Which Cellar-Dweller Still Has a Chance?

Today we’re going to look at the teams in the cellar of their respected AL divisions. As it stands today, those teams are the Boston Red Sox, Chicago White Sox and the Oakland A’s. With a closer look at the numbers, I think we can find which team, if any, still has a chance of contending this year. Let’s start with the Boston Red Sox.

The Red Sox are currently 8.5 games back going into action today. They are 11-22 in the AL East and have an overall record of 32-41. They have a -43 run differential and a team ERA of 4.46. Starting pitching has clearly been the problem for Boston this year, and although the offense hasn’t been as bad as the other teams we’ll look at, it just hasn’t been enough to compete in a stacked AL East. The Red Sox are last among last-place teams in SP ERA (4.77), K/9 (7.08), BB/9 (2.86) and WHIP (1.34). And as the run differential shows, they haven’t been able to outscore opponents to make up for sub-par pitching. This combined with a tough division makes it hard to believe Boston can turn it around this year. And although a trade for a starting pitcher is possible, it still seems unlikely the Red Sox are one piece away from contending; from the look of things, it seems more like 2 or 3 pieces. But have no fear Boston, although the Red Sox have played poorly, they haven’t played as bad as the Chicago White Sox.

The White Sox were a trendy pick going into the season. With the addition of Jeff Samardzija, David Robertson, Melky Cabrera, Adam LaRoche and the return of Jose Abreu, it seemed like the White Sox could compete this year. So far, they’ve done anything but compete. They’re currently 11 games back in the AL Central and are 14-23 in the division. They have a -79 run differential, worst among last-place teams, and have a team ERA of 4.09. Unlike Boston, the White Sox starting pitching hasn’t been horrible; it hasn’t been great but it hasn’t been the reason for their lack of success. They lead all last-place teams in SP K/9 (8.36) and RP ERA (3.84). They’re also second in SP ERA (4.19) and BB/9 (2.62) but run into the same problem the Red Sox have — they play in an extremely competitive division, perhaps the best in the AL. With Kansas City, Minnesota and Detroit playing solid baseball, it has made the climb for the White Sox quite difficult.

What makes it harder, and perhaps the most shocking, is the White Sox aren’t hitting at all. They haven’t all year and show no signs of turning it around. They’re last among the cellar-dwellers in AVG (.237), wOBA (.282), BABIP (.282), OBP (.292), ISO (.108), K% (20.2) and BB% (6.3). All of that adds up to the worst statistical offense in baseball and hardly seems like an easy fix. GM Rick Hahn had what seemed like a productive offseason, and we’ll see if he can figure out a way to turn things around, but like the Red Sox, it doesn’t appear to be a simple fix. All that brings us to the final last-place team, the Oakland A’s.

The A’s, like the Red and White Sox, had a busy offseason, but unlike Boston and Chicago, no one really expected them to contend this year. Billy Beane blew up what was a successful 2014 squad in order to retool and make another run but so far it hasn’t exactly worked out this year. Oakland is 9 games back in the AL West, looking up at Houston, Texas, Los Angeles and Seattle. They have a 16-22 record in the division but have the only plus run differential (43) among last-place teams and rank second to the Houston Astros in the division with (47).

The A’s have succeeded where Boston and Chicago have failed. Oakland leads all last-place teams in SP ERA (3.00), BABIP (.271), BB/9 (2.68), HR/FB (9%), HR/9 (.81) and WHIP (1.22). They also stack up well in their division: the A’s are first in the AL West in ERA, BABIP, HR/FB, HR/9 and WHIP. Their offense hasn’t been bad either; along with their plus run differential, they’re first among last-place teams in AVG (.259), BABIP (.297) and OBP (.323). Although they can’t hit the long ball like Houston can, Oakland seems to have an efficient offense and good starting pitching, and both of those things could come in handy if the Astros start to falter down the stretch.

Oakland’s biggest issue seems to be the bullpen, as they’re last among last-place teams in RP ERA (4.77) and HR/9 (1.24). They’re also last in the AL West in RP ERA (4.77) and BABIP (.306). The Kansas City Royals showed everybody last year how important a shutdown bullpen can be and although Oakland has performed well in other categories, the bullpen seems to be hurting them the most. Another aspect of Oakland’s game that is hurting them is their defense. The A’s are currently last in the AL West with a -28.7 UZR; that’s more then double what any other division opponent has. If the bullpen can’t shut down the offense and defense isn’t doing you any favors, it becomes very hard to win enough games to contend.

But alas, all is not lost. The AL West is not nearly as competitive as the East or Central and although the Astros have played tremendous baseball, they’re still a young team that lives and dies by the home run. If Oakland can find a way to shore up the bullpen and defense, either through a trade or in-house, it’s not unlikely for them to make a run and cover some ground. They have 35 games left with AL West opponents and Houston seems to be the clear #1 enemy. The Rangers and Angels both seem like middle-of-the-road teams, neither succeeding or failing in any particular category but not dominant enough to move forward. The Astros’ bullpen and offense has been phenomenal this season, leading the AL West in RP ERA (2.62), BABIP (.236), K/9 (9.66), BB/9 (2.36) and WHIP (.94). And although their offense strikes out a lot, they’re leading the West in BB% (8.4%), ISO (.186) and wOBA (.320). They may swing and miss a lot but when they make contact, watch out. The reason to believe the West is still anybody’s to grab is Houston’s starting pitching. They’re last in the division in SP ERA (4.19) and HR/FB (11.5%) and second to last in SP BABIP (.297), K/9 (6.91), BB/9 (2.80) and WHIP (1.30).

Now we are getting closer to the trade deadline and making a move for a starting pitcher may behoove the Astros more so than any other division leader but if they can’t swing a deal, I think it definitely leaves the door open for a team to contend. As unlikely as it appears now, I wouldn’t be surprised if that team were the Oakland Athletics. They have to make moves to improve the bullpen and defense but with their efficient offense and quality starting pitching, I think they’re the only team in the division that can beat Houston and in turn, I believe they’re the only last-place team that still has a chance.

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