On August 17, 2014, a strange thing happened: the Oakland A’s — a team that has scored an average of 1.29 more runs per game than their opponents this season — didn’t finish the day with the best record in baseball. The last time that was the case came exactly two months ago, when the A’s and Giants had identical records of 43-28 on June 17.
The A’s are 73-51, putting them on pace for an impressive 95 wins. But the Los Angeles Angels are 73-50, and the A’s are faced with the very real possibility of needing to win a one-game playoff for the right to advance to the ALDS, despite crushing everyone in the pythagorean stat known as run differential.
Billy Beane’s club was 2.5 games ahead of Anaheim when he traded Yoenis Cespedes for two-plus months of Jon Lester (and Jonny Gomes). The trade was thought to have been made with an eye toward the Detroit Tigers (up five games in the AL Central heading into the deadline), who went and snagged David Price later in the day. Since then, both the A’s and Tigers have been forced to stop worrying about each other, and start concerning themselves with the Angels and Royals.
Since joining the A’s, Lester has a two-hit shutout and four quality starts in four chances. The A’s are 3-1 in Lester’s starts, but they’re 4-9 in the rest of their August games.
Pitching hasn’t been the problem. Oakland’s opponents have scored fewer than four runs 12 times in 17 games since the trade, averaging just 3.71 runs per game against A’s pitching. It’s the Athletics’ offense that has slumped — Oakland scored 535 runs in their first 107 games, exactly five per contest. They’ve only scored 62 runs since dealing Cespedes: an average of 3.65 runs scored per game.
What’s caused this August bust?
To simplify these small-sample-size numbers quite a bit, only three guys are hitting. Josh Donaldson (.288/.403/.458), Josh Reddick (.293/.328/.500) and Eric Sogard (.278/.409/.417) are doing just fine in August, but Sam Fuld is the only Athletic receiving regular at-bats whose average is .235 or above during that time (and Fuld is hitting a punchless .255/.296/.294).
- Stephen Vogt (.229/.260/.417), Brandon Moss (.205/.375/.250) and Derek Norris (.191/.224/.319) have cooled off considerably after outstanding first halves.
- Jed Lowrie wasn’t doing much and now he’s on the DL.
- Alberto Callaspo has been a non-factor all year.
- Coco Crisp is hitting .130 and probably isn’t all the way back from his neck injury.
- Gomes hasn’t brought any magic back to Oakland as of yet.
The A’s are hitting just .224/.299/.344 as a team in August, their lowest numbers in any of those categories since last July, when they pitched their asses off and still finished 15-10 (their second-best month of the season) despite hitting .222/.294/.354.
Hitting numbers aside, the A’s just had a bad week when the Angels didn’t. The Athletics have lost seven of their last eight, including the recent sweep in Atlanta, while the Angels have won six of eight. Over that stretch it’s the supposedly all-hit/no-pitch Angels who’ve tightened things up from a run-prevention standpoint, allowing just 25 runs, while the A’s have surrendered 37 over their last eight contests.
One thing the A’s have in their favor is the head-to-head portion of their remaining schedule — they play the Angels 10 more times, and so far this season they’ve won six of nine games against the Anaheimers while outscoring them 52-34.
Looking back while moving on
One can’t assume that he’d perform the same way if the trade never occurred, but it’s not like Cespedes is killing it in Boston. His numbers over the last two seasons weren’t quite as impressive as Beane probably hoped (Cespedes settled into being a .250/.300/.450 hitter in the majors after an outstanding rookie year). However, his Red Sox numbers look similar to what most of the A’s have put up in August: .219/.231/.406, with three homers.
Cespedes recently told MLB.com’s Jane Lee he hopes the A’s win the World Series, while also discussing the void he left behind.
This offensive funk began even before Cespedes was shipped to Boston, but he at least offered them one more power bat.
Now, Cespedes’ bat has essentially been replaced by a platoon of Stephen Vogt and Jonny Gomes.
“I don’t want to call it a hole in the lineup, because one guy doesn’t make up a team, or a lineup for that matter,” said Cespedes, “but I will say that there’s going to be a missing link as far as a power hitter goes, but that’s not to say that they can’t meet their goal of winning the World Series without me there.”
Fair or not, a deadline day trade that was widely celebrated as an example of Beane’s genius at the time could be looked at as overly meddlesome if the A’s fail to advance to the ALDS. That’s a feat they accomplished in Cespedes’ first two years with the team.