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Six reasons to watch the Oakland A's in the 2nd half

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The Athletics may have to wait 'til next year, but there's still plenty to watch this year.

Rob Carr/Getty Images

As fans of the last place Oakland Athletics, the All-Star Break is our opportunity to reset expectations and remember that for those of us that follow the club year after year, the postseason chase is not everything. One of the great things about sports fandom is, as Adam Sternbergh put it for The New York Times Magazine, "It allows you to feel real emotional investment in something that has no actual real-world consequences."

So the A's are probably not going to make the postseason this year, but we can still invest ourselves in the other wonderful aspects of our Oakland Athletics. We can enjoy the individual success stories. We can laugh at the growing pains. And we can perhaps recognize the core of a good team that has the best record in the American League since going on a 7-23 stretch that ended on May 22.

1. Billy Burns, .300 hitting rookie

AL Rookie WAR (Fangraphs), 1st half 2015
Team Pos WAR (FG)
Devon Travis TOR 2B 2.0
Lance McCullers HOU SP 1.9
Trevor May MIN SP 1.8
Carlos Correa HOU SS 1.5
Steven Souza TBR OF 1.3
Nate Karns TBR SP 1.3
Billy Burns OAK OF 1.2
Roberto Perez CLE C 1.2
Roberto Osuna TOR RP 1.1
Carson Smith SEA RP 1.0

How will Billy Burns progress on both sides of the ball in this second half. Now that pitchers are wise to his first pitch swinging ways, is he going to hold back? Is he going to be more confident in getting jumps on pitchers and try to steal more? Will he continue to improve as a center fielder so that he can expand his range with better routes to balls rather than rely solely on his speed?

Still, he's an exciting player to take over in the lead off role. Since Mitchell Paige finished with a .307 batting average in 1977, no A's player has finished his rookie season with the A's batting over .300 and qualified for the batting title. Jemile Weeks had a .303 in 2011, but his 437 plate appearances over 97 games puts him 66 plate appearances short of qualifying.

Billy Burns probably is not going to win Rookie of the Year because that award usually goes to a home run hitter if there is one or to a pitcher if there is not (see Feliz, Neftali 2010 and Bailey, Andrew 2009). Stolen bases and a high batting average, without power, are usually not by themselves enough to win that prize. But he's an exciting hitter, a steal for two years of Jerry Blevins, and getting better before our eyes.

2. Sonny Gray for Cy Young

How many ways can we sing the praises of Sonny Gray? I go into any game he pitches thinking he just might pitch a no-no. His "didn't have his best stuff" days are ones where he gives up just one run and gives up just two hits while striking out seven. He can come back from being in the hospital for two nights with salmonella poisoning and throw a quality start against the Yankees and feel better as the game goes along.

He leads the American League in ERA (2.04) and is 10th in strikeouts (108) but only trails fifth place by eight. He's also tied with Jesse Hahn for the fewest home runs allowed by a qualified starting pitcher, leading fellow Cy Young candidate and extreme ground ball pitcher Dallas Keuchel by two.

Human beings vote for the Cy Young award, of course, though the Neyer-James formula for estimating Cy Young voting has worked well for starters, though I think it tends to give relievers more credit than they usually get in the voting. It awards five points for every nine innings pitched, one point for every 12 strikeouts, one point for every shutout, six points for every win, 2.5 points for every save, and a 12-point victory bonus for winning the division. Omitting the relievers, here are the top six pitchers by Cy Young Points (CYP):

RK PLAYER TEAM CYP G GS IP ER K SV SHO W-L ERA VB
1 Dallas Keuchel HOU 111.8 19 19 137.1 34 114 0 2 11-4 2.23 0
2 Sonny Gray OAK 104.7 18 18 123.2 28 108 0 1 10-3 2.04 0
4 David Price DET 97.0 18 18 125.0 33 115 0 1 9-2 2.38 0
5 Felix Hernandez SEA 95.5 18 18 117.1 37 112 0 2 11-5 2.84 0
9 Chris Archer TB 84.8 19 19 121.2 37 147 0 0 9-6 2.74 0
10 Chris Sale CHW 83.4 17 17 119.1 36 157 0 0 8-4 2.72 0

String together a few more wins for Sonny Gray and he's got a chance. Dallas Keuchel will probably have to falter, however, and the most likely way will be for the Astros to stop giving him run support and therefore deprive him of the W. The last time Keuchel failed to finish the fifth inning of a start was September 6, 2013, so don't rely on a few blowups to knock Keuchel out of the race.

3. Stephen Vogt for Silver Slugger

Stephen Vogt could become Oakland's first Silver Slugger Award winner, awarded at each position for the best offensive player in the league by a vote of coaches and managers, since Eric Chavez won at third base in 2002. He would be the first catcher for the A's to do it since they first started issuing the award in 1980.

The race isn't going to be particularly close if Vogt can continue to walk one out of eight trips to the plate as well as homer once every 23.5 times. He leads the AL's five qualified catchers in every component of the slash line.

American League catcher leaders by wRC+, qualified, 2015
Counting Stats Rate stats
Team G PA HR R RBI SB AVG OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ BB% K%
Stephen Vogt OAK 85 329 14 43 56 0 .287 .374 .498 .371 143 12.5% 18.8%
Russell Martin TOR 78 307 12 49 41 4 .251 .339 .457 .347 120 10.1% 20.5%
Brian McCann NYY 72 290 14 36 55 0 .259 .331 .471 .346 120 8.3% 18.6%
Salvador Perez KCR 79 304 15 30 38 1 .262 .273 .453 .312 98 1.6% 14.5%
Mike Zunino SEA 81 277 9 22 20 0 .160 .223 .292 .231 45 6.1% 36.1%

4. Marcus Semien and the drive for E(50)

Can Marcus Semien continue to improve at shortstop under Ron Washington's tutelage? He is making good plays now, even turning tricky double plays when he was having trouble with the routine ones before. He still has trouble with throwing the occasional sinker to first base, however, and that could cause his error total to rack up.

Marcus Semien's 28 errors are third most in Oakland history by a shortstop over a full season. Alfredo Griffin had 30 in 1985 and Bert Campaneris had 34 in 1968. Semien's 28 has already passed the single-season leaders for each of 2014 (25), 2013 (27), and 2012 (27).

Twenty-eight errors in 91 games puts Semien on a pace for 49.8 errors this season. No player has committed 50 or more errors since Roy Smalley of the Chicago Cubs in 1951. Not one player has committed more than 40 errors since 1992, when Jose Offerman recorded 42 at shortstop for the Los Angeles Dodgers.

Assuming he gets the same number of fielding chances per game the A's play he has gotten so far, he'll have to commit 22 errors in his final 290 chances, for a .924 fielding percentage. He has a .925 fielding percentage for the season, up from a season low .911 on May 22, and his moving fielding percentage for his previous 30 games played has not been below .924 since June 21.

If he wants to avoid 40 errors, he'll have to perform at something like a .962 fielding percentage for the rest of the year. The American League average is .968.

5. Can the bullpen's improvement continue?

It's been a bizarre year for the bullpen that has undergone a great deal of change. Returner Sean Doolittle is missing to injury, Dan Otero became home run happy, Fernando Abad lost a tick or two of fastball velocity, and Eric O'Flaherty never had it before going on the disabled list.

Now? Otero returns to the bullpen after 16⅔ innings of 1.08 ERA pitching in Triple-A, Abad has a 1.64 ERA over his last 12 appearances totaling 11 innings, and O'Flaherty has a 3.60 in 12 appearances totaling 10 innings since returning from the disabled list.

Meanwhile, Tyler Clippard has continued to be a consistent reliever, if Balfourian in how long he takes between pitches. Drew Pomeranz takes over as the team's leading lefty reliever, owning a 1.65 ERA in 19 relief appearances. Fernando Rodriguez, initially waived off the 40-man roster in the preseason, has a 1.59 ERA in his last 17 appearances for Oakland.

The big questions heading into the second half will be what Evan Scribner's fate will be once the A's recall Chris Bassitt as a fifth starter and whether he will survive Pat Venditte returning to the A's bullpen. The bullpen pieces the team has sorely needed might already be here if we give them time to work themselves out. In any case, I don't think this team is far from having a good bullpen, but it should be interesting to watch.

6. They could come back

41-50 is the second worst record after 91 games for the A's since Billy Beane became general manager. The biggest deficits A's teams have made up since 1998 was five games in 2003 and eight games in 2012.

It's not often that a team below .500 in July goes on to win the division. Most recently, the A's did it in 2012, getting to July 1 38-42 while trailing the Texas Rangers by 12 games. The Tigers also did it in 2012, finishing 88-74 after starting the year 39-42 and 4½ games behind the White Sox on July 3.

End of Record Div. GB
24-May 16-30 13.5
31-May 20-33 12.0
7-Jun 23-36 11.5
14-Jun 26-39 10.5
21-Jun 31-41 10.5
28-Jun 34-44 10.0
5-Jul 38-47 10.5
12-Jul 41-50 8.5

But it does happen. The question will be whether it will be a big surge at the end, like the 23-9 run the Cardinals went on in 2011 to make up 10½ games and snatch the Wild Card from the Braves, or the gradual chipping away the A's have done since May 23, the date from which the A's own the best record in the American League. Oakland has made up five games in their last 45. That sort of pace will let them make up seven more games in their final 71 contests, which would leave them just short. On top of that, of course, they still have to pass four teams, and it's the Angels that have taken over first place from the surprising Astros.

How might it happen? Perhaps the A's take advantage of 22 consecutive games in the State of California to start the second half. Maybe the A's take advantage of Oakland being the third city on the Angels' three-city road trip at the end of August. You'll just have to watch.

Watch this team

A sensational rookie. A young starter chasing the Cy Young. A journeyman chasing a Silver Slugger. A shortstop who can hit some while he figures out his defense. A bullpen that might be just fine now. And maybe, just maybe, an interesting comeback story. Is this team better than its first half record? We'll find out.