Can The Oakland A’s Offense Push Them Over The Top?

The Oakland A’s, like the Baltimore Orioles, keep hanging around the wild-card race and won’t go away. The A’s come into Tuesday nights’ games with a record of 65-56, just a half-game back of Baltimore for the second wild-card berth and a game ahead of Detroit. Oakland is plus-three on its well-heeled divisional rival in Los Angeles. While the A’s are similar to the Orioles in that they continue to defy a disbelieving public, they are different in one notable regarding. While Baltimore’s success is somewhat of a mystery until you look at their bullpen, everyone knows why Oakland is winning—great pitching, from the starting rotation to the back end. The questions about the offense are twofold—is it good enough to make the playoffs? And more pertinent, who the hell do they have in their lineup anyway? TheSportsNotebook will answer the latter question and take a crack at the former…

Oakland ranks 13th in the American League in runs scored, better only than Seattle. The numbers have picked up in the second half quite dramatically, where they are fourth in the AL since the All-Star break. But that number has to be viewed with some caution. If we narrow the statistical window to just the month of August, the the Oakland A’s offense is back to 10th. So essentially this team had a two-week run in the latter part of July where they ate up enemy pitching and are now coming back to earth.

With the Moneyball  movie having brought general manager Billy Beane’s theories to the big screen, people might presume that it’s drawing walks that’s keying the offense. And while it’s true, the A’s have picked up their share of free passes, that isn’t what drives the offense during its good stretches. It’s hitting the ball in the gaps and out of the park. Oakland is fifth in slugging percentage since the All-Star break and a tolerable 8th in August.

That’s the overall team picture. Here’s a quick rundown of the starting lineup and other notable players, with their stats listed as on-base percentage/slugging percentage.  For those not familiar with the more modern stats like this, use .350 for on-base percentage (the first number) and .450 for slugging percentage as a baseline of true quality.

C: Derek Norris (.283/.368)
1B: Brandon Moss (.311/.521)
2B: Jemile Weeks (.305/.302)
3B: Josh Donaldson (.225/.320)
SS: Cliff Pennington (.265/.2.84)
LF: Yoenis Cespedes (.364/.514)
CF: Coco Crisp (.311/.380)
RF: Josh Reddick (.317/.486)
DH: Chris Carter (.395/.576)
Returning from DL: Brandon Inge (3B, .285/.384), Seth Smith (DH/OF, .342/.424)
Other: Jonny Gomes (.361/.468)

You can see the numbers are pretty ugly, and if you look at the batting averages it gets even worse. The A’s can draw walks, but with a few exceptions they can’t get many hits. The biggest exception since the break is Carter. His sparkling numbers come in just 125 at-bats, but almost all of them have come in the season’s second half. Cespedes has also swung the bat and his solid season-long numbers are better in the second half. Reddick is an area of concern. His batting average and on-base percentage are plummeting fast and while the slugging is still a good number that’s in decline as well. It’s imperative that Reddick drive the ball these final six weeks if Oakland’s going to complete their miracle season with a berth in the AL wild-card game.

The other problem Oakland faces is that of the bats they do have, they can’t get them all the lineup without drastically compromising their defense. Smith is on a rehab assignment right now from a hamstring problem and will be back by the end of August. He and Gomes have to either DH or play corner outfield spots and that means displacing Carter, Cespedes or Reddick. With Moss hitting for some power at first base, that takes away that option. Moving Crisp out of centerfield is not a good choice, given his defensive skills and how vast Oakland’s outfield terrain is.

Oakland needs to get more offense from the middle spots. They traded catcher Kurt Suzuki to Washington and elevated the 23-year-old Norris, but there’s no reason to expect offensive returns on that right now. The place to target is second base. Weeks was a good offensive player a year ago, but like his brother Rickie in Milwaukee, he’s collapsed in 2012. Turning things around would give Oakland production from a player who can make things happen on the bases.

I’m not optimistic about the A’s chances to do much more offensively than they are in August, which is to say about 10th in the league. But 10th is better than the 13th they were beforehand and as long as the Angels stay in the doldrums, that might be enough to push Oakland over the top. As of today, my projected American League wild-card game would be the A’s and Rays.