The Most Disappointing Season For … The Oakland Athletics

The 1993 Oakland Athletics

Record: 68-94 (7th in the AL West, 14th out of 14 in AL)

Pythagorean Record: 69-93

Runs Scored: 715 (10th in the AL)

Runs Allowed: 846 (14th in the AL)

Prior Season Record: 96-66

Manager: Tony LaRussa

Hype: Losing two starting pitchers and three regulars may hurt, but we’ve replaced them all with young talent and some proven veterans. We’ll be in there fighting for another division title.

The Gory Details: Yes, Oakland lost Carney Lansford to retirement, Walt Weiss to expansion, and Harold Baines, Mike Moore and Dave Stewart to free agency. But there was still optimism in 1993 in LaRussa land.

Kevin Seitzer was signed to fill in the gap at third, with prospect Craig Paquette waiting in the wings. Troy Neel was ready to pick up the slack for Baines. Mike Bordick could move back to short, his natural position and Lance Blankenship is ready to handle second, with young Brent Gates just a phone call away.

As always, LaRussa packed the A’s with uber utility players like Blankenship, Scott Brosius, Jerry Browne, and Scott Hemond, and young Eric Fox is around as the fourth outfielder.

The A’s still have a formidable core with Terry Steinbach catching, Ruben Sierra in right (the prize of the Canseco deal), Dave Henderson in center (coming back from injuries) and the big names, Mark McGwire at first and Rickey! Henderson in left. With those five, the offense will still be potent.

Pitching? Well, Dave Duncan seems to work magic with older pitchers. Bob Welch and Ron Darling can still contribute, and Duncan worked well with flamethrower / wildman Bobby Witt. Storm Davis and Shawn Hillegas rounded out the opening rotation – Davis making a return to the organization where he went 35-14 in 1988 and 1989. Kelly Downs was on standby as a swingman if needed.

Of course, the bullpen would be led by Dennis Eckersley – the MVP in 1992 with 51 saves and a 1.91 ERA. Maybe the MVP voters over-estimated the value of the ninth inning, but there was no better reliever than Eckersley when the game was on the line.

A solid bunch of veteran relievers: Joe Boever, Edwin Nunez, Goose Gossage, and Rick Honeycutt, had the job of getting the ball to Eckersley.

So with a veteran pitching staff and a mix of old and young in the lineup, the A’s set about to resume their dominance.

Getting out of the gate with a 4-2 record at home, the Athletics ventured on the road and ran into trouble. Storm Davis lasted just 2 1/3 in the first game of a road trip in Detroit, and then rookie Mike Mohler, a surprise addition to the staff, was blitzed for eight runs in 1 1/3.

The 20-4 defeat set the tone for the rest of the month. They dropped every game on the road trip, and after their 4-2 start went just 3-9 the rest of the month.

A few nagging injuries were a factor. Seitzer missed a few games at the start of the year. McGwire was on the shelf for three, and Dave Henderson was still troubled by injuries and missed some time.

It seemed that every game Davis or Hillegas pitched involved a lot of crooked numbers. Yet the most concerning issue for the A’s was Eckersley’s performance.

Oakland had counted on the Eck shutting everything down for years. But on April, he blew three saves in a row, and had an untidy 5.19 ERA, giving up five earned runs already. That’s as many earned runs as he gave up in 1990 and two more blown saves than he had in all of 1993.

Already, it was a make or break month for Oakland as they rolled into May. They needed to have a good month to get in position. What they got was heartache.

First, Rickey! was injured and could only DH for about 2 ½ weeks. That meant Blankenship would move to left, and Gates would be called up to man second base. Gates made such an impression that he didn’t relinquish the job even when Rickey! got healthy enough to play left again.

Second, Sierra started a massive slump. Hitting .296 with a .563 SLG on April 30, he hit just .200 with only a .333 SLG and a .240 OBP in May. Without Sierra’s power, the offense would be mainly a bunch of singles hitters except for Neel and McGwire.

Um…

On May 13th, Big Mac tore a heel muscle. That hurts even thinking about it. He was done for the year. The A’s were just 12-19 at that point, but if anyone had kept them in games, it was the big red head. His slash line was an amazing .333 / .467 / .726 for 27 games. The year before, he led the league in slugging with a .585 mark. He already had nine home runs in those 27 games.

Hurriedly, the A’s called up Mike Aldrete from Tacoma where the vet was playing as an insurance policy. It was unfortunate they had to cash that in. At first, he played along with Dale Sveum at first, but when Sveum couldn’t really handle a regular load and young Marcos Armas proved to not be ready for the bigs, Aldrete had to be the regular.

Meanwhile, the pitching staff was, well, problematic. Davis and Hillegas didn’t improve, and now Welch and Darling were starting to struggle as well. As of May 31, the ERAs for the starting staff were 6.43 (Darling), 4.76 (Welch), 7.26 (Hillegas), 5.88 (Davis), and the ace, Witt, at 3.80. Downs started two games, but was no help, and he had a 6.27 ERA.

In desperation, the A’s changed courses in the beginning of June. Seitzer moved to first to platoon with Aldrete, Paquette was called up to play third, and Curt Young, an oft-injured vet, was recalled from Tacoma. Meanwhile, Dave Henderson was out again with an injury – he could bat but couldn’t play the outfield effectively, so Blankenship moved to center with some help from Brosius. This lasted about five weeks with Dave Henderson DHing off and on with Neel.

They lost eight of the first 10 games in June to fall to 21-35, with the worst record in the league, and a lock on last place. Eckerlsey now had blown five saves. None of the other pitchers were distinguishing themselves. They had been going with an extended pitching staff to help the starters out so Vince Horsman was up to make it a 12-man staff.

It definitely was going to be a lost season, and some vets were dead weight. In June, Sveum was released as Seitzer, Aldrete, Browne and Blankenship were going to make his job redundant. Davis was yanked from the rotation, officially. Hillegas was on thin ice.

On June 29th, Oakland was 29-41 but was now fighting its way out of last place. (The irony is that they were fighting the Twins for last – in 1992 they were fighting each other for first.) That day they beat the Angels 8-7 in 11 innings on a walkoff single by Gates.

They kept winning and on July 5th, they played Cleveland in a double-header. The A’s took the first game 6-5 to make it seven straight wins, which now put them just five games behind the division leading White Sox and Royals.

They lost the nightcap, though, and what started out as a 7-0 homestand wound up a 9-5 mark. Then they lost five of seven on the road, and had more worries to deal with regarding their pitchers.

Davis was done. The A’s released him. Young pitched three decent games, but then he was hurt, again, and his career was basically over. Hillegas was yanked from the rotation, and Downs wasn’t an answer. Mohler neither. So right after the All-Star break, the call was made to call up the phenom of all phenoms (at least then), Todd Van Poppel.

Van Poppel wasn’t ready. Everyone knew that. He was a top prospect, of course, because he projected well at age 18. Yet he forced Oakland into signing him to a major league contract, which basically meant he had just three option years or he’d become a free agent.

This was his last option year, and he was 4-8 with a 5.83 ERA at Tacoma, and had walked 54 in 78 2/3 innings. Oakland had no choice though. Pickings were slim. And instead of Hillegas or Davis getting beat upside the head, why not Van Poppel?

Van Poppel’s first start wasn’t too successful. He gave up eight runs, seven earned, in just three innings against Boston, and walked five. That wasted the game of Neel’s life, who had two home runs and seven RBI in a losing cause.

Oakland called up John Briscoe, making the staff an unlucky 13 pitchers. It’s what they felt they needed to do. They also tried something extra-ordinary.

Everyone was having issues getting past the fifth inning, except Witt, and that was no guarantee. So LaRussa and Duncan thought, why not split the work into three platoons of three pitchers, and have four relievers ready to fill in until the next platoon, or we needed Eck to close it out. At that point, the A’s starters had a 5.43 ERA.

The platoons were: Van Poppel / Darling / Downs; Mohler / Witt / Briscoe; Welch / Hillegas / Gossage. Honeycutt, Boever, Nunez and Eck were the ready relief.

It actually is a novel idea. If baseball wasn’t so tied up on W-L record for starting pitchers it could definitely work, especially with a young staff. You may be able to go with just 12 or even 11 if you manage the platoons right and do a pitch count limit. But with a starters dough tied up in seeing wins and complete games, there was some resistance.

The platoon system lasted five games before LaRussa reverted to a four-man rotation for a while. At this point Hillegas was excused with a ticket to Tacoma.

The platoon system was tried in the middle of a disastrous road trip which basically sealed Oakland’s fate. They won four of fourteen, and plunged back into he basement.

Sierra still was slumping, Dave Henderson was fighting injury, and the best course of action was to play the kids and get what you could for some veterans.

Seitzer wasn’t hitting at all, so when they got no takers they released him. Rickey! would bring value, and he did, as Toronto sent prospect pitcher Steve Karsay over on a July 31st trade. That gave time to Scott Lydy, allowed Neel to get his feet wet at first. Karsay started eight games in 1993 for Oakland and did pretty well for himself.

Then in early August, the last ignomy hit Oakland, as Steinbach broke his wrist and was done for the year. Hemond was then the full-time catcher instead of playing all over the diamond. With the pitching staff still battling injuries and crooked numbers, Oakland limped to the finish in last place and with way more questions than answers.

Twenty-one pitchers trod the hill for Oakland (plus one position player). No one who started more than eight games had an ERA+ of 100 or more, which meant all of the regular rotation pitchers were below average. (Karsay had a 102 ERA+ in eight starts).

Eckersley, of all people, had a 4.16 ERA and blew 10 saves. The best pitcher? Rick Honeycutt, though he threw just 41 2/3 innings.

Before he was traded, Rickey! was sensational with a 1.023 OPS. Neel (.290 / .367 / .443) had a good rookie year, and Aldrete, Hemond and Gates hit well as emergency replacements. But all was for naught, as Dave Henderson couldn’t get on base, Paquette’s rookie year was full of whiffs, and Sierra somehow had an OBP under .300 and a SLG under .400, and this was his age 27 year.

Everything that could go wrong, did. It was a perfect storm of injuries and stink. When they collide, on-paper ‘good’ teams can turn to dust pretty quickly. Oakland spent a few years digging out of this hole, and not until Billy Beane started his magic in grabbing undervalued players did the A’s generate excitement again.

Chicken Wolf All-Stars: Rickey! played just 90 games, with 407 plate appearances, and led the team in WAR with 4.5.

Honorable Mention Team: I almost wrote about the 1982 team. I may examine that one later. Billy Martin led the A’s to glory (well first-half glory) in 1981, but in 1982 his pitchers were all hurt, and he basically didn’t care, or so it seemed, and the team slumped to 68-94.

Bad Blast from the Past: It’s hard to pick a team from the past for this squad. Connie Mack intentionally sabotaged his roster twice in order to get much cheaper and then rebuild over time. But in 1933 they were still trying to compete after three pennants and a second place finish in 1932.

But while Lefty Grove was still magic, and Jimmie Foxx had 48 home runs and an OPS+ of 201, and Mickey Cochrane dazzled them with 106 walks and 22 whiffs while playing a marvelous catcher, the pitching staff after Grove was quite poor. George Earnshaw was spent, and outside of Merritt “Sugar” Cain no one else could get anyone out.

They finished 79-72, in third, and Mack then purged his team again.

 

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