Last-place Oakland Athletics can fight way back into contention


At ten games under .500 and nine back of the surprising Astros in the American League West, the Oakland Athletics appear dead and buried. They have dropped eight of their last ten, including a frustrating 2-0 defeat yesterday at the hands of the Red Sox, a game in which Oakland squandered a stellar outing from its ace, Sonny Gray. Billy Beane is probably already preparing to set fire to this thing, right?

While that could certainly still happen, there are a few reasons to think a turnaround could be in the cards. A closer look at the numbers reflects a team that should be sizably better than it is at present. Whatever the A’s weaknesses, the offense has not been one of them. Oakland’s 166 runs scored are good for fifth-most in MLB. They have also collected the second-most hits (331), third-most total bases (512) and sit comfortably in the top half of most other offensive categories.

Despite their struggles, the A’s sport a +1 run differential. For perspective, that is the same as the second-place team in their division, the Angels. Based on Pythagorean analysis, Baseball Prospectus has them as roughly a .500 team and behind only Houston in their adjusted standings.

The productive nature of the offense might be eyebrow-raising to some, especially after Oakland unloaded one of the best hitters in its lineup, third baseman Josh Donaldson, to the Blue Jays in the offseason. Donaldson swatted 29 homers and drove in 98 runs for the A’s last year and earned a spot in the AL All-Star squad.

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Enter Stephen Vogt. The catcher has absolutely broken out with the bat in 2015. He is currently slashing a commanding .337/.425/.673 line, along with nine home runs and an AL-best 30 RBI. Those numbers represent a massive boost over Vogt’s production in limited playing time over the previous three seasons. Is a comedown imminent, or has Vogt simply put it all together at age 30? Either scenario is possible, but at present the Oakland backstop is leading the way for his team’s offense and is an early contender in the MVP conversation. The longer he performs like this, the better the Athletics’ 2015 prognosis.

Right fielder Josh Reddick has been another force in the A’s lineup. He is hitting .333 and has driven in 25 runs of his own. If Reddick can stay healthy he should continue to be a solid source of production. Before the last two injury-abbreviated campaigns, he clubbed 32 homers and accumulated 85 RBI during his first season in an Oakland uniform. Bolstered by other strong showings from players like shortstop Marcus Semien (.307, 6 HR, 15 RBI) the A’s offense figures to remain an asset.

A faltering bullpen, however, has been a painful thorn in Oakland’s side. Athletics relievers have posted a dreadful 4.98 ERA. Only the Rockies and Reds’ bullpens have fared worse. Tyler Clippard is one of the better closers in the league and has thrown very well this season (1.69 ERA). Unfortunately, he has only been handed four save opportunities so far, converting three of them.

Middle relievers Fernando Abad and Dan Otero need to perform much better going forward. In 24.1 combined innings, the pair has allowed 26 hits and 13 runs. Their numbers in previous campaigns are substantially better (1.57 and 2.28 ERAs last year, respectively) than what they have shown so far in 2015. If they turn things around and help build a stronger bridge to Clippard along with Evan Scribner, it will have a positive effect on the team as a whole.

Oakland’s best weapon is something for which many franchises search tirelessly: a legitimate ace. After bursting onto the scene last season to win 14 games with a 3.08 ERA, Sonny Gray is enjoying a sensational start to 2015. He’s 4-1 with a 1.61 ERA and averaging seven innings per outing. In eight starts he has surrendered 10 earned runs and a lone homer. Only 25 years of age, Gray is already proving himself a cornerstone for not only the A’s rotation, but the team at large. Knowing they can lean on him every five days is absolutely invaluable and will be a major factor if the A’s are to go on a run.

Regardless of their bright points, the Oakland Athletics have a long road ahead. Many say that you are whatever your record says you are, and the A’s are still 13-23. With the exception of the AL East, all the divisions in baseball are beginning to diffuse, with cellar-dwellers lagging behind by around 10 games or so. Of those clubs, the A’s seem the most well-positioned to reverse their fortunes. If they can get their bullpen sorted out soon, they may very well start to look like a different team. Oakland does know a thing or two about late-season surges, and although one should by no means start predicting an improbable playoff berth quite yet, the A’s could still become unlikely players in the Wild Card mix.

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