured during August, the remaining players started to press extra hard in September and that caused them to fall even flatter, because trying harder and thinking more doesn't make you hit better. In the end, Donaldson and Reddick were the only ones consistently doing anything at the plate, with occasional contributions from Fuld and from Freiman against lefties. The addition of Adam Dunn didn't provide enough help, possibly because it took opponents about a week to realize that there is just no reason to pitch to him.

I'm trying my absolute hardest not to make this about Cespedes. Of course he has to be mentioned in an objective analysis of the season, but I'm not trying to assign blame to any specific person or transaction. All I'm saying is that the difference between the Murderer's Row first-half A's and the Mariners-lite second-half A's is something like 36 home runs spread over two months, a handful of September doubles, and a bit of batted ball luck. You can decide for yourself where that production should have come from in your perfect world.

Oh, and one last thing:

1st half -- tied 19th in HR allowed (80)
Aug. -- tied 10th in HR allowed (27)
Sept. -- tied 8th in HR allowed (22)

Right when they stopped hitting homers, their pitchers started allowing them more frequently. Want to know how the pitching staff can have such a good ERA but such a bad record of actually winning games? There you go. You can suppress rally after rally, but then a bloop and a blast come along and you lose the game 2-1 because you couldn't score your own runs, or that slim one-run lead vanishes in one swing and the save is blown. The A's used to do that to their opponents, and now the tables have been turned. I'm not blaming this on the pitchers, either; if the lineup was still scoring five runs every day, those extra homers here and there wouldn't be as harmful because every start wouldn't need to be a shutout and every win wouldn't require a tightrope save situation.

It's all about the dingers, baby. The ability to score on one swing of the bat has a way of curing what ails an offense, and losing that ability has a way of ruining everything when you lack the skills to score by alternate means. The good news is that those dingers can return as quickly as they vanished, and in a one- or five-game playoff it won't matter what happened in August or September.