It’s no secret the Oakland Athletics are trying to secure a new stadium. And, really, can you blame them? Hitters don’t want to come to Oakland because of O.co’s extremely spacious foul territory, deep power allies, and, well, dismal appearance and run-down facilities. As a result, Billy Beane has built his teams on pitching for the last 15 years. That’s a smart move, even if the offensive numbers are disappointing to fans because after all, the coliseum does kill hitters (*cough* Matt Holliday *cough*).
So, if pitching is what wins games in Oakland, why sign Cuban potential five-tool center fielder Yoenis Céspedes?
After acquiring Yoenis Céspedes, some A’s fans had hope that the Oakland offense would improve upon their team’s .244 batting average and 114 home runs. Céspedes is the offensive replacement for Josh Willingham in Oakland’s lineup this season, and so far he’s done well compared to his incumbent counterparts, hitting .263 with 9 homers.
Still, at the All-Star break, the A’s are hitting a league-worst .225 as a team.
Those offensive numbers are simply not going to get it done. However, these pitching numbers will: 3.38 ERA (3rd in MLB), 555 K’s, and 1.24 WHIP (T-4th). The stat that speaks volumes to what this team is doing is ERA+ (an adjusted ERA value that takes the ballpark and league average into account).
As a team, Oakland is sporting an ERA+ of 119. Over 100 is considered above average, and every pitcher except Tyson Ross (63) sports an ERA+ of over 100.
Say what you will about the coliseum being a pitchers ballpark, but this year, the team is proving that it’s not just the coliseum since the staff is performing statistically better than what is expected in their ballpark relative to the rest of the league.
Now back to the question at hand: why sign a slugger in Céspedes knowing full-well that he may not fully live up to expectations in the big ballpark in Oakland. Well, for one thing, the A’s don’t really have a ton of middle-of-the-order hitters. Josh Reddick is promising (.268, 20 HR, 43 RBI), but he figures to be the only other true power hitter in Oakland, unless Chris Carter suddenly figures it out in the big leagues. At this point, these two are the most promising pieces to an Oakland offense that is very, very below-average. Acquiring these two sluggers was not for short-term; rather, it is for the future when the A’s have a new stadium that is less of a behemoth.
That being said, the stadium is still far from a sure thing. Billy Beane has said he’s building the team based on the notion that the team will be playing in a new stadium in a few years, but that may not be the best decision even though apparently now Sacramento is an option.
Oakland needs to play to the park, and build a team that can take advantage of the ballpark. A rotation featuring a healthy Brett Anderson and Dallas Braden along with the current staff can pitch with any team in the majors, especially considering the average age of the staff is 28.5. Apart from Bartolo Colon (39) and Grant Balfour (34), no A’s pitcher is in their 30s. The offense could be exceptionally average with a rotation like that and still succeed (look at the 2010 Giants).
Maybe the A’s would have been better off keeping Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, and Andrew Bailey (even though he’s injured), but the current staff seems to be doing just fine and, as usual, has time to grow just like many of their predecessors.
Now, of course, there is the problem of the offense. The pitching staff has kept this team afloat all year and have managed a 43-43 record at the break, but to get over that hump the A’s can’t rely on 319 runs against 316 allowed. That’s too close of a margin to be a contender.
Here’s where the coaching philosophy comes into play.
Bob Melvin has done a spectacular job despite many being a bit uneasy about his hiring. But one thing he needs to start doing more of: small ball.
The coliseum is not going to yield a ton of home runs like it did for the squads of the late 1990s/early 2000s (see: steroid era). A team filled with players who play great defense and get on base either by means of a walk or single is far superior in the coliseum than a stereotypical baseball team with sluggers in the heart of the order. Add speed like Jemile Weeks’ to that equation and stolen bases start to become a factor as well, although statistically speaking steals are iffy in terms of increasing a team’s chances of winning. That doesn’t mean they should go trade all the power hitters they have, but speed and defense should be the first skills looked at rather than power.
This sort of philosophy obviously isn’t the sexy approach, but the A’s have shown time and time again that good pitching in the coliseum keeps them in ball games. In 2006, the last year the A’s went to the playoffs, they finished 93-67 despite a Pythagorean W-L of 85-77. They may have gotten a bit lucky that year based on the run differential, or they may have just gotten a return on their 2005 investment, when they finished 88-74 despite a Pythagorean W-L of 93-69.
The point here is that the A’s can be successful in the Coliseum with strong pitching and decent hitting. A’s fans should hope the front office remembers that because if they focus on the offense thinking they’re getting a new stadium, they could be signing their own death certificate.