Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Searching for Optimism Part 2: Oakland A's

That big old football stadium nobody likes
Despite garnering massive amounts of attention for Moneyball, the successful major motion picture (starring Brad Pitt) all about their franchise, and winning the bidding war for one of the offseason's most sought-after young players, the Oakland Athletics aren't in very good shape these days. Even with the expanded gate into the playoffs, Baseball Prospectus approximates that this year's team has barely a 1 percent chance (1.3% to be exact) of making it into the postseason.  

It's safe to say their team doesn't look all that great. Aside from that, two of their key opponents look amazing. Half the teams in their little four-team division beefed up during the winter and look like they're ready to compete for the World Series for the next who-knows-how-many years. Their home stadium is now officially the crappiest ballpark in the majors. I've seen analysts predicting the team to lose 90 or 100 games in 2012. Not very encouraging news for an A's fan.

Well, I'm an A's fan (although not a deep-rooted one) and I refuse to subscribe to all these graveyard scenarios for my favorite American League team. After all, I only started to follow the green-and-gold so I could have a competitive team to root for while my New York Mets were languishing during the early aughts. Now the A's haven't been in the playoffs since 2006 and they've been stuck around 75 wins every year since.

Continuing my short series of analyzing three teams of low regard (Mets, A's, and Padres) to try and find some glimmers of hope and optimism, let's now delve into these Oakland A's piece by piece. To reiterate, my aim is to discuss these teams through the eyes of an incorrigible optimist who is trying to remain as objective as possible. Since we're talking about the hapless A's, that makes me this guy.

(Note: The 2012 estimated wins come from Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA and Clay Davenport's projections. Both systems estimate a base line the statistical performance for all players in the major leagues and then derive projections for full season team win-loss records from that.)

Oakland A's
PECOTA: 73 wins
Davenport: 79 wins

I'm surprised to see that Clay Davenport's projection is actually pretty optimistic. Last year's team won just 74 games so that's an improvement of 5 wins. I'm going to go out on a limb and predict that the A's exceed those 79 wins and end up with 83 wins, one game above .500. As with the Mets, that certainly won't get them anywhere near the playoff picture but it will at least make for a fun and perhaps exciting season for them. Let's look at each aspect of this team to see where they might squeeze out some extra wins.

Aside from a myriad of major injuries to key players, the most frustrating thing about following the A's over the last few years has been their pathetic offense. They were 3rd from the bottom in runs scored last year with a total of 645, the fewest runs they've had since 2008 when they scored one more run (646) but had the worst mark in the American League. Granted, they play in a very tough pitcher's park in the Bay Area where the cool, thick and moist air is known to slow down flying baseballs.

At the same time, they haven't had many good hitters to speak of, either. Josh Willingham had a great season for them last year, blasting 29 homeruns, but he's on the Twins now. Jack Cust had a nice run for a few years after being picked up off the scrap heap but he flamed out rather quickly. They had a half-season of an uninspired Matt Holliday and a few years before that Frank Thomas led the team to their last playoff appearance with a big year in the DH spot. Other than that, the team has fielded an unenviable collection of disappointing and decrepit hitters these last five or six years.

Here is where the first reason for optimism springs up: the A's might actually have some hitters this year. The most exciting of these looks to be Yoenis Cespedes, a 26-year-old outfielder from Cuba who has drawn comparisons to Bo Jackson (my brother's favorite ballplayer ever) for his muscular frame and athleticism. We haven't gotten to see much of Yoenis yet as he played his entire professional career in Cuba but he did blast an impressive home run in his first Spring Training game and knocked a double into deep center field when the A's played the Mariners for the season opener in Japan this morning. Clay Davenport's system predicts pretty good things for him: 26 home runs and a .249/.315/.449 batting line. PECOTA is even more optimistic: 27 homers, .267/.308/.471.

The A's also have Manny Ramirez, one of the greatest hitters of all-time, on their roster this year although he won't appear in any games until May as he's serving a 50-game suspension for failing a drug test. Having sat out virtually the entire 2011 season and with his 40th birthday coming up, it's safe to say Manny might not have much left in the tank. We have no way of knowing for sure, though, until he gets to swing the bat. He'll be wearing his fourth different jersey in the last three seasons and the scornful eyes of the baseball world will be upon him. A truly enigmatic and polarizing figure, if he opens his Oakland A's career by blasting a bunch of home runs or just trips on his own baggy uniform and immediately tears a ligament (or both), I'll be equally unsurprised.

When Moneyball (the book version) first grew so popular in the mid-2000s, major league front offices started to adapt to advanced performance analysis, it was perhaps the most important reason for the Boston Red Sox winning two World Series in 4 years. Nowadays most teams are pretty well stocked with statistical analysts and numbers crunchers whose job it is to seek out and find players with great potential to, among other things, get on base. On-base percentage (OBP) and the A's became practically synonymous. It's been said that A's general manager Billy Beane was screwed because now even the wealthy teams were picking up the same players he'd normally be aiming for (plodding on-base machines like Jack Cust). The collection of possible first basemen assembled by Beane this offseason seems to completely refute this idea.

Leaving out the utter disappointment that is Daric Barton for a moment, the A's currently have three main candidates for their first base position: Brandon Allen (who is currently penciled in as the starter), Kila Ka'aihue (a minor league veteran whose name sounds exactly like a sneeze), and Chris Carter (a minor league prospect with immense power). It is incredible to me that Beane was able to put together a group like this when seemingly the entire league is seeking out the same kind of players.

Ka'aihue, in particular, is the perfect player for a team seeking out bargain bin hitters who get on base. He's got a career .390 OBP through ten years in the minors with an enormous walk rate. Allen and Carter also draw lots of walks and bring big power to the table as well. All three players have dominated the minor leagues but failed in their chances at the major league level, a syndrome termed the "Quad-A player" because they're too good for Triple-A but no good enough for the majors. The three players have put up strikingly similar numbers:

Minor league career

Allen: .268/.355/.489 in 3,397 plate appearances

Ka'aihue: .266/.390/.458 in 4,536 plate appearances

Carter: .283/.379/.540 in 3,323 plate appearances

What stands out is that Ka'aihue draws a TON of walks and Carter has a TON of power. But look what they've all done in the pros:

Allen: .210/.297/.383 in 367 PAs

Ka'aihue: .216/.309/.375 in 326 PAs

Carter: .167/.226/.254 in 124 PAs

I should also mention that they're all pretty close in age (26, 27, and 25 respectively). They're also large human beings, each hovering around 240 lbs. It seems as though Beane, frustrated after years of disappointment, simply stockpiled a bunch of potential slugging first basemen and is hoping one of them works out.

Allen won the starting job to open the season and he's probably the most athletic of the three players, but he doesn't make consistent contact at the plate. The average hitter puts the bat on the ball on about 80% of his swings, Allen has always hovered around 70%. Carter has a similar problem, although he makes up for it by having power that surpasses all of them---in fact, he is probably the best power bat in the entire A's organization. I see him (Carter) as a very similar player to the Padres' Kyle Blanks, another big slugger who hasn't gotten much of an opportunity yet. At this point, Carter certainly represents the future in Oakland at first base. He just needs to get a shot soon otherwise he'll be wandering over to the next team that values the potential of Quad-A mashers.

As for Ka'aihue, he'd get some at-bats if Allen gets injured and maybe he can turn into Erubiel Durazo. Interestingly enough, Ka'aihue's offensive profile closely resembles that of the aforementioned Daric Barton, both are left-handed batters that make good contact with lots of walks and some doubles but little power. No matter what happens, I think the A's have stacked up enough talent here where something's gotta give and someone will come through and be a productive hitter for them. That all these guys are still in their mid-20s bodes well for the A's as there is much potential for improvement, particularly with Carter who has seen very little time in the majors.

That's a key point with these A's: this is a very young team. Jemile Weeks is 25, Josh Reddick is 25, Cespedes is 26, Collin Cowgill is 25. They don't have much experience but there is potential for some of these guys to break out. This could possibly be the most exciting offense the A's have had in years. Even if that's not saying much.

This winter, Oakland saw the departure of three pitchers from last year's rotation (five if you count part-timers Rich Harden and Josh Outman) and yet they still look pretty good here. If there's one thing the A's have been great at, it's identifying starting pitchers. Heck, they're pretty damn good at building bullpens, too, which means they just can't cobble together an offense.

Looking at the rotation, you'd think they lack an ace but Brandon McCarthy quietly established himself as a one of the best pitchers in the league last year. His five complete games was second in the AL, he finished 2nd in K/BB ratio, issued the 3rd-fewest walks and garnered a whole lot of attention for his open usage of advanced baseball metrics to help him succeed. Somehow, despite being in (and out of) the league for what seemed like 10 years, he's still only 28 years old. #2 starter Bartolo Colon balances out the age ledger as he'll be 39 in May.

While I enjoy Colon's unconventional new approach to pitching (he features his fastball almost exclusively), I don't think he makes for a dependable starter at this point. He started off really well in his return from oblivion last year with the Yankees but faded in the season's second half (.827 OPS allowed) and was generally smoked by lefties who hit .297/.335/.545 against him. The A's pitcher-friendly stadium and strong defense ought to help him but seeing him penciled in as the number two starter should elicit worry.

Thankfully, after Colon they have stuffed the depth chart with a bunch of highly regarded young pitchers. A quick word on each of them:
  • 25-year-old lefty Tom Milone doesn't throw hard but he's got great control and most statistical projections love him (he's predicted to be around 3.5 WARP which is basically what Mat Latos, Gio Gonzalez, and Brandon Morrow had last year). He's had superb strikeout-to-walk ratios throughout the minors, usually around 6-to-1. He'll most likely start the season as the #3 guy in the rotation.
  • Brad Peacock was, along with Milone, part of the massive haul the A's looted from the Nationals in the Gio Gonzalez trade. The 24-year-old right-hander reaches the mid-90s with his fastball and throws a devastating knuckle curve. He's a good candidate for the rotation. (He also shares James Joyce's birthday, February 2nd.)
  • Tyson Ross is a tall, lanky 25-year-old right-hander with a funky delivery in which he loosely flings the ball to home plate. His arm action keeps the ball low and he generates plenty of groundballs. Very solid young pitcher.
  • Jarred Parker has been one of baseball's top pitching prospects for five years now (this year Baseball America had him at #26, while Baseball Prospectus had him #50). He'll be only 23 years old this year but he ought to find himself in the majors very soon. 
  • The top pitching prospect in the organization just might be Sonny Gray, a short righty with great stuff who made it as far as Double-A last year at age 21. Despite his age, it's not unlikely that he comes up to the majors this year.
Aside from that group, they've also got two very good left-handers, Brett Anderson and Dallas Braden, returning from injuries at some point in the middle of the season. All in all, once again they've stockpiled plenty of talent and potential here. As his been the case for years now, pitching and defense will keep this team in games.

In modern major league baseball, relievers are the most fungible players on any team. Watching games throughout the season, you're guaranteed to witness dozens of new faces come and go as teams give newly discovered arms a chance, ditch them, and pick up more off the scrap heap.

Along with historically high levels of strikeouts and home runs, the swelling of major league pitching staffs is one of the hallmarks of the game of baseball these days. Teams often carry 7 or 8 relief pitchers and their performance, more than any other position, is notoriously difficult to predict from year to year.

The A's and Billy Beane have actually been able to cobble together a relatively strong bullpen throughout much of the last ten years. As a fan of the team who mostly became interested in them through the Moneyball story and their unconventional approaches to team-building, I take a particular interest in the pitchers Beane and Co. dig up to throw out of the pen. As the Oakland GM recently described in an interview:
Relief pitching is one of those spots where you never really stop looking to improve. That is always me and David's [David Forst, assistant GM] job, is to look out for relievers. We also want to give a chance to our younger arms to see if they can fill some of the spots.
After trading away their closer in the offseason, this year's bullpen has just two known quantities: Grant Balfour (good) and Brain Fuentes (not so good). Those two guys look to be the ones pitching late in games, too. After them, it's a large and varied collection of mildly effective arms. Most of them I've never heard of. The most noteworthy of these is right-hander Fautino de Los Santos who's got an intriguing repertoire featuring a high-90s fastball and a widely-sweeping slider. He racks up plenty of strikeouts so if he can manage to get a better grip on his control, he'll be a fine end-game pitcher.

If you've read this far, I commend you. I didn't expect this piece to be so long. I hope I got my point across, though. It's a team with young players all over the place and thus the potential for success is higher than the pessimist might see at this point. They're almost guaranteed to not make the playoffs but stacking the roster with a bunch of good players in their mid-20s and sprinkling some Manny into the mix is a pretty good way to make a team watchable and, perhaps, competitive.

No comments:

Post a Comment