The Oakland A's are off to a terrible start to the 2015 season. Actually, it feels even worse than that. Terribad. Horrivoltible. Atrociorepulsawful. Like, Phillies bad. The bullpen has blown virtually every lead it's seen, the defense is throwing the ball all over the place, and there have been enough injuries that Eric Sogard is starting against lefties and midlevel prospect Max Muncy was forced to essentially skip Triple-A. It's like Brian Fuentes put on Jack Cust's glove, smeared himself with Rich Harden's sweat and sacrificed a possum at home plate in an ancient curse ritual.
But there's good news! Things aren't as bad as they look. Not even close. For starter's, the A's aren't even the worst team in MLB -- they're a half-game better than Philadelphia, so they actually rank 29th instead of 30th. Look at that, even at our darkest hour someone else has it worse! Don't you feel 3.3% better?
The reality is that this isn't your typical bad team. The A's are actually quite good at most of the really important stuff. Their lineup scores lots of runs, it scores those runs in a variety of ways, it can score them in bunches or manufacture individual runs, and it doesn't shy away from high-leverage situations -- they've already made several late-game comebacks, and not just from one or two runs down. The starting pitching has also been excellent, even if it doesn't always feel that way, as the unit is eighth in MLB in ERA and fifth in fWAR (and that's including the wretched numbers of the since-demoted Kendall Graveman). If you have a strong and consistent lineup in addition to a top-10 starting rotation led by a possibly genuine ace, it's pretty tough to lose a lot of games.
Unfortunately, the A's are finding ways to squander these gifts. It has been difficult to watch, but the good news is that there is almost no way it will continue like this. No baseball season is truly over on May 12. Here are three reasons not to panic.
1. No bullpen can stay this bad
One obvious shortcoming on this team has been the bullpen, which has fought fires by spraying insect repellent on them. A's relievers lead the AL with seven blown saves, and they lead all of baseball with 10 relief losses. Stats like saves and pitcher W-L records can be deceiving, but the bullpen's performance has been every bit as bad as those numbers suggest.
Perhaps context is needed. Those 10 losses come with only two wins, so when it comes down to a battle of the bullpens the A's are essentially playing a game of Russian roulette with five bullets in the gun. As for the seven blown saves, they occurred in seven separate losses -- that's relevant because it's possible to blow two saves in one game, or to blow a save but win anyway. In addition to those seven blown saves, there have been four other games in which the bullpen took the loss while trying to preserve a tie; note that those four extra losses do not overlap with the seven blown saves.
On the other hand, there have been five games in which A's relievers either recorded a save, or recorded a hold and then won without needing a save. Add it all up, and the A's bullpen has preserved five relatively vulnerable leads, while failing 11* other times. A success rate of 5-of-16 wouldn't even win you a batting title as a hitter (.313), and it certainly won't win you a pennant as a bullpen. It's not just one or two guys, either -- six different pitchers have blown saves, and two more have recorded at least one loss; only three have gotten either a save or a win. They've blown four of their last five relevant games, seven of their last nine ... you get the idea. Dave Cameron at Fangraphs took a look at how absurdly unlucky the A's relievers have been, and I highly recommend it as a (non-FDA-approved) way to lower your blood pressure.
(Note: Of the A's other seven wins, six of them were blowouts of at least six runs and the other involved Evan Scribner throwing one inning with a four-run lead.)
Here's the thing, though. No bullpen is this bad, and certainly not this group. How bad can a bullpen be? I went to Fangraphs and ranked all the team bullpen seasons back through 2010, and of all the worst units the 2013 Astros immediately stuck out. They're a perfect example, as a random assortment of almost literally whoever was free that day in the city of Houston, no experience needed. Looking at only games in which they either earned a hold or a save for preserving a close lead, or notched a blown save or a loss for giving away a lead, here is how they fared (based on my cursory scanning of the team's game logs, could be small margin of error):
Earned hold or save en route to victory: 33
Blew save or otherwise earned loss: 34^
Blew the save but then the lineup came back and they saved it the second time: 5
(^ including one game in which they blew the save, re-took the lead, and blew the save again)
Even if you don't give them credit for those five games in which they got it right the second time, they still essentially saved half of the vulnerable leads or ties that they were given. The absolute worst bullpen of professionals you could possibly construct will still hold half of your leads, and the A's do not have the worst possible group of relievers. They have an All-Star in Clippard, and down the road they should have 3-4 months of another All-Star in Doolittle. Between Otero, Cook, Abad, and O'Flaherty, at least one of them has to bounce back, right? And between Scribner, Rodriguez, Alvarez, and Mujica, at least one of them has to turn in a surprisingly good year, right? I mean, that's only asking for a 25% success rate on our strong lotto tickets, and I haven't even named all the young starters who could ease into relief roles (Bassit, Graveman, Nolin, etc.). Pick a couple of those random names and plug them in; a pen of Doo-Clipp-Mujica-Abad all pitching reasonably well is good enough to not ruin your season. Or maybe Doo-Clipp-Otero-Nolin. There are dozens of potential combos.
The A's aren't blowing games because they lack talent in the pen. There were supposed to be six quality arms there, and there are over a dozen usable ones. I can't tell you exactly how or when, but it'll turn around. This too shall pass.
The key injuries are all short-term
You never want to fully count on players returning from injuries. In 2013, Rangers fans learned the hard way that players don't always come back at 100% right on their expected timetables. There are setbacks, there are permanent losses of ability, and sometimes they don't return at all, ever.
With that caveat in mind, the A's current key injuries are not that bad. Coco Crisp is already back in the lineup, and although he is 0-for-21 so far I'm not particularly worried about him yet. Just last night, he hit an absolute rocket that should have been a game-sealing two-run double (triple?) except that Mike Napoli made the play of his life, a leaping snowcone catch to snare the sharp liner. Coco also made a leaping catch himself, complete with a hard crash into the wall. I saw flashes of the old Coco on both sides of the ball, and it was a nice assurance that he still exists.
Injury updates (May 9): Doo, Parker, Freiman
Parker's injury could be bad for a different reason. A.J. Griffin is being evaluated for shoulder soreness. Sean Doolittle is throwing off the mound! Nate Freiman was activated from the disabled list and stays in Nashville. Chad Smith was sent to the Angels for cash. Matt Carson will be back negotiating the outfield wall in the Oakland organization.
The loss of Sean Doolittle has exacerbated the bullpen problem, but he is close to returning and could be back by the end of the month. Maybe he won't be his old self, or maybe his injury will linger or recur, but at least he's close to coming back so we can find out for sure instead of speculating.
Ben Zobrist is out with a knee injury, but he should also be back by June. When you hear about joint injuries, your knee-jerk reaction might be to brace yourself for the worst. The good news is that a torn meniscus is on the relatively light spectrum of knee issues; it's still a bad thing, but the recovery is quick and the future ramifications are less than, say, a ligament tear. It's not overly optimistic to assume we'll have a totally normal Ben Zobrist for 3-4 months.
That doesn't seem like a long list of injuries, but man is it a crucial one. The return of Coco means that Fuld and Burns don't have to start together in the same outfield, or it means that Mark Canha can fill in at first if Ike Davis needs to rest whatever leg muscle he pulled last night against Boston. The return of Doo will push Clippard back to the eighth and everyone else back to the middle innings, and he'll push whoever the worst reliever is back to Triple-A. The return of Zobrist means that Eric Sogard won't have to start anymore, or it means that if Billy Burns stops getting on base then he doesn't have to keep starting. This team is based on interchangeable parts, but Zobrist was kind of the central cog and without him the rest of the gears don't quite turn in sync. Consider that, with Zobrist back, Semien or Burns or Coco could conceivably be hitting ninth in the order.
One or two players don't make a baseball team on their own, as Angels fans know, but they can sure help cure what ails a struggling club that is oh-so-close to breaking out. The hobbled stars didn't have devastating injuries, and they should all be back within a few weeks. This too shall pass.
It's deja vu all over again
You guys. We've been here before. Do you remember these starts?
2000: 15-17 on May 8 (won 91 and division)
2001: 11-20 on May 6 (won 102 and Wild Card)
2002: 20-26 on May 23 (won 103 and division)
2006: 23-29 on May 30 (won 93 and division)
2012: 22-30 on June 1 (won 94 and division)
What about these years?
2008: 22-14 on May 7, 51-42 on July 11 (won 75, 3rd place)
2014: 30-16 on May 21, 72-44 on Aug. 9 (own 88, 2nd place)
A team's record in mid-May just doesn't mean anything. I mean, absolutely nothing. Sure, sometimes it correlates to the final record -- in 2003 and 2013 the A's were good wire-to-wire and won the division, in 2009 they started poorly and stayed that way, and in 2010 they hovered around .500 all year and finished 81-81. The point is not that the result will be the opposite of whatever it says in May, like how on the old 1990s dot racing at the Coliseum you were guaranteed that whichever dot was in last place entering the final lap would ultimately win (the program was not complicated back then). The point is that the record is meaningless, especially when it differs so greatly from both the preseason expectations and the overall performance of the team. The Red Sox, Orioles, Angels, and Mariners are all below .500 now too, but I'll bet that between the five of us at least three will finish the year with winning records and at least two will make the postseason.
Billy Beane has had eight postseason teams. Of those eight, five of them had losing records in May, and four of them still had losing records in June. Those four teams span the years 2001-2012, so this isn't even one of those "Billy used to have magic but doesn't anymore" conversations. Sure, it takes a lot to have everything come together for a big second-half resurgence to turn a loser into a playoff team, but the A's do it all the time under Billy Beane. In fact, more often than not when they make the playoffs, that is specifically the way in which they do it. Without checking, I'd have to guess that no 21st-century team is better at doing this exact thing than the A's.
To be completely honest, this is how I feel most comfortable in a contending season, just because I've seen it so many times with Oakland. The trauma of seeing last year's fairy tale first-half turn sour down the stretch only strengthened my (probably exaggerated) opinion that peaking early in a baseball season is a bad thing and that I'd rather lie in the weeds and then prepare for a hot second half. Losing record in mid-May? This too shall pass.
Billy spends the first two months seeing what he has, the next two months fixing the problems, and the final two months watching his creation destroy the world. (And then one week watching it all fall apart, but let's worry about the ALDS if/when we get there.) The problems are now apparent. They are bullpen and defense. We talked about the bullpen and why it physically, mathematically, spiritually, has to improve. I didn't mention the defense yet.
The A's lead the Majors in fielding errors by a wide margin, and they rank 29th in defensive WAR on Fangraphs (ahead of the Padres and their ghastly Kemp/Myers/Upton outfield). But when I look around, I see strong defenders at six positions: RF (Reddick), CF (Gentry/Fuld/Burns), LF (Coco/Zobrist), 3B (Lawrie), 2B (Sogard/Zobrist), and C (Vogt). I also think Ike Davis looks great at first base, though the numbers don't yet agree. The only weak position is shortstop, where Semien ranks as the worst defender in baseball. Shortstop is important, but not so much that it should be sinking a unit that is above-average at every single other position. I expect the defense will improve just because there is no reason for it to have been this bad in the first place.
The A's probably have all the parts they need already. They just need the super-important ones to come back from their short-term injuries, they need at least some of the relievers and defenders to perform like they have shown they are capable of, and they need to keep mixing and matching to find where everyone fits best. This will probably always be a problem the A's face due to their constantly high rate of turnover, since every April/May is an exercise in gelling together a new group of players. Fortunately, the A's have a track record of being excellent at doing just that.
Don't panic, Athletics Nation. The team's record looks bad right now in the middle of May, but playoff spots aren't determined until the end of September. This too shall pass.
*Note: If you're like me, you're wondering how the bullpen has 10 relief losses but has blown 11 games without winning any. The answer is that, in one of the blown saves, the reliever merely surrendered the inherited runners left to him by his starter; the reliever blew the save, but the runs and the loss were credited to the starter.
So as not to end this happy article with that footnote, here is a video of Sean Doolittle striking out Mark Canha yesterday.