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Unexpected Results in Oakland

The Athletics are in a virtual tie for second place in the AL West with a
30-29 record, while being outscored 296 to 275 (a Pythagorean record of
27-32). What’s strange about this is not that the A’s are outperforming
their projection, but just what part of the team is responsible for their
success so far.

Disappointing Offense

Most, if not all, of the improvement forecast this season for Manager Art
Howe’s troops was based on the anticipated progress of his young hitters.
Instead, through 59 games, the group of Ben Grieve, Eric
Chavez
, Miguel Tejada, Ryan Christenson, Jason
McDonald
, Scott Spiezio and A.J. Hinch are collectively
hitting a Gallego-like .215/.296/.329. The Athletics are last in the league
in batting average, a whopping 24 points behind the Angels at 13th. However,
the organization’s emphasis on plate discipline shows up in their #5 rank
in walks drawn, enableing the A’s to move up to tenth in the offensive
category that really matters: runs scored.

This is still well below expectations for an offense that finished ninth in
the league last year and is built around a core of young players with
considerable upside. If any three of the youngsters listed above can
regroup over the next four months and join Matt Stairs, Jason
Giambi
and the ever-hobbling John Jaha in powering the offense,
the A’s may yet ascend to the upper third of the league in runs scored.

Impressive Pitching

Meanwhile, Oakland’s moundsmen have been as surprising as the batters have
been disappointing, with an ERA of 4.45, third in the league. The A’s
starting pitching has been at or above league average all season, even
though Kenny Rogers had difficulty throwing or even standing at
various times in April and May, and Tom Candiotti spent the first
two months showing that knuckleballers aren’t ageless, before being
designated for assignment this week.

The difficulties at the front of the rotation have been partially offset by
the unexpected emergence of Mike Oquist from the compost pile to be
the A’s most consistent starter. Intermittently effective outings by Gil
Heredia
and Jimmy Haynes have also eased the pain. While it’s
unlikely that Oquist can maintain his success, he has helped the team stay
afloat while Rogers mended (2.15 ERA in his last four starts) and enabled
prospects Tim Hudson and Mark Mulder to develop. Hudson has
been deemed ready, and struck out 11 in just 5 1/3 innings of this first
start.

If you’re looking for a reason–other than luck, of course-why the
Athletics have exceeded their Pythagorean projection, you’ll find it down
the left-field line. Brad Rigby, Tim Worrell, T.J.
Mathews
, Buddy Groom, Doug Jones and Billy Taylor
have combined for a 12-8 record, 18 saves and an ERA of 3.48, second-best
in the American League. The most recognizable feature of this sextet was
the now-shorn hair above Doug Jones’ upper lip, so you might say they are
going about their business unnoticed. Aside from Rigby, it is a veteran,
workmanlike group whose eldest members–set-up man Jones and closer
Taylor–appear capable of fooling batters for at least another four months.

Art Howe has to be tickled pink that the Athletics are only 5 1/2 games
behind the division-leading Rangers in spite of their floundering offense.
With pitching reinforcements in place and the young hitters overdue to
break out, the A’s are nicely positioned for a summer playoff push.

Notes

The Rangers’ recent nine-game winning streak and solid hold on first place
have temporarily quieted talk of Ruben Mateo’s recall. Mateo is
blistering at Oklahoma City (.342/.393/.611), while Tom Goodwin
(.234/.313/.317), is giving every indication that his 1998 campaign was a
fluke. When the Rangers cool off, the debate will heat up again, but don’t
expect to see Mateo in Arlington before July 1. The reason? Economics. With
the current arbitration rules, if the Rangers can survive Goodwin’s feeble
batwork until July, Mateo will have no chance to be arbitration-eligible
until after the 2002 season…. Upon learning that discussions about a
contract extension were underway between the Angels’ front office and
Manager Terry Collins, a number of players met privately with GM Bill
Bavasi to express their concerns about Collins’ managerial style. Included
were Randy Velarde, Ken Hill and Mo Vaughn. The player
concerns seem to focus on Collins’ abrasiveness and communication skills.
In another illustration of how the media values style over substance, local
columnists rushed to Collins’ defense, citing his fiery intensity and
unwillingness to rip players in the media among the reasons that he should
remain the manager. Interestingly, none of the writers listed substantive
managerial assets like understanding an offense, handling a pitching staff
or roster management.

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