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Road Trip Opener Reveals Some Troubling Weaknesses

MLB: Cleveland Indians at Oakland Athletics
“Hmm....let’s consult the book...inside corner it is!”
Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Before we get to some subtle negatives, let’s acknowledge that some simple bad fortune played a role in the A’s 10-4 loss that begins a critical 10-game road trip. A well struck liner by Matt Olson, with 2 on and 0 outs in the 4th, was hit a bit too close to CFer Greg Allen. If it finds a gap it likely begins a 3-run uprising. And Jed Lowrie’s sizzler to left-center to end the 5th similarly found Allen’s glove instead of tying the game or giving the A’s the lead. Contrast those to a few well-placed grounders and bloops off Indians bats and you can make a case that bad luck played a role denying the A’s a chance to prevail.

We will also bypass discussion of a more glaring weakness, which is the A’s rotation, known to be an ongoing concern Oakland has been somehow overcoming. Paul Blackburn’s 4+ IP, 6 run (5 earned) performance certainly played a part in the A’s loss but did not reveal anything subtle.

On to the subtleties...

Lucroy’s Book

I have to laugh whenever Jonathan Lucroy’s “thick book on hitters” is mentioned, because I’m not sure when was the last time I watched a catcher call a game with so little resourcefulness or intuition.

Actually I do know. It was Bob Kearney who, allegedly, once called for 20 consecutive fastballs, at which point his manager railed on him that he couldn’t just call for 20 fastballs in a row. Kearney then supposedly responded by calling for 20 consecutive curves.

Here is Lucroy’s “book,” apparently, on every hitter. You call for just about every pitch to be on the inside corner until the batter, having figured out your game plan, rips an inside pitch to Kingdom Come. The exception is that if Yusmeiro Petit is pitching, then every pitch should be on the outside corner until the batter hits it to the Kingdome.

Where this absurd concept of pitch calling most clearly burned the A’s on Friday night was when Blackburn, ahead 0-2 on Jose Ramirez, continued to throw to Lucroy’s inside-corner target as Ramirez — who feasts on inside pitches, but don’t let that deter you — looking for a pitch on the inner half, hammered a two-run double to give Cleveland a lead it would not relinquish.

That’s just one example. Check out Lucroy’s targets as he sets up for pitch after pitch and see how consistently his idea of how to pitch, well, evidently any hitter, is “Try to jam him inside!” What a book! How is this not a best seller?

The last A’s catcher that I thought really called a good game, consistently, was Kurt Suzuki. Who happens to be a free agent this off-season. And is making half of Lucroy’s salary. And is batting .284/.348/.473. Meaning that his OBP is higher than Lucroy’s slugging (.332). But what isn’t?

OK, the point here isn’t to bash Lucroy who, despite his shortcomings, is still the best of the 3 catchers the A’s have available to them. The point is to suggest that despite his famous book of epic thickness, Lucroy’s insistence on trying the same approach over and over instead of mixing it up — even though changing speeds, changing locations, changing patterns is the key to getting hitters out — is among the weaknesses that gives the A’s an additional obstacle to succeeding.

Base Running

I say this as a fan of “small ball” and aggressive base running:

Dear A’s,

I love “small ball” and aggressive base running, but you’re bad at it so please stop trying to do it.

Sincerely,

Me.

When your team gets caught stealing roughly half the time, it means that they are doing themselves far more harm than good. Friday night the A’s were not caught stealing, yet still managed to make two outs on the bases with Mark Canha mistaking a pitch that short-hopped Yan Gomes for a wild pitch and with Matt Olson declining to slide into 2B on a double and slipping off of the base. These were two unforced errors that cost Oakland at crucial times — once when Carlos Carrasco was wobbling in his first inning back off the DL and once leading off an inning as the A’s were trying to come back.

One of the few A’s who has, or should have, any business running is Dustin Fowler, yet he is inexplicably ineffective upon reaching 1B. I haven’t quite been able to pinpoint the problem, but somehow Fowler takes a short lead, leans back towards 1B most of the time, and still comes perilously close to getting picked off on ordinary throws.

Yes, the A’s should be better at running the bases and stealing bases, but since they’re just not? Just stop making outs on the bases for no reason.

Outfield Defense

In a subtle but profound way, this game might have turned on outfield defense alone. In the aforementioned examples, Greg Allen’s speeds and reads saved what might have amounted to a total of 5 runs. Meanwhile, his CF counter part, Fowler, had a rough night in the field, making a terrible decision to dive for a Michael Brantley bloop he had no chance to catch and turning it into a double, then getting a poor jump and read, and turning the wrong way, on a Brantley drive that went for an RBI double. The latter was a tough chance, but also one that likely finds Allen’s glove.

Poor reads were not limited to Fowler, though, as a bad read by Mark Canha (on a Francisco Lindor bloop) allowed a fly ball that was in the air an awful long time to fall for a hit and start a 3-run uprising.

As uneasy as I am about watching Chad Pinder hit against RHP every day, an outfield of Joyce or Canha in LF, Fowler in CF, and Piscotty in RF, gives up an awful lot of hits to the combination of poor reads and poor speed. At some point it becomes worth it to take Pinder’s defense in the outfield and live with the holes in his swing.

The A’s have 6 more games on the scariest portion of this make-or-break trip. In the Indians and Astros, you have teams against whom you have to be near perfect, fundamentally, to have a good shot to beat them. Poor pitch calling, bad base running, and shaky outfield reads, turn a difficult task into a herculean one. Here’s hoping that somehow, some way, some of these areas improve because while more subtle than the starting pitching concerns, these hurdles are hard to overcome against the better teams — and that’s exactly who the A’s are facing for seven days and seven nights, hoping not to board losses two by two.