Oakland Athletics Should Not Have Fired Gallego In August
When the season goes bad early, there’s always a scapegoat. This season, that scapegoat for the Oakland Athletics was third base coach Mike Gallego.
Gallego is certainly not the best third base coach in the league, but firing him in late August is a bit like repairing a flat tire on a car that’s been totaled.
There are so many things that have gone wrong for the Athletics this season. From a bullpen that’s consistently one pitch away from disaster to a struggling offense and downright terrible defense, it’s hard to pinpoint one specific area that needs to be repaired. However, with all of the other things that are in need of change, Billy Beane felt that the best place to start was with Gallego.
Perhaps that’s not entirely fair, as staffing decisions are much easier to make than trades to bolster the roster would be. It’s also not entirely fair to blame Gallego for the one-run losses and infield struggles that have plagued the A’s. One thing is certain, though, and that’s that when fans begin to get anxious for change, the first people the organization tends to blame are the men on the coaching staff.
Gallego, like all coaches, could only work with what he was given. He’s had struggles over the last year or so, but perhaps some of those should be excused. The infield he coached this season is almost entirely different than the one he had in 2014. Eric Sogard is the only player who has remained the same, and it’s not always easy to teach an entirely new group of players to work well together – even players at the major league level. There are personalities to manage, techniques to adjust to, and shifts to learn.
While Ron Washington has made an impact on Marcus Semien, it’s entirely possible that some of those improvements actually came from Semien gaining more experience as an Athletic. He’s becoming more adjusted to his teammates, the Coliseum infield, and the way the A’s play defense. He also has had time to get comfortable with the style of the pitchers he’s playing behind, which can lead to a pretty significant change in performance.
While baseball can sometimes feel like a solitary sport, given the emphasis put on individual stats and leaderboards, it truly is a team affair. It’s possible that some of Semien’s errors could have been prevented by a more-cohesive infield. On a roster where the infielders are familiar with each other or have plenty of experience, a low throw can be rescued with a stellar scoop out of the dirt at first base. But with rookies like Mark Canha and Max Muncy picking up a lot of the games at first base and Semien manning shortstop, those error-saving plays just didn’t happen.
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Those kind of plays DO happen as infielders begin to grow together and learn about each other’s strengths and limitations in the field. The best defensive teams in the league – the Orioles, Dodgers and Giants – all have infields that have one of two things in common. They either have a group of players who have played together for a while and learned to play as a unit, or they have a strong veteran infielder who can take charge. For the Dodgers, it’s second baseman Howie Kendrick, while Baltimore has shortstop J.J. Hardy. (Both are currently on the disabled list due to recent injuries, but have played significant roles with their teams this season.) While Brett Lawrie has five years of experience, he hardly seems like a veteran – he’s never played a full season until this year, missing significant time with injuries each season. The Giants, meanwhile, have had a fairly consistent infield over the past two seasons, and it is regarded as possibly the best in baseball. Oakland doesn’t have that kind of consistency, which is hardly the fault of the infield coach.
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Gallego probably did need to go at the end of the season, but the A’s were wrong to send him packing in August. It sends the wrong message to both fans and players, as if excusing the team’s poor infield play and bad base-running. Some might see this as a positive first step, but it is also all too easy to put the blame on coaches rather than accept personal responsibility as an organization. Those one-run games were not all won and lost by runners being thrown out at home, but the A’s have had 19 runners try to score and fail this season – the most in baseball.
Gallego’s firing is likely the first of many steps the A’s intend to take to turn the team around. However, it’s important to realize that making this move in April wouldn’t have made the A’s a contender this year, and plenty of other moves will be needed to make them one next season.