The Oakland A's seem as lost as a team can be. The bullpen is a pile of rubble, the rotation is good but not dominant enough to carry things on its own, and on defense it feels like every ball is being fielded by Jack Cust. The lineup remained a strength until the last week or so, but now it's gone in the tank as well. And to top it off, the most important position player and the most important reliever are among the seven regular players on the disabled list. I'll never tell you to give up hope because I can give you explanations for why each of those bad things could turn out totally fine, but I won't argue that a comeback gets less likely every day. At this point it's best to sit back and marvel at the blaze, and just hope that a passing rainstorm extinguishes it.
It's the offense I would like to focus on today. The A's hitters were plugging right along for the most part, and on May 12 they walloped Justin Masterson and the Red Sox en route to a 9-2 victory. Oakland hitters went 6-for-11 with runners in scoring position, and at that point in the season they were among the best teams in baseball at coming through in those situations. The next day, they went 0-for-14 with runners in scoring position in an embarrassing and unbelievable loss to Wade Miley. Beginning with that scoreless loss to Boston on May 13, the A's have scored 21 runs in their last nine games, thanks largely to their 12-for-89 (.135) performance with runners in scoring position (with only one sacrifice fly, which just came in the final inning of the ninth game on Friday). Their only win in that stretch came by the score of 2-1.
Looking at a team's performance with RISP requires context, so here are a few facts to set the stage. First, the team isn't hitting well overall in these nine games; their line of .231/.314/.337 shows that they just are getting enough hits (nor extra-base hits) at all. And yet, they aren't suffering from a lack of opportunities to knock in runners, even having lost their leadoff hitter who is so good at setting the table that he literally has "RISP" as part of his last name. Part of being 12-for-89 in nine games is having 89 at-bats, and that's a shockingly high number for a team that isn't hitting or slugging or doing a lot of extra work with their legs via steals. To put it in perspective, their opponents in these games, who have scored twice as many runs, have only had 71 at-bats w/ RISP (and only two sac flies); the A's have had more chances than their opponents in six of these nine games. The opportunities are there, but the A's just can't take advantage. Here's a game-by-game illustration
Even now, when they look so hopeless, the A's are still getting RISP chances in the double-digits on a near-daily basis. It's not like they're going down 1-2-3 in every inning. In these last nine games, their walk rate is nearly 11% of their plate appearances, which is far above-average. They've hit three triples, and two of them led off innings, but none have advanced the final 90 feet to score. The top individual individual lines:
Josh Reddick: 3-for-14
Brett Lawrie: 3-for-12
Eric Sogard: 2-for-8
And the rest, with the numbers in parentheses being the player's overall line during these nine games:
Billy Butler: 1-for-12, sac fly (11-for-35, .314 average, 2 BB, zero GIDP)
Marcus Semien: 0-for-9 (9-for-33, .273 average, 3 BB)
Stephen Vogt: 0-for-5 (4-for-22, 6 BB, .357 OBP, 1 homer)
Mark Canha: 0-for-6
(Burns, Fuld, Muncy, Phegly, Gentry, and Coco combined for the final 3-for-23, with hits by Fuld, Muncy and Phegley)
This has been a team-wide failure, though it must be stressed that it's also a highly volatile aspect of baseball. It's all about timing, and as long as your hitters are generally hitting well they will eventually come through in the clutch. In fact, getting lots of runners in scoring position at all takes some good hitting, so the smart bet is that this will all go away and then come back again someday and then leave again, like it always does for every team every year. I told you, I'm not here to fix anything, just to marvel at it while it burns so that we're well-positioned to sift through the ashes at the end.
Of course, just because something is statistically likely to get better doesn't mean that it definitely will. The bullpen simply can't stay this bad, but so far it has, and the anecdotal things aren't helping -- our new acquisition was doing great until a line drive fractured his thumb, Bob Melvin keeps throwing a reverse-platoon southpaw at every left-hander in sight, and Evan Scribner is the top set-up option. History offers no guarantees, only unpleasant records that haven't yet been broken. So, in the interest of at least watching worthwhile baseball, win or lose, what hope is there for the hitters to get better?
I'll start with Ben Zobrist. He's coming back soon, probably next week, maybe even Monday. He was supposed to be the best player on the team, and his presence changes the whole lineup by allowing for more comfortable defensive arrangements and pushing everyone down to a more suitable lineup position. He will help. How about everyone else?
Reddick has cooled down a bit, but he's still showing that his strong start is the result of the fact that his approach has progressed by light years this season, and not just because he was lucking into some early hits. He no longer chases the pitchers' pitches, but rather waits for a hittable one and always seems to make good contact. Furthermore, there's no longer a resigned feeling that a pitcher can just pump three fastballs past him and get out of a jam; he's a legitimate threat now. Lawrie is still crushin' those RISPs. and I'm not surprised. At the plate, he gives me the same kind of feeling as Pablo Sandoval -- that's not to say they are at all similar as players, just that I get the same feeling from them. They can each look like total buffoons swinging at a ball a foot out of the zone, and then come up the next time and lace a beautiful hit to knock in a run. Sogard, meanwhile, has that elf magic and he supplements it with nerd power, so of course he's on the good list.
Billy Butler isn't the kind of hitter you would expect to see on the bad list. He rarely gets cheated in his at-bats, and they usually end in hard contact. His career "clutch" numbers also show no cause for concern. He's not in a slump overall, and he's not even hitting into double plays at the moment, but the timing of his hits just isn't lining up for him.
Semien. You're killin' me dude. I really like you and I'm doing my best for you here, but if you're going to keep making errors then you have to keep hitting too. And given that I just made a big deal about how the timing of your errors has been as fortunate and harmless as possible, I have to point out that your hits have gone the same way for Oakland's opponents. Granted, Semien hit one of the leadoff triples that got stranded, and he also should have had a sac fly on Thursday but Billy Burns just ... didn't run home. But there have still been lots of opportunities that he's not cashed in on.
The league has made its adjustment to Vogt, and the plan is to pitch him carefully and throw everything low and away. He's drawing his walks when they aren't giving him anything, and he's still popping a homer now and then, but he's finally hit his first rough patch after his blistering start. I'm not really worried about the 0-for-5 (with a walk!) with RISP, but rather by the fact that he got so few plate appearances with ducks on the pond. It looks like all the RISP chances went to Reddick and Butler, who were not able to extend the rallies long enough to bring up Vogt.
It's easy to get down on Canha right now cause he's raw and he's looked awful lately. I will remind you that Ray & Glen have been saying over and over that Canha was still sick with the flu in his last couple games, and I was struck with the implication that he got it worse than anyone else on the team (my speculation). It's not often that the player still physically looks ill as he stands in the box, but that was the case here. Please erase the last week or so of Canha from your mind.
As for the others, Max Muncy is setting himself apart. He's shown strong plate discipline since day one, with long, patient at-bats that often end with him swinging at hittable pitches. He's drawing his walks and now he's hitting for power, with a pair of homers and pair of doubles in a three-game span last week. His shift-busting bunt single in the ninth on Thursday was equal parts cojones, brilliant situational awareness, and flawless execution. He can hold his own with the glove at first. I expected nothing out of Muncy in Triple-A this year, and instead he's impressing me in the Majors.
As always, though, the scales of luck are never sure to tip back in our favor, only likely or unlikely. This is still a collection of good players, and that has to matter at least a little bit, but at some point something has to change in order to break a bad cycle. I'd like to see the A's start getting aggressive and forcing the issue, because whatever game they've been playing so far hasn't worked. What does this change entail? Well, here are a few things:
1. Billy Burns should attempt a steal virtually every chance he gets. He's had 36 "stolen base opportunities," which is the number of plate appearances during which he's been on first or second with the base ahead of him open (and thus, had the opportunity to steal). He's only run seven times. Billy Hamilton, the player Burns should be aspiring to be, has 35 SBOs and has run 19 times. Maybe Burns doesn't need to fully match Hamilton, but he needs to get a lot closer. His entire purpose on an MLB diamond is to run fast, and he's the kind of sprinter who can make it even when the whole stadium knows he's going. He's never going to hit for power and he will always have to fight and claw to hit for a high average, so his value will come in taking lots of extra bases. (Note: This has already started to change, as Billy is running more, so ... keep it up.)
2. Hit and run with Billy Butler, for goodness sake. The guys likely to be on base when Butler comes up are Burns, Semien, and Reddick, three of the fastest guys on the team and three of the best baserunners. Butler loves to hit really hard ground balls. When the runners are stationary, the hard grounders often go right at defenders, sometimes even for double plays. If you put the runners in motion, and thus put the defense in motion, then ... something else might happen instead. Maybe they'll get out anyway, but they're already getting out now so there's little to lose. But maybe keeping those infielders scrambling around will create more holes for Butler, and even if it doesn't then the strategy would at least keep the runner safe from being part of a GIDP. And given that Butler doesn't swing and miss often, he's unlikely to leave his runners out to dry on a busted hit-and-run. This is such an astoundingly obvious play-call that I'm frankly baffled as to why it hasn't happened regularly already, and why it wasn't the plan from day one.
3. Move Vogt up in the order. He's the team's best hitter and he's batting fifth, which means he's missing out on a few at-bats. As the numbers show, he's also missing out on a lot of RISP chances -- in the last nine games, Reddick at No. 3 and Butler at No. 4 each have at least twice as many PAs with RISP than Vogt at No. 5. I don't not want either of those other guys batting, I just want Vogt up more in a big spot. How about this lineup next week when Zobrist returns:
SS Semien -- good contact & speed, decent on-base
RF Reddick -- 2nd best hitter on team right now
2B Zobrist -- high OBP high in order, splits the two big lefties
C Vogt -- needs to be in front of Butler to increase RISP chances
DH Butler -- if inning ends on GIDP here, then next inning starts w/ patient hitter
1B 1b Muncy -- until Ike returns
3B Lawrie -- nothing to add here, just felt bad leaving his spot blank
lf Fuld/Canha (or Sogard when Zobrist plays LF)
cf Burns/Gentry -- "second leadoff hitter"
Alright, the game is in three hours and I challenged myself not to write more than 1,000 words here (I'm at 2,200 now). Let's leave it at that and see if today is the day the A's turn things around. What are your thoughts on the A's offense, what ails them, what is going well, and/or what you're looking forward to?