The A’s have a history of slow starts. And it’s not just the Moneyball-era teams. Even this current squad carries a bit of a stigma with them into the upcoming 60-game coronavirus-shortened season.
Oakland reached the playoffs each of the past two seasons, playing in the A.L. wild-card game. But both appearances required a lot of catching up after slow starts.
After 60 games in 2018, the A’s had a 31-29 record. They played .647 ball over the final 102 games.
Last season the A’s were at .500 after 60 games, then played at a .657 clip the rest of the way.
The consequences seem more dire in retrospect. In both 97-win seasons, the A’s fell short in the wild card game — unable to get within breathing space of the top-seeded, fast-starting Houston Astros to fight for a division title. The cause? Some within the organization ascribe the slow starts to an unsettled roster. This all begs the question: Will the A’s suffer through another slow start when they can’t afford it?
In a 60-game season, even a week-long slump at the onset can dig a ditch too deep. With a more solidified roster, the A’s feel confident in their offensive approach heading into the truncated season.
“Our guys are excited about it, they know we play well in July and August,” A’s assistant hitting coach Eric Martins said. “It’s going to be different, challenging, but there’s strategic ways for how we’re going to have an advantage.”
The summer air may insure pop, but the nature of a shortened season will require the A’s, and other teams, to participate in more situational hitting to stave off a lethal early slump. A runner aboard is suddenly more precious in a shorter season, where the margin for error is nearly nonexistent.
“it’s not a secret that we needed to be better with that this year,” Martins said. “Knowing every game counts, we have to stress that. And guys will have to have that situational hitting mindset, whether it’s putting a bunt down, doing what you can to get a guy over.”
Situational hitting is fundamental, basic, expected. But no indication that the team wanted to narrow its focus on it was clearer than when hitters held bunting practice before their forgettable wild card loss to the Tampa Bay Rays last October.
The A’s are built with an objective, an eye toward clearing the fences. Why push runners around the bases you can clear them all with one grand swing?
But manager Bob Melvin and his coaching staff extended that situational hitting focus into spring training this year.
“I’m sure as I speak, and this is written a little later, my front office will…yeah,” Melvin joked back in February, weeks before training was shut down due to COVID-19. “But there’s times in the season, especially with our pitching and defense, where we can do that. Get guys over, get them in. We’ll be a better club for it.”
And, for as basic a practice it is, there is something to warming that muscle. “It’s an awareness right away,” Melvin said. “And that’s what we’re trying to do in this camp.”
A’s infielder/outfielder Chad Pinder says the situational hitting muscle is reflexive.
“That’s something we focus on in any season, because those are the teams that win,” he said. “But, now, it’s going to be critical for the 60 games. It’s gonna be a 60-game sprint, not a 162-game marathon. We gotta go, we gotta go now.”
The simple task of “moving a runner over” might be a simple fix to bridge the readiness gap between pitchers and hitters, Pinder says. While pitchers might’ve been spending quarantine keeping their arms warm and strong, most hitters haven’t seen live pitching since March — and three weeks might not be enough to hone them back into pennant-race form.
“I wouldn’t be surprised to see a bunch of tight games early, until guys get into the swing of things,” Pinder said.
All that said, no one expects the core middle-order bats — Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, Khris Davis — to transform themselves into small-ball hitters.
“If Matt Chapman or any of those guys are up, I’m hoping he’s swinging the bat,” Pinder said. “Though, with some of the overpowering bullpen arms these days, if Chappy thought that was his best option, and he gets the job done, I don’t think think anyone would be mad.”
“Chapman can do everything,” Martins said. “He came from a college program (Cal State Fullerton) that played that style. We won’t be asking him to do too much of that, but he’s the type of player that wants to win, so he might take it upon himself to do anything to get guys across.
That’s exciting about this group of guys, power — but if we need to reach back in bag of tricks for small ball type of baseball, we have guys with the ability to do that.”
Even if the core is built to mash dingers, Martins sees versatility and speed that lends itself to an adjusted approach. Speedy base runner Jorge Mateo’s absence still leaves behind a number of players that could thrive in small ball situations. Franklin Barreto’s 28.8 feet per second sprint speed is listed among the top 90th percentile in the league, per Statcast — with room still to grow with consistent at bats when it comes to plate discipline. He has a .220 OBP in 80 games through three seasons with the A’s.
Tony Kemp’s 26.4 ft/s speed may rank in the 40th percentile of the league, but he’s a strong potential on-base asset with a .314 OBP and 16 stolen bases over his last four seasons. Infielder Vimael Machin’s speed, Ramón Laureano’s fearlessness to take that extra base, Pinder’s versatility, Semien’s discerning eye — there’s an eclectic bag of tricks for Melvin to shake and play.
“Some teams aren’t going to have ability to be able to do small ball with their personnel,” Martins said. “I like our personnel, compared to others, because we have a lot of variation to work with. We have players that can play this style of baseball.”
For fans, how some small ball tactics will be integrated into this 60-game season is a fun, new wrinkle to observe. In the sixth inning of a one-run game, will there be heightened criticism for an inability to move a runner into scoring position? Will a fruitless at bat with a runner on third and less than two outs seem a bit more dire in the 39th game of a 60-game season than in a 162-game one?
Then there’s the cat and mouse dynamic. Teams know situational hitting will play a more prominent role, but how might that impact defenses and shifts? Who blinks first?
“I’m excited. It’s going to be a domino effect of mind games,” Martins said.
The fan heightened perception of a semi-revived year of small ball won’t necessarily match the players’ feel. That nuance has always been easy to access. The ends will justify the means — and players know a couple bunts, moving the runner over, some sacrifice flies, could be an obvious means to getting off to that elusive and necessary fast start.
“We know the importance of those things,” Pinder said. “It’s not like anything is changing.”