The Royals head to Oakland to re-visit the team they defeated in last year's Wild Card game and had an action-filled weekend with back in April. We talked with Alex Hall, the editor of Athletics Nation, to get a sense of why the A's have struggled so much this year after seriously contending in 2014.
Royals Review: The last time these two teams met there was some bad blood. Do you think that has largely blown over or would you expect some retaliation this weekend?
Alex Hall: At this point, I'd like to think both sides have too much to play for to mess around with any more shenanigans. The Royals are rolling, with the best record in the American League, and they don't need anything derailing the great season they've put together so far. The A's, meanwhile, are on fire right now and would be wise to just focus on extending their hot streak long enough to save their season. I'd also just like to believe that they're all adults and have moved on, but of course we have no way to know what's going on inside their heads. I really hope it's all over.
Royals Review: The A's were a serious contender last year, but after a busy off-season, have really floundered this year. What has been their biggest issue?
Alex Hall: This team was almost unbelievable to watch in April and May. I've never seen such a good team end up with so few wins. The starting pitching is the best in the AL (best ERA, best fWAR) and it has been all year. The lineup is fifth in MLB in runs per game, with a combo of power, speed, and patience, but also a bit of the pesky "make lots of contact all over the field" that the Royals themselves employ.
You'd think a top rotation and a top lineup would be a recipe for success, but the city of Oakland used all of its sports karma on an NBA championship run for the Golden State Warriors. (It was totally worth it.) Therefore, the A's just couldn't play defense (led by Marcus Semien) and the bullpen posted a run of failure that no team in history has sustained for a full season -- of the first 18 vulnerable games they were asked to protect (as in save/hold situation or tie game), they lost 13 of them. And that's not counting games with a blown save that the team later won; I mean I went through the game logs and they lost 13 of the first 18 games that the relievers had to seal. That's a 28% success rate from the pen, which almost doesn't seem humanly possible. For two months, the A's bullpen was a disgrace to baseball.
That bullpen was the main problem, but there was also just some rotten luck in there. Ben Zobrist was trying to score the walk-off run against the Mariners in April but got thrown out by one step on a perfect throw. Ike Davis blasted a could-be walk-off double to the wall in dead center but Mike Trout made a full sprint back to the track and snagged an MVP-quality leaping catch to end the game as the potential tying and winning runs scampered home. That's two wins-turned-losses right there for no reason than the flap of a butterfly's wings at the wrong moment, and that's how it went for this team in the first two months. Always so close, never quite enough, and never evening out to give the A's cheap wins in return.
Even after recovering a bit, they're still 6-18 in one-run games. The good news is, the problems are working themselves out. Semien is improving fast, and the bullpen has inched its way back to a 50% success rate -- 17 vulnerable games won, 17 lost, plus one more in which they blew the lead, regained it, and saved it the second time.They're on a run of four straight saves without a hiccup, and it's no coincidence that the A's are finally winning -- 9-2 in their last 11 games, 20-11 since May 23.
Royals Review: Billy Beane still seems to be able to find overlooked talent like Stephen Vogt, Mark Canha and Billy Burns. What can you tell us about these previously unknown players?
Alex Hall: Vogt first emerged in the 2013 playoffs. He'd been added for depth as a journeyman backup, and he began to start when John Jaso went down with a concussion. His highlight came in Game 2 of the ALDS, when Sonny and Verlander matched zeroes for eight innings; Vogt drilled the walk-off single in the ninth. He came back in 2014 and caught fire, giving rise to the "I Believe In Stephen Vogt" chant in the Coliseum (you can often hear it on TV when he's batting.) Coming into this year, we knew he could hit, but no one was expecting him to break out into an MVP candidate. He's now second in the AL in OPS, first in RBI, and high on the WAR leaderboards. He can hit for average, he's got big power, and he's got a great batting eye. He's a complete hitter, with solid-but-not-great defensive skills and an excellent throwing arm. If only his foot hadn't been hurt last fall and he could have caught the Wild Card game ...
Canha is technically a Rule 5 pick (by someone else, later acquired by Oakland). His power is real, but the A's won't put him in the lineup regularly so it's tough to say just what he's capable of. He's being used as a platoon bat but he's crushed right-handers so far, which makes me wonder if he could start every day. He probably won't hit for a high average, but he's third on the team in homers in limited time. On defense, he's still learning left field but is getting better, and he's solid at first base. He's also a local guy who went to school at Cal Berkeley, and he's already become a bit of a fan favorite.
Burns is an example of a guy hitting his ceiling, then adding a second story and hitting THAT ceiling. He looked like he might make a good fourth outfielder, who could play some defense and serve as a deadly pinch-runner. Instead, he learned how to make tons of contact, spray the ball all over, and use his legs to beat out hits. He's on a 15-game hitting streak, and has a hit in 27 of his last 28 games. He also steals bases at will, makes diving catches in center, and even hit a couple of actual home runs over the fence. He's probably not really THIS good, but we're enjoying it while it lasts. I think he's good enough to start long-term; basically, he's playing like Ichiro right now but I think he can settle in as a slightly better Juan Pierre.
Royals Review: Our old friend Billy Butler seems to be furthering his decline in Oakland. Why has he struggled so much this year?
Alex Hall: Butler just isn't the same hitter he was before. He doesn't pull anything with any authority anymore and doesn't have the power to homer to right, so all he really does is pull grounders that he can't beat out or shoot liners to right that go directly at fielders. His best-case scenarios are a liner into a gap or a grounder that sneaks through the 3B/SS hole. There's probably still a worthwhile player in there, but he's not an everyday cleanup hitter anymore. Fortunately, the A's have finally moved him down in the order and he's getting some days off against tough right-handers. I doubt he's done at age 29, and he'll still have his moments, but his best years might be behind him.
Royals Review: Where does the stadium situation sit with the A's now? Where will they be playing five years from now?
Alex Hall: As it stands now, the most likely result will be a new stadium on the current site, but there's still a long way to go before we get any conclusion. Last season they signed a ten-year lease to stay at the Coliseum, so at least they aren't going anywhere else anytime soon. San Jose is more or less out of the picture now, as MLB seems committed to letting the Giants keep it, which is probably fine because now A's fans get to keep their team in their city. Still, Bud Selig's Blue Ribbon Committee was a disgrace to baseball.
Royals Review: Billy Beane is known for making surprising moves. What do you expect out of him at the trade deadline? Will the A's try to make a move to get back in this or will they become sellers?
Alex Hall: I honestly have no idea yet. First, we need to see what happens in July. After playing the Royals, the A's get seven games against the Rockies and Mariners; they could be .500 in two weeks, or they could go back to blowing every lead and finally resign themselves to being out of the race. That is the first question. If they're out of the race, then I imagine you'll see the big stars get traded -- some combination of Ben Zobrist, Scott Kazmir, and Tyler Clippard. If they get back into contention by the deadline, then I'm not even going to try to guess because predicting how Billy Beane will try to win is a one-way ticket to Wrongsville.