The A’s Finally Won, But They’re Already In A Deep Hole

It took until the late innings of their seventh game of the season, but the 2021 A’s have finally showed they have some fight in them. After losing the first six games of the season by a combined score of 50–13, Oakland was en route to loss No. 7 in a listless Wednesday matinee against the Dodgers, entering the bottom of the seventh with just a single hit and trailing 3–1. Then Matt Chapman halved the deficit with his first homer of the season and, two innings later, opened the ninth with a single to center. A walk, bunt and sacrifice fly scored him to tie the game, and a walk-off single by Mitch Moreland ended things in the 10th, at long last etching a “1” into the Athletics’ win column.

Oakland was the last team in baseball to secure its first win of the season, and by facing Houston and Los Angeles right out of the gate, those wins were always going to be hard to get. But the A’s aren’t a bottom feeder; they were division champs last year and 97-game winners in each of the two previous seasons. But the first week of the season shows how much weaker this year’s edition may be, and that can be traced directly to the effort, or lack thereof, that went into building this roster.

This is the first time the A’s have opened a season 0–6 since 1916, and in their six losses, the closest margin of defeat was four runs. The team’s total run differential of -36 is the worst in baseball, easily outdistancing the next-place Pirates (-25). Over their first five games, the A’s never led once. And while it’s been just one week, that can still seriously impact a team’s outlook if it goes this poorly. Our playoff projections, which gave Oakland a 1-in-3 shot at reaching the postseason before Opening Day, now puts those chances at 1-in-10.

Largest Changes in Playoff Odds
Team 3/31 Playoff% 4/8 Playoff% Difference
Athletics 33.4% 10.9% -22.5%
Angels 39.5% 57.7% +18.2%
Reds 22.1% 40.3% +18.2%
Astros 70.2% 86.7% +16.5%
Braves 63.8% 51.4% -12.4%
Rays 26.6% 15.6% -11.0%
Phillies 16.1% 27.0% +10.9%
Twins 63.3% 71.0% +7.7%
Red Sox 38.9% 31.5% -7.4%
Cubs 22.9% 15.8% -7.1%

The Angels and Athletics, once close in their playoff projections, have gone in opposite directions despite the fact that Los Angeles has played a similarly challenging schedule (four games against the White Sox, two against Houston).

Fittingly, Oakland finds itself in a deep hole in the standings while it’s been trying to wiggle out of early jams in seemingly every game so far. Even after Jesús Luzardo‘s respectable appearance on Wednesday, A’s starters have allowed an 8.10 ERA over their first seven games, the worst mark in baseball. None of their starters have gotten blown up, with the exception of Frankie Montas‘ 2.2-inning, seven-run outing on Monday. Instead, many of their outings have looked like Cole Irvin‘s 4.1-inning, four-run start on Saturday, or Sean Manaea’s 4.2-inning, five-run start on Sunday.

Those mediocre pitching performances have been enough to bury the A’s when combined with how poorly the team has hit. They have the fourth-worst team wRC+ in the majors, at 59, along with baseball’s worst slugging percentage (.264). The team’s typical contributors have been mostly fine — Ramón Laureano (171 wRC+), Mark Canha (120) and Matt Olson (110) can’t accept much blame here — but the bottom of the lineup has been a black hole. Moreland, Elvis Andrus, Tony Kemp, Aramis Garcia and Ka’ai Tom have combined for 86 plate appearances this season and a .077/.129/.090 line. When a sizable chunk of your lineup isn’t carrying a bat to the plate and your big hitters aren’t generating enough offense on their own — the A’s have hit three homers this season, or one less than Tyler Naquin — you’re going to find yourself in a full-blown scoring crisis.

Things probably won’t be this bad all year. A.J. Puk has a good chance at joining the rotation at some point, and alongside Luzardo and Bassitt, that should be an okay group. The offense is eventually going to start hitting the ball out of the yard, and a .221 BABIP should improve before too long. There is still a path for this team to compete.

What’s hard to deny is that the path looks more narrow by the day. As the team’s losses pile up, so too do the injuries. Olson is currently day-to-day with a knee contusion. Laureano just returned to the lineup after missing time with a wrist injury. Chad Pinder is on the injured list with a sprained knee after slamming into the outfield wall making a catch last weekend. And that’s just the position player side. Mike Fiers is dealing with a lumbar strain and isn’t expected back on the mound until late April, and two relievers, Burch Smith and Reymin Guduan, have landed on the IL since the season started. Then there’s Trevor Rosenthal, who was expected to be the team’s closer but now is waiting to hear whether or not he needs shoulder surgery that could sideline him for the season.

You hope for the best for each one of those players, but it wasn’t hard to see this coming after the A’s allowed a number of talented players to walk in the offseason and made little effort to replace them. Marcus Semien, Robbie Grossman and Tommy La Stella — all key parts of the lineup — left in free agency. The bullpen, arguably the best in the majors a year ago, was similarly gutted, losing Liam Hendriks, Joakim Soria and T.J. McFarland.

For the most part, Oakland reached into the bargain bin to fill their shoes, signing Moreland, Jed Lowrie and Sergio Romo to one-year deals for a combined $6 million. As Alex Coffey wrote about at The Athletic, the result is a team woefully lacking in the kind of depth that sustains a contender through not only bad injury luck but also the grind of a 162-game season. Smart player acquisitions and developmental success have helped the A’s create that depth in recent years, but this early skid has overwhelmed what was on hand. The most frustrating part is that these problems were foreseeable and preventable. Ownership had the resources to fix things; it chose not to, and now we’re seeing the consequences.

Things should get easier for the A’s soon. After three more games against the Astros this weekend, 10 of their next 17 games will be against the Tigers and Orioles. And if the majority of these injuries turn out to be minor, Oakland could be at something approaching full strength by the end of the month. Perhaps facing a couple of projected last-place teams will help buoy things until that day arrives. But in a competitive AL West division, not to mention a crowded Wild Card field, it’s the hard parts of the schedule that will separate the contenders from the rest of the pack. The way things look right now, it seems clear which group the A’s fall into.

Tony is a contributor for FanGraphs. He began writing for Red Reporter in 2016, and has also covered prep sports for the Times West Virginian and college sports for Ohio University's The Post. He can be found on Twitter at @_TonyWolfe_.

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2 years ago

Hey, the Orioles are 4-2, which I know is 100% due to their pitching and 0% due to their hitting, which has been real bad. But they have a (barely) positive run differential too, so it’s not all smoke and mirrors. Just partly smoke and mirrors.

Speaking of the Orioles, let’s talk about Elvis Andrus morphing into Chris Davis. Elvis Andrus has had 25 PAs and has exactly one hit (on opening day). If he did this over a whole season (which he won’t, because he’ll run into something again soon and / or the A’s will eventually bench him) he would about 9.5 wins below replacement. Now that would be something to talk about.