June 10, 2011
Divide and Conquer, AL West
Scattershooting, Part II
You might think that the violent collapse of the Oakland Athletics would have positioned manager Bob Geren as the likeliest candidate among all major AL West coaching staff members for first dismissal. And though he did end up taking the axe on Thursday, he lost out on the claim of being the first coach in the division to go; the Texas Rangers shockingly dismissed first-year hitting coach Thad Bosley on Wednesday afternoon in spite of the club’s first-place standing and top-10 team offense. Triple-A Round Rock hitting instructor Scott Coolbaugh, a runner-up to Bosley in last winter's coaching search, was called to the majors to replace Bosley.
The Rangers have clearly prioritized clubhouse chemistry—or the avoidance/removal of potential sources of distraction and strife—during the most recent years of Ron Washington's managerial reign. Bosley's dismissal is all the more interesting when you consider the surrounding circumstances and Washington and Bosley’s decades-long friendship. According to local reports, Bosley's primary offenses were lacking communication and a failure to mesh well with the Rangers’ hitters. Several players groused off the record that they didn't feel Bosley listened to them and couldn't do enough to help them. Elvis Andrus suggested Bosley was out of touch when it came to effectuating positive change on the mental side of the game, and was instead inclined to prescribe mechanical changes in response to hitters’ requests for aid.
To add to Bosley's perceived flaws, there were also rumblings Wednesday that he was engaged in several confrontations involving both youngsters and veterans, including an incident in Philadelphia where a clubhouse argument ensued after Bosley told Yorvit Torrealba that he was not allowed to participate in a second round of batting practice even though he had already received permission to do so from other parties (presumably, although not certainly, Washington). The extent to which Washington lobbied to save his long-time friend is unclear (though he seemed accepting of the change during pre-game interviews), but it is both fascinating and perhaps unprecedented to see a first-place team with a strong-performing offense axe its hitting coach just two months into his tenure... and to seemingly do so all in the name of preserving clubhouse chemistry.
The good news for Oakland: Though Geren’s allegedly horrendous communication skills culminated in a verbal skewering by closer Brian Fuentes and former closer Huston Street, the clubhouse has seemingly been lifted by general manager Billy Beane’s decision to shake things up and replace Geren with interim skipper Bob Melvin. The bad news for Oakland: the Athletics' fan base remains justifiably restless, because the team’s aforementioned collapse keeps getting worse. A 10-game losing streak—five of which have been lost by a margin of two runs or fewer—has dropped the A’s to the fifth-worst record in baseball at 27-37 and into a potentially inescapable eight-game AL West deficit. And now there's also the whole problem of lefty starter Brett Anderson traveling to see Dr. James Andrews for a second opinion on his barking pitching elbow.
There were no new updates on his status as of early Friday morning, but if the decision is made to opt for UCL replacement surgery now, Anderson is likely done through the 2012 All-Star break. On the other hand, Oakland could go down the rest-and-rehab route and risk a recurrence of Anderson’s current symptoms further down the line, which would probably knock him out for the entirety of the 2012 season. Given that the A's seem to be going nowhere fast (this week's arrival of second-base prospect Jemile Weeks could help matters, but very likely not to the degree needed to resurrect Oakland's anemic offense), and given that their early-season run-prevention crown may also be in jeopardy as lower-grade rotation replacements continue to filter in from the minors, one has to wonder if going ahead and pulling the trigger now may prove to be the most prudent long-term course of action.
Speaking of deficient offenses, there is something vaguely spellbinding about the Mariners managing to string together a 15-11 month of May despite posting team offensive numbers (.228/.289/.325; 74 sOPS+) that were somehow not only worse than those which they posted during the previous month (.235/.316/.339; 86 sOPS+), but also worse OPS-wise than baseball's second-worst offense (the Los Angeles Dodgers, at .650) by a full 36 points. That includes Ichiro (116 PA, .210/.270/.238) and the walking disaster that is Chone Figgins (97 PA, .163/.198/.196), who together account for $26 million of Seattle's $86.5 million Opening Day payroll.
I suppose this is apropos to nothing beyond my own astonishment, but I must admit to being drawn like a moth to the flame by the Mariners' accomplishments up to this point in the season. Though Jay Jaffe was right on point when he expressed his abundant skepticism about Seattle managing to hang around in the race, their first-half story becomes a little more difficult to blow off with each passing day that they remain within striking distance of first place.
Six weeks ago, I illustrated that a major reason for the Rangers' white-hot start to the season scoring-wise—and the lack thereof for their three divisional counterparts—was tied to some huge early-season variance between hitting with runners on base (or in scoring position) and without. In short, every offense in the division was above the league average up to that point without runners on, but the Rangers were absolutely killing the ball even after they got runners on base, whereas Oakland, Seattle, and Los Angeles all turned into figurative tubs of goo at the plate once they obtained the opportunity to drive some runners in.
Given all that, it is interesting to note that while the Angels’ offense has more or less been average on the whole thus far (and certainly nowhere near as bad as the Athletics or Mariners, whose situational splits have mostly equalized in the last six weeks to the extent that they're now hitting roughly the same regardless of the base state), they're still falling well short of the mark when it comes down to producing with runners on versus without:
April 28th (cumulative)
Angels hitters, no runners on: 536 PA, .271/.332/.448, 124 sOPS+
June 8th (cumulative)
Angels hitters, no runners on: 1,366 PA, .264/.324/.406, 107 sOPS+
Now that we've identified one of the primary drivers of the Angels' meager 239 runs scored to date (the fourth-worst mark in the American League) in spite of a mostly average triple-slash team batting line, I can point out one great bit of good news—as of Thursday morning, the Angels' Howie Kendrick (217 PA, .301/.366/.490, .302 TAv) boasted the best offensive rate statistics of any second baseman in baseball. There are some very good reasons to believe this isn't sustainable, most of which begin and end with his .367 BABIP (though he also boasts the ninth-best line-drive rate in the game at 25.2 percent, so this isn't exactly beyond explanation), but he's also working on the best single-season walk rate (7.5 percent) and ISO (.188) of his six-year major-league career, so there are some underlying indicators to like here. Ian Kinsler may still be the best second baseman in the division, but at least he's finally being given a serious run for his money.