The 2015 season probably could not have gone much worse for the Oakland Athletics. Prior to the season, many expected the Athletics to do decently in the American League West, with some even predicting a division crown. Instead the Athletics finished the season 68-94, which was the worst record in the entire American League. After fair enough preseason projections, the Athletics almost completely bombed, having a season that arguably couldn’t have been much worse than it ended up being.
By base runs, which estimates a team’s record based on runs scored and given up, the A’s played more like a .500 team, at 80-82. By these numbers, the Athletics finished 12 games worse than they should have according to their underlying performance. This 12-game swing is rather significant; a similar swing in the other direction would have put the Athletics in first place in the AL West last October. These numbers show just how unlucky the A’s were, based on their clutchness, or lack thereof, in high leverage situations at the plate and on the mound.
Alas, for the Oakland Athletics, that was not how things went. Instead, they finished a whole 19 games behind the Texas Rangers, who took home the AL West crown. Despite the disappointing season, the Athletics front office and their fans could not dwell on what could have been. Rather, Billy Beane and company have worked on improving the team in 2016 and fixing the problems from last year that led to such as drastic string of bad luck and impotence.
Offensively, the Athletics weren’t awful in 2015. As a unit, they finished 23rd in baseball in WAR, scored the 14th-most runs, and finished 18th in wRC+. In total, the Athletics offense wasn’t bad, but it lacked consistency. In terms of win probability added and clutch performance, the Athletics performed at a lesser level than even their numbers would suggest.
Pitching was the real problem for the Athletics. While the starting pitching was middle of the pack, finishing ninth in ERA and 13th in FIP, the bullpen was a different story entirely. The Athletics bullpen finished the year 28th in ERA and 27th in FIP. Add to that the Athletics’ bottom-five finish in WPA and clutch performance, and one can see why Oakland so vastly underperformed both their preseason projections and their expected record. The Athletics bullpen struggled mightily in important situations, and actually had a negative impact on the Athletics’ chances of winning all season long.
Going into this offseason, the Athletics front office was aware of the problems they had last season, and they have already taken significant steps to remedy that situation. Last year the Oakland bullpen was truly a disaster, finishing the season with a WAR of -0.1. While it is obviously more complicated than that, more or less the A’s bullpen provided negative value to the team. This year, the quintet of the returning Sean Doolittle, who pitched in only 12 games last year, and new additions Ryan Madson, Marc Rzepczynski, John Axford, and Liam Hendriks already make the Athletics bullpen exponentially better.
Between those five guys, the Athletics bullpen is worth 2.5 WAR based on the projections. Add in Fernando Rodriguez and Felix Doubront, who figure to both be a part of the Athletics Opening Day pen, and the Athletics bullpen sits at just above 3.0 WAR on the preseason projections alone. Based on those numbers, the Athletics bullpen is already going to be three wins better than last year. The Athletics obviously need to make up a lot more ground than just that, but there a lot of other factors at play that should make the team better than last season.
The A’s should also be better on offense, with the additions of Yonder Alonso and Jed Lowrie and improvements from a host of other players. With the bullpen problem seemingly fixed, and the rotation looking solid once again, the offense may be the most important part of the Athletics 2016 season. Their offense wasn’t great last season, but with an improved bullpen they may just have to be good enough to put the Athletics into contention next season. The Athletics poor defense was a concern in 2016, but that should be better with some additions this season.
So with this evaluation of the Athletics done, can the Oakland Athletics win the AL West? While it may be too early in the offseason to say for certain, the Athletics have done a lot to fix their main area of concern, the bullpen, and already look a lot better for next year than they did last year. If everything breaks right for the Athletics, rather than breaking completely wrong like last season, in a very even American League West, Oakland could certainly be a dark horse candidate for a division crown.