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Bobbles - An Oakland Athletics preview

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A look ahead at the AL West bottom-feeders

Oakland Athletics v Miami Marlins Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

It would be really easy to rip off the Dos Equis commercial series here, painting the Oakland Athletics as The Least Interesting Team in the World. The only recognizable stars that the team cultivates get traded. The team leader in bWAR in 2016 was Kendall Graveman, with 3.2. They’ve lost more than 90 games each of the last two years. The starting rotation and farm system are both almost exactly average. They have the second-lowest attendance in baseball. They play in the same city as the Golden State Warriors. As of this writing, their wRC+ is exactly 100. They are...well you get the point.

When trying to begin this piece, I tried to look for some way that the Athletics distinguish themselves, good or bad. Certainly, a basement-dwelling team must be poor enough at something to reach that fate, but their hitters, rotation, and bullpen don’t really stand out in a bad way, or any way at all. That left one last major suspect, and it’s one that you may recall from other recent encounters with this team. Oakland’s defense is atrocious.

Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) can sometimes be misleading for individual players, but at the team level, things tend to even out to paint a reasonable picture. That picture for the Athletics is horrifying. They’re about 32 runs below average on the season by UZR (which is last by a healthy margin) and 42 below average by Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). By both metrics, they finished dead last in baseball in 2016. It’s surprising that a team that plays in a cavernous ballpark where home runs are scarce and foul ground is plentiful doesn’t place greater weight on glove work.

Then again, a team with few aspirations of competing probably doesn’t care. Oakland’s job at this juncture is to build itself a crop of young, cheap talent strong enough to make a run at postseason ball, since like the Rays, the low-budget A’s need to make a lot of things work in their favor to build a credible team. Perhaps at this point they’re just trying to find a way to maximize the attractiveness of their current talent, and part of the way to do that is to encourage positional flexibility. That’s probably why they’re keeping thumper Ryon Healy at third base sometimes rather than just making him a full-time DH. They’ve tried weird things like putting Mark Canha and Jaff Decker in center field when 36-year-old Rajai Davis hasn’t been there. They’ve flanked their underqualified center fielders with two absolute statues in Matt Joyce and Khris Davis. Bats can’t prove their worth from the bench, so Oakland’s jamming them all into the lineup, fielding be damned.

(They did DFA Steven Vogt this week to decongest the roster a little. He made the All-Star team two years in a row, but both his offense and defense have dissolved this year.)

The bats are surprisingly interesting, too. As of this writing, Healy, Khris Davis, and first baseman Yonder Alonso all rank in the top ten in the American League in home runs. In particular, Alonso is having an unbelievable breakout season. Before 2017, he hadn’t tapped into his power potential at all and had tried to make his living as a contact-oriented first baseman. Now, he’s working with a much-improved launch angle and having himself one hell of a walk year by hitting for average, drawing walks, and overcoming the Coliseum’s dinger-suppression tendencies. Alonso’s bat simply demands everyday treatment at first base, and that’s part of the reason none of the leather-challenged A’s have been able to simply slide down the defensive spectrum.

Accommodating all these power bats is nice, but it of course comes at a cost. It shows up rather obviously in the differences between the A’s active starters’ runs allowed per 9 innings (“RA9”, includes unearned runs), ERA, and Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP):

  • Sonny Gray: 5.77 RA9; 4.84 ERA; 3.61 FIP
  • Sean Manaea: 4.41 RA9; 4.01 ERA; 3.69 FIP
  • Jesse Hahn: 4.11 RA9; 3.56 ERA; 2.86 FIP
  • Jharel Cotton: 6.48 RA9; 5.40 ERA; 5.33 FIP
  • Daniel Gossett: 8.10 RA9; 7.20 ERA; 5.93 FIP (small sample warning)

In particular, the incompetent glove work has masked a resurgent season from Gray. Gray’s slider has been filthy this year; he throws it with a little topspin to gain some vertical separation from his sinker and hitters haven’t been able to adjust to it as it dives. Manaea, too, is having an extremely good season that isn’t showing up in ERA. He’s allowed a very small rate of line drives, so that .253 BABIP is a lot less lucky than it seems. Toss in a strikeout rate north of 25 percent due to a slider and changeup that can both make hitters whiff and you’ve got a pitcher whose ERA probably should be considerably less than 4.00, particularly in this ballpark.

The reason Hahn’s FIP above is so low is because he’s only allowed one home run all year. He’s historically been good at preventing dingers (in part because he’s only played home games at Petco and the Coliseum in his career), but this rate is absurd and he should regress. Nonetheless, Hahn is a fine starter whose velocity is at an all-time high this year, averaging almost 96 on the gun with his fastball, which has led to some more strikeouts this year. Cotton and Gossett are blast-able back-end filler; they’re only in the rotation because Graveman and Andrew Triggs are on the shelf.

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This is Billy Beane’s 20th season at the helm of the Oakland Athletics and despite the team’s recent miscues, he doesn’t seem likely to lose the handle on the job because no one seems ready to overthrow him. Some people think he’s dropped the ball and muffed the team construction, and that these recent years will probably be on his blooper reel, and they may be right. However, it’s be a misplay to ignore all he’s done for the team and for the sport -- with seven postseason appearances to boot. Let’s not make that blunder; anyone who thinks the game has passed Beane by is in error.

Probable Starting Pitchers

Friday, June 23: Jharel Cotton vs. Mike Pelfrey

Saturday, June 24: Daniel Gossett vs. James Shields

Sunday, June 25: Sonny Gray vs. Derek Holland

Key Personnel

Probable Lineup Pitching
Probable Lineup Pitching
1. Matt Joyce - RF SP1. Sonny Gray - RHP
2. Chad Pinder - SS SP2. Sean Manaea - LHP
3. Jed Lowrie - 2B SP3. Jesse Hahn - RHP
4. Khris Davis - LF SP4. Jharel Cotton - RHP
5. Yonder Alonso - 1B SP5. Daniel Gossett - RHP
6. Ryon Healy - DH CL. Santiago Casilla - RHP
7. Stephen Vogt - C RP1. Ryan Madson - RHP
8. Matt Chapman - 3B RP2. Liam Hendriks - RHP
9. Jaycob Brugman - CF RP3. Sean Doolittle - LHP