It’s September, and that means the playoff races are heating up in Major League Baseball. However, not everyone makes it to the promised land. Tom Wright tells us what went right and what went wrong in the elimination of the Oakland Athletics.
Billy Beane has often said that he doesn’t care if his players are marketable or recognizable – if the players win, the fans will show up and support the team. While he may be correct about the fans being willing to support a winner, there’s an unfortunate corollary to the Beane principle; if the team doesn’t win, the fans have absolutely nothing to root for. Who can the team put in ads to convince the faithful to come out to the ballpark? Which unrecognizable player gets a bobblehead or a jersey giveaway in his image/namesake? Why should a fan invest him or herself in a group of players that can’t play baseball and will be gone at the end of the year?
This year’s team is the embodiment of this unfortunate corollary. Before the season, Beane tinkered heavily with last year’s wild card-game loser, totally remaking the roster in an attempt to make another run at the playoffs. Beane traded Josh Donaldson (who reportedly clashed with Beane) for the mercurial Brett Lawrie and promising youngster Kendall Graveman, shipped out starting catcher Derek Norris in hopes that Stephen Vogt could replace his output (which he did), let Jon Lester walk, dealt prospects for Ben Zobrist, gambled on a two-year deal for Billy Butler, traded for Jesse Hahn, and picked up Tyler Clippard from the Nationals (among many, many other moves). It was a Beane-esque flurry of activity, and the hope was that it would stave off the tear-down of the roster for another year.
Whatever the reasoning was, the moves didn’t really work, and now the A’s have a bunch of mercenaries that the fans neither recognize nor care about. Individually, many of the moves panned out well; Vogt is every bit the catcher that Norris was, Clippard is a shutdown closer, Graveman has been as advertised, and Lawrie has been solid at the hot corner. One of the problems, though, was that several of the acquisitions got injured; Graveman, Zobrist, Davis and Hahn have all battled the injury bug at various points in the season. The A’s have also dealt with a bit of decline, as Coco Crisp fell off a metaphorical cliff and Billy Butler proved that last year’s down year was no fluke.
The thing is… despite the stuff that went wrong, the A’s should still be a good team. The Athletics have actually outscored their opposition over the course of the season, and their Pythagorean record is a respectable 74-73. The undoing for the A’s has been their execrable record in close games; Oakland is 17-32 in games decided by one run, and they’re 26-49 in games decided by two runs or fewer.
Of course, a team that performs badly in close games generally has either a bad manager, some bad luck or a bad bullpen. In the A’s case, the first is tough to tell, and the second is probably a little bit true (a .239 batting average in close and late situations is probably attributable to bad timing), but it was that third one that really made the season tough to watch. No team was worse at turning a lead into a win than the A’s; Oakland’s 52% save conversion rate puts them last in the majors by a good margin, and their 24 saves currently make them the only team with fewer than 30. In the current New Deadball Era, no relief corps should be putting up an ERA north of 4.50 in a park that has an outfield large enough to land an Apollo rocket; however, the A’s bullpen has managed to simultaneously defy the laws of physics and common sense. They’re now second in the AL in both home runs and doubles allowed by relievers.
The good news is that Beane’s moves usually have an eye toward the future, and this year’s onslaught was no exception. Half of the A’s rotation is currently under 27, and the whole starting lineup is 30 or under (excluding Zobrist, who has only played 46 games this year). One could say that the A’s have set themselves up well for the future, except that the A’s future is probably going to involve a complete tear-down sooner rather than later. Until the Athletics can finally convince the Bay Area to let them build a new stadium, this “build up, swap out, tear down quickly” mantra is going to be a fact of life for A’s fans. Of course, the stadium question has been hovering over the heads of Oakland for a decade, and the A’s neighbor across the bay has ultimate veto authority over pretty much everything the A’s could do, so it’s likely that the stadium soap opera is going to drag on for years before anything happens. Will the A’s ever get a new deal? Will they finally give up and move to Portland, Raleigh, Charlotte, Montreal or Oklahoma? It’ll be a long time before we finally get an answer. In the meantime… there’s going to be a lot of turnover. Get your Pat Venditte bobbleheads while you can!
Oakland last won a World Series in 1989.
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