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Oakland A’s are hitting well but can’t score any runs

Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s lineup has talent. There’s no question about that. Yonder Alonso’s early breakout has him as a Top 10 hitter in all of baseball, nestled in between Buster Posey and Nelson Cruz. Khris Davis is tied for 10th in homers. Toss in the resurgent Jed Lowrie, and they have three of the top 64 hitters in the game (by wRC+). There are 2-3 other league-average bats quietly providing support behind that trio.

And yet, the A’s rank 25th in MLB in runs per game, at 3.82. They’re closer to last place than 20th place, and nearly a run below MLB average (4.52). What gives? Let’s take a closer look.

First, some happy MLB ranks. The A’s are:

  • T-7th in HR (52)
  • T-9th in wRC+ (101)
  • T-15th in walk rate (9.0%)

They clearly have power (.179 isolated slugging, 7th in MLB), and they are decent enough at taking a walk when it’s given. Add it all up, adjust for their pitcher-friendly home ballpark, and the A’s are arguably a Top 10 offensive team in all of baseball based on what they do at the plate.

The problem has to do with when they are doing these things at the plate. A few sadder MLB ranks:

  • 30th in batting average w/ runners in scoring position (.205)
  • T-3rd in solo homers (34)
  • 29th in percentage of total baserunners scored* (12%)

* Resets each at-bat, so if you get a leadoff single and the next three batters get out then you’ve stranded that baserunner three times. First place is 17% (Brewers, Nats).

They do so many good things, but manage to get the least possible reward out of them. If they slug a dinger, there was nobody on base. If they put a couple runners on, they get stranded. And so on.

A few root causes:

  • 25th in batting average (.234)
  • 23rd in OBP (.305)
  • 7th-highest strikeout rate (23.1%)

In other words: The A’s can hit it hard enough to clear the fence, but not often enough to string multiple hits together into a rally. They have enough discipline to take some walks, but not enough on-base ability to set the table for their sluggers. They have some of the pieces they need to make a productive offense, but none that fit together in any useful way. What’s worse, the team’s highest OBP belongs to Alonso, the most prolific hitter — he can’t set the table for himself.

The A’s main problem is that they make too many outs, even though they hit the ball as hard as almost anyone (5th in hard-hit rate) and make a reasonable amount of contact (20th in Contact%, only 12th in swinging strikes). And to make it even worse, those outs come more often the bigger the situation gets.

Bases empty: .240 (17th)
Men on base: .226 (28th)
Scoring pos: .205 (30th)

At no point do the A’s put up a high batting average, but they get decidedly worse as the rally grows. And whereas a low average can be offset by other positive outcomes like walks or extra bases, a walk doesn’t drive in the runner from 3rd and sometimes you only need a single (and not a ringing double or a dinger) to get the job done.

And speaking of dingers ...

Bases empty: 34 HR (T-3rd)
Men on base: 18 HR (T-14th)
Scoring pos: 7 HR (T-25th)

And in case you’re wondering, none of these struggles can really be chalked up to their home park. In addition to their winning record at home (11-8), the A’s are scoring more runs, hitting more homers, and hitting for a higher average at the Coliseum than they are on the road, in the same number of games.

What can we conclude for now? The good news is that clutch hitting is one of the most fixable weaknesses a team can have, because to some extent it’s a small-sample mirage. It’s generally not a predictive or sustainable skill, and if you want to be a good hitter in the clutch then the best starting point is to simply be a good hitter. And the A’s have some of those! Theoretically, some of these issues should take care of themselves because they should be kind of a fluke.

On the other hand, we can’t completely dismiss these struggles. Oakland clearly has a problem getting on base, so the homers being solo jobs isn’t just bad luck. They hit a lot of lazy fly balls (2nd in flyball rate, only 17th in line drive rate), so it’s not a complete coincidence that they’re only 24th in BABIP. Some of this is the bed they’ve made.

One of the most frustrating parts of the whole picture is that this is why the A’s signed Matt Joyce. He was supposed to bring OBP to the top of the lineup, but his .276 mark is atrocious — and he doesn’t offer defense or significant power, so that on-base ability was his only job. We knew that guys like Khrush, Healy, and Plouffe would be all-or-nothing sluggers, but Joyce was going to set the table for them and he simply hasn’t.

It’s certainly not all on him, and in fact he’s finally heating up this month. But if you want to point fingers then that’s the place to start. (Next on the list would be Rajai and Vogt, who have been even worse than Joyce.)

The A’s are so close to being a good offense. Individually they have been pretty good hitters. Now all they need to do is string those hitters into a productive lineup — or, if improving luck doesn’t do the trick on its own, then maybe string a different list of good hitters together. I hear Triple-A Nashville has a few.