Oakland Athletics GM Billy Beane saved his team some $2.35 million in 2015 salary last November when he traded Josh Donaldson to the Toronto Blue Jays. Maybe he quietly used some of that money to bankroll a reboot of No, No, Nanette. Six weeks into a season that held some promise, a season in which they might reasonably have expected to compete for a fourth straight playoff berth, the A’s have the worst record in baseball. They’re a peculiar 1-12 in day games, and an unbelievable 2-13 in one-run games.
Given what we know about Beane, there’s no surer seller in baseball than Oakland. We saw it this winter: Beane is a strategic thinker and a long-term planner. He will make the prudent rebuilding move with less hesitation than almost any GM in baseball, just as he will make the prudent double-down move faster than anyone else (as we saw last summer, when he added three strong starting pitchers to a thin rotation and willed the team into the Wild Card Game).
It’s strange that Beane is even left in this situation, though. To call this team terrible, or even bad, is somewhat unfair. Maybe we slightly overrated the A’s, and maybe they have slightly underachieved. But in the big picture, they’re not a bad team or even a good team playing badly. They’re simply the most unbelievably unlucky team on which I have ever laid eyes.
After their 2-1 win over the Astros on Monday, the A’s are 14-26. Through those 40 games, though, they have scored 180 runs, and allowed 184. Those tallies, of course, suggest a team that’s true talent level is closer to a .500 winning percentage than to a .333 one. If Oakland were even playing to its run differential, it would be tied with the Angels and 5 1/2 games behind the streaking Astros. That would be a comfortable spot for a team still trying to find itself, especially in terms of preventing runs.
That’s just one adjustment, though. At Baseball Prospectus, we have an Adjusted Standings Report, which shows not only a team’s actual record, and not only its expected record based on runs scored and allowed, but two more levels of refinement:
1. The expected record (and when I say record, what we’re really pegging is projected winning percentage, but you get the idea) based on the number of runs a team should have scored and allowed.
2. The same expected record, but with an adjustment for strength of opponents, as assessed by their True Average (TAv), and TAv Against.
According to the adjusted standings, Oakland’s earned winning percentage over this brutal six-week spiral is .542. That would give the A’s 21 or 22 wins, and now we’re talking about a playoff team. That’s how enormous the chasm is between what the A’s are — in the cold and inflexible reality we call home — and what they could be, if we could experience the parallel universes around ours and really see the possibility spectrum of each team.
We should try to determine which is more real: the record that has derailed Beane’s effort to keep the team relevant, or the numbers that say he should have succeeded. To that end, let’s get specific. The A’s have allowed the seventh-lowest opponent OPS this season, but the eighth-most runs per game. They’re stranding just 66.7 percent of baserunners, the lowest figure in the league. Their relievers are the culprits: Only eight bullpens have allowed higher opponent OPS figures than that of the A’s, and only four teams have a higher relief ERA. Oakland has a 6.75 ERA in the seventh inning, and that tells the story as clearly as anything can.
Despite strong showings from Tyler Clippard and Evan Scribner, the A’s have a thin bullpen, and without closer Sean Doolittle (due back soon from a shoulder injury, but yet to pitch in 2015), that thinness has morphed into downright badness. Opponents are scoring runs in bunches because the middle relievers for the A’s have been utterly unable to record an out. (The Cubs have a similar problem, but luck of a very different sort — they’re 11-6 in one-run games, and 4-1 in extra frames — has painted over that problem for now.)
It’s amazing how such a glaring weakness, even in so small a space, can cause a team to crumble. Oakland has scored the sixth-most runs per game of any team in baseball, and not in a hitter’s haven of a ballpark. The A’s rate as above average in defensive efficiency, meaning they’re turning plenty of opponents’ balls in play into outs. The rotation has been, if anything, surprisingly strong, and the success of Stephen Vogt, Marcus Semien and Josh Reddick as the offensive backbone of the team is remarkable.
They just haven’t been able to overcome hideous middle relief. Maybe Doolittle can fix that; maybe he can’t. When a team feels an arm short in the bullpen, it usually is two arms short these days. Then again, being an arm (or two) short in the bullpen isn’t supposed to hurt this badly. It’s clear that Beane’s bunch is more like a second-tier contender than a bottom-feeder, in terms of actual ability. Expected runs allowed paint a fairer picture of the A’s than actual runs allowed; they’ve just had too many bad sequences.
Yes, this cut-rate Oakland team could have been a contender, but it’s too late now. Since the advent of divisional play and the League Championship Series, only two 14-25 teams (Oakland’s record before Monday’s win) have ever reached the playoffs: the 1974 Pirates and the 1989 Blue Jays. Call it bad luck, a bad bullpen or the Curse of Josh Donaldson, but the A’s have no angle left to play in 2015. Beane will have to spend his summer wheeling and dealing again, but this time, he’ll be spinning off assets not unlike the ones he collected last July:
· Clippard: A free agent at season’s end and a rather expensive reliever for a losing team to carry, Clippard should command more on the July market than Beane could possibly pass up.
· Scott Kazmir: The A’s control Kazmir only through the end of the season, so there’s little reason for them not to explore trading him.
· Ben Zobrist: Due back in a week from a knee injury that interrupted a promising (if not, strictly speaking, productive) start, Zobrist is a switch-hitting utility weapon who should have boatloads of trade value if he comes back with his swing intact. (That’s no guarantee, though.)
· Reddick and Ike Davis: Bob Melvin’s two slugging left-handed thumpers have each performed really well thus far. Reddick, in particular, is having a sensational season. I wouldn’t expect either guy to sustain his current level of performance, so with each a year and a half from free agency, the A’s should at least see what’s out there. Dealing them would be aggressive (and, perhaps, discouraging; it’d be hard to see Beane give up on next year so soon), but you never know what someone might offer. The fact that each is making around $4 million (with more coming next season, of course) could push Beane toward a move.
The path forward from here is fascinating. Despite the Donaldson trade (and the Jeff Samardzija trade, and the Derek Norris trade), this was a team with a window to win. It’s not that there are no pieces of the future in place. Quite the opposite: Semien, Vogt, Sonny Gray and others make up the skeleton of a contender, though only that much. Still, the players above (especially Clippard, Kazmir and Zobrist, and you can add Coco Crisp to that mix) are at the end not only of their productive years, but of their terms of team control.
After such a flurry of activity this winter, Beane is due for another one in June and July, thanks to an unfair and painful (but insurmountable) misfire of a start. Given the somewhat inscrutable targets Beane set as he assembled this roster, there’s no seller more worth watching. The A’s could come out of the next two months looking very little like any other team in baseball.