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May 20, 2005
Despite taking two of three from the Red Sox this week, the A's remain one of the biggest disappointments in baseball. At 16-24, they're tied for the third-worst record in the AL, and sit seven games behind the Angels in the AL West.
While the conventional wisdom was that this would be a rebuilding year for the A's, following the offseason trades of Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder, I thought that the team was not much worse for the deal. In fact, I predicted that the A's to return to the top of the division. While 40 games doesn't necessarily disprove that notion--they are just 4 ½ games worse than the $200 million Yankees, after all--the A's have played badly enough to warrant examination.
Start with the three big trades Billy Beane made over the winter. Right now, the A's are losing all three by a wide margin, and the net result is essentially the difference between a good team and a bad one:
Going WARP Coming WARP Hudson 1.6 Meyer N/A Mulder 1.3 Cruz -0.6 Redman 2.0 Thomas -0.3 Rhodes 1.4 Haren 0.2 Calero -0.2 Barton N/A Kendall 0.2 TOTAL 6.3 -0.7That gap of seven Wins Above Replacement Player exactly matches the A's deficit in the division.
Now, the A's may yet win the Hudson and Mulder trades, but right now, they're losing both by wide margins. Mulder has been wildly inconsistent, but still much better than Dan Haren. Hudson, as expected, is among the top starters in the NL. The other pitchers acquired in the trades have been disappointments; Juan Cruz and Kiko Calero each have ERAs approaching 9.00, while Dan Meyer, the prize of the Hudson deal, has been shut down with shoulder problems after posting a 6.62 ERA in seven Triple-A starts. Daric Barton, BP's #9 prospect and the jewel of the Mulder deal, has just eight extra-base hits in 140 at-bats in the California League. His .264/.385/.379 line isn't bad, especially for a 20-year-old; it's just that more is expected. Even that slightly disappointing performance blows away the six other players who came to the A's this winter.
The killer has been the way in which the A's have lost the one deal they were expected to win. Jason Kendall, acquired from the Pirates for Mark Redman and Arthur Rhodes, has been awful, batting .234 with just seven doubles in 141 at-bats. He hasn't hit for any power since playing through a thumb injury in '01, but his inability to hit for average--usually a strength--has drained what was left of his offensive skill set. He's striking out more than he has in any year since '00, back when he actually had power, and when he makes contact he's not hitting with any authority. Any time a catcher with 1200 games under his belt shows slippage, you have to worry whether it's permanent. The A's, on the hook for two more years with Kendall, have to hope it's just a bad six weeks.
Kendall isn't the only A's hitter not pulling his weight. In fact, just two players--Eric Byrnes and Bobby Kielty--are performing at anywhere close to their expected level. As a team, the A's are 13th in the AL in runs, last in EqA and last in EQR. They come by it honestly: they're last by a mile in home runs and slugging, and just tenth in OBP. The only stats they rate highly in are walks (third) and batters' strikeouts (fewest), which gives them the best K/BB ratio in the league.
Let's put all that together for a second. The A's don't hit for average and they don't hit for power. I mean, they really don't hit for power. Since offense ticked up in 1993, just one team--the '93 expansion Marlins--have posted an isolated power mark (SLG - BA) of less than .100. The A's are at .106 through a quarter of the season; the second-lowest figure since 1992 is .120, held by a handful of teams. We can talk about park effects and changes to the run environment all day, but if you slug .350, you can't compete.
In addition to not hitting for power, the A's walk a lot and don't strike out, and they have a poor batting average on the balls they put in play (.274, 11th in the AL). It's a very strange offensive mix; it's as if they made cutting down on strikeouts a team goal, but neglected the part about putting the ball in play hard, the thing that made the Angels offense good in the years they hit .280. They certainly haven't changed the way they approach the game tactically; they're last in the AL in steals, second-to-last in steal attempts, and I haven't noticed an uptick in hit-and-runs. The A's don't have the personnel to be the Angels on the bases, anyway. What, you're going to put Erubiel Durazo in motion once a game?
The A's offense should get better. Eric Chavez has nowhere to go but up, Durazo should be better, Bobby Crosby is expected back soon. All of these things will help, but there's still a considerable amount of dysfunction here. It's just not reasonable for a team to combine a good walk rate, good K/BB, a very low BABIP and embarrassingly low power. I can't even think of a player that describes, because guys like that wash out of the majors pretty quickly.
A team that hits this way washes out of the division race very quickly.
With the new acquisitions contributing virtually nothing, and Rich Harden having missed starts with two different injuries, the A's pitching hasn't picked up the slack. They're 11th in the AL in ERA, 10th in K/BB, tied for sixth in most homers allowed. Their strikeout rate of 6.58 K/9 is good, but driven largely by the same pitchers who have helped the A's walk 155 men, second in the league to the Devil Rays. Outside of Harden and the middle relievers, the A's simply haven't had any good pitchers. A slightly above-average defense has kept the situation from being much worse.
If you're looking for reasons to be optimistic, consider that the A's have played a fairly difficult schedule, but are now almost done with the Red Sox and Yankees until 2006 (or October, if you prefer). The Angels have a 23-17 record and a seven-game lead in the division, but according to BP's Adjusted Standings, are no better than the A's so far, with an indicated record of 16-24 that matches not only the A's actual record, but their indicated one. In other words, the two teams look alike through one lens. That said lens calls them both .400 teams is the problem.
It certainly appears that my preseason optimism about the A's was unwarranted. The pitchers they acquired haven't stepped in to replace the performances of the pitchers they lost, causing a spike in runs allowed. The offense is worse than it was last year, which should have been expected given that many A's had career years or close to it last season. The poor starts of Kendall and Chavez have exacerbated the problems, but even returns to form by those two aren't going to address the team's lack of power at five or six lineup spots. The A's are going to have make significant improvements on both sides of the ball if they're going to contend for the seventh consecutive season.