The Oakland A's are 26-36 entering Mon., June 13. That's 10 games under .500 through more than one-third of the season, good for last place in the AL West. There has been some poor injury luck and a few tough hops, but more than that there have just not been enough good players.
Sixty-two games isn't enough to pronounce the season as over yet based on past results alone, but it would take a lot of significant improvements to turn this ship around and it's not entirely clear where all those those improvements could come from or why we should expect them to occur. We're at the point where we're pretty much at the mercy of the baseball gods deciding they want to troll some other team for a change, by giving us a random 2012-esque run. I wouldn't fault you for turning an eye toward next month's trade season, and frankly I'm pretty much there myself.
But wait! The American League Wild Card race has a smidge more separation than it did last year, but not much. The cellar-dwelling A's are still just 7.5 games out of the top spot, which is nothing with 100 games left. They'd have to pass 10 teams to reach the final playoff spot, but just purely in terms of the deficit itself, it's not insurmountable. The bullpen is already strong, the rotation mathematically can't be worse given its infinity ERA, and the lineup contains five hitters who are at least average even before considering the not-too-distant return of Josh Reddick or any of the top prospects who may graduate in the coming weeks.
If you squint really hard, get kind of tipsy, watch the movie Major League a few times, and then squint even harder like Rick Vaughn trying to see the plate, you can see a chain of events that ends with this club competing for the 2016 playoffs. It would take a series of miracles, but sports are just a random number generator anyway so technically anything is possible. Here are three of the less-crazy things that would need to happen for Oakland to begin to crawl back into relevance.
1. Sonny Gray returning to acehood
Career, 2013-15: 2.88 ERA, 3.36 FIP
2016 season: 5.34 ERA, 4.73 FIP
Entering the season, the question regarding the rotation read like this: "Sonny is awesome at the top, but then who else is there?" It turned out to be a trick question, and the answer was "lol just kidding Sonny will be bad too." He was too good for too long for his pre-2016 career to have been a fluke, but at the same time he wasn't just getting unlucky results in his first nine starts this year either. His pitch selection had changed for the worse, he wasn't hitting his spots (no command), and he couldn't throw strikes (no control).
The good news here is that Sonny has already begun his turnaround. After a brief DL stint to rest his ERAitis, he looked a lot more like his old self in his first game back. He was even better in his next outing, needing only 92 pitches for 7⅔ innings of one-run ball and issuing only one walk.
Source for hope?
Sonny's pitch selection looks better since his return from the DL. Via Brooks Baseball, here's his month-by-month breakdown. I've combined fastballs (4-seam, 2-seam, cutter) and breaking balls (curve and slider) into their own categories, because on the most basic level I don't care which breaking ball he's throwing on a given day as long as he's using at least one of them effectively. The fluctuations in the specific breaking balls interest me less than how much he's using them both overall.
|2015 (3078 pitches)||62.8%||30.4%||6.90%||2.73||2.86|
|4/16 (468 pitches)||67.1%||22.9%||10.0%||3.81||1.73|
|5/16 (365 pitches)||56.3%||24.7%||19.0%||9.61||1.67|
|6/16 (161 pitches)||67.1%||31.1%||1.9%||2.13||4.50|
The point of that table is to show that he's begun throwing his breaking balls with the same frequency he used to. There's a whole lot more to pitching than just raw pitch selection, but if you're looking for a sign that Sonny can return to the guy he was last year, then throwing the same pitches as the guy from last year seems like a logical start. Regarding that spike in changeups during the bad months, it's worth noting he also did that in Sept. 2015, when he fell apart at the end of an otherwise Cy-worthy season.
2. Stephen Vogt returning to All-Star form
2014-15: 115 wRC+
2016: 100 wRC+
Vogt simply isn't hitting as well as he did the last couple years. But then, his success was always something of a surprise after spending most of his 20s in the minors. Maybe this is just him coming back down to Earth, especially as a 31-year-old catcher who takes a beating behind the plate. He's probably a below-average defensive catcher at this point, so if he's going to provide value then it will have to be with his bat.
So what part of his offensive profile is lacking? His average is .275, which is right around his norm (if not slightly above). His power is down from last year, but his .150 isolated slugging lines up with his 2013-14 performance. The difference comes in his OBP, which is barely above .300 after sitting at .341 last season.
Last year, Vogt's walk rate ranked 25th-highest out of 141 qualified MLB hitters. This year, it ranks 10th-lowest out of 171 hitters. That's an enormous change, enough to turn an All-Star into an average joe. I included his isolated slugging in that table to show that his power has stayed mostly consistent over time. The difference between his good years and his bad years has been his OBP.
Source for hope?
Unfortunately, nothing specific. He's off to a good start in June, going 9-for-29 in seven games, but we're looking for an increase in his walk rate and he's drawn only one free pass so far this month. The good news is that he isn't replacing the lost walks with a bunch of extra strikeouts, so he's not just getting overpowered by the opposition all of a sudden. Rather, he's swinging way more than he used to, and pitchers are pounding the zone compared with what they gave him the last couple years. After seeing an average of 4.1 pitches per plate appearance in his first three years in Oakland, he's only seeing 3.8 pitches this year.
If he wants to return to his prime production from yesteryear, he's going to need to work longer at-bats and take some walks so that he makes fewer outs. Fortunately, one great first step toward that goal is to rack up some hits, which he's doing so far in June.
3. Khris Davis getting on base more
2015 BB%: 10.0% of plate appearances
2016 BB%: 3.1% of plate appearances
The A's brought Davis to Oakland to hit dingers, and he's done that. But even with his prolific power, he still barely rates as an average overall hitter. Part of that is his low batting average, which will always be a part of his game because he swings for the fences on every pitch and that leads to lots of misses and, therefore, strikeouts. He'll never put the ball in play enough to hit for a consistently high average, unless he completely changes his game, and that's fine. You can hit .240 and still be good.
What you can't do is post a .276 OBP and still be good. There is not a realistic number of dingers that could carry that OBP up to, say, the 121 wRC+ Davis posted last year. Back in 2013, Mark Trumbo hit 34 long balls in a tough home park but only wound up with a 107 wRC+ thanks to his low OBP ... of .294, still nearly 20 points clear of Davis' current mark. He simply must do better.
We just got done talking about Vogt's low walk total, but Davis is even worse. His rate of 3.1% is sixth-lowest along 171 qualified MLB hitters. Whereas this year Vogt is seeing fewer pitches, more strikes and swinging more, Davis is seeing fewer pitches, more strikes, swinging more, and missing more. Fortunately it's not resulting in more Ks, but it's stripping him of any positive results outside of his homers.
Source for hope?
Again, nothing specific, but this time I don't even have an indirect suggestion. Davis' walk rate spiked last year, and that turned him from a mediocre slugger to a legitimately good overall hitter. Dude just needs to quit chasing, and start making a bit more contact at the strikes he does see. (He said, as if that was an easy thing to do.)
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You could list all kinds of other things here. Coco isn't hitting much, but he's doing as much as we could have reasonably hoped for and the 36-year-old isn't a great bet to return to his prime. Sean Manaea could pitch better, but it's wise not to expect too much from a rookie starter and even if he stinks all year that won't change how promising his future is. Billy Burns' magic from last year has run out, and there's no telling if he can adjust enough to get it back. But the wish list above includes the three big, realistic things that could serve as a foundation for the A's hopping out of their burning dumpster.
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