Sports

MLB Analysis: How Far Can the Oakland Athletics Go this Year?

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The Oakland A’s have played 16 games and have 146 to go. One tenth of the way there. Ten percent is a decent sized sample. I’m told you only have to survey 1,065 randomly selected voters to find out how the 500,000 you didn’t ask are going to vote, a far smaller sample. But we’re not voting, and the sample’s not random, but maybe what’s transpired so far this season, especially in light of recent performances, can provide some clues about where the A’s will be in October.

All of this probably fits under the heading of “Not Going Out On A Limb.” You see, I’m thinking that in October the A’s will be spread out on their sectional sofas, surfing their HD flat screens, watching Bud Selig’s sage-like vision unfold in someone else’s ballpark. Let’s review.

Oakland’s last bona fide contender was its 2006 team. They swept the Twins in the ALDS only to be completely shut down by a red hot Tigers’ pitching staff in the ALCS. Since then the team has finished under .500 every year except 2010 when they managed 81 wins against 81 losses.

The Oakland faithful, and there aren’t a lot of us at this point, have endured, among other flops, the following: Ben Sheets, who after being out of baseball for a year was handed $10 million for a 4 – 9 “season” of 20 starts and a 4.53 era, or put another depressing way, $500,000 per lousy start, or put an even more depressing way, $2.5 million per win; the decline and fall of Eric Chavez, the man who was supposed to be Oakland’s franchise player, but who spent more time in the operating room than at 3rd base his last 4 years in town, appearing in a high of 90 games in 2007 and a low of 8 games in 2009, while his salary went up from $9.5 to $12.5 million; the painfully long overdue recognition that Bobby Crosby couldn’t distinguish between a fastball and a slider which really didn’t matter since he couldn’t hit either one; the trade of future NL batting champion, Silver Slugger Award winner, and Gold Glove Award winner Carlos Gonzalez for the sullen bit of trade-bait known as Matt Holliday; and the elevation from bullpen coach to Manager of Bob Geren instead of Ron Washington who, you may have heard, has had a bit of success with his new team. It may go without saying that none of the above got mentioned in the movie “Moneyball.”

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While the team’s pitching finished in the top 5 in the AL each year from 2008 – 2011 (this in spite of the Sheets deal – see above), the team’s performance in other key areas has been in a steady state of decline. The team went from scoring 771 runs in 2006 to 645 runs in 2011, or nearly a full run per game less. If your pitchers are just as good as they were the year before, and the year before you were a sub .500 club, and this year you’re scoring fewer runs than you did the year before, the math just isn’t that hard. So what about their fielding? They went from committing 84 errors in 2006, and finishing 3rd overall in both leagues, to committing 124 errors in 2012, finishing ahead of only the Cubs – I say again, the Cubs. The gap left by the 2006 departure of their brilliant infield coach Ron Washington seems to widen every year. Last year their poor fielding translated into giving up a total of 82 unearned runs. Again, if your pitching is strong, but only as strong as it was the year before, and each year your ability to score runs and play defense declines, the math remains simple.

Okay, so the line going from the vertical axis and moving to the right for most of these stats nicely tracks the team’s attendance. What about this year? What can Oakland fans expect? Are we in for a sudden uptick in both performance and attendance? Have you lost your mind? Let’s take a look at the first ten percent of the season.

There are some clear positives, but they’re mostly limited to individual efforts, or as they’re known in Oakland’s executive offices, trade-bait. Yoenis Cespedas is off to a solid start, especially for a guy new to MLB and Bay Area weather. Solid hitting numbers (OPS of .930), and solid in the field (0 errors in 42 chances). But most A’s fans will tell you they can’t shake the feeling that if Cespedas continues to perform, come the end of July he’ll be dealt for a couple of AA left-handed pitching prospects. (Maybe Billy Beane will be able to repeat the Dana Eveland miracle; 19 – 24 lifetime with a 5.52 era. We can only hope.) Josh Reddick is off to a good start. His cannon of an arm seems to have caught the AL by surprise. He already has 4 outfield assists and just barely missed another in Friday’s game against Cleveland. But both Reddick and Cespedas strike out too much. And if no one is getting on base ahead of them (see below), there’s not a lot they can do. Another new face, Kila Ka’aihue, may be the first baseman Oakland has been looking for since at least 2006. In limited duty, he has 8 hits in 24 at bats. It’s a little early to call him a bona fide power position player, but hope springs eternal as it must in Oakland.

As to some positive team totals, the A’s have 8 errors in 16 games, a more than respectable total. And so far this year they’ve only given up 5 unearned runs. Oakland’s 7th in MLB in pitching – 2nd in the AL – which is again respectable, but it won’t make up for the lack of team offense (again, see below), and a couple of names that were supposed to be big contributors – Brett Anderson and Dallas Braden – are reduced to the role of “great clubhouse guys” while they sit on the DL. That leaves the likes of Tommy Milone, Graham Godfrey, and Tyson Ross to “round out” a starting pitching staff whose “ace” is Brandon McCarthy.

Another clear but less tangible positive, at least in my book, is that at least for this year Billy Beane has ditched the “let’s pay some over-the-hill ex-star a pile of money just in case we get lucky and he has a freak of a year like Frank Thomas did in 2006” strategy. No Godzilla. No Nomar. No Piazza. Nada.

Now to the big negative – team offense. The A’s worse than anemic team average of .206 and run total of 47 runs – not even 3 runs a game – is worse than depressing. Indeed, the team’s batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage and OPS as of game time on Saturday were all next to last in baseball. The A’s team motto this year just might be, “Thank God for Pittsburgh!” That’s not what you want to hear the chilly, bitter, handful of fans chanting, unless of course you’re in Pittsburgh.

To recap: Fielding – looks better; Pitching – was already good; Hitting – some individual bright spots but couldn’t get much worse on a team level. So the overall picture is not good. Oakland fans should get used to the “Once we get back to .500” cliché being repeated at least thrice weekly, at least until the A’s head off to their sectional sofas and HD flat screens. Strike that. Given the last 5 years, no doubt they’re already used to it.

By the way, on a completely unrelated note, I watched the New York Yankees humiliate the Boston Red Sox on Saturday. Bonny Valentine doesn’t make it to the All Star break. You heard it here first.

Jonathan Dyer teaches History and Government at a small high school in Northern California. He practiced law for 10 years before switching to teaching, and spent 5 years in Army intelligence before going to law school. He worked for 3 of those 5 years as a Russian linguist at Field Station Berlin during the Cold War. Mr. Dyer and Kerry, his wife of 27 years, are certified baseball junkies. You may email Jonathan directly at [email protected].