Mental Collapse Is the Best Explanation for the Oakland A’s Sinking Season

As Yogi Berra once said, “Baseball is ninety percent mental. The other half is physical.”

If I had a great Shooty Babbit “Shootyism” for such an occasion I’d certainly share it, but for now we have to settle with what Yogi said, and to a large degree, I think it sums up the August-September collapse of the Oakland A’s perfectly.

Last night I posted a series of Tweets explaining my own personal theory on what has transpired since the trades were made that were supposed to be Billy Beane’s “All In” moment.

 

Perhaps including September into that is stretching, after all we’re just seven games into the month, but with a 2-5 start to the month it’s hard not to include it at least at this point. With Jon Lester on the mound tonight against John Danks, it’s certainly entirely possible that the A’s will boost their September record 3-5, and just maybe the turn around can begin. Let’s hope. I mean after all, even if they make the Wild Card, they’d have a great chance to go far if they can squeeze out a victory and move into the five-game division series.

Looking at what happened to the team that held the best record in the Major Leagues for much of the season though, it certainly begs the question, what exactly happened?

How did the A’s manage to lose a total of 12 games in the standings in one month worth of baseball? They still hold the third best record in the American League, fifth best in the Majors, but they are now sitting eight games out of first place in the AL West and 1.5 games up in the Wild Card with the Mariners and Tigers both playing better baseball at this point and gaining ground quickly.

The addition of Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel, in exchange for Addison Russell, Billy McKinney and Dan Straily, was meant to solidify the best starting rotation in baseball at that point. Why did they need solidifying you may ask? Well, because Sonny Gray, despite being an ace in the making, had never pitched an entire Major League season and there was a degree of the unknown about he would hold up down the stretch as he would inevitably “hit a wall.” Jesse Chavez, dominant and reliable as he had been, had never pitched more than 70 innings in a Major League season, having only been converted to a starter this season. He was already showing signs that he was starting to wear down and would need extended rest time as the season progressed. Scott Kazmir, despite coming off a resurgent 2013 campaign and off to an All Star start to 2014, was just still just two seasons removed from pitching for the Sugar Land Skeeters. Drew Pomeranz broke his hand punching a chair, Tommy Milone (since traded to the Twins to facilitate the return of Sam Fuld) was off to a great stretch, but had been inconsistent in the past, and Straily prior to being traded was back and forth between Oakland and Sacramento due to his own inconsistency. So yes, the rotation did need some solidifying, that part really should be beyond doubt if you regularly follow baseball through the entire 162 game grind.

Perhaps it was Jason Hammel’s early struggles with the A’s, perhaps it was an overall lack of veteran playoff experience in the rotation, perhaps it was just a desire to truly have the best 1-5 starters in all of baseball, but Beane decided that Oakland needed that one last piece in Jon Lester, and the collapse since has been unbelievable and hard to explain.

The Twitterverse certainly believes that it’s all related to the loss of Yoenis Cespedes, traded to Boston for Lester and Jonny Gomes. Perhaps, but strictly based on the removal of his production, it doesn’t add up. Was it the breakup of chemistry? Maybe, but professional athletes understand that you can lose a player to trade or injury at any time, they need to be prepared to play without any given player at any given time, and this team was constructed with the depth to sustain a loss to any one piece of the team.

Presumably this is part of the thought process that Beane had as he picked up the phone early in the morning of July 31st and agreed to send his cleanup hitter to Boston for the premier starting pitcher on the market (perhaps pitcher 1.A if you want to give the nod to David Price over Lester).

The message that Beane was trying to send was that he believed this group had what it took to make a deep run into the playoffs and he wanted to give them their best chance to succeed.

This is my own opinion, not the opinion of anyone at all connected with the Oakland A’s to be absolutely clear, but the message that appears to have been delivered instead was “you guys need help, the group is not good enough as constructed.” At least insofar as the starting pitching is concerned, and I’ll get to that in a minute. This never would have been the intention, you don’t trade away your numbers one and two prospects as well as your cleanup hitter for a group you don’t believe in.

As Yogi said though, baseball is 90% mental, the other 50% is physical. Yeah, Yogi was no great mathematician, but physically the team was well equipped to handle the loss of Cespedes. On paper they were better with Lester and Gomes combined than with Cespedes solo. Now that you add in a guy like Adam Dunn, and the A’s are certainly as dangerous if not better than they were with Cespedes (minus of course that canon of an arm he unleashed regularly from left field).

But still, the drop off is undeniable.

You look back at examples of guys with all the talent in the world — Rick Ankiel, Chuck Knoblauch, Dontrelle Willis, Tim Lincecum even (though there is some noticeable loss in his velocity, so perhaps not the best example)  – guys that were great then just suddenly lost “it” despite no visible drop off in physical ability. It’s something between the ears that prevents you from performing as you are capable. That’s what I believe is going on with the Oakland A’s. Although beat up for sure, the drop-off still can’t be solely put on the injuries. It can’t be solely put on the loss of Cespedes. It can’t be solely put on Billy Beane, who did what the General Manager is supposed to do.

The best explanation is a confidence problem, something that happened mentally to the group as a collective whole.

And as I alluded to on Twitter, all you need to do is look at Sonny Gray and what he was in July before the trades. Then look at him since the trades.

I Split W L W-L% ERA G GS IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP SO9 SO/W
July 5 0 1.000 1.03 5 5 35.0 25 6 4 1 12 31 1.057 8.0 2.58
August 1 4 .200 4.38 6 6 39.0 39 21 19 4 13 28 1.333 6.5 2.15
Sept/Oct 0 1 .000 6.00 2 2 12.0 11 9 8 2 5 6 1.333 4.5 1.20
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/9/2014.

That drop off from July to August says a lot. The continuation through two starts into September says even more, though he wasn’t bad last night at all. At best, it says that Beane was right in thinking he needed some protection in case Gray dropped off towards the end of the season. At worst, it appears that going from being “the guy” to “one of the guys” took some of Gray’s edge away. In the moments when he needs to dial it up and come up big, he still does, some of the times, but his drop off is evident.

Sonny will still be an ace pitcher, he’s too good not to, but something happened when the calendar flipped to August.

If you think Sonny’s change was noticeable, take a look at Scott Kazmir, an All Star this season.

 

I Split W L W-L% ERA G GS IP H R ER HR BB SO WHIP SO9 SO/W
July 3 0 1.000 1.38 4 4 26.0 20 5 4 1 6 25 1.000 8.7 4.17
August 2 4 .333 7.80 6 6 30.0 38 26 26 3 12 16 1.667 4.8 1.33
Sept/Oct 0 0 4.26 1 1 6.1 3 3 3 0 5 8 1.263 11.4 1.60
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/9/2014.

The drop off from July to August was even more drastic than Gray’s. Kazmir was also the victim of a few less than desirable strike zones in August, but a 7.80 ERA and nearly as many walks as strikeouts is a telling sign.

Again, at best, Beane was only correct that there could be some cooling off. At worst, maybe not being at the top of the rotation had an effect on Kazmir at some level down in his subconscious.

These are just a pair of examples, focusing on the starting pitching. The bullpen has had its own share of problems that and its own number of explanations. Most notable would be the injury to Sean Doolittle and the shift in roles. Although there are examples of a late lead being coughed up, which by the way will always happen a number of times during a 162 game season, I don’t think the bullpen is to blame for any large portion of this awful stretch. The bullpen can probably account for three losses over the past month, but that’s just three of the 21 losses from August 1st through today.

The offense…

We all knew we had to get there eventually. Has Jonny Gomes adequately filled the production loss from Cespedes’ powerful bat being shipped to Fenway? Well, no, you can’t say that it has. He’s batting .244 with five RBIs in his 20 games played with Oakland. Gomes was brought in every bit as much for his contributions to the clubhouse and his leadership as he was for his offensive production though.

Sam Fuld was not brought back to Oakland to replace Cespedes either, he was brought in to add insurance for Coco Crisp and Craig Gentry, both of whom have battled injuries.

Adam Dunn has certainly does his part with five RBI in his first seven games. Maybe adding him earlier in the month would have made a difference.

The idea behind the trade though was that the roster was deep enough to sustain the loss of one guy, and had it been just Cespedes, the A’s could have maintained. While I think the trades had an impact on the approach to pitchers such as Gray and Kazmir, perhaps even affecting their confidence and ability to battle to a degree, I don’t think it affected the confidence of the offense.

It should have showed confidence, actually, in the guys that stayed that the front office thought they were good enough even without Cespedes. The pressure, then the failure to produce with that pressure, certainly had an effect on their confidence though.

Here are Brandon Moss’ stats though on a month-by-month basis.

Split G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS BAbip
April/March 27 103 87 12 23 3 0 4 21 10 19 .264 .369 .437 .806 .292
May 27 110 98 16 28 8 2 9 25 12 23 .286 .364 .684 1.047 .288
June 25 111 99 11 25 3 0 5 14 11 33 .253 .333 .434 .768 .328
July 22 94 86 12 20 3 0 5 12 6 24 .233 .287 .442 .729 .259
August 24 97 77 9 13 3 0 0 4 18 37 .169 .340 .208 .548 .325
Sept/Oct 5 14 12 2 1 1 0 0 2 1 3 .083 .143 .167 .310 .100
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/9/2014.

More telling than the month-by-month break down though is the first half / second half break down for Brandon Moss.

Split G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1st Half 89 364 321 45 86 17 2 21 66 35 86 .268 .349 .530 .878
2nd Half 41 165 138 17 24 4 0 2 12 23 53 .174 .303 .246 .549
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/9/2014.

For whatever reason, Moss has not been the same player since he returned from the All Star game in Minnesota. He’s acknowledged that he was pressing, trying to do more to help fill the Cespedes void. The trade certainly did not send a message to him that he wasn’t good enough and needed the help, but he hasn’t been able to translate his desire to do more into actual results on the stat sheet and in the box score.

It’s evident, with runners in scoring position, he’s gripping and coming up empty.

Derek Norris hasn’t been any better.

Split G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
April/March 20 63 57 8 22 5 0 2 12 6 8 .386 .444 .579 1.023
May 26 90 71 9 15 3 0 3 13 18 16 .211 .367 .380 .747
June 15 50 43 8 15 3 0 3 10 6 7 .349 .429 .628 1.056
July 19 65 56 7 16 2 0 1 5 9 13 .286 .385 .375 .760
August 26 97 89 6 18 5 0 1 9 7 26 .202 .268 .292 .560
Sept/Oct 6 23 22 3 6 1 1 0 2 1 4 .273 .304 .409 .713
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/9/2014.

And here’s his first half / second half break down.

Split G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
1st Half 70 235 197 27 58 12 0 8 37 36 41 .294 .402 .477 .879
2nd Half 42 153 141 14 34 7 1 2 14 11 33 .241 .301 .348 .648
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/9/2014.

In fairness to Norris, he’s had to handle the bulk of the catching duties with injuries to Stephen Vogt’s feet and John Jaso suffering from concussion symptoms, but he’s still another key bat in the lineup that went cold with the return from Minnesota, and even more noticeably since the calendar flipped from July to August.

All Star third baseman Josh Donaldson actually hasn’t been nearly bad as you’d think if you based your opinion solely on what you read from the fans.

Split G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS
April/March 28 133 122 22 34 10 0 7 23 11 24 .279 .338 .533 .871
May 27 120 96 26 27 2 1 8 23 22 27 .281 .417 .573 .990
June 26 112 105 9 19 0 1 3 15 5 23 .181 .223 .286 .509
July 23 99 86 15 21 5 0 5 15 10 12 .244 .333 .477 .810
August 28 117 96 9 30 8 0 3 12 17 23 .313 .427 .490 .917
Sept/Oct 7 31 29 2 3 1 0 0 1 2 10 .103 .161 .138 .299
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 9/9/2014.

He’s actually hit fairly well in August and his production stayed consistent. Had more of his teammates hit in front of him, it stands to reason that his production numbers would have been better. His September numbers are pretty ugly so far, but August was actually pretty good. What has stood out are the opportunities with runners in scoring position where Josh has failed.

Then of course there are the injuries to Coco Crisp and Craig Gentry that I mentioned earlier. The team is different when Coco is playing and even more so when Coco is playing well. He’s the catalyst. It hurts when he is not in the lineup, he’s the guy that seems to come through more often than not with the game on the line.

Jed Lowrie also missed time with a fracture to his hand.

Losing guys like Crisp, Lowrie and Jaso, key cogs to the A’s lineup, timed with the loss of Cespedes and the struggles of Moss and Norris, the A’s just caught all the bad breaks that can catch every team for stretches all at the same time.

It still comes back to confidence though. The team plays defeated. They don’t play with that same determination, that identity that they are never out of any game until the 27th out is recorded.

Go back in time and without the benefit of hindsight the trade still happens. Jon Lester is still the guy you want leading the rotation into the playoffs. He’s the guy you want in a single-game elimination Wild Card Game. He’s the guy you want in Game 5 or Game 7. Or any clinching game for that matter.

But maybe, just maybe, knowing the impact that Cespedes’ loss would have on hitters such as Moss, or knowing that guys like Coco, Lowrie and Jaso would miss significant time…maybe that gives you some pause and you find another way.

Whether the slide in production of guys like Sonny and Kazmir is related to being pushed down in the rotation or not, I still want Jon Lester at the top of the rotation, even if it was only for two months plus whatever stretch of playoff baseball is experienced in Oakland this season. But just maybe I find another way to get it done.

Because after all, as we know thanks to Yogi, baseball is 90% mental, and mentally this team has lost their edge.

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