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In March, the A’s were a consensus pick for first place in the AL West around here, largely because of three things:

  1. Pitching. The rotation was deep, they had a few guys who could start or relieve as needed, and their bullpen had a decent number of high-strikeout power arms. That’s generally a good recipe for a strong staff.
  2. Their offense, which was below average last year, figured to improve with the acquisitions of Milton Bradley and Frank Thomas, and the anticipated further development of Nick Swisher.
  3. The team’s defensive efficiency, which was first in the majors last year, figured to be a strength again.

Add those factors up, and you get a team that was expected to reach first place and stay there, possibly competing for “best team in the AL” honors.

Fast forward three months, and things aren’t working out so well. The A’s have just a 21% chance of making the playoffs, their third-order record had them in third-place in the AL West as recently as Monday, and, after ranking 8th by Hit List standards in Week Two, they’ve shuttled between 19th and 25th ever since, largely because they have the always-to-be-avoided negative run differential. Granted, a well-timed four game winning streak can change things in a hurry, but as it stands, the A’s have lost their last five games.

Here’s a quick look at how the three perceived strengths from March have played out so far:

  • Pitching. A lot is being made of the Yankees having their depth tested early, but what about the A’s? Randy Keisler? Ron Flores? Steve Karsay? What was once a very deep pitching staff with players who could assume many different roles as needed has become a pretty pedestrian staff because of its many injuries. Justin Duchscherer, Joe Kennedy, Esteban Loaiza, Rich Harden, and Jay Witasick are all currently on the DL. That’s two starters, a long man, a spot starter, and one of those high-K arms from the bullpen. That’s a lot of starts and high-leverage innings already being given over to the Plan B guys.

    One of the Plan A guys wasn’t working out so well. Loaiza, generally praised in the offseason as a good free-agent pickup, was mercifully put on the DL early this month after getting absolutely pasted. His .391 BABIP, .269 ISO against, and 2.9 K/9 rate are all ugly evidence that he wasn’t fooling anyone with anything. Opposing batters were hitting .385/.443/.654 against him, which is significantly worse than what favorite whipping-boy Jose Lima allowed in his brief time with the Mets.

    There are some bright spots in the rotation, though. By VORP standards, the A’s do have two of the top starters in the AL in Barry Zito and Dan Haren. By Expected Wins, those two pitchers rank 3rd and 9th in the AL, respectively.

    With nearly identical strikeout rates, Zito and Haren are getting it done in different ways. Haren has a higher home run rate and pinpoint control, whereas Zito is a bit stingier with the longball, which has helped him work around his worse-than-usual control problems. (Zito’s control goes higher than just his walk total–he’s on pace to hit the most batters in his career; assuming 200 IP, he’ll hit almost 20 batters should things not improve.) But both are missing enough bats and enjoying better-than-average BABIPs against.

  • Offense. The A’s did come within one game of qualifying for the playoffs last year, but it wasn’t because of their offense. Here are their team EQA figures from 2000 until now:

    Year      EqA
    2000     .283
    2001     .274
    2002     .274
    2003     .263
    2004     .273
    2005     .252
    2006     .256

    Mostly a downward trend, which is right in line with the remake of the OBP-heavy offense to a more defensive alignment (possibly best-symbolized by the Chris Singleton signing). Adding Frank Thomas was supposed to improve the offense, but instead, Thomas has just a .262 EQA and a .194/.327/.427 batting line, which recalls Mark McGwire‘s farewell 2001 season. Thomas has followed up a .190/.264/.405 April with a .208/.418/.458 May, and while no one expected to see the Big Hurt of old, his current form of Mildly Burning Itch just isn’t intense enough for a DH. Dan Johnson and his .179 EQA are aspiring to be as bad as his 10th percentile PECOTA projection; no regular position should have to tolerate that, let alone a traditional power position.

    The offense has mostly been a Nick Swisher/Eric Chavez production, but even Swisher has cooled off considerably after his hot start. Particularly unsettling is that, minus Bradley, this is the lineup the A’s wanted. One would have to hope that the natural in-season fluctuation in performance would help right the ship in time for the pitching staff to come back healthy.

  • Defense. What was a good infield defense last year figured to be a good all-around defense this year, as the A’s were to break out an all-center fielder outfield of Mark Kotsay, Jay Payton, and Bradley. The White Sox saw defensive dividends by having two center fielders in their outfield last year, after all.

    Unfortunately, Oakland is just 16th in the majors in defensive efficiency, as Bobby Crosby, Kotsay and Bradley have all been worse than average with the glove according to Rate. On a good defensive team, you’d expect to see quite a few below-average BABIPs. The A’s haven’t been that team yet.

So, a little more than a quarter of the way through the season, the A’s are still waiting for their three perceived strengths to actually become strengths.

John Erhardt

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  • Last time, we kicked off the Mariners portion of Prospectus Notebook with a look back at a prediction made in Baseball Prospectus 2006. The reference was meant as a mea culpa of sorts, given how much Adrian Beltre has underperformed our expectations (and everyone else’s). Since we did the self-flogging thing last time, a self-pat on the back seems acceptable this time. Here’s what we wrote about Jose Lopez in BP2K6:

    Some huge doubles numbers in the low minors point to significant power potential…He profiles a lot like another Lopez–Cincinnati’s Felipe–who also struggled in his first big league exposure in his early 20s. It took Felipe four more years to break out; Jose has similar upside if the M’s are willing to wait.

    The wait may have ended much faster than most people expected. Lopez was as hot as any hitter in the league before cooling off in his last couple games. Still, his season line of .297/.329/.508, his durability (Lopez has started every game but one this season) and his customary spot as the #2 hitter in the Mariners’ order have netted Lopez the top spot among American League second basemen for Value Over Replacement Player (VORP).

    PECOTA had Lopez’s profile pretty well pegged with a .270/.306/.429 projection; it just underestimated his ability to hit for this much power, this quickly. Lopez’s minor league track record suggests that he’s likely to hit closer to .270 than the .300ish batting average he’s sported in recent weeks. Making the corresponding adjustment to his OBP would get Lopez down around PECOTA’s pegged on-base prediction. It would only account for a small portion of Lopez’s healthy slugging average–an isolated slugging mark of .211 for a 22-year-old second baseman playing in a pitcher’s park is extremely impressive, even if it’s only over a quarter of a season.

    Lopez has never walked much in his professional career. If his power is for real, you might expect that pitchers will eventually stop challenging him as much. Research done by BP’s Nate Silver shows that good plate discipline might allow a hitter to better wait for his pitch and drive it for extra bases; but a hitter with good power will eventually walk more, simply because pitchers will give them fewer pitches to smash into the gap or over the outfield wall. Sustained power by Lopez could result in more walks, filling in the last ingredient in his offensive profile. If that happens, the Mariners will suddenly have one of the most valuable commodities in baseball: an elite offensive talent at an up-the-middle position who won’t be eligible for arbitration until after the 2007 season.

  • Is the AL West the new NL West? Last season the San Diego Padres won the NL West with 82 wins, the only team to crack .500 in the division. Through Wednesday’s games the Texas Rangers stood atop the division at .500 with a 23-23 record. The Rangers’ two-game losing streak and the Oakland A’s five-game skid have pulled both teams back to the pack, giving the Mariners and even the moribund Angels some hope. The M’s are only two games off the “pace” despite a 22-26 record. The Mariners are the worst team in the division according to third-order wins and losses, though; stats found and explained in BP’s Adjusted Standings report.

  • Call it a case of better late than never. The Mariners designated Matt Lawton for assignment Saturday. It’s not that Lawton is necessarily useless–in the right situation, on the right team, he could be a helpful player in a supporting role. The bigger issue was Manager Mike Hargrove’s impatience with incumbent center fielder Jeremy Reed, a condition that prompted Hargrove to first bump Reed out of the lineup against left-handed pitchers in favor of punchless non-prospect Willie Bloomquist, then against right-handers in favor of Lawton. Richie Sexson and Adrian Beltre have fared worse this year than Reed (both rank among the twenty worst players in the AL by VORP). But Sexson and Beltre are signed to five-year contracts worth a combined $114 million and are supposed to be star players for the Mariners; Reed is younger, making far less money, and hasn’t been given a real chance to establish himself.

    Bloomquist is still bogarting time against southpaws, but at least the M’s now seem committed to sticking with Reed against righties. However, the team’s mishandling of Reed underscores Hargrove’s ineffectiveness at the helm. The Mariners need to find a manager who’ll give the team’s younger players a clean shot at playing regularly. The weakness of the rest of the division aside, the M’s aren’t ready to be a legitimate contender. The Mariners’ ability to properly develop players like Reed, along with Lopez, Yuniesky Betancourt and the perplexing Felix Hernandez will play a huge role in sorting out the team’s shot at contention for the rest of the decade.

Jonah Keri

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