From afar, the Oakland A’s look like a consistently average team. They’re 34-32 overall, within a game of .500 in each month, and around break-even both at home and on the road. Their offense and pitching are almost exactly league-average in terms of scoring and preventing runs.
However, the route to those totals has been anything but steady. The young core can look like world-beaters for stretches and like doormats at other times, with the extremes merely balancing out in the big picture. One week they’ll be hitting like they’re the best lineup in the sport, and then the next week they’ll morph into a parrino of auto-outs* and get shut down over and over.
It’s not unusual for an inexperienced team to go through ups and downs, but there is a pattern emerging that might help explain some of it. The A’s simply cannot score at home in the Coliseum. Here are their splits, between 34 home tilts and 32 on the road.
A’s, home: 118 runs, .225/.295/.357, 27 HR, 82 wRC+
A’s, road: 171 runs, .259/.329, .467, 55 HR, 117 wRC+
In the Coliseum they’re scoring 3.5 runs per game, and away from home they’re nearly two runs higher at 5.3. They’ve hit twice as many homers on the road, even though they’re making similar amounts of hard contact everywhere. Their K and BB rates are nearly identical in both splits. Their BABIP is slightly lower at home, as you would expect with some extra infield popups, but that can’t explain all this on its own. They’re not getting overpowered or substantially unlucky at home, they just aren’t hitting or scoring.
It’s also not a matter of competition. They’ve played mostly the same teams both home and away, with the exceptions being Rays, Orioles, and White Sox at home and Yankees, Blue Jays, and some extra Mariners on the road. If anything they’ve faced slightly better pitching away from home. The A’s have scored at least eight runs 12 times, nine of them on the road. They’ve been limited to 0-1 runs 12 times as well, eight of them at home.
This isn’t just an A’s problem, though. The same thing is happening to their visitors, as we can see from Oakland’s pitching splits.
A’s, home: 122 runs, 32 HR, 83 tOPS+
A’s, road: 157 runs, 51 HR, 119 tOPS+
That’s 3.5 runs per game allowed in the Coliseum, and 4.9 away. Again, the homers are nearly double on the road, and tOPS+ compares each split to their overall totals (A’s hitters are at 81 and 119, respectively, similar to their wRC+ marks).
One place where the pitching differs from the hitting is that Oakland’s hurlers have significantly better peripherals at home — the strikeouts are similar everywhere, but their walk rate is much higher on the road (2.1 BB/9 at home, 3.5 on road). The difference in competition is also wider than it has been for the hitters, with NYY’s lineup topping the charts and BAL/CHW/TBR toward the bottom, but that’s not enough to explain everything.
Three of the A’s four shutouts have come at home, as well as 8-of-12 instances of just one run allowed. They’ve served up eight or more runs eight times, five of them on the road. And on and on it goes.
All of this shows up clear as day on ESPN’s Park Factors. A park that rates 1.0 is totally neutral, with teams performing just as well there as they do elsewhere. In the runs column the Coliseum comes in dead last, at 0.689 (Coors at the top at 1.474, and Citi Field next-worst at 0.735). It’s even worse in the home run column, where the Coliseum clocks in at 0.524 (next-worst is SunTrust in Atlanta at 0.710, with Arlington and Coors at the top with around 1.29.)
Of course, park factors require multi-year samples to draw any real long-term conclusions. The point isn’t that the Coliseum is definitely a dinger graveyard now, just that it has been so far this year. It’s always been considered a pitcher’s park, but never like this.
2013: 0.889 runs, 0.818 HR
2014: 1.023 runs, 0.903 HR
2015: 0.944 runs, 0.777 HR
2016: 0.829 runs, 0.727 HR
2017: 1.103 runs, 1.056 HR
2018: 0.689 runs, 0.524 HR
Remember, the quality of the team is irrelevant to this metric. All it’s measuring is how well the same players perform in different venues. The Coliseum definitely leans toward being a pitcher’s park overall, which won’t be news to anyone, but long-term it’s not far from neutral. This season it’s playing like AT&T Park, which has been last in the HR column for the last four years straight (and 6-of-7).
Now is the point in the article where I’m supposed to explain why this is happening. What is causing this offensive drought? Is Falcon McFalconface accidentally scaring off dingers in addition to seagulls? I’ve thought long and hard, weighed all the factors, and here’s what I’ve come up with:
I would have guessed the weather had something to do with it after a somewhat chilly April, but it has since warmed up and nothing has changed. Besides, the Giants are only 16 miles away and their park is playing better for hitters than it has in a decade (1.108 runs, 0.891 HR). San Francisco is already where the sun goes to die, so if the Bay Area’s weather was the problem then we should see it affecting AT&T at least as badly as The Town.
How about attendance? Can an empty stadium affect things? The A’s dropped 10 runs in their sold-out free game, but that was against the lowly White Sox. Their top-six attended games include a pair of shutout wins, a 4-1 victory, and a 2-1 loss. That’s the same number of shutouts as in their 13 worst-attended contests, and one day they served up 16 runs with only 7,000 fans there to see it. I’m not seeing a connection here.
Losing Khris Davis for one long homestand probably helped skew the numbers a bit, as he’s arguably the team’s best hitter, but that’s not enough to account for all of it. And anyway, even on a per-plate-appearance basis he’s finding the seats way more often on the road (12.4 PA/HR) than at home (18.3). Even when he is in the lineup in the Coliseum, they still can’t homer.
No, the purpose of this article is not to figure out the cause of the phenomenon, but rather to point out that it currently exists. Every time the team comes home, their lineup sputters to a halt and a few of their unheralded pitchers twirl gems. Then they leave and the hitters find their strokes while the pitchers mysteriously get torched. Lather, rinse, repeat.
This is no longer looking like a coincidence, and we need to begin factoring it into our analysis. When we see Frankie Montas and Chris Bassitt ball out in Oakland, we need to temper our excitement until we see them do it in another park (and against someone besides the weak Royals, too). When we see our boys get blanked three times in one homestand, by similarly unheralded opposing starters, we need to take that with a grain of salt and not freak out that everyone forgot how to hit. It’s the stadium, stupid.
Will this continue? We don’t even know why it’s occurring now, so there’s no way to answer that question. The best guess would be that it’s some kind of fluke and will eventually regress toward the mean in the coming months. In the meantime, let’s appreciate that the young A’s are holding their own regardless of environment, rating .500 or better both in their cavernous home and the relative bandboxes they visit.
* a term of venery for a group of poor hitters, like a pack of wolves or a pride of lions