There is no hindsight here, nothing that wasn’t said long before the season began, not even a trayce (sic, to my stomach, that is). It’s the manager and front office that has yet to catch up with observant and rational fans that has the A’s struggling to win half their games.
I do believe that the current group of players available to Oakland has enough talent to play .500 ball, but the “razor thin margin” is that this bunch simply does not have enough talent for a poorly selected roster to be poorly utilized and still break even in the won/loss column. And that is what we are seeing.
Two cases in point were on full display last night as the A’s lost a game they just as easily could have won as they were let down by players who quite clearly — well, clearly to the rest of us — should never had been in a position to turn a win into a loss.
What is Bob Melvin’s infatuation with Jake Smolinski as a competent player against RHP? At best average (COF), or serviceable (CF) defensively, Smolinski has made an entire career out of proving that hanging in there against RHP is just not in his skill set. And yet Melvin continues to be like the Vancome lady, putting his fingers in his ears and yelling “la la la la la, I can’t hear you!” if it is suggested that perhaps allowing Smolinski to serve as more than a platoon player is a losing proposition.
Against RHP, Smolinski’s career slash line now stands at .201/.261/.282 (.543 OPS), which is so bad that he could “regress upwards” a full .100 points of OPS and he would still be terrible. Yes, it’s “only” 392 PAs but it is also the only 392 PAs we have, the eyeball test confirms that Smolinski is basically lost against RHP, and he has been consistently terrible every season.
So it was hardly a shocker when Smolinski killed a key scoring opportunity bouncing into a DP with runners at the corners (a spot where Trayce Thompson might at least have been able to execute a safety squeeze), then later struck out when a man in scoring position.
Melvin’s response to Smolinski’s predictable continuing struggles against RHP? That Smolinski just needs more consistent at bats against RHP and he will be fine. That’s right: the solution is to present the problem more. Never mind that even with Boog Powell and Chad Pinder both on the DL and Dustin Fowler not yet ready to be called up, the A’s still have a far better defensive CFer available in Thompson, who would have to hit like a pitcher (and not even Daniel Mengden) in order to present a worse option at the plate.
This stubborn belief that Smolinski’s skill set includes the ability to thrive against RHP, in the face of all observation, evidence, and rational thought, is scary. And this is not a knock on Smolinski as he has a role on a team: it is to mash LHP and provide versatility in his ability to back up all 3 outfield positions. That’s useful and it has no place in a game like last night’s and yet the A’s continue to pretend he is something he is not and that the answer is to display his weaknesses more prominently.
None of which would have cost the A’s last night’s game had they shed the absurd notion that Chris Hatcher is one of their better relievers. This fraud began in the off-season when the front office, apparently seduced by his “veteran leadership” based on the old school notion of wanting young pitchers to pick up on “how he goes about his business,” elected to spend $2M — more than Tyson Ross signed for to be a SP, more than Derek Holland signed for to be a SP — and anointed him the A’s best option for set up duties in games where the A’s were nursing a small lead.
There is no subjectivity to the claim that Hatcher is not very good at pitching. He is fine for low leverage, in the way that John Axford, Santiago Casilla, and my Aunt Bertha are all fine when you just need someone to get you to the clubhouse in a game you are not going win. But here are the facts about Hatcher:
- In 2016, Hatcher allowed 1.77 HR/9IP
- In 2017, Hatcher allowed 1.51 HR/9IP
- In 2018 so far, Hatcher has allowed 3 HR in 4.2 IP
- For his career, Hatcher has allowed 1.35 HR/9IP
Maybe not the profile you want to see in the late innings of a game in which you are clinging to the lead. Perhaps not the way you want young pitchers to learn to “go about their business”.
“Oh wow, check out the terrific way he walks off the mound after giving up a booming homerun!”
“Oh shoot, I missed it!”
“It’s ok, just wait a couple hitters.”
Here are some more truths:
- Hatcher’s career ERA is 4.78.
- Hatcher’s career BABIP is .318 (meaning that when batters hit the ball, they tend to hit it unusually hard).
The A’s went to great lengths to improve their bullpen this past off-season. As a result, they have quite a few relievers capable of contributing positively in high leverage situations, from Blake Treinen, Yusmeiro Petit, and Emilio Pagan to the pair of lefties Ryan Buchter and Danny Coulombe.
In other words, they don’t need to throw games to the other team by putting in their 6th best reliever based on some irrational belief that he is anything but that. Last night, as an example, the A’s were set up perfectly with a lead going into the 7th and Petit on the mound. Unquestionably, just the duo of Petit and Treinen were in position to get the last 9 outs, what with Petit being a 1-2 IP pitcher and with Treinen having worked only 6 IP so far this entire season, none since April 7th.
It was very straightforward, and if you only wanted each reliever to work 1 inning you had Pagan fresh along with Coulombe available. The problem wasn’t a lack of available relievers or good relievers, just the misguided notion that Hatcher is the set-up man you want to opt for in the highest possible leverage (a one-run lead and runners on base).
I will say it again: the A’s, despite their flaws and myriad injuries, have just enough talent available to hang in there as a .500 team that could stay on the fringes of a playoff spot. What they do not appear to have is the wisdom of a manager and front office that can assess the abilities and limitations of these players and put the team in the best position to succeed.
And no, this team isn’t good enough to be poorly constructed and poorly utilized and still be successful. The margin is razor thin, but frankly some of these decisions are pitifully obvious and it has been disappointing to see a 7-7 group stumble to 5-9 because the folks in charge refuse to see clearly. The fans should never be more astute than the team’s brass, even though fans always think they are. They should be wrong. So far they’re right.