On Saturday night, the Oakland A's once again beat up on Chad Qualls. For the fourth time this season, Houston's close snatched defeat from the jaws of victory against the A's.
In four innings against Oakland, Qualls has given up 12 runs. He's given up 10 runs in his other 43 innings combined.
Outside of those seven games against the A's this season, Qualls has an ERA of 1.44. That means his ERA is a full two runs higher solely because of one team.
Well, Qualls isn't a very good pitcher. He's got a career ERA of 3.78, so in this limited sample size, maybe the A's are regression personified for Qualls. They have also been one of the best teams in MLB for much of the season. Is it surprising that that group kicked around a lower-tier closer?
But, there's a more specific reason why this particular team has this particular player's number.
This article reprinted at Deadspin last December highlighted how the A's have constructed their team. It's all about fly balls.
Let's contextualize Oakland's outlier ways: 60 percent of their plate appearances were taken by fly-ball hitters, who by definition compose 16 percent of the league. No other team in the past nine years has touched 45 percent. Beane's roster was so ground-allergic that only 0.8 percent of their plate appearances were taken by "ground-ball hitters." That's not just a concentrated effort to target fly balls. That's a mission statement.
Moreover, Oakland fly ball hitters hit .302 against GB pitchers, a matchup occurring nine percent of the time. Another way of putting that: In 547 plate appearances against ground-ballers, fly ball-hitting Athletics (such as low-salary acquisitions like Jed Lowrie and Brandon Moss) hit like $16-million Matt Holliday. The rest of the time-over 90 percent of PAs-they hit like Chase Headley.The 38 percent of their fly ball hitters' plate appearances against neutral pitchers resulted in a .282 True Average. That's better than the solid league TAv in that matchup (.276)-and it occurred for the Athletics four times as often!
This season, Chad Qualls has gotten ground balls on 57 percent of his batted balls. This season, only the White Sox have more runs above average on sinkers than the Athletics do.
Most of the time, a sinkerball closer can be just as effective as a flamethrowing monster. That doesn't work against the A's. They're built to feast on ground ball pitchers, by elevating those pitches into line drives and fly balls.
Even if Qualls learned not to throw his sinker to the A's, that means he's not using his most effective weapon. Is it any wonder that they've beat him up with his second-best options?
What's more, the A's are built as a platoon team. That means they have bench options who also hit fly balls well. If they need to pinch-hit late in a close game against Qualls, they can trot out guys who are tailor-made to beat him.
The A's are still a very good team and Qualls is still a non-elite closer. But, there's more to the A's success against him than just that. The A's are made to beat Chad Qualls. It's as simple as that.