You would have thought that the 2005 Oakland Athletics campaign reached its nadir after the A's lost their eighth straight contest and 11th of their last 12, taking them to 14-23 in the middle of May. Gone were two of the Big Three, and the remaining one, Barry Zito, was off on the wrong foot, owning a 5.54 ERA in his first eight starts.
Oakland was placing its staff ace, Rich Harden, on the disabled list with an oblique injury that would keep him out for a month. Right fielder Nick Swisher, their top prospect, was flirting with the Mendoza Line before going on the disabled list himself with a right shoulder sprain. Their defending Rookie of the Year, Bobby Crosby, started the year on the disabled list with a ribcage stress fracture.
You would have been wrong, as the A's, after then winning three of four, proceeded to go on another eight game losing streak, bringing them to 17-32 near the end of the month. Thier closer, Octavio Dotel, would lose the rest of the season to Tommy John surgery. Erubiel Durazo, their DH who found he could no longer hit, also found himself getting Tommy John surgery, and that was the last major league season he ever played.
As Oakland completed its second eight-game losing streak of May, our founder, Tyler Bleszinski, set the table:
[Y]ou can understand where the overwhelming negativity has come from. Five wins in a month will do that to you. Especially since under Billy Beane's watch, this team hasn't struggled like this. Ever.
But the good news, if there is any, is that we should soon see the team that Billy was trying to put together on the field. Bobby Crosby is close to returning. Kiko Calero is close to returning (let's hope he can throw his slider this time otherwise he's 2004 Jim Mecir all over again).
Of course, the news on Octavio Dotel is a little more troubling. And who knows when our young ace, Rich Harden will return?
And then the A's just started winning like crazy, going 71-42 (.628) the rest of the year to finish 88-74, seven games back of both the AL West and the Wild Card.
Ah, Billy Beane Moneyball magic *nods knowingly*
Despite some calls to engage in the sort of crazy three-week shakeup of 2002 prominently featured in Moneyball that on paper didn't do anything but shuffle around prominent role players, Beane didn't do much of anything except acquire Ryan Glynn for cash from Toronto and sent him to Triple-A.
Well there was a mini "guys you've never heard of" shuffle. The A's demoted Jermaine Clark and called up Matt Watson. They called up Seth Etherton to take Rich Harden's place on the roster. They brought Jermaine Clark back after Octavio Dotel went on the DL, then sent him right back out to call up Britt Reames. Twenty-five points to you if you can tell me what positions Clark, Watson, and Reames played without looking them up.
So how'd they get good?
The offense gained some contributors back from injuries, injuries got rid of non-contributors, and other players who got off to a slow start hit at their expected levels. Basically, they just waited for the players to perform like they thought they were going to perform.
Nick Swisher was activated and Dan Johnson was called up on May 25, replacing Matt Watson and Erubiel Durazo. After Swisher started the year with a .218/.274/.372 (69 wRC+) batting line in 22 games before the injury, he came back to hit .240/.331/.461 (112 wRC+) after it in his final 109 games. The A's got the best year of Dan Johnson's career in 2005 when he hit .275/.355/.451 with 15 home runs (117 wRC+) in 109 games.
The A's got Bobby Crosby back on May 30, sending the struggling Keith Ginter (.169/.258/.313 to that point) to the minor leagues in time for Crosby to enjoy the best year he would ever have at the plate -- hitting .276/.346/.456 (117 wRC+) in 84 games -- and in the field -- a .981 fielding percentage, 18.5 UZR/150, or nine Defensive Runs Saved.
Players who were hitting terribly in April and May just came alive in the summer months:
|2005 monthly Oakland A's batting splits|
Starters who pitched terribly in April or May pitched well in the summer months, or the hot offense picked them up:
|2005 monthly Oakland A's starters pitching splits (ERA/starts) [ERA includes relief appearances]|
Oh, and the bullpen was just fine without Octavio Dotel, thank you very much, enjoying a 3.43 ERA that was fourth best in the AL. The relief corp was led by Huston Street, whose success in the closer role propelled him to the Rookie of the Year Award, with major help from Justin Duchscherer, Kiko Calero, Jay Witasick, and Joe Kennedy, to name the top five.
Where did it fall apart again?
After starting the year 17-32, the A's went 50-17 to get to 67-49 on August 13, and peaked at 75-56 on August 30 to take a two game lead in the division. After that, they went 13-19 to finish a respectable 88-74, but seven games out of the postseason.
Rich Harden injured his shoulder after starting on August 19 and did not make another start. Bobby Crosby sprained his ankle at the end of August, missed three weeks, and with no minor league teams still playing, only hit 4-for-25 with two doubles to close out the year. Barry Zito and Kirk Saarloos cracked in the final month, and Joe Kennedy's move from the bullpen to the rotation in place of Harden was a big step back. The offense lost its punch and fell a bit short of the goal.
The A's also traded outfielder Eric Byrnes, one of the club's better hitters a the time, on July 13 for Joe Kennedy and Jay Witasick. The A's were thin on starting pitching depth, and Kennedy was to join the mix of possible sixth starters while Witasick added another potent bullpen arm. They traded an injured Chad Bradford for outfielder Jay Payton on the same day, and while Payton was the better defender he could not match the offense Byrnes offered.
2005 has happened before, and 2005 will happen again someday. So why not in 2016?
So what could make this year another 2005 sort of year rather than a 2007-11 kind of year? Sonny Gray is effectively the Barry Zito of this year, struggling in the early going but just needs an adjustment to get back on track to the All-Star level of performance he has enjoyed previously.
The "guys you'll probably forget about in 10 years" shuffle includes Tyler Ladendorf, Zach Neal, and J.B. Wendelken.
This year's Nick Swisher is Jed Lowrie, as the player who hadn't quite turned it up to 100 percent of his capabilities in the early going before their injury, but primed to come to life in the summer months upon their return. Danny Valencia will stand in for Bobby Crosby as the A's don't really have a position player that has missed as much time as Crosby.
Players who hit terribly in April are starting to not do that. Josh Reddick has gone from reliable Reddick to history making Reddick in the the last week. Yonder Alonso hit .130/.149/.152 in his first 15 games and drew one walk, but has since hit .288/.373/.458 (138 wRC+) in his last 18 games with eight walks (11.9 BB%).
Chris Coghlan is on a more pronounced slump with his .180/261/.330 batting line (67 wRC+), but Eric Chavez was hitting as poorly as .190/.264/.268 (41 wRC+) on May 15, 2005 after 37 games before going on to hit .293/.348/.524 (131 wRC+) in his final 123 games. Khris Davis had a .143/.200/.157 (1 wRC+) batting line with a 40.0% strikeout rate through April 19, but has since hit .277/.302/.578 (146 wRC+) with a 17.4% strikeout rate.
I see Marcus Semien as 2005's Mark Ellis, now that Semien has become a reliable defender with surprising pop on his bat. The summer could be interesting at the plate now that Semien isn't spending more than maintenance time on his defense and can devote more time to preparing on offense.
Billy Butler is our Erubiel Durazo, though Butler may get his release papers before he plays enough to get injured. Could Max Muncy be the unheralded prospect tearing up Triple-A on his way to that one magical major league season? Could he be our Dan Johnson? Or might the A's deem Renato Nunez ready to step into the role instead?
This year's Rich H. (Hill) will have to emulate 2005's Rich H. (Harden), even if we suspect that the innings Hill has not thrown in past years may cause him to only be as healthy as Harden. Out of Henderson Alvarez, Kendall Graveman, Jess Hahn, and Sean Manaea, the A's will have to find their Dan Haren, Joe Blanton, and Kirk Saarloos.
The exhausted relievers now own the third-worst bullpen ERA in the AL, but the 2005 A's owned the worst bullpen ERA in May. This year's A's still have two relievers with sub-two ERAs and over 10 innings pitched (Ryan Madson, Fernando Rodriguez), and six than fit the sub-four ERA with at least 10 innings (Marc Rzepczynski, John Axford, Ryan Dull, Sean Doolittle). The bullpen should come back around to be among the league's leaders if the starters go deeper into games.
Choose your own narrative
It's easy to extrapolate from the last 10 games and declare the A's to be playing for the No. 1 draft pick, but I challenge you to turn the question around. What was so special about the 2005 team at that point of the season that you would think they would have a prayer to do what they ended up doing?
And if you were despairing as much then as you might be right now, then why not vote for this narrative? Why not see if the A's can be the talk of baseball from at least June to August, and play meaningful baseball once again in September, rather than give up on them now?
Heck, 88 wins could win the AL West this year anyway.