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A’s try some small-ball to spark slumping lineup

No rallies or dingers? Try some bunts and steals.

Los Angeles Angels v Oakland Athletics
This bunt moved up a runner who later scored
Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

The Oakland A’s lineup isn’t scoring much so far this year.

Nearly one-quarter of the way into the season, they’re averaging 3.3 runs per game, which ranks third-to-last in the majors, ahead of the Orioles and Tigers. Cut down to just their past 23 games, starting with their late-April home series against the Rangers, and the rate drops to 2.4 runs per contest.

They’ve been shut out six times already in 37 games. Another eight times they were limited to one run, and five more times they mustered just two runs. In over half their games, they’ve been held to two runs or fewer.

There were some setbacks last month with a wave of COVID absences plus a couple other injuries, but even after getting the full lineup back they’re still struggling to score with any consistency. Only one active hitter right now has an above-average batting line, Sheldon Neuse, and even that success is reliant on maintaining his high .386 BABIP.

The problems aren’t difficult to identify. They don’t get on base, whether by hits or walks, and they don’t hit for any power. The offensive strategy is basically a grounder to shortstop.

A’s team ranks in MLB

  • 30th in Batting Average (.200)
  • 30th in OBP (.270)
  • 26th in Walk Rate (7.9%)
  • 27th in Homers (22)
  • 29th in Isolated Slugging (.109)
  • 3rd in Grounder Rate (45.9%)
  • 6th in Strikeout Rate (24.6%)

Yikes. They’re among the worst at everything, across the board. So what can you do about that? Try something different.

Over the past week, the A’s began peppering in some small-ball. They laid down five sacrifice bunts in their four-game series against the Angels last weekend, and before that they dropped one in Detroit too. That’s six within the span of a week, after totaling 17 sac bunts in the entire 2021 season, and only 15 from 2018-20 combined.

Those sacrifices have produced results. On three of the six occasions, the runner who moved up later scored, once on a groundball single, once on a sac fly, and once on an RBI groundout. Not bad for a team that isn’t finding the plate any other way.

  • Against the Tigers, leading 3-0 in the 9th, they led off with a single and then Kevin Smith bunted him over. A wild pitch moved the runner up to third, and a sac fly scored him. That insurance run loomed large when the opponent rallied to bring the go-ahead run to the plate in the bottom of the 9th, but the A’s held on to win.
  • Against the Angels, trailing 1-0 in the 7th, they led off with a double and Christian Bethancourt bunted him to third. A single up the middle scored him to tie it up, and the A’s later won by one run.
  • Against the Angels, trailing 2-0 in the 3rd, they led off with a walk and single, and Chad Pinder bunted to move them both up. The next batter grounded out, which was enough to drive in the runner from third. It was the only run they scored that day.

Of course, sac bunts always bring the question of what if. Maybe Smith would have homered for two runs, or Bethancourt or Pinder would have gotten a hit for longer rallies. But the past several weeks of history say that’s not likely and the big inning isn’t coming, so instead they locked in a higher chance at getting more than nothing. At least that worked half the time.

If Smith doesn’t move up that runner, maybe he’s only on second when the sac fly comes and he ends up stranded. If Bethancourt hadn’t moved the runner to third, the infielders wouldn’t have been drawn in and maybe they would have fielded the next grounder that instead squirted through for an RBI single. If Pinder hadn’t, maybe the subsequent grounder is an inning-ending double play instead of a productive run-scoring out.

Most importantly, at least they’re trying something. Normal conservative ball wasn’t getting them anywhere, and there’s no compelling reason to suggest it suddenly will, so last week they mixed things up to better suit the current cast. On Sunday they bunted three times, the most they’ve done in one game since 2013, and those efforts helped yield 11 at-bats with runners in scoring position. They went hitless in those attempts, but they still snatched a run on the aforementioned RBI groundout.

That one run didn’t make a difference that day, but it often can behind the strong performance of Oakland’s pitching staff. Of the 19 games the offense has scored two or fewer runs, the A’s still won four of them (1-0, 2-0, 2-0, 2-1). In another five of the losses, the opponent also scored 2 or fewer, so it wouldn’t have taken much to turn those into victories (1-0, 1-0, 2-1, 2-0, 2-0).

And getting that extra run doesn’t need to require more hits, if you can make the most of the ones you get. One category where the club doesn’t rank last place is sac flies, where they’re middle of the pack, and those count for a run all the same as an RBI single if you can just get the runner to third quickly enough. They also stole eight bases last week, and for the season they’re tied for third in the majors in steals, at a high success rate. Anything to get the extra base.

A’s team ranks in MLB

  • T-3rd in Stolen Bases (24)
  • T-2nd in Sac Bunts (7)
  • T-12th in Sac Flies (10)

Add it up, and a dash of small-ball could make sense right now, including some sac bunts. The idea of trading an out to advance a runner 90 feet is not as popular as it used to be, and Oakland has a particular reputation for eschewing it, but it fits the current moment. The hitters aren’t stringing together rallies or bashing dingers, while the pitchers are keeping them close most days, so manufacturing a couple extra runs would help now as much as ever.