Oakland Athletics looking to avoid wrong kind of MLB history

OAKLAND — The Oakland Athletics may have the worst record in baseball, but they’re not as bad as you may think. Sure, they’re near the bottom in offense, but they’re not even the worst offensive team this season. They’re at the bottom in ERA but trending upward.

Still, for many fans this has been the most trying season of their lifetimes with not only the team’s record on the field threatening to be their worst season in Oakland, but also with talks about relocation ever-present adding to the heartache.

Most baseball fans get to turn on a game, judge a manager’s bullpen usage, be frustrated with a player that they feel is underperforming, or completely fall in love with a new up-and-coming prospect.

Fans in Oakland have been planning relocation protests, tuning into Nevada Legislature meetings, and occasionally even watching a baseball game. The games don’t seem to have a purpose these days, since there may not even be a team in Oakland past the 2024 season, which leaves the passion for a team that every baseball fan feels a little lacking these days since it may not even matter in the end.

After last week’s perfect game by the New York Yankees in Oakland, and following that up by being held hitless through the first six innings of Tuesday’s game in Detroit, let’s talk about the A’s on the field, off the field.

Related: Oakland Athletics’ relocation to Las Vegas all but finalized after Governor signs bill

Oakland Athletics flirt with the wrong kind of history

MLB: New York Yankees at Oakland Athletics

The A’s spent the first two months of the season being compared to the 1899 Cleveland Spiders, a team that went just 20-134 on the season. But a decent enough month of June where they went 10-16 has left them clear of the wrong kind of immortality. The A’s enter Wednesday 24-63, and even if they went on to lose every game the rest of the way, they’d finish with a better winning percentage that those ancient arachnids. Cleveland finished with a .130 winning percentage. If the A’s lose out, they’d still go 24-138, good for a .148 mark.

The 1962 New York Mets are the worst team in modern baseball history after going 40-120-1 (.250). Oakland is a little ahead of that pace at 24-63 (.276), but they’ll need to go 17-58 the rest of the way in order to finish higher than the Mets.

That record is so old the A’s were still in Kansas City when it happened, so it’s probably best not to just squeak by. Three teams this millennium have had pretty terrible seasons, with those teams being the 43-win 2003 Detroit Tigers and the 2018 Baltimore Orioles and 2019 Detroit Tigers who both won 47 games.

In terms of roster construction, this year’s A’s squad is built pretty similarly to the O’s team. A few pretty good bats, and a lot of holes on the pitching side. That Baltimore team sat at 24-61 after July 4.

Trending upwards

If the A’s are to avoid the history books, we’ll point to the month of June as a big turning point in their season. After getting swept by the Miami Marlins to begin the month, and then dropping the first game of their series in Pittsburgh, Oakland came back to win the three-game set against the Pirates, then swept the Brewers in Milwaukee before returning home and taking the first two games of their series against the best team in baseball, the Tampa Bay Rays. They won seven games straight in all, culminating with the dramatic “reverse boycott” win on the day the A’s ballpark funding bill passed through the Nevada Senate.

Oakland ended the month 10-16, good for a .385 winning percentage, which is a 62-win pace for an entire season. If the A’s were to keep up at that rate, they’d finish the year with 53 wins. Still not a heroic total, but eclipsing the 50-win plateau is like crossing over from the scrolls of history to just a footnote.

Part of the reason the A’s have lost so consistently this season has been their pitching, which still ranks worst in baseball with a 6.02 ERA. In June the team ERA looked a lot more like a regular big-league ball club, with the staff putting up a cumulative 4.77 mark and ranking 25th in baseball. It was the first month this year that the A’s weren’t at the bottom of MLB in ERA.

The return of last year’s All Star representative Paul Blackburn coincided with this change almost perfectly. Blackburn returned to the club on May 29, and in the time that he has been in the A’s rotation, they actually rank 22nd in baseball with a 4.66 ERA. For context, that’s a little better than Seattle, who’s trying to make the playoffs, and Cincinnati, a team on a massive hot streak. It’s also a little worse than Orioles (4.59), Dodgers (4.43), and Astros (4.37) in that span.

Blackburn holds a 4.50 ERA through seven starts which is roughly league average for starting pitchers this season (4.45). But he has consistently provided at least five innings for the team, which is something that they were getting on a regular basis during the first couple of months of play.

The staff’s resurgence isn’t all due to the return of Paul Blackburn, however. Veteran reliever Trevor May was also added back to the bullpen on May 23rd after missing about a month of the season due to anxiety. In eight relief appearances before his IL stint, May held a 12.00 ERA in six innings. Since his return he has tallied 16 2/3 innings, a 2.78 ERA and six saves.

Unheralded names, positive results for the A’s

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Oakland Athletics

There aren’t many household names on the 2023 version of the Oakland Athletics, but there are at least four players that most teams around the league would love to have.

The first of those players is this year’s All Star representative, Brent Rooker. The 28-year-old was an off-season waiver claim by the A’s, made the team out of spring training, and was simply the best hitter in baseball through the game’s first month plus. Through May 14th, Rooker led all MLB hitters in wRC+ with a 197 (where 100 is league average).

He was 97% better than league average. Name a baseball player. Rooker was better than them.

He was also fourth in home runs (11) and 10th in RBI (29) in that span. He has cooled off a bit since then, but he is still a top-30 hitter in baseball which isn’t bad considering he was on the waiver wire not that long ago.

His teammate, Rule 5 draftee Ryan Noda, is right there with him offensively. Noda has a 131 wRC+ to date, ranking him 27th in baseball with under a week to go until the All-Star break. He’s batting .230, but thanks to his 18.9% walk rate, his on-base percentage (OBP) sits at .386. Noda may not have the star power of some of the other first basemen in the American League, but he ranks second among them all in wRC+, trailing only All Star starter Yandy Díaz of the Rays. He has the same fWAR as Anthony Rizzo of the Yankees and has been 10% better with the bat than Vladimir Guerrero Jr., the AL’s backup first baseman next week.

Another rookie has also caught some headlines in recent days, and that is the headlining piece of the Sean Murphy trade, Esteury Ruiz. He’s batting .255 with a .308 OBP this season, leading to a below average 88 wRC+ thanks to one home run and a 3.9% walk rate. But he’s also leading the majors in stolen bases with 42. That’s more steals than any single player all of last season. A’s legend Rickey Henderson led the league in stolen bases in each of his first seven full seasons. Ruiz certainly has the talent to do the same.

Finally, there’s JP Sears, who was acquired as part of the package that sent Frankie Montas and Lou Trivino to the Yankees last season. After his outing against the Tigers on Tuesday (7 1/3 IP, 5 hits, 0 ER, 0 BB, 4 K), he holds a 4.09 ERA on the season with a 1.05 WHIP. Fun fact for A’s fans: Sears has the exact same ERA as Toronto’s Chris Bassitt this season. Armed with his new sweeper, he has easily been the A’s most reliable arm through the first half.

The legislative calendar and the Oakland Athletics

We could point to the reasons listed above as the cause for why the A’s have been slowly but surely improving this season — or we could point to the legislative calendar in Nevada and make some bold declarations.

When the season began, there had been no Las Vegas announcement. The team had been on “parallel paths” with Oakland and Vegas for nearly two years up until that point, with Oakland seemingly being “the plan” and Las Vegas being used for leverage. That changed on April 19, an off day before the team headed out on the road, when word leaked that the A’s had shifted their focus solely to Nevada. When the announcement was made the A’s were 3-16 this season.

Then, there was a brief stretch of time at the beginning of June when the regular legislative session was closing up in Nevada, and no ballpark funding bill had been passed for the A’s. It was at that point that the A’s began a win streak in Pittsburgh. A special session was called, then recessed through the weekend to give lawmakers a little break after some long days at the end of the regular session. The team kept the winning streak going in Milwaukee.

The A’s returned to Oakland, still without a vote in the special session.

It wasn’t until June 13 that SB1 (the A’s ballpark bill) passed through the Senate, just hours before the “reverse boycott” took place at the Coliseum. The A’s won that game with some late game heroics.

The next day SB1 passed through the Assembly, and headed to the Nevada Governor’s desk for his signature. Thus started an eight-game losing streak.

It could mean something, or it could mean absolutely nothing, but the A’s are 10-16 (.384) on the year when it looks like Oakland may be home, and 14-47 (.229) when it looks like they’re headed to Vegas in the near future. That’s the difference between a 62-win team and a 37-win team.

Historically bad, or just regular bad.

Jason Burke covers Major League Baseball for Sportsnaut. Follow him on Twitter.

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