AL WestAnalysis

The A’s Shortstops Are Historically Bad

In the three-year span between 2018 through 2020, the Oakland A’s ranked sixth in MLB in shortstop fWAR. Over three straight playoff seasons, Marcus Semien ranked second in fWAR among A’s position players, providing immense value both offensively and defensively, all while seldom taking a day off. In doing so, he became the first A’s player to finish third or higher in MVP voting since Miguel Tejada won the award in 2002. But all good things must come to an end, and in the 2020 offseason, Semien signed a one-year, 18 million dollar contract with the Toronto Blue Jays, bringing the hometown hero’s time in Oakland to an end. And while the Toronto Blue Jays aren’t getting the fully anticipated value out of Semien, the A’s are feeling his absence to a historic degree

Elvis Andrus was acquired in an offseason trade that included Aramis Garcia, and already there were warning signs. The replacement for Marcus Semien hadn’t had a league-average offensive season or had a season with at least 2.0 fWAR since 2017 and was coming off a 53 wRC+, -0.3 fWAR season in 2020. The lone silver lining in this Texas-sized rain cloud was that Andrus spent a significant portion of 2020 on the injured list with a back strain, which would ideally be the reason he struggled to perform. But almost a month and a half into the 2021 season, Andrus has shown that his 2020 season was actually indicative of his abilities. Through 34 games, Andrus has a wRC+ of 18, the lowest mark of any qualified player in MLB. His strikeout rate is the highest of his career, while his walk rate is the third-lowest of his career. When Andrus does make contact, he rarely does damage, with his .053 ISO being the second-lowest mark of his career and sixth-lowest among qualified players this year.

His Statcast metrics are all bottom of the barrel, with his hard-hit percentage, xwOBA, barrel percentage, and outs above average all ranking in the 7th percentile or worse. Critically, his defense has also been below average, with -6 DRS and -4.6 UZR/150 in 294.0 innings. When you combine it all, you get -0.7 fWAR before the start of June. There is an element of underperformance with Andrus, especially with his sub .200 BABIP. But even if Andrus’s wOBA were to match his xwOBA of .229, he would still have one of the five worst wOBAs in baseball, tied for fourth with Lourdes Gurriel Jr. With his below-average defense doing nothing to help Andrus’ absolutely atrocious bat, Andrus is on pace for -3.1fWAR/150, which would tie 2018 Chris Davis for the worst season by fWAR since the start of the 2010s. 

Elvis Andrus isn’t the only A’s shortstop struggling mightily. Backup Vimael Machin has played 8 games, and in those games, he’s had a -32 wRC+ and put up a total of -0.3 fWAR, bringing the A’s combined shortstop fWAR to -1.0 and a wRC+ of 11, teetering precariously closely to Jeff Mathis territory. No shortstop corps in the modern era has ever combined for a single-digit wRC+, and since the turn of the century, no team has ever had their shortstops combine for less than a 35 wRC+. The closest it came was in 2006 when the 2006 Colorado Rockies had Clint Barmes, Troy Tulowitzki, and Omar Quintanilla combined for a 38 wRC+. In terms of fWAR, the worst shortstop tandem since the turn of the century came in 2009 when the Kansas City Royals had five shortstops with at least 50 plate appearances and not a single one with positive fWAR. The quintuplet of Willie Bloomquist, Luis Hernandez, Mike Aviles, Tony Pena, and Yuniesky Betancourt combined for -4.2 fWAR, a mark the A’s current combo of shortstops is on pace to beat, as Andrus and Machin project to combine for -4.7 fWAR over 162 games.

For A’s fans, this level of production will be something to get used to. The A’s two top shortstop prospects, Nick Allen and Robert Puason, are both far from major league-ready. Allen has just 6 games above High A, while Puason has just 6 games in all of professional baseball. The only other active shortstop the A’s could potentially call on to man the 6 in Oakland is Pete Kozma, currently with the A’s Triple-A organization. Kozma, who last appeared in the major leagues in 2018, has an 18 wRC+ since 2015. He is at least a plus defender, with 9 DRS and 12.6 UZR in 1,555 career innings at shortstop, so he would be an upgrade defensively even if his bat will be similar to Andrus’s. If the A’s want to prioritize offense, the currently injured Chad Pinder could be an option once he returns from injury. The 29-year-old was off to a scorching start before a knee injury forced him to the IL. The former Virginia Tech Hokie has significant power to go along with improving plate discipline, and his 99 career wRC+ would be a massive upgrade over the A’s current options. But Pinder is a much worse defender, even compared to Andrus. His -3 DRS and -2.9 UZR in 224 career innings playing short is honestly quite funny in a macabre way. 

Whatever the A’s choice is, there is no outright good option. All of their potential shortstops have flaws that are simply inexcusable for a major league shortstop, whether it’s a pathetic bat or an inability to field. It truly is shocking that they are in first place in the AL West when they have such a black hole at shortstop. Not only is their production from their shortstops historic, the fact that they’re in a playoff position is historic. Those 2006 Rockies and 2009 Royals I talked about earlier? Both finished fourth in their division with losing records. It is a true testament to the rest of the A’s that they are in the position they are right now. The A’s might end up having the worst season by a shortstop group ever, and it might not even matter.

Elizabeth Tsai

A lifelong baseball fan, I've supported the Oakland A's through good times and bad. A numbers geek, I love diving into the stats to find any fascinating stories not obvious to the basic eye test. Proud transgender woman

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