The 2015 Oakland A’s: Unlucky, Bad, or Both?

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Since the Oakland A’s had the best record in the American League late in 2014, the franchise has turned in a dark direction. GM Billy Beane did what he could to salvage a playoff appearance last year then went into the winter in something approaching desperation mode. Still, the team he eventually fielded was expected to compete somewhere on the fringes of the AL Wild Card race. Instead, Oakland has been as unlucky as bad in the season’s first six weeks. Only a combination of the two could have yielded such disastrous results thus far.

At start of play on May 19, Oakland sat in last place in the American League West with a 14-26 record, 11.5 games behind the Astros. However, the A’s MLB-worst winning percentage (.350) came along with a run differential of minus-four, hardly the mark of the worst team in baseball. (By contrast, Red Sox have an AL-worst minus-33 run differential yet sit in third place.)

Understanding how bad the A’s have been this season can be summed up in the team’s record in one-run games: 2-13. To pull such a poor mark in close games, you need a bad bullpen, a lack of timely hitting, and the opposite from opponents. As Dave Cameron pointed out in a May 11 post in FanGraphs (Oakland then had a 12-21 record), the slim run differential projects the A’s to be an above-.500 team in 2015 (23-17) according to the site’s BaseRun Standings.

Getting there indeed called for poor bullpen work (Oakland ranks 29th of 30 teams with a 4.89 ERA) but an uncommon run of bad luck at the same time.

Boston Red Sox v Oakland Athletics
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In Cameron’s analysis, Oakland’s bullpen performed considerably worse in high-leverage situations than, say, when the bases are empty or when the score is not tied. We don’t think much about clutch pitching, but this stat illustrates how it could sink a team already on the bubble.

The stat also explains how the A’s are on pace to have the worst record in one-run games in MLB history. While the team’s batting averages with runners on (.272, 14th in MLB) and runners in scoring position (.276., 12 in MLB) don’t amaze, the deficiency of the bullpen in important spots has been more responsible for the team’s place in the standings. (A high-powered offense, which Oakland does not have, would obscure this weakness.)

Unfortunately, Major League Baseball only goes by a team’s actual record, so it’s about time to wonder whether Oakland can overcome the 12-loss deficit it already faces in the standings. There are reinforcements in Sean Doolittle and Eric O’Flaherty on the way, so at least Edward Mujica is not the answer in the bullpen. Ben Zobrist has also been hurt.

Is it enough to overcome those games in the standings as the team’s constructed? That would be highly unlikely, which means only one thing for a GM like Billy Beane: time to start to start making some deals.