Aric Crabb/Bay Area News Group While acknowldeging a problem, general manager David Forst isn’t ready to make moves that might improve A’s defensive issues.
OAKLAND – An American League East scout summed up the A’s defense this week in two words.
Asked to describe Oakland’s fielding prowess, his face contorted with the look of someone facing root canal surgery, then just said, “Oh, man.”
The A’s are outdoing themselves defensively this season, although the word might be “undoing.” With catcher Josh Phegley’s throwing error in the fourth inning Wednesday, Oakland had made 44 errors in 46 games.
Matt Joyce’s dropped fly ball in the eighth made it 45. And Trevor Plouffe’s off-target throw in the ninth made it 46. That exactly one error per game. And yes, that’s about as ugly as it sounds.
That not only is 10 more errors than anybody else in baseball, it doesn’t even factor in the plays not being made that should have been, the wild pitches (26, third in the big leagues) and opportunistic opposing runners knowing they can take extra bases on a set of weak outfield arms.
So when A’s general manager David Forst says “defense is a challenge for us, for sure,” he is, if anything, understating the situation.
“We have some guys who are maybe playing out of position,” Forst said. “We have some guys who should be better than what they’ve shown so far this year. If you look at this team as a whole, the defense is certainly the part that stands out in needing to improve the most.”
On a 21-25 team that is struggling to be competitive entering a weekend series with the Yankees in New York, the pitchers could point fingers and the defenders and claim lack of defensive support, but the pitchers have been among the worst of the culprits. They have made nine errors this year, matching their total of all of last year with almost three-quarters of the schedule yet to play.
And that’s before the wild pitches come into play. The only run the A’s allowed Wednesday was on a Sonny Gray wild pitch. It was the second time this season an Oakland pitcher had thrown a wild pitch to let a runner score, but 12 other wild pitches have helped set up runs.
The catchers, primarily Stephen Vogt and Josh Phegley, haven’t been good at throwing runners out – opponents have been safe of 41 of 54 steal attempts. Part of that is one the catcher’s, Vogt is in a throwing slump, but much of it has to do with pitchers who aren’t good at holding runners close.
“When you look at Vogt and the numbers, you think maybe he’s trying to rush things,” manager Bob Melvin said. “Yeah, it’s an issue.”
Melvin’s big league career was built around playing defense, so it’s no small matter to him to be in charge of Team Pratfall.
“What to change?” he asked rhetorically. “Every day we have early work on defense. Every day.”
The A’s have said adios to some good defenders in the last year, including right fielder Josh Reddick and second baseman/shortstop Eric Sogard. They also lost third base coach Ron Washington, who had a special knack at getting the best out of the infielders.
The players Oakland has imported have been players who have offensive capabilities. In part because of that, the team defense has taken a hit. It hasn’t helped that shortstop Marcus Semien, who went from error-prone in 2015 to steady in 2016, has missed most of the season with a fractured right wrist.
Melvin has made some moves to try and shake things up by putting Mark Canha in center from time to time to rest Rajai Davis, but Canha isn’t a natural center fielder. Chad Pinder is a second baseman by trade, but he got a start Wednesday in left field with Khris Davis moved to DH.
There is a quick fix. Oakland has a couple of above-average defenders – scouts say both are way above average – in third baseman Matt Chapman and first baseman Matt Olson. Shortstop Franklin Barreto is seen as good, not great, but some scouts think he could be if he was a second baseman in the big leagues.
There will be no quick fix. Forst isn’t there yet.
“We know that defense is part of the equation,” he said. “We’ve pitched well. We’ve hit homers. We haven’t done everything, and defense is part of that. Olson and Chapman are guys we see as particularly above average. But Olson is at a position where we have a really good defender (Yonder Alonso) already.”
Does the need for defense impact the decisions that lead to going to the minor leagues for help?
It’s only a very small part of the equation,” Forst said. “The overall development and the offensive ability to tread water (after arriving in the big leagues) is more than, or just as, important.”
So for the moment, the A’s wait and do all that pregame work.
“These guys, whether it’s mechanical or whatever, they go into slumps,” Forst said.