Let’s get this out of the way: the A’s have been bad in close games, but their peripheral numbers suggest they’re better than their record.  We all know that.  The struggles the A’s have had while trying to catch up to their 3rd order winning percentage are widely contemplated, and I’d rather not add to them.  Rather, I’d like to look at a few key questions, which I hope will encapsulate the aforementioned struggles.  Perhaps if the A’s can answer these questions, they can solve the riddle that is 2015.

Midseason Question #1: Can Marcus Semien really play shortstop?

This was one of the big questions going in to the season.  After the A’s flipped Yunel Escobar for Tyler Clippard they were left with a bolstered bullpen (plus almost certainly a compensation pick in the offseason even if Clippard sticks around), but no shortstop.  They decided to go with Semien, primarily a third baseman in the minor leagues.  The tools suggested he could play shortstop, but there were still some glaring errors that had to be sorted out, primarily arm accuracy.  That’s been the case through the season, as FanGraphs has him as the second worst shortstop in the MLB, and he leads the league in errors by a healthy margin.  It got so bad that the A’s signed Ron Washington specifically to be Semien’s fielding guru.  In the meantime, they’ve outwardly shown that they recognize Semien’s shortcomings, swapping in Eric Sogard at times in the late innings, despite the fact that Sogard isn’t a particularly good shortstop either.  He hasn’t made a single play that Inside Edge would classify even as “Unlikely” and his UZR is somewhat pathetic.

The problem is that there isn’t really another option.  Ben Zobrist is old and probably traded soon, and after that you get all glove guys like Andy Parrino.  Semien actually is positive in Range Runs and Double Play Runs; he’s just murder with those errors.  Fielding Percentage obviously isn’t a great stat, but if it’s the errors we need to check, than it might provide some help here.  Semien’s fielding percentage is .927, which is the worst among qualified shortstops.  The middle of that leaderboard hovers in the low .970’s for fielding percentages.  Marcus Semien had a brutal May, which saw him commit 12 errors, for an .897 fielding percentage.  Every other month, he’s been a barely passable .933-.940 fielding percentage, including decent months in June and July after the Washington acquisition.  That’s obviously not great, but you can live with a .940 fielding percentage with good range and fine double play skills, not to mention a good bat.  The problem is that Semien’s offense has gone into hiding, with .550 OPS’s in the last two months.

Now, all hope is not lost.  Marcus Semien has shown the possibility to be a .940 fielding percentage, not great but passable, shortstop with a .750 OPS bat.  If he can become that, that’s just fine.  If he stays the .550 OPS error machine he is now, he’s useless.  He’s not even left handed; he’s got a sub .300 OBP against righties.  The A’s either need to decide that they’re liking what they’re seeing lately with Semien, or they need to trade for a shortstop and move Semien to another position, and hope his bat still plays.

Midseason Question #2: What do they do with Mark Canha?

Mark Canha was drafted in the Rule 5 draft to replace a struggling/injured Nate Freiman as the shortside platoon partner with Ike Davis over at first base.  After trading away all of their power right handed bats in the mid/offseason of 2014, the A’s had a serious need for some right handed thump.  Mark Canha has been an OK pickup, all things considered.  He’s got eight home runs in less than 250 at-bats, and he’s shown the ability to play left field and first base and not embarrass himself (though the arm could use some work).  The problem is that he hasn’t done what they signed him to do.  He’s been absolutely miserable against southpaws, with a .399 OPS and a pitiful .014 ISO.  He’s got just one extra base hit against them all year, despite 73 at-bats.

You may question, then, where the production is coming from.  Amazingly, the rookie has an .868 OPS against righties.  During Davis’ injury, Canha saw regular playing time against righties while Melvin tried anything to spark a floundering team, and if it weren’t for a bad May with a .149 BABIP, he might be an outside rookie of the year candidate.  The A’s don’t need bats against righties, though.  They’ve got Davis, Josh Reddick, and Stephen Vogt taking up those spots.  If you play Canha over Davis, Davis becomes totally superfluous.  If you play him in left, you turn Sam Fuld into a defensive replacement/pinch runner/fifth outfielder (and they’ve done that for a lot of the season).  Normally in a situation like this, the A’s might send down Canha until he starts hitting opposite side pitching, but he’s a rule 5 guy so you can’t do that and his peripherals suggest he might be real.  His line drive rate is higher against righties, and he even goes center/oppo more than half the time to compliment a profile that shows just 21.1% of his batted balls are softly hit.

So what do you do with a guy that you can’t get rid of, and doesn’t do what you need him to do, but might actually do the things you don’t need him to do pretty dang well?  If the A’s are going to make some miracle run to the playoffs, they need every guy on the roster to contribute to the whole.  Right now Canha’s production against righties is just a dollop of Cool Whip on an already iced cake.  The A’s have just a .686 OPS against lefties (19th in the MLB), compared to .718 against righties (7th in the MLB).  Either they carry Canha and just find playing time for him, shrugging off how weird his season is, or they force him into the role he was designed to play and make him figure it out.  Neither seems great.

Midseason Question #3: Who broke Eric O’Flaherty?

When O’Flaherty was signed before 2014, it was widely hailed as a shrewd move by Beane.  O’Flaherty had quietly been one of the best lefty relievers in the National League before going down for Tommy John, and Oakland signed him for a two year deal, meaning 2015 he’d be back to kicking some serious butt.  He pitched well enough for the A’s in 2014 to earn the closer nod for a time, and everybody hoped he’d be the lefty set up guy that anchored the bullpen this year.  He’s been disastrous though.  Due to injury he’s only pitched 18 innings, and he owns a 6.50 ERA and his walk rate is nearly twice his career norms.  This is looking a lot less like Luke Gregerson and a lot more like Jim Johnson (the irony of Johnson’s great season with the Braves is not lost on me).  He’s generating groundballs well (11 points higher than his career norm) but those groundballs are getting smoked right past the hapless defenders behind him (soft hit % down 12.9 points from last year).  FanGraphs weighted pitch values don’t really like anything he’s throwing right now, to boot.

At this rate, O’Flaherty will walk at the end of the year without a qualifying offer as a bona fide whiff for the A’s.  The bullpen as a whole has struggled mightily, and O’Flaherty has been the biggest disappointment.  The revolving door of relievers hasn’t helped mask his failures, and the A’s at the moment are left hoping Drew Pomeranz doesn’t demand a trade for being used again as a lefty reliever.  How long do the A’s keep running O’Flaherty out there in low leverage situations, only to see him get knocked around?  Again, if the A’s are going to try and contend, they don’t have the luxury of waiting on O’Flaherty to come around and hope he doesn’t lose any games.  Either O’Flaherty can take his time and the A’s can wait it out, or they need production now and they need to cut bait.

So is this a recipe for success? The three questions above highlight the dilemmas for Billy Beane.  The guys above all pose really awkward situations for a contending team.  They’re fine questions to figure out if you don’t have any aspirations of playing in October, but Beane has held fast to not ruling out hope for this year.  They’re 9.5 games behind the Angels for the division lead, and have every other team in the American League to compete against for the Wild Card.  If Beane is going to make a run at it this year, he needs answers yesterday to guys like this. The sharks are circling though, and they may be paying top dollar for some of the A’s expiring contracts, so maybe Beane will just take the value and let the above questions resolve themselves this year.  Either way, the do-nothing plan isn’t cutting it, and A’s fans are getting restless.

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