Let’s go ahead and skip the obvious stuff. The A’s usually trade all their best players for prospects, and lose in the playoffs. Last year they traded their prospects for new best players, and they lost in the playoffs. There are many, very talented writers who have opined on this fact, and you should go read them all.
We A’s fans, though, are ready to put that one behind us. With a new season starting, all the talk of the Giants winning again is washing away. Unfortunately, this offseason is a different kind of hope from the previous two years.
The A’s did a big overhaul in the offseason in an effort to make the team a little more well rounded instead of going all-in. The upside of this is that the team doesn’t look very much like the one that blew it. The downside is that the team doesn’t look very much like the one that was shattering Pythagorean win-loss records midseason.
Let’s go ahead and break this one down, trying to balance the optimism of June 2014 with the pessimism of September 2014.
How do they score runs? Are they notably home-run dependent? Notably light on power? Is their lineup predicated on depth, or on huge production from a few stars?
The A’s for the last few years have taken a balanced approach, and this year will be no exception. The one gaping hole in the lineup last year was Eric Sogard, and he’s been replaced by SABR darling Ben Zobrist. The result is a starting lineup where nobody projects to be less than 1.3 WARP. While many view the A’s as a punchless lineup, the team as a whole may put up respectable numbers, as every starter but Sam Fuld is a decent bet for 10 home runs. They may also have nobody that tops 20, but home runs are boring anyway, right? The A’s have never been a team to play small ball, though Melvin does tend to get more aggressive when they’re struggling for production.
Does the manager use pinch-hitters and platoons liberally? Does the team have the platoon advantage in an especially large or small percentage of their plate appearances?
As mentioned in a recent Effectively Wild podcast, the A’s tend to always be near the top of the platoon advantage charts. The A’s project to have platoons at catcher, first base, and right field, with rule 5 Mark Canha also available to spell the lefties at three positions. If there’s a meme to push here, it’s the “Billy Beane Runs the Team Like It’s a Video Game” meme, and at least in Out of the Park, platoons work very well. The A’s have a ton of versatility all around the diamond, so expect them to employ the platoon advantage often while still getting creative with positions and lineup order.
What is the team’s collective approach? Do they look to take a large number of pitches? Does the manager put on the 3-0 green light very often? Are players benched or criticized by management for striking out too much? Are they more than usually given to fouling pitches off?
During their run since 2012, it was widely noted that the A’s seemed to favor fly ball hitters, who might play a little better in the spacious confines of O.Co. While this works at home, it had repercussions, particularly during a bad sweep at the hands of the Royals in September. They made an effort to take a more balanced approach this offseason, as evidenced by notorious double play producer Billy Butler. The A’s were third in the MLB last year in pitches seen, but they aren’t afraid to get aggressive to switch it up. Bob Melvin has a very slow hook with his guys, but there’s so much day to day turnover in the lineup that he’ll find ways to get people in the lineup, even if it means teaching them a new position on the fly (looking at you first baseman Alberto Callaspo). They’re a patient team as a whole, though, but the 2015 A’s will probably look more balanced rather than necessarily reflect a teamwide philosophy one way or the other. Remember, if your whole team is the same, that means they can all be beat the same way. Beane realized that this year, and is hoping that variety will add more consistency.
Does the manager call for steals and hit-and-runs often? Is the team aggressive in taking the extra base on hits and outs? Do they lay down sacrifice bunts with unusual regularity, or irregularity?
The A’s only lay down bunts when they think it will result in them getting on base, like this particularly hilarious game in 2013 against Matt Garza. Some members of the team are aggressive on the base paths, but those who are tend to have extremely high rates of return, like Coco Crisp.
Where are the pressure points? Who might need to be replaced? What will their optimal batting order be? Is it likely to be adhered to?
The biggest question mark in the lineup is shortstop Marcus Semien. He’ll be given the full time gig at shortstop, but both his glove and his bat have question marks. The bat is easier to justify at shortstop, and the A’s are hoping he’ll just be a Jed Lowrie clone defensively, which isn’t saying much. He really has to work though, or else they’re going back to Sogard or having Zobrist just take the wheel. The A’s are pretty good about optimizing batting order, but will very frequently tinker in order to give guys rest, to the point that they only had the same lineup two days in a row twice last year. Melvin will occasionally keep a guy in a spot he’s comfortable, such as he did with Yoenis Cespedes, but aside from that expect a well run lineup card with frequent switches for day offs.
Are park factors a large or small consideration? Does the team’s park favor a particular batter type or handedness? Will the schedule or overall level of competition they face vary widely from the league average?
The A’s play in the only remaining dual-use stadium, which means they have foul ground that stretches to the point that employing a cricket formation may not be too outlandish. No particular handedness is favored, but singles can get stretched into extra base hits due to the big field. They play in the AL West, which is an extremely competitive division, and this year is no exception. It’s not too outlandish to imagine a scenario when all five teams are over .500, or even where both wild card teams are from the West. It’ll be a tough road to the postseason.
What is their balance between pitching and fielding? How is responsibility for keeping runs off the board apportioned?
Despite mostly punting offense at shortstop, the A’s are among the better defensive teams in the league. They tend to employ plus defenders all over the diamond, and despite losing Josh Donaldson, they may not miss a beat with Brett Lawrie. Their outfield defense is outstanding, and if Stephen Vogt can become the primary catcher, that should be an upgrade. The pitching staff should be middle of the road as far as flyballs and groundballs go, but with the long way out to the fence, the fielders should have plenty of chances to earn their pay.
Is the starting rotation generally a flat one, or one dominated by one or two aces? Does the manager allow his starters (or some subset of them) to go especially deep into games? Do the starters share common characteristics, or are there any philosophies the team’s pitching coach seems to drill into each?
The one characteristic the A’s pitching staff has is depth. They had a penchant in recent years for seeming to invent above average starters from thin air, such as AJ Griffin or Jesse Chavez. It’ll be a big battle for spots at camp. While the A’s tend to keep guys on a pitch count that they’re trying to work into starting positions, they have no problems letting the starters go well past 100 pitches if they’re feeling good. If there’s one thing they do like, it’s good command. They’ve employed guys like Tommy Milone in the past, though the amount of unproven guys who may man the back end could change that as they work out the kinks. Either this staff doesn’t have a particular angle, or Beane is just hiding it from us philistines.
When the middle and late innings come, does the manager have a long or a quick hook? Does he often make multiple pitching changes during innings? Is he aggressive and aware of matchups? Is the bullpen strictly hierarchical? Is it dominated by a set-up man and closer, or are there a large number of usable, interchangeable arms?
Melvin has no problem leaving his guys in if they’re really chugging, but he’s pretty smart with his bullpen. He’s not afraid to let a lefty close, like Sean Doolittle or Eric O’Flaherty if they’re up for it. He’s also ok leaving his best reliever as a set up guy, like Luke Gregerson. Probably the most interesting case study from 2014 is Fernando Abad. Abad was the third lefty in the pen and pitched in lots of low leverage situations, and did so very well, with a 1.57 ERA and didn’t allow an inherited runner to score until August 27th. Yet his peripherals didn’t match up, and his FIP was nearly two points higher than his ERA. This caused Melvin to continue to keep him as a low leverage reliever, where some other managers might reward his magical run preventing abilities. You can generally count on the A’s to have the best players pitch in the biggest spots, and the great depth in their bullpen usually means that having a great pitcher close doesn’t mean having a throwaway pitch the 7th.
Does the team deploy a large number of infield, or even outfield, shifts? Do they turn double plays well? Does the outfield control runners on hits into the gaps and on flyouts? Are any players out of position? If so, is it strategic, or does the team overestimate the defensive abilities of those players? Are any players on the bench used as late-inning defensive replacements?
A 2014 study from Beyond the Box Score said that the A’s were the best in baseball in the shift department in 2013, and there shouldn’t be much to suggest that they’ll stop doing so this year. They weren’t particularly efficient in the double play last year, ranking 22nd at -2.8 runs according to Fangraphs. While that was with Jed Lowrie manning short for most of the year, we shouldn’t expect much better with Marcus Semien. They ranked 2nd in the league last year in Range Runs, so while it’s very hard to quantify positioning, they’re at least playing well enough to let their outstadning range do it’s job. When your top four outfielders are Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick, Sam Fuld, and Craig Gentry, you’re not going to have a whole lot of missed opportunities. With the great defense all over the diamond in mind, the A’s are also willing to let guys play out of position to get their bat in the lineup, such as Brandon Moss playing the outfield or Alberto Callaspo playing first base. Both of those guys are gone, but after Reddick went down with an injury during spring training, Melvin already floated the idea of having Ike Davis play out in right sometimes, so I’d expect more of the same.
Does the primary catcher frame pitches well? Does he control the running game? Does the backup complement him, either by being excellent all-around or by doing things the starter does poorly?
If it’s Stephen Vogt behind the plate, as we all hope it is, yes he does. It’s not overwhelmingly so, but he did rank in the top 20 there per game according to StatCorner, so that’s something. The 2014 BP Annual noted that he flashes a 1.75 second pop time, which is awesome to say the least. BP in general liked his defense in 2014, so he’s a good starting point. His platoon partner on the other hand, Josh Phegley, was not well thought of defensively. He was -1.69 per game with framing, which is not good, but the Sox always praised his defense, and he’s been remarkably good at throwing out baserunners in the minors. A’s fans will remember what an upgrade Geovany Soto was over Derek Norris last year, and Phegley is probably right around Soto’s level behind the dish.
Does the team’s home park impact their ability to prevent runs in any unique way? Is the park factor drastic? Is the square footage of the outfield significantly off the MLB norm?
The O.co Coliseum (formerly known as the Oakland Coliseum, or O Co instead of O.Co) is very large with gigantic foul territory, as mentioned before. This plays well for rangy corner infielders especially, allowing a high number of foul pop outs. The square footage isn’t anything fancy, but the always present marine layer that dominates Pacific Ocean stadiums affects the Coliseum too.
Is the farm system well-stocked? Have any recent performances or additions changed the perceived standing of that system? Are there players on hand, in the upper levels of the minors, who are ready to take over roles with the parent team in the event of injury? Are there players who make especially good potential trade chips?
The farm system is pretty bad right now, as the A’s have traded away most of their best prospects and tend to focus on deals that acquire major league ready talent rather than faraway dream guys. They did snatch up Franklin Barreto from the Blue Jays, whose stock might quickly rise this year as he really impressed in his 2014 debut at a very young age. If he soars up and looks to be a major league shortstop though, he may very well be flipped for something that can help the ballclub now. They will have plenty of depth though with young players, as guys like Joe Wendle, Kendall Graveman, Jesse Hahn, and Chris Bassitt are all either MLB ready or close to it.
Speaking of injury, who is particularly fragile, or coming off off-season surgery that might impact their season? How deep is the team at the positions where they have injury-prone players?
This is not a team that tends to survive the season unscathed. Probably the most key question mark is Brett Lawrie. He’s missed over 130 games over the last two seasons with injury, and the A’s are hoping that a move away from the turf will help him finally hit his potential. Outside of that, there are injury question marks on Josh Reddick, Coco Crisp, and Sean Doolittle, among others. They’ve got good depth in case of injury, but this a team that expects to have guys miss time.
Is the team currently trying to win? Are they rebuilding or shooting for contention right away? Is their current course the most advisable one? Do they have payroll flexibility, either to make another addition before the season begins or to supplement the roster as needed during the campaign?
The A’s are trying to win. Though the offseason moves probably made them worse in the short term, they are still intending on competing this year. They’ve taken a more balanced five year approach that will hopefully lead to more sustained success, and while they probably will not be leading the world in everything by the All-Star break, they should still remain middle of the pack in contention this year. Despite being a small market team, they’ve still got some payroll room, as evidenced to them having Hector Olivera rumors swirling around them for the last month or so. This approach keeps their window open while hopefully not damning themselves to a long rebuild in three years, and I’ll keep the peanut gallery analsysis brief and just say I’m fine with it.
What move (or moves) should they make as soon as possible, in order to bring their long-term goals into focus (without setting them back in regard to their short-term ones)? Make a recommendation.
Keep an ear out for Elvis Andrus. I’m much happier with Marcus Semien at second base, especially if Ben Zobrist leaves as a free agent after this year. Andrus is just 26, and was signed to a long extension which looked really smart when it was signed. However, he’s coming off two seasons that has seen his defense take a dive and his OBP plummet simultaneously. The A’s loathe long term deals like the one Andrus is on, but if the Rangers spin their wheels out of the gate with Darvish going under the knife, Andrus could very well be a hot item this summer. If Jurickson Profar and Rougned Odor look like the business, then Andrus is certainly expendable. If Oakland can take on that contract and spin Andrus back into the guy he used to be by surrounding him with great defenders elsewhere on the diamond, this team could look rather complete.
What’s likely to happen? Will the composition of the team change? Will they compete? Will they win anything? Make a prediction or two, as specific or as vague as you would like, but make a prediction.
I see this team as competing, but not making the playoffs. Sure, I’d love to have another 2012 where everybody impresses and it’s fun and awesome. I think the A’s will win 83 games, and stay in the conversation for the playoffs until the middle of September. I think the team will hit a good stride in the middle of the season but they’ll just be too far behind in a competitive division to really make a run for it, but push towards 2016 for greatness again.Next post: Why Replacing Denard Span Isn’t So Easy
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