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Some random thoughts on the Athletics to start September

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Patience is a virtue, for both a hitter at the plate and a fan watching the standings.

It's a dark time for the Oakland Athletics. They just wrapped up a 12-17 August that robbed them of their distinction as the best team in MLB and knocked them from their perch atop the AL West. Monday's win helped, but it didn't fix everything. Athletics Nation is in a mild state of panic, and we're on the conservative side; check out the comments on our Facebook page to get an idea of how freaked out the general citizenry of Oakland is. Here are some deep thoughts to bring a bit of optimism and reason back into our lives.

Late-season slumps can be overcome

A couple weeks ago, I took a look at some recent World Series winners to show how each of them went through extended slumps at some point during their championship seasons. This time, I'm going to go back slightly further to make that point again.

I present to you the 2006 Detroit Tigers. Entering play on July 30, 2006, they stood at 70-33. That was the best record in baseball by 7½ games, and they had a plus-137 run differential that stood 50 runs above the next-best total. Our 2014 A's were only 64-39 through the same number of games, but with a six-game lead over all non-Angels teams and a plus-164 run differential that was 74 runs higher than the runner-up; it's not a perfect raw comparison, but both teams were close in their relative dominance of the Majors. The Tigers mostly stood pat at the deadline, only making a small trade to acquire a declining Sean Casey. And then, over the rest of the regular season, they went 25-34. Their division lead, which was 8½ games entering July 30 and peaked at 10 games in early August, vanished. I don't mean vanished as in they barely held on; I mean it literally disappeared, as in they finished in second place and settled for the Wild Card. In 2006, the by-far best team in baseball on July 30 settled for the Wild Card.

Having lost all their momentum from a strong first half, all Detroit did was knock out the Yankees in a four-game ALDS and sweep the A's in the ALCS to reach the World Series. Sure, they fell to the Cardinals, but they still won more postseason series than they lost and the fact that they limped into the postseason clearly didn't matter.

Let's go back one more year, to the 2005 Chicago White Sox. On Aug. 1, they were 69-35, best team in baseball by 3½ games and holders of the second-best run differential in the Majors (plus-100). They led their division by 15 games. Then they went 11-16 for the rest of August and saw the lead cut down to seven games. Then a seven-game win streak to start September! Then 12-12 for the rest of the season, as their division lead dipped as low as 1½ games on Sept. 24. They recovered once more and won the division by six games, then won 11 out of 12 in the postseason to capture their first championship since 1917.

Look, the A's are struggling and the Angels are surging and the deficit in the division is very real. But you don't do what the A's did for four months by accident. They were too good for too long to be a fluke, just like the '06 Tigers and '05 White Sox. Sure, a couple key contributors are gone, but there are worthy replacements. Sure, a few key guys are hurt, but there's reason to believe that everyone could be healthy in time for October -- Lowrie is already back, Punto should be soon, Doolittle hasn't been ruled out permanently, Jaso is eligible to return whenever he's ready, and Coco has shown that when his neck calms down he can play through it. And sure, a few more guys are slumping, like Moss and Norris, but those guys have the kinds of track records that give them the benefit of the doubt. In Moss's case, he's been excellent for a few years now and so his bad month is most likely a short-term fluke; there's a big difference between "he looks terrible right now" and "he'll never be good again." There is nothing permanently wrong with this team; the problems should all be temporary.

History doesn't give us any guarantees of the future, but it does give us precedent. When a team does what the A's did in the first half, it's usually real. And when that type of dominant team slumps, it's usually temporary. The A's might be done, but if so it won't be because they were bad in August. It'll be because they didn't recover in September. All you have to do is make it to the LDS, and then even the 2010 Giants can win it all.

The Cespedes Effect

If you read this site a lot, you probably understand that the departure of Yoenis Cespedes did not solely sink the offense. Three key starters got hurt (Coco, Jaso, Lowrie), which is one-third of the entire starting lineup. Three others slumped (Moss, Norris, Callaspo), which is another third of the starting lineup. But for more casual A's fans, and for many people around the country who don't follow our team closely, it's easy to chalk up the slump to the loss of Cespedes, who appeared from afar to be the team's best hitter.

The argument starts with the simple statement that losing Cespedes tanked the lineup. The response is that his good-not-great stats don't back up that assertion. The counter-response is that he somehow makes the rest of the hitters in the lineup better because he's so intimidating, or that he's on fire in Boston based on a couple game-winning homers. (Some of these arguments I'm setting up might sound like strawmen, but they are real things I've read on social media and in comments sections on other sites.)

Let's start with Cespedes himself:

Cespedes in Oak, 2014: .256/.303/.464, 115 OPS+
Cespedes in Bos, 2014: .275/.296/.450, 106 OPS+

Well, there goes one argument. He's actually been slightly worse in Boston so far, albeit in a small sample. His numbers are similar, but they are also coming in a much easier park for hitters. If he'd stuck around here, he'd likely be doing exactly what he usually did -- hit some homers, but not as many as you'd expect, and make too many outs.

But what about his magical, intangible powers? Does he make the rest of his team better?

Hmm, nope. And if your first thought is that Boston sold off all of its veterans and so their lineup is weaker around him, that is also not true -- their fire sale was restricted to just their (entire) starting rotation. The lineup is still the same guys as always -- Ortiz, Napoli, Nava, Middlebrooks, Bogaerts, Holt, etc. In fact, the biggest difference is probably that Cespedes is an improvement over their previous left fielders, such as a slumpy Gomes and a rusty Grady Sizemore. (Unrelated fun fact: Sizemore is hitting .306/.359/.463 in 131 PA's for the Phillies; did the comeback work after all?) So, the names in the lineup are the same, but they're hitting worse now that Cespedes is on board.

My point is not that he made them worse. It's that his presence is irrelevant to the rest of the order, just as it was in Oakland. My understanding is that the value of lineup protection is a myth, but even if there is a small marginal benefit to it, it wouldn't explain a guy like Moss completely falling off the planet. He slumped all on his own, and if your response to that is that he was pressing due to the loss of Yoenis then my response to you is that he would have pressed anyway in pursuit of the playoffs.

And as for that stat in which the A's always had a better record with Cespedes in the lineup? Well, the Red Sox have gone 12-17 since the trade, so that magic hasn't transferred over. And if your response to that is that they lost those games because they dealt all their starters, then my comeback would be: yes, exactly. The team record thing is a neat stat, but it isn't necessarily meaningful. Baseball is a team sport, and for the most part one guy isn't going to make a massive difference one way or the other, especially over a month or two. (Case in point: The 2010 Texas Rangers lost the literal league MVP, Josh Hamilton with a 1.044 OPS, for all of September. They still went 15-10 in the games he missed down the stretch en route to winning the division comfortably; in fact, they didn't lose any ground in the standings at all.) There could have been similarly extenuating circumstances on the days Cespedes sat out in Oakland, or the stat could just be a fluke. But to chalk up a complicated situation to that one vague thing doesn't do the situation justice. It's an easy talking point without much substance to back it up.

For some of you, this might be beating a dead horse. For others, hopefully these words will help you understand how the team's struggles are bigger than Cespedes, and that having him here would likely not have made a huge difference given the way the rest of the lineup played.

The state of the rotation

I'm going to take a deeper look at the rotation later this week, but for now here are some numbers to wrap your head around. These are the last five outings for each starter:

Jon Lester: 2.38 ERA, 34 innings, 34 K's, 7 BB, 3 HR, 26 hits (Team: 3-2)
Sonny Gray: 5.06 ERA, 32 innings, 21 K, 13 BB, 3 HR, 36 hits (Team: 1-4)
Scott Kazmir: 8.25 ERA, 24 innings, 14 K, 11 BB, 3 HR, 28 hits  (Team: 2-3)
Jeff Samardzija: 4.22 ERA, 32 innings, 32 K, 5 BB, 3 HR, 32 hits (Team: 2-3)
Jason Hammel: 2.40 ERA, 30 innings, 20 K, 9 BB, 6 HR, 23 hits (Team: 2-3)

Necessary background: Prior to these games, Sonny was coming off July Pitcher of the Month honors plus one excellent start in August. But that hot streak is over, for now. Shark's numbers are messed up by that disaster start against the Mets, which accounted for half of his earned runs in this span. Kazmir was unimpressive in his two outings before this horrid stretch. And Lester and Hammel are the best bets in the rotation right now.

The point is that thing change, players go up and down, and production ebbs and flows over a long season. The chance that Hammel is terrible because of July is the same as the chance that Hammel is twice as good as Sonny because of August. But again, I'll have a full post about this later in the week.

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Patience is a virtue, A's fans. Things looked great before, and now they look terrible. The reality is probably in the middle somewhere, and it's probably closer to the larger sample (the great one, which lasted four months). Think happy thoughts, keep the fAith, and cheer your boys. More likely than not, they will reward you.

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