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Quick Look: A’s offense needs to get on base more

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They’ve been decent at driving in runners, but haven’t had enough chances to work with

Los Angeles Angels v Oakland Athletics Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s are only scoring 4.12 runs per game so far this season, which is slightly below league-average (4.33) and ranks 18th overall. That’s lower than you’d like from a contending team whose pitching staff is good but not dominant.

What are they not doing well enough, and what in particular should we be hoping for them to do better in order to increase their scoring?

The primary identity of the A’s lineup is that they hit homers. Furthermore, while they don’t bat for a high average, they do draw some walks to partially make up for it. On the downside, they strike out their fair share, though perhaps not as much as you might think as they have a nearly exactly league-average rate.

  • 70 homers (6th in MLB)
  • 9.7% walk rate (7th-highest)
  • 24.3% strikeout rate (12th-highest)

We know they can go deep, but what about when the fly balls don’t find the seats? There’s a perception that they’re hopeless in clutch situations with runners in scoring position, but the numbers say they’ve been totally decent — slightly below-average but within reach, more middle-of-the-pack.

  • .244 average w/RISP (T-19th)
  • 17 sac flies (T-5th)
  • 13.3% baserunners scored (21st)
  • 48.5% scored from third w/ less than 2 out (T-17th)
  • 3.04 batters Win Probability Added (2nd)
  • 1.60 batters Clutch score (3rd)

Those aren’t great success rates, but none of them are far from average. And while they haven’t been especially proficient at collecting hits in clutch spots, they do often get the job done with a sac fly instead. Furthermore, their strikeout rate goes down w/RISP, to exactly MLB-average in that split (23.6%). I’m not sure if the WPA and Clutch scores mean much here, like they would if we were talking about high-leverage relief pitchers, but they seemed worth mentioning.

If you hit a ton of homers, and you’re not-great-but-OK with runners in scoring position, then what’s the issue?

  • .311 OBP (16th)
  • .226 batting average (26th)
  • 466 plate appearances w/RISP (21st)
  • 99 runners on third w/ less than 2 out (18th)

At least as much of a problem is that they’re just not getting on base enough, and not putting themselves in enough clutch spots. If you go 1-for-5 w/RISP or 2-for-10, your average will be the same, but you’ll score more runs with the 2-for-10 because you gave yourself enough chances to get a second clutch hit. And more runners on base helps when you’re hitting homers too.

League batting average is down nine points from last year, and 19 points from 2017, so the A’s mark isn’t quite as bad as it appears. But it’s still low, and the walks aren’t doing enough to cover the gap. There could be some positive regression in store, as their low .270 BABIP (27th) is not supported by their solid .321 xwOBA (13th), though Statcast’s xBA metric (expected batting average) isn’t kind so maybe BABIP really is telling an ugly truth.

Either way, there are still four months of season remaining to improve things. We can begin with standard optimism, as there are a half dozen hitters who could reasonably kick into gear and heat up as the summer goes on.

  • Seth Brown, 108 wRC+
  • Jed Lowrie, 105
  • Sean Murphy, 102
  • Chad Pinder, 102
  • Mitch Moreland, 101
  • Matt Chapman, 93

None of them will definitely increase those numbers, but all of them have either done so before or are notable breakout candidates, and Statcast loves Lowrie (.355 xwOBA) in particular — and also Stephen Piscotty (86 wRC+, but xwOBA five points above MLB average).

On the other hand, the big bats are mostly sustainable. (MLB average is .318 xwOBA)

  • Matt Olson, 149 wRC+, .367 xwOBA
  • Mark Canha, 147 wRC+, .375 xwOBA
  • Ramon Laureano, 137, .366 xwOBA

Olson is keeping his strikeout rate low (16.9%), and with that quantity of contact there’s no reason to think he can’t keep up a .258 average with 11% walks and lots of power. Canha is doing almost exactly what he did the last couple years, and Laureano is pretty clearly for real.

The one exception is Tony Kemp (118 wRC+), who still doesn’t hit much at all but boasts a ridiculous 15% walk rate that has him pumped up to a .375 OBP. That’s extra valuable considering the teamwide struggles to get on base, but it’s also of questionable sustainability given his merely good 10% career walk rate.

Add it up and there are a few reliable star hitters, one sparkplug who might be a mirage, and several promising bats who have been mediocre but could hopefully take it up a notch.

But there’s one more detail, which is that today is only June 1. This isn’t necessarily the final roster, and given the A’s track record it almost certainly won’t be. They’ll make some moves, whether it’s bringing up a hot prospect like outfielder Luis Barrera or in our wildest dreams shortstop Nick Allen, and/or they’ll swing a trade for just the right type of hitter like they did last summer with Tommy La Stella. If the goal is to get on base more, or to make more contact, or whatever, it doesn’t necessarily have to happen with the exact current group.

If you get on base, they will score.