On Sunday night, the Athletics lost 4-3 to the Braves at Turner Field. The A's scored two runs off of starter Mike Minor and another off of reliever Anthony Varvaro, but Craig Kimbrel did his job in the ninth inning to complete a three-game sweep. It's mid-August and the best team in baseball just got swept in interleague play by a zombie team that had been holding an open competition to put the final nail in their own coffin by handing out hammers to the opposition.
Sunday's loss meant five defeats in a row for the A's. Not only have they blown the four-game lead in the AL West they held over the Anaheim Angels as recently as August 10, but Monday's off-day, combined with the Angels' 4-2 in over the Red Sox, served to drop them a half-game behind. It's the first time the A's have been out of first place since April 23, when the season was just 21 games old. The knee-jerk reaction has been to blame the trade of Yoenis Cespedes for an epidemic of cold bats, but that's an overly simplistic and unrealistic diagnosis.
According to the Baseball Prospectus playoff odds, which given the unpredictability of baseball should be taken as half science and half tasseography, the A's have a 99 percent chance of making the playoffs and a 13.8 percent chance of winning the World Series. These are still good odds to be certain, but there's tension in wondering if this August slump is merely a transient weaknesses or a sign of further disappointments to come.
For most of this season, the A's made virtually everything -- hitting, pitching, defense, catching balls in an expansive foul territory, even dancing to Careless Whisper -- look simple and fun. But for the unknown results of the as-yet unplayed Angels game that for now separates Oakland from the division lead (the half-game gap is due to the Angels having played one fewer game than the A's), the A's have the best record in baseball (73-52) and a +161 run differential, the best in the majors by a 68-run margin. Thanks to Josh Donaldson and a passel of killer defensive outfielders their pitching staff has been supported by the second-best defense in the American League as measured by Defensive Runs Saved.
Josh Reddick (Jason O. Watson)
That pitching is among the best in the league (a 116 ERA+ ranks them second, just behind the Mariners) an impressive feat given the unrest in their rotation caused by a struggling Tommy Milone (who was demoted and subsequently traded), an injury to Drew Pomeranz, Scott Kazmir's rough August, and Jason Hammel's 6.75 ERA with just one quality starts in seven attempts since he joined the team. (And that's just the rotation -- we can't forget the Jim Johnson implosion, though to the club's credit they did limit the damage therefrom by unplugging the former Oriole from the ninth inning after just their eighth game).
In a weaker division, the A's wouldn't have to go through the final months at the same clip they did at the beginning, but the AL West is unforgiving this season. Both the A's and Angels are on pace for 95 wins and stand to capitalize on the misfortunes of one another. As I wrote last week, the Angels have their own mess on their hands (potentially a bigger mess than the A's do), the main priority for both teams now is to win the AL West outright to avoid the wild card play-in game. The A's offense had slowed in the second half, but they hadn't shown real signs of the dreaded slump until now -- prior to August, their worst month was May and they still had a .571 win percentage, which to put in perspective, was still better than the best month the Texas Rangers have had all season. Perhaps some of the regression is to be expected because even teams that go on to win the World Series have dry spells throughout the year, but the bigger concern is that luck, depth, and hitting prowess are running out in the final two months of the season.
Any concerns about the rotation were addressed prior to the non-waiver trade deadline by adding not one but two of the best pitchers available (Jeff Samardzija and Jon Lester) giving the A's a surplus of options and arguably the best rotation in baseball. Every rotation has holes-some important games down the stretch will be left to Hammel and Kazmir -- the latter has been strong for most of the season, but his a declining strikeout rate (9.9 per nine in June, 8.7 in July, 4.7 in August) and career history serve as a reminder that the Pitching Gods can withdraw their favor at any time -- but the A's made incredible efforts to fix what they could on the mound. What remains to be seen, however, is if the offense can withstand injuries and sluggers gone cold in their remaining 39 games.
It's easy to blame the team's recent offensive struggles on the Lester trade, which sent left fielder Yoenis Cespedes to the Red Sox, but the curse of Cespedes is a hoax, a hyperbolic vigil that glosses over the fact that the team's offense was already struggling prior to the trade and that Cespedes himself was hitting just .198/.221/.352 with three home runs in July. Given his struggles to hold onto a .300 on-base percentage, his value was in his combination of power and defense, not as a motor of the offense. That's not to diminish what he was capable of at his best, but to credit the team's slump to his absence is to impute magical powers to a player who now spends most of his days 3000 miles away.
In the first half of the season, the A's had a .720 OPS. In the second half, they have a .698 OPS with roughly the same batting average on balls in play, so, unfortunately, it's not just the case of more balls finding gloves than before. In terms of percentages, the A's have fewer hits, home runs, and walks in the second half even though they are striking out less.
There's a lot to unpack with the A's offense right now -- a combination of hitters gone cold, failing platoons, injuries, and egregious misuse of the designated hitter. No one is feeling the slump more than Brandon Moss, who has been frozen in the second half. Moss had 21 home runs in the first half of the season, but he's hit .204/.327/.290 with just two home runs since the All-Star Break. Though Moss is hitting lefties this season better than he had in his major-league career to date, the A's don't have to rely on that -- they can now platoon him with Jonny Gomes. Gomes has received some criticism since he was traded to the A's, which is to be expected given the new addition is a poor approximation of Cespedes, but it's been just 23 plate appearances, and even in one of his worst offensive seasons, he has a.380 on-base percentage against left-handed pitching (consistent with his .277/.377/.491 career rates against them), which should help defray some of Moss's struggles at the plate.
Prior to the trade, the A's had a complex alchemy of platoons and defense, and the one way that losing Cespedes clearly hurts is in transferring a weaker defensive player from first base to left field and removing all semblance of offense. Ideally, the latter would have offset the former. With Moss spending more time in the outfield, first base is now a platoon of Nate Freiman and Stephen Vogt. Manager Bob Melvin can ride the hot hand with Freiman, who has a 136 OPS+ in (small sample size ahoy) 50 plate appearances this season, but Vogt, just like Moss, is one of the hitters in the lineup who has gone terribly cold (perhaps the consequence of a bone bruise in his right foot) and has watched his on-base percentage tumble from .388 down to .309 since the break.
The A's are also handcuffed by their desire to keep Coco Crisp in the lineup; he's hitting .123/.233/.164 with zero stolen bases in 86 plate appearances in the second half. It's not all his fault -- since a collision with a pole in the outfield fence back in May, Crisp has dealt with a neck injury that an MRI later showed to have caused "chronic, degenerative changes" in his neck. Crisp spent July and August as a perpetual day-to-day case without hitting the disabled list, but since he returned to the lineup nightly on August 5th, he hasn't produced. It's unclear how long manager Bob Melvin will let him struggle (he said recently that putting Crisp in the lineup, "puts a smile on his face," which might give Crisp a longer leash than some) before Sam Fuld or Billy Burns get regular time in center field to give Crisp a chance to rest for the postseason.
Oakland's offensive struggles only serve to highlight the deficiencies in the A's plan for designated hitter, which is a polite way of saying that they don't have one. Since June, no player has started three straight games as the DH, which would look like genius management of talent if it was working, but the A's rank 13th in terms of DH production this season -- which makes it even harder not to raise an eyebrow when it's being used as an active disabled list for tired or injured players (Crisp has DH'd four times this month).
Despite their 7-10 record in August and current five-game losing streak (their worst of the season), there is a lot of good on this A's roster. A team doesn't become the best team in the American League on a fluke over this many games, so maybe this stretch of losses and weak offense is just a temporary aberration, something that all teams go through over the course of the season. With the addition of Samardzija and Lester, the rotation should remain a solidly reliable asset over the final two months. As much as the team is struggling offensively, Josh Donaldson is having an MVP-caliber season, showing how power and great defense can make a low batting average an afterthought; Josh Reddick is producing at the plate now that he's healthy, and Derek Norris is having the best offensive season among American League catchers, though he too has gone cold of late.
The Angels have a half-game lead for first in the AL West now, however nothing is a lock given the schedule; this isn't a race that will resolve itself quickly: the Angels and A's face each other 10 more times before the season ends, and they each have another half-dozen games against the Mariners. It's a question of which team seems the worse for wear down the stretch and if you line the rosters up side-by-side, the Angels have more obstacles, but with their thin rotation pitching well of late they have managed to overcome them, at least temporarily, winning six of their last eight games.
In the end, though, any arguments we can make or the difficulties presented by the schedule pale next to this simple truth: The A's need to find their bats; if they do, they'll win, and if they don't, Billy Beane's boldest season will come down to a one-game play-in. Even if the A's survive it, that would qualify as a collapse for the ages. Regardless, though, Jon Lester added more than Cespedes subtracted, and barring poor performance from the former, whatever happens next will be on the batters that still remain.