Before embarking on analysis of the A’s latest failed attempt to advance past the ALDS, I have to step back and give a heartfelt thanks to every player and coach for the sacrifices they made to make this season happen for people like me.
2020 has been a rough year, to say the least, filled with far too much angst and sorrow, precious little joy. The A’s season, short as it was and strange as it was, came through in its quest to provide quality entertainment and distraction from the “real world” we have never more needed to escape.
And in thanking the A’s I want to acknowledge the untold hours spent alone in a hotel room, days sequestered while stuck in Houston, weeks spent shuttling exclusively from hotel room to ballpark and back, weeks separated from loved ones.
I know the A’s players and coaches earn more than you and I do, but money cannot buy family, freedom, or any of the rest of “real life” these guys gave up so that fans like me could have A’s baseball for 2.5 great months in a generally lousy year.
And while the A’s came up short in the ALDS, I can honestly say I wouldn’t trade them for any other team. Classy organization, classy team, classy group of people I am proud to call my team win or lose. Thank you, A’s.
Now to some observations that the Eyeball Scout invites you to dissect...
Overall I think the A’s have a budding star in Sean Murphy, a player who will impact the game both on offense and defense for years to come. He is also a rookie and should be expected to have a learning curve, and where I saw the biggest need for growth came in his game calling.
There is an obsession, these days, with “pitching backwards,” throwing off speed pitches in fastball counts, almost leading as if you set up fastballs with off speed pitches and not the other way around.
Here is what I would remind Murphy, and all the game-callers in the A’s mix: The best pitch in baseball remains a well-located fastball. Everything builds from there. Getting overly enamored with constantly fooling hitters with breaking pitches, and throwing junk early in the count, leads to two phenomena we saw in the ALDS: falling behind in the count and then having to challenge in hitters’ counts (see Montas’ 3-1 fastball to Brantley after missing with splitters), and hanging breaking pitches because if you throw enough of them you’re going to hang a few (see Correa’s 3-run HR off of Montas).
You wonder what might have been had Montas established the fastball early in the count to Brantley, gotten ahead, and then thrown the splitter — more conventional sequencing, but you don’t get points just for being “backwards”. Or if he had challenged Correa to beat his high-90s fastball — catch it if you can.
A’s pitchers gave up a ton of hits, and a ton of HRs, on junk. Sean Manaea admitted after his start that the Astros were sitting on his changeup. Houston could sit soft on the A’s pitchers because they saw so much soft stuff — from pitchers whose fastballs are nothing to shy away from.
Live and learn, Murph. You’re going to be really good.
What we have seen from Jesus Luzardo in his big league career so far offers much hope and excitement for an “ace in the making”. That being said, what has stood out to me is that we really haven’t seen the signature command that was Luzardo’s calling card in the minors.
For all the positive reports we heard about his fastball, slider, and changeup, Luzardo’s ability to put the ball where he wanted was a big part of what made him special. And that’s the piece which has been lacking.
I’m referring to obvious issues like a 2-0 fastball down the middle to Jose Abreu — probably not the plan — but also to many pitches misfired to build long counts. I attribute it to overthrowing, maybe being over amped especially in the post-season, all of which is easily explained by one number: 22.
That was Luzardo’s age until October 1st, and as mature as he may be for his age it’s still his age. To me this is all good news in that I don’t think we’ve seen anything like the best of Jesus Luzardo. If he ever starts hitting his spots consistently, like his reputation suggests he can, big league hitters are in big trouble.
That changeup is for real, by the way. The Johan Santana comps for Luzardo are fair.
That’s what the Oakland A’s batted with RISP this season, which makes it hard to convert base runners to scored runs. Give the team just a decent .260 BA with RISP and suddenly a decent-but-flawed offense becomes far more potent.
Here’s the problem. The A’s actually didn’t falter with RISP, considering that the entire team, for the entire season, batted .225. Somehow “batting average” has become an ugly term in a sabermetric era in which dissing “old school metrics” is a way to appear smart. But every stat tells you something — the key is to understand what it is telling you and what it isn’t.
The reason batting average isn’t more important is that on its own it lacks the context of on base percentage and slugging, which are also essential pieces. It’s also hard to get on base enough, or slug enough, while batting .225, as evidenced by the A’s parlaying good walk rates and a good HR total, to all of a team .225/.322/.397 slash line.
But where I think the A’s most got harmed by their low batting averages is in the area of batting with RISP. The A’s weren’t “clutchy” or “unclutchy” with RISP — they just continued to be what they were, which is a team that got a hit about 22.5% of the time.
With RISP wasn’t where the A’s ability to get hits showed up the most, it’s just where you felt it the most. And it’s why around the walks and the XBHs that you also need, you need some guys in the lineup who maintain a high BA.
Now here’s some good news: By doing nothing the A’s will probably solve half the problem. In the first 60 games of next season, Matt Olson is going to bat higher than .195, Ramon Laureano is going to bat higher than .213, Matt Chapman better than .232.
The A’s would be well advised to focus on better balancing their TTO-heavy lineup, while also trusting that some of the 2020 performances were outliers. But the bottom line is that a .225 hitting team was only going to go so far even if the starting pitchers didn’t all turn to pumpkins at once.
Soon I’ll weigh in with predictions and ideas around building the 2021 team. For now, we can focus on what we saw in 2020 while rooting our hearts out for the Tampa Bay Rays.