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MLB hater nation: Oakland A’s

Let’s talk sewage and sabermetrics!

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Oakland Athletics

In preparation for a 2020 season that may or may not actually happen, I’m going through the major leagues to say some mean things about each team. This time, I’ll talk about a team that used to call Philadelphia home, and based on its current stadium situation, probably wishes it still did: The Oakland Athletics.

Brief history of the franchise

The Athletics began their existence in Philadelphia. Under the guidance of Connie Mack, they were much more successful than the other team in the city, but left for the greener(?) pastures of Kansas City in 1955. After 12 seasons in which they didn’t finish over .500 once, the people of Kansas City probably weren’t too upset when the team headed further west.

This worked out well for Oakland, as the A’s were really successful in the 1970’s, winning three World Series. Then, thanks to Bash Brothers Jose Canseco and Mark McGwire they won another title in 1989, and probably should have had at least one more. For those of you unfamiliar with the Bash Brothers, here’s a quick primer: (WARNING: A couple of NSFW lyrics)

Soon after, the small-market A’s found it difficult to compete against teams with higher payrolls. But general manager Billy Beane came up with a revolutionary strategy of using advanced analytics to acquire players whose skills were undervalued by other teams.

This approach worked well for the A’s - although it never resulted in much success in the playoffs - but it also sparked countless, often inane arguments about the value of advanced statistical analysis in baseball, and eventually all sports.

So let’s talk about Moneyball

If you’re familiar with my writing, you’ve probably noticed that I’m not the most analytically-driven person out there. I’m not a pure traditionalist, and I understand that analytics are - or at least should be - an important part of a baseball team’s decision-making process. However, the overemphasis, as well as the insufferable attitude of many sabermetrically-inclined fans and analysts made me reflexively want to push back.

Part of the problem was that so-called experts like Keith Law, Rob Neyer, and Bill Baer often conducted themselves with an obnoxious “We are smarter than you!” attitude. It felt like more time was spent boasting how they were smarter than most fans, instead of actually trying to educate people what these newfangled stats were all about.

To be fair, it also didn’t help when those on the other side moaned about how “Nerds are ruining baseball,” and acted like complete Luddites when it came to new statistics or ways of thinking.

These days, most reasonable people realize that analytics can reveal important hidden truths, but attempting to quantify everything using numbers isn’t wise either. Otherwise, you get inexplicable decisions like, I don’t know, removing your ace in the sixth inning of an Opening Day game where he seemed to be in complete command.

After Michael Lewis’ Moneyball book helped propel sabermetrics into mainstream awareness, people unfortunately began to conflate the terms sabermetrics and Moneyball. They didn’t understand that sabermetrics was merely a tool that Billy Beane used when trying to find a way for the small-market A’s to compete against his deep-pocketed competitors. As advanced statistical analysis has spread into other sports, this confusion remains.

What happened in 2019

The A’s won 97 and captured the American League’s first Wild Card spot. They proceeded to give up four runs in the first three innings of the Wild Card playoff game and fell meekly to the Rays. The fact that the A’s lost a playoff game is not surprising, since they’ve lost the last six postseason series/play-in games they’ve been in.

If the playoffs are really a “crap shoot,” you’d think the A’s would win at some point. Maybe the problem is that winning in the regular season and winning in the playoffs don’t necessarily require the same attributes.

The A’s should probably take a tip from the Washington Nationals. Until last year, the Nats had even less postseason success than the A’s. It seemed like every season, they would make the playoffs behind a strong rotation, and then come up short, usually because their bullpen wasn’t nearly as good. But in 2019, they basically chose not to use any of their relievers in the postseason, instead relying on long outings by the starters, and having them also pitch the key relief innings in between starts.

The manager

Bob Melvin is a three-time winner of the American League Manager of the Year Award. That makes it seem like he’s one of the best managers in the league - and he very well might be. However, across all sports, coach/manager of the year awards should probably be re-named to the “Manager of the team which does much better than we predicted” award. For instance, his 2018 award came after the A’s finished in second place after three straight years of last place finishes.

It should also be mentioned that this is a regular season award. In his 16-year managerial career, Melvin has only won one postseason series, and that came with the Diamondbacks back in 2007.

East coast bias?

I acknowledge that I don’t follow teams that aren’t the Phillies all that carefully, but in the process of writing this, I discovered that I really don’t follow the A’s. For instance, if you asked me which two players led the A’s in home runs in 2019, it would have taken me a very long time before I came up with Matt Olson and Matt Chapman. If I was playing a baseball video game, I would have sooner guessed that Matt Olson was a computer-generated name rather than an actual players who each hit 36 home runs last year.

Chapman has finished in the top-10 of All-Star voting and won Gold Gloves the past two years, and yet the name only barely rings a bell for me. However, such accomplishments mean that these guys will soon be getting paid, and just as likely as not, will be ex-Athletics.

Sigh...There was a time when I could have probably named the entire All-Star rosters for both leagues. As I write this, I’m starting to realize this may be more of a Smarty issue than anything. But I’m glad you were here so we could go through this together.

The Khris Davis curse

When I wrote about the Orioles, I mentioned that Chris Davis was probably the least valuable player in baseball. The A’s designated hitter with a phonetically similar name wasn’t close to that level of awfulness, but the A’s definitely didn’t get what they hoped out of him in 2019.

There was a time when Khris Davis was famous for hitting .247 every season.

That relatively low average was okay when he was also leading the league in home runs, as he did in 2018. When that number dropped to 23 in 2019, he was considerably less valuable. Injuries undoubtedly played a part in his decline, but entering his age 32 season, its very possible that his days of hitting 40+ home runs are behind him.

The worst stadium in baseball?

When Major League Baseball stadiums are ranked, there are two stadiums consistently at the bottom of the list: Tampa Bay’s Tropicana Field and the Oakland-Alameda County Coliseum. While the Oakland Coliseum may not feature in-play catwalks, it is very deserving of its low ranking.

Built during the multipurpose stadium era of the late 60’s and 70’s, the Coliseum is the last survivor of that aesthetically-unpleasing era. The amenities are said to be sub par, there’s an insane amount of foul territory, and the occasional problem with sewage.

Now that the NFL’s Raiders have left town, the Coliseum is a baseball-exclusive facility, but that hasn’t done much to solve the underlying issues. The A’s are trying to figure out a way to get a new stadium, but progress on that front has been slow.

But hey, at least fans can go to games feeling confident that the food is going to be relatively clean!

What to expect in 2020

As always, the A’s didn’t spend a lot of money. When you win 97 games, major upgrades are generally not required, but it is disturbing that they lost a bunch of veteran contributors. The A’s typically depend on their young players to fill such holes, and more often than not, that’s been a successful formula. Still, young players often suffer growing pains, and in a shortened season, the A’s might not have the time to endure such growing pains.