What's Wrong With A's
by Glenn Dickey
May 31, 2006

WHY ARE the A’s struggling after being picked by almost everybody to win the AL West this season?

Think of the team as a chair with just three legs intact. The fourth leg is the pitching, which should be the foundation of the team but has been racked by serious injuries. Two of the five starters are on the disabled list, Rich Harden and Esteban Loaiza. The loss of Harden is especially critical because, when he’s healthy, he may be the best pitcher in the league. But Loaiza’s loss hurts, too, because he was expected to firm up the rotation as the fourth or fifth starter. He was totally ineffective early, probably because he was injured and didn’t want to admit it.

With two starters out, the A’s have had to bring Kirk Saarloos back out of the bullpen and even use Brad Halsey, who was in Sacramento when the season began.

The strain on the bullpen has been worsened by the loss of four relievers to the DL, so there have been times when manager Ken Macha has had to bring in pitchers who should still be in the minors. And, for a time, closer Huston Street was also injured, and he is still not sharp, blowing another save last night.

Relievers are specialists these days, sometimes designated as a left-hander who can get left-handed hitters out, as one example. As Macha noted before last night’s game, he can not spot relievers that way now. “When you’ve just brought a pitcher up, you don’t know what he can do until he gets into a game.” Often, the results are not pretty.

Baseball is a game of individual accomplishments within a team framework, but when the pitching fails, it can also affect the hitting. I believe the A’s hitters have been pressing because they’re trying to do too much to make up for the pitching problems. Hitting is a very difficult art, as shown by the fact that a hitter who fails only seven times out of 10 is regarded as a very good hitter. The A’s hitters haven’t been able to relax, as they must to be effective, because they feel the pressure to produce.

Because hitting is so difficult, hitters often are streaky because a slight change in a swing can cause those 0-for-20 streaks.

To illustrate that point, Bill James once used the example of Eddie Murray in one of his “Baseball Abstracts” essays. Murray was regarded as the epitome of consistency because, in his prime, he was always around the .300 mark, a little below or a little above, and hit 27-33 homers a season. But when James broke down his most recent season by months, he showed that Murray was all over the place, hitting .150 one month, .420 the next. Only the seasonal record was consistent.

The A’s have suffered because they’ve had several slumping hitters, but in the end, it always comes back to pitching. Quality pitchers usually are consistent, and that’s been the A’s strength in the recent past. When their pitchers are healthy again, the overall pitching will be consistent. Then, the hitters can relax and do their job.

IF MY E-MAIL is typical, and it probably is, A’s fans don’t believe this. Many of them seem to blame Macha. Here are a couple of complaints that have come up:

--The A’s are too streaky, going off on winning streaks and then coming back with a losing streak.

It's not just the A's, though. If you look around baseball, that’s a common pattern for many teams. Even the worst teams will have winning streaks, and the best teams will have losing streaks that defy logic.

The manager has very little to do with that. The one thing he can do is make changes in the pitching rotation or batting order, but even that has its limits. Right now, for instance, Joe Blanton is pitching very poorly, but if Macha were to take him out of the rotation, who would he put in? He already has one pitcher, Halsey, who was promoted from the minors. Macha has moved hitters around in the batting order, but when you have so many slumping hitters, it’s hard to find an effective combination.

And if you really blame Macha because the A’s are streaky, don’t forget that Art Howe was the manager when the A’s set a league record with 20 straight wins in 2002.

--Macha doesn’t do enough to get the offense going. What those making this complaint usually mean is that he doesn’t play enough “little ball.”

I’ve made this point over and over, but I’ll try again: In this power era, especially in the American League, LITTLE BALL DOESN’T WIN. There are occasions when you need one run late in the game that bunting is good strategy, but the other 95 per cent of the time, it makes no sense to give up an out. It hasn't, really, since Babe Ruth started hitting home runs. That’s was the beginning of the big inning theory – that a winning team will often get more runs in one inning than the losing team will get in a game. You don’t get big innings if you give up an out.

Running? The A’s are actually good baserunners, taking the extra base when they can. What they don’t do is run into outs very often by stealing, which is the most overrated part of a game, as A’s fans should know from their own team history.

Rickey Henderson stole a record 130 bases in 1982, but the A’s were just 68-94. Henderson had two other 100-plus stolen bases seasons in that period, but the A’s were over .500, 83-79, for just one of them. In 1976, they set a league record with 341 stolen bases as a team but finished second in their division, after a five-year run in which they won their division every year and won three straight World Series in the middle of that stretch. Their highest stolen base total in that stretch was 183, and in the first two years, they didn’t steal as many as 100.

There are always those who blame the A’s offensive philosophy of working the count, thinking that makes hitters less aggressive, but that’s a non-starter, too. “I tell hitters to be aggressive in a zone,” said hitting coach Gerald Perry when we talked. “I want them to go aggressively after a pitch in the zone early in the count, but if it’s not there, pull back, even if it’s a strike. There are times late in the game when, say, you’re trailing by three runs and you need baserunners where you’re happy to take a walk, but normally, we don’t go up there looking for a walk.”

DESPITE THE A’s struggles, there are some good signs. They haven’t been playing poorly, as they were last May; they’ve just not been able to get the key hit at the right time, which is as much a matter of luck as ability.

The division has been weaker than expected, and the A’s are only five games behind the Texas Rangers. Thery're tied with the Anaheim Angels, who have had the same kind of injury problems the A's had.

There’s still more than two-thirds of the season left. I fully expect the A’s to right themselves when they get key pitchers healthy and win the division. Keep the faith.


EXAMINER WEBSITE; A reader has tipped me to a much easier way to access my Examiner columns. Go to examiner.com and type in "Glenn Dickey" in the "Search" box. That will bring up my column. I tried this yesteday and it didn't work but re-trying it today, it did. I'll be in Tuesdays and Fridays.

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