Five Things I Like, Five Things I Don’t Like, and Five Questions After A Quarter-Season in Oakland

After tonight’s win at home against the first-place Texas Rangers, the A’s are even at .500 with a 20-20 record. While this has been a bit of a letdown after such a hot start, the first quarter of the season is officially a wash–which means we haven’t already put ourselves in an enormous hole, the way the Angels (10 GB) and Blue Jays (9.5 GB) have. ESPN puts the Angels and Jays at a 5.5% and 2% chance to make the playoffs, respectively–truly quite removed from the preseason projections that picked them as league favorites. That same projection calls the A’s for a 31% chance to make the playoffs (page is dynamic; numbers as of 5/13).

The FanGraphs projections are similarly lukewarm. But you have to remember that these are projections, not predictions; while they’re forward-looking, they’re based on numbers from the past. That means it’s no surprise that the A’s–.500 to this point–are predicted to end the season at 81-81. After last season, that’s not what the club is aiming for any more–but it’s also a sober, realistic prediction for a team that has showed us just as many flaws as reasons to be excited.

Let’s take a look.

5 Things I Don’t Like

1. Pitchers Are Giving Up Home Runs…–The A’s pitchers seem to give up two or three homers per game. It’s not really quite that bad, but the A’s have allowed 1.18 HR/9, bad enough to be the 7th highest number in the majors. You can’t do everything well, of course, but if you’re going to pick something to do well, preventing home runs is a start. Last year, the only team that allowed a top-10 HR/9 to make the playoffs was the Yankees. The last game I went to featured Tom Milone starting, and he gave up solo homers to Trout and Trumbo in a game we ended up losing by one. Keep one of those in the park, and we could still be playing! Our team HR/FB% is actually the 10th-lowest in the majors, so if that regresses we could give up even more taters. Who are the primary culprits? As you might have guessed, it’s basically everyone in the rotation, with Jarrod Parker doing the worst–he’s been giving up 1.99 HR/9!

2. Defense A Let Down–The A’s currently rank 27th in fielding by UZR. That’s not good. It’s even worse when you consider that the outfield was supposed to be excellent. Josh Reddick, right fielder extraordinaire, has been kept off the field by problems with health and, um, hitting the ball, but Chris Young–supposedly a great fielder–has often looked confused in the field. Céspedes has filled in adequately in Crisp’s absence in center field, but there are still plays like the one I saw in April against the Angels where he fell over at the warning track and allowed an out/double turn into a triple. (He had a terrible play last night that allowed Lance Berkman–Lance Berkman!–to get to third, and he also looked totally lost on a ball that ended up going over the wall in the 10th.) The biggest culprit is Jed Lowrie at short, who’s currently got a -6 rating.  He’s never had such a bad season in the field, which suggests that either a) this is a small-sample issue, and therefore nothing to worry about, or b) the result of his various injuries wearing on his body (his range doesn’t seem to be excellent, but according to his b-ref page, it isn’t down from previous years, either).

3. Lack of Starting Depth–We’ve already seen Brett Anderson miss several starts. While he’s probably the best pitcher on the staff, Dan Straily is a good fill-in on most nights. Straily’s at the stage where he absolutely owns AAA but can’t quite string together enough quality starts at the big league level to force anyone to call him up permanently. So we’re relatively covered if one starter goes down. But what about two? The AAA team has some high-performing arms, but none I’m excited to slot into the rotation just yet.

4. 8-9 Production–According to my brother, as of 5/13, the A’s were getting an OPS under .700 from their 8 and 9 hitters. That’s terrible. For reference, an OPS over .800 is quite good, over .750 good, over .700 playable, but under .700… not so much. Eric Sogard, namesake of my fantasy baseball team, is hitting a meager .230 with zero power for a 66 wRC+. While the top 2/3 of the order has been pretty solid, you don’t want to just punt the last two batters.

5. Céspedes at the Plate–Look, I love Yo as much as the next guy. He is amazing to watch when he’s on. I know he has 7 HRs… but his approach has, if anything, gotten worse. He does not appear to realize that he is strong enough that he doesn’t need to swing out of his shoes. His .ISO is up from last year to .240, which would be great except that he’s walking at the same rate as Eric Sogard. True, his BABIP is at .200, which is unbelievably low for someone who hits the ball as hard as he does. Looking at his batted ball info supports the idea that something has changed. Céspedes is hitting more fly balls than he did last year, as his GB/FB has gone from 1.01 to 0.73. This could be behind his ISO/BABIP swing, for relatively intuitive reasons: ground balls are harder to field and therefore more likely to be hits, but they also don’t go as far and are therefore less likely to be extra base hits. It’s a tradeoff a power hitter has to make, but Yo has gone too far, and he’s not making enough contact to make it worthwhile, anyway. His plate discipline has not continued to improve, as many thought it would. The 2013 average for contact on strikes swung at is 86.5%; Yo is only making contact with 79%. He’s also swinging at 32% of pitches out of the zone, versus 28.6% for league average. So he’s compounding his problem by not only failing to make contact on good pitches to hit, but also swinging at one’s he shouldn’t swing at, anyway. Yo’s physical talent is enormous. In a game against the Angels earlier this year I saw the full spectrum. Early in the game Yo was on first for a ball hit deep into the outfield. He rounded third in a full sprint and ran right through Mike Gallego’s stop sign. He was safe by at least ten feet. There is no one in baseball I’d be more scared of as a catcher. It was a subtly electrifying play. Then, in the 9th inning, with the A’s down one, Ernesto Frieri plunked Céspedes with no one out. He went to first and promptly stole second. He was safe by a mile–which was a problem, because he was so safe that he was out. Let me explain: he had the bag stolen easily, but he was going so fast that he overslid second base by about six feet and was tagged out. It probably cost the A’s the game, because two batters walked and then someone hit a fly ball that would have scored him from third. To recap: he’s got the talent. But he doesn’t know how to slide, something most of us learned as ten year olds. The people who said he could be an MVP weren’t wrong. But they’re not right yet, either, and they won’t be right until his mindset is right.

(Hey, look, I didn’t even mention the fact that Josh Reddick and Chris Young have been terrible!)

5 Things I Like

1. No Free Lunch–Remember those Yankees I mentioned above, with the high HR/9? Well, they only walked 2.68/9, so they stayed away from the 3-run homer. Luckily, the A’s are not giving up a ton of walks as a team–only 2.78/9. Jarrod Parker is an egregious offender on this point, as addressed above, but others are picking up the slack.

2. Bullpen Picking Up Where It Left Off–The A’s bullpen has been great to start this year, continuing its streak of excellence that dates back to the tail end of last year. Despite a couple shaky innings, Grant Balfour has saved 23 in a row. Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle remain shut-down relievers who are probably even better than Balfour (both have ERAs in the 1.00-2.00 range, though Doolittle has a FIP in the 3.00s). Jerry Blevins has given us quality innings, and Evan Scribner and Chris Resop have been decent if not spectacular. I believe the bullpen will need one more arm before the season’s over, partially because you can never have too many arms and partially because the bullpen has seen an abnormally high workload thus far in the year–130 IP by the bullpen is fifth in the league. Luckily, a bullpen arm is usually the easiest thing to come by.

3. Donaldson and Norris–Both of these are guys who were big contributors as rookies last year, and have been able to step up their contributions as sophomores. Donaldson in particular is outperforming expectations: according to ZiPS, he’s the fifth-most-improved player in baseball. In large part this is due to a return to form in terms of plate approach. He didn’t walk much last year, but if you watch him now he’s back to a battle-ready mindset, ready to foul pitches off until he gets one he likes. Norris, on the other hand, looks much more ready for the big leagues after a terrible first year, and is also walking at a high rate (.380 OBP).

4. Steals!–The A’s are back to their old Moneyball formula when it comes to OBP. But stolen bases were never part of their game during that era. Now? While their rate has slowed with the absence of Josh Reddick (5 SBs), Coco Crisp (8 SBs), and Chris Young (5 SBs), the A’s are still 8th in the league in stolen bases with 26. It’s not just stolen bases that are piling up, but also runs from players making smart but aggressive choices on the basepaths. Last night Derek Norris and Daric Barton scored on consecutive balls to the outfield from second, even though they’re the catcher and first basemen (not usually the quickest players on the field). My point is that the A’s don’t really have anyone on their team who will really cost them on the basepaths, and thanks to their speed and some typically aggressive third-base-coaching from Mike Gallego, the A’s are currently 3rd in FanGraph’s Baserunning metric. This is smart coaching and playing that is leading directly to runs. Awesome!

5. InjuriesOkay, it might not make much sense for injuries to be in the “Things I Like.” But here’s my perspective on it: we’ve had four outfielders miss significant time already with injuries (Reddick, Cespedes, Young, Crisp). But we’ve fought through it, weathered the storm. Our plan of valuing depth and flexibility worked well–Moss was able to slide to the outfield on some days, Smith stepped up and hit very well against lefties considering his lifetime splits, Céspedes and Young both played all over the outfield when necessary. The way I see it, we’ve missed out on Reddick, Crisp, and Young’s production for the past month or so, and that means we can only go up. Maybe that’s somewhat convoluted logic, but I think there’s some truth in it. Anderson’s not been himself either. We may have been playing at 75% so far. If we can be at 90% the rest of the way, we’re going to be very good.

5 Questions for the Rest of the Season

1. Is Hiro Nakajima a real person?–Seriously, does he exist? I’ve never seen him play. Supposedly he plays for us. I’m not buying it. It shouldn’t be that hard for a Japanese All-Star to outplay Adam Rosales and Eric Sogard, should it be? And yet… here we are.

2. Will the A’s make a big trade, and, if so, at what position?–My personal favorite has been the idea that we could get Chase Utley. By my reckoning, the A’s biggest needs are at 2B, RP, and SP. We could use a right-handed first-base-type, too; I like Nate Freiman and Daric Barton fine, but an upgrade on that side of the platoon would be nice. I think we’ll acquire another reliever at some point, perhaps someone who can do long relief. A starting pitcher would be the biggest gamble (how would Cliff Lee like to return to the AL West?).

3. Who Will Be The Big Call-Up?–Maybe the question isn’t who, but when. Grant Green seems like he could help out on the offensive side pretty soon, but he doesn’t have a ton of experience at second base, so the A’s are keeping him at AAA for now to get more defensive experience. The guys we’ve seen from AAA so far–Michael Taylor, Daric Barton, Luke Montz–aren’t so much prospects as players who’ve shuttled back and forth over the past several years. If Chris Young’s injury continues to linger, perhaps we’ll get a glimpse of Michael Choice, the slugging outfielder who is now with the RiverCats. I should note that I actually don’t think the RiverCats are that much worse than the Houston Astros, which I actually mean as a compliment. RiverCats we could see towards the end of the year include Sonny Gray, Andrew Werner, Bruce Billings (potential starters), Hideki Okajima, Pedro Figueroa and Dan Otero (relievers), Nakajima, Green (Infielders), and Choice and Jeremy Barfield (outfield).

4. Will the Real Jarrod Parker Please Stand Up?–Parker’s been not-so-good so far this year. That can change–we know he’s got it in him. The problem is, quite simply, command. He’s been all over the place, allowing both a really high walk rate and more homers than before. As Jeff Zimmerman put it, “He looks a little lost out there.” He’s been somewhat better in recent starts, but that’s not much when your season ERA is in the sixes. Parker was projected for a mid-threes ERA and fifteen wins by ESPN. His changeup is still good, and his fastball velocity is the same, but the command just isn’t there. His potential is good enough that he could still meet those expectations, but it’s going to take a lot.

5. Who’s the Competition?–It looks like the Angels are falling apart as we speak, but I’m not counting them out quite yet. We obviously should be gunning for the AL West crown, just like last year, but realistically one of the Wild Card spots is what we’re aiming for. And thanks to some great starts in the AL East and Central, we’ve got more competition so far than we thought we would have. The Yankees, Red Sox, and Orioles all look excellent, and the Indians have put together a balanced roster that absolutely tore through the last month (aided by some terrible umpiring, I know). The Royals, Angels, and Devil Rays lurk as potential spoilers. It’s a crowded field. More than half the AL remains in the hunt so far. That’s a good thing–it’ll remind us every series counts. Now let’s beat the Rangers.

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