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Who can save the Oakland A's against left-handed pitching?

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Coming soon to a stadium near you?
Coming soon to a stadium near you?
Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

The Oakland A's have a problem. No, I don't mean the bullpen, but yeah, that's worrisome too. I'm also not talking about the defense, but now that you mention it that could be better. Okay, the Oakland A's have several problems. And one of them is that they can't hit left-handed pitching. This is a particularly imminent issue because in a few hours they are facing the Pacific northwest's hottest southpaw, Seattle's Mike Montgomery, who has thrown shutouts in each of his last two starts. This should go swimmingly, in the sense of fish navigating within a barrel while a Mariner hunts them.

A's vs. RHP: .267/.324/.412, 55 HR, 0.44 BB/K, 2388 PAs 
A's vs. LHP: .238/.316/.355, 14 HR, 0.54 BB/K, 832 PAs

Yikes. Their .671 OPS against lefties ranks 24th in MLB, and they're in the bottom third in homers. This weakness has led to a 5-15 record against left-handed starters, which is a worse winning percentage than anyone except the Rockies. The list of lefties they've beaten includes Ross Detwiler, C.C. Sabathia*, Chris Capuano, Wandy Rodriguez, and Roenis Elias. They also beat up Carlos Rodon in May but blew the lead, and they were probably better against J.A. Happ this week than they were against Elias but they simply won the game in which Seattle didn't score. Otherwise, it's mostly been a bunch of performances in the neighborhood of seven innings and two runs or fewer, sometimes against an ace like Dallas Keuchel and sometimes against a scrub like Wade Miley.

* They're facing Sabathia again on Wednesday!

However, there is good news in those splits above. Behind the low average and the lack of power and the inability to win, there is that walk-to-strikeout rate, third-best in MLB. That beautiful plate discipline. When all else feels cold, great plate discipline is the warm glow that keeps my hopes alive. As long as they're controlling the zone, as long as they're taking their walks and refusing to give in and strike out, there's a good chance their results will get better. Their BABIP is 26 points lower against lefties but their batted-ball profile, while a little short on line drives, is mostly fine. The biggest problem is that the fly balls aren't leaving the yard, and it's always tough to say if that's the fault of the hitters or a mere fluctuation.

You generally expect your top right-handed hitters to step up against southpaws, so here are the platoon splits for Oakland's key guys. These sample sizes are too small to tell us about true talent level, but they can tell us who the heroes and culprits have been in the early going. (The star LHH's are also listed at the end.)

Phegley: .321/.377/.554, 3 HR, 5 BB, 9 Ks (61 PAs)
Lawrie: .291/.341/.557, 5 HR, 6 BB, 15 Ks (86 PAs)
Semien: .293/.349/.413, 1 HR, 7 BB, 12 Ks (83 PAs)
Butler: .206/.357/.353, 2 HR, 16 BB, 14 Ks (84 PAs)
Canha: .121/.205/.136, 0 HR, 7 BB, 17 Ks (73 PAs)

Vogt: .290/.370/.420, 1 HR, 9 BB, 16 Ks (81 PAs)
Reddick: .158/.227/.232, 1 HR, 6 BB, 12 Ks (75 PAs)

Vogt and Reddick have both preferred facing righties over their careers, as you would expect, and they've continued to do so this year. Sure, Reddick's split is a bit exaggerated, and Vogt still gets on base, but you know not to count on them to lead the offense against lefties. As for the right-handed hitters, Phegley and Lawrie have been the standouts, and that pair has provided over half of the entire team's 14 homers. Semien has been decent too, and Zobrist's OPS split is within about 100 points, though only one of their 12 combined homers has come against LHP. The weak links have been Butler and Canha, with Butler intended to be the lefty-masher in the middle and Canha tabbed as the platoon slugger to partner with Ike Davis.

Can this possibly continue? Butler has destroyed lefties throughout his career, and while he may have declined a bit overall he is actually walking more than he strikes out and he's still showing solid power against them. While I'm confident that Butler has declined since his KC days, I don't think he's this really this bad against lefties; I expect him to improve in this regard as the year goes on.

As for Canha, he has famously hit all eight of his homers against RHP, the side the team seems determined to hide him against. They're not wrong in principle -- you generally expect a righty to hit better against lefties and Canha's minor league career does slightly favor LHP, and in fact his BB/K is much better against lefties while his BABIP split suggests small-sample shenanigans. I've already written that I think Canha should play more against RHP, but on top of that I think that playing everyday would help Canha establish a rhythm that might help him overall as a hitter. Perhaps if he wasn't so often facing those lefties after a few days on the bench, he'd hit them better. Either way, he will eventually homer off a southpaw, and on that day the A's will almost by definition score more than normal against that southpaw.

Alright, so Butler and Canha seem like great bets to get better against LHP. Is there anyone else in the organization who might help?

Nate Freiman

Nope. The platoon bat from yesteryear was just designated for assignment a couple days ago. Even if he were to stay in the organization, he's done nothing this year. Hasn't even homered. If this is the end of Six-Eight Nate in Oakland, then at least we'll always have the best moment of the 2013 season.

Craig Gentry

He has now played 44 games in Triple-A after going down to find his swing. Whatever was wrong with him to start the season, he seems to be over it, as he's hitting .281 since the beginning of June with a normal BB/K and some extra-base power. However, he's still so similar to Billy Burns and Sam Fuld that it's tough to see how he fits on the roster right now, especially since power is the thing the A's are truly missing against lefties. The best bet is probably to leave him in Nashville for now as CF depth.

Dayan Viciedo

He finally homered for Nashville! He's only hitting .216, but he's got a few extra-base hits and he's actually not striking out a lot. My answer is still a big resounding NOPE but, surprisingly, there is actually something to keep an eye on here.

Jake Smolinski

Jake from A's Farm is on absolute fire. The 26-year-old outfielder struggled for the Rangers to start the year and I think they gave up on him faster than they should have. He ended up being DFA'd and was picked up by the A's, and in a dozen games for Nashville he's hitting .415/.432/.707 with a pair of homers and only three strikeouts. Those numbers are actually slightly worse than the ones he posted in a dozen games for Triple-A Round Rock before his acquisition, so he's got a 1.213 OPS in nearly 100 minor league plate appearances this season. And of course, he's a righty who has always hit lefties better and is smoking them this year. Why not give him a shot?

***

I don't think we'll have to wait long to see Smolinski. A spot will open up on the bench when Sonny Gray returns to action and the pitching staff goes back down to 12 members, and no one else on the Triple-A roster is a particularly compelling choice unless the A's want Andy Parrino as another backup infielder (please no). The only question is whether they will make an aggressive maneuver to get him up in time to start against Montgomery, or if he'll wait until Wednesday and debut against Sabathia. Either way, even if regression fails us and Butler and Canha don't come around, there is one more glimmer of hope remaining for the A's in their struggle against southpaws. Perhaps Smolinski will save us.