Oakland Athletics Season Preview: Will They Win the AL West Once Again?
A large portion of Michael Lewis's masterpiece, Moneyball, focuses on how Oakland A's general manager Billy Beane doesn't care if a person looks like a baseball player or a lumpy pillow. If he can help win the A's baseball games at a low price, he has a place in Oakland.
That book was published in 2003, but Beane's deference to ability was disturbingly obvious a decade later in 2013. Last year, Beane took a team led by a 40-year-old pitcher that weighs 265 pounds, a 34-year-old named after a cereal, and a ginger journeyman to 96 wins and the AL West crown. Those are supposed to be the profiles of beer league softball players, not division champs.
With all of the offseason changes, can the A's repeat and keep the good vibes going? Let's check out this year's forecast.
Can I Have Yo Numba, Josh Donaldson?
Last year, Josh Donaldson gave the Marcus-Hall-salute (also known as the "double freedom rockets") to his projections and dropped a 7.7 WAR. That included a .301/.384/.499 slash and a .384 wOBA...from a guy that had a .300 wOBA in 294 PA's the previous year.
How did this happen? You don't see a 95-point uptick in your OBP without something happening.
Well, for starters, his BABIP went through the roof. In 2012, that total was .278, while in 2013, it was .333. Now, this isn't an outrageous total by any means, but it is both higher than average and higher than where Donaldson usually saw the number in his minor league career. That number will go down this year, but some of his other numbers suggest that he will still be a legit offensive threat this season.
If you want to see your OBP rise, what would you suggest as a proper approach? Patience at the plate, you say? That's a bingo! Donaldson got down with his inner Hans Landa and more than doubled his walk percentage to 11.4 percent from 4.8 percent the previous season. He also lowered his strikeout percentage to 16.5 from 20.7.
This wasn't a fluke or luck from Donaldson. He actually sipped the Moneyball sizzurp and became more selective. According to FanGraphs' PITCHf/x Plate Discipline, Donaldson only swung at 24.9 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone in 2013. In 2012, that number was 32.5.
These numbers combined make me think that projections may be over-compensating for regression based on Donaldson's inflated BABIP. Yes, he's going to see a regression; I just don't think it'll be as violent as some projections are saying. For example, ZiPS (the projection I usually defer to after numberFire's) has Donaldson at a .257/.327/.424 slash. And the man behind ZiPS projections, Dan Szymborski, said on Twitter that he thinks Donaldson should perform right around his projections. He's a whole heck of a lot smarter than I am though.
I think numberFire's projections of a .282 average and .809 OPS with 19 home runs are a bit closer to where he'll end up. (Side note: if you have strong feelings about this, I posed the question earlier here. Feel free to add your two cents/fifty bucks, please. I need gas money.)
One thing about Donaldson that isn't in question is his defense. While he's certainly no Manny Machado (Manny Machado is barely even Manny Machado), Donaldson did finish with the fifth-best UZR among qualified third basemen last year. The abridged version of the past 400 words: I want Josh Donaldson on my team, and so should you.
Defense? We Talkin' 'Bout Defense?
Let's start at first base. Brandon Moss spent 111 games there. Brudduh should not have been there 111 games. He didn't just have the worst UZR/150 of any first baseman to play at least 800 innings at the position last year; his -12.2 rating was 2.44 times worse than the second-worst guy (Justin Smoak at -5.0).
I'll grant him this, though. Moss's power did help make up for his drunk-toddler-esque performance at first. His isolated power was the third-highest in the league behind only Crush Davis and Miggy Pop. Decent company, I guess.
That doesn't mean I think he'll be able to duplicate his 30-bomb performance. numberFire's projections have him at 23, which seems plausible if the addition of Gentry further limits Moss's time in the outfield.
At short, Jed Lowrie isn't exactly Ozzie Smith reincarnated, but at least the dude swung the stick last year. He finished second among qualified shortstops in wOBA at .345. This is how Oakland won our Bill James Olympics, following the fifth commandment, "Thou shalt make no idol of the light-hitting middle infielder."
With that said, Lowrie's probably another good regression candidate. His BABIP spiked 23 points above his career average of .296 a season ago. However, a part of that was that his line-drive percentage (23.4) was his highest since George W. Bush was in office. A slash somewhere in the neighborhood of .270/.330/.430 isn't too unrealistic for 2014.
At second base, a little controversy is brewing between Alberto Callaspo and Eric Sogard. Callaspo: the wiley vet, set to rebound after a disappointing season. Sogard: the fresh-faced, light-hitting, Clark-Kent-esque jive turkey that recently almost won the "Face of MLB" contest.
Callaspo brings the offense. The Angels dumped him after early-season struggles, but he bounced back with a .270/.350/.409 slash in 180 plate appearances in Oakland. But his defense at second was about on par with that of a rotted tree. His UZR/150 of -25.4 was the third worst of the 50 players that logged at least 240 innings there.
Sogard is pretty much the polar opposite. He has as many career home runs as letters in his last name. But he had a positive UZR/150 (2.6) in his 113 games at second, so there's something.
This is, of course, why the A's brought in the only man that can bring both of those aspects: Little Nicky Punto! Punto recorded 11.8 percent of his career home runs last year, so clearly the man is 'roiding out and about to unleash for about 60 long balls. It doesn't matter that he has only hit 17 career home runs; he's primed to breakout. In all seriousness, Punto is a good addition because of the flexibility he provides in being able to play second, short or third. And, like Mike Greenberg with Chad Pennington, I will always love him.
Halos in the Outfield
Far and away, the best thing about the A's is their flow. Division championships be darned. But with that head lettuce comes some nice production, as well.
At the ripe age of 33, Crisp posted his highest WAR since 2007 and his second-highest wOBA since 2005. A big part of this was his patience. He drew nearly as many walks (61) as he had strikeouts (65), finishing with a walk percentage of 10.4. When you add in his 22 homers, you get a bona fide All-Star in center.
For the upcoming season, don't expect Crisp to duplicate those numbers. numberFire projections have him at 12 dingers and a .750 average, and that seems realistic for a guy entering his age-34 season.
Like Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes is a hard guy to project. In his rookie season, he finished with a .368 wOBA and a .292/.356/.505 slash. A lingering shoulder injury last year resulted in every single one of his rate statistics seeing a significant downturn. If he can get his line-drive percentage back up and his K rate down, Cespedes could also be a sneakily productive player this year. That's a big "if", though.
Reddick is never going to turn heads with his offense, but it doesn't matter. He can make catches like these. That might make up for his .303 wOBA. Yeah, okay, no. That's just bad.
And that offensive production is part of the reason Gentry will now be slurping in the sunshine in the Oakland Coliseum outfield. Despite a .280/.373/.386 slash last year, Gentry has never recorded more than 287 major league PAs in a single season. You know that OBP looks pretty in Billy Beane's eyes, though, so Gentry could end up playing a significant role here.
Gentry's no slouch with the leather, either. His UZR/150 went up in each of his last three seasons with the Rangers, to 14.3 last year from 7.4 in 2011. His not going to be relevant in your fantasy leagues, but he'll be relevant in Melvin's lineup.
Young, Not Wild
Another season, another opportunity to slobber over the young pitching the A's possess. Of the five projected starters, only one was born before 1988. That guy, Scott Kazmir, was our own Chris Kay's pick as a pitcher likely to break out this year.
The most exciting of these is the 2011 first-round pick out of Vandy, Sonny Gray. In 64 big-league innings last year, Gray finished with a 2.67 ERA and 2.70 FIP to go with a 9.42 K/9 and 2.81 BB/9. That's about as yummy as it gets.
After Gray comes Dan Straily, Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin. Each of these guys had a FIP above 4.00, and present at least one reason for worry (Griffin gives up too many homers, Straily walks too many, and Parker has a low k-rate), but they're all young and should show improvement this year.
In the most shocking move of the entire offseason, the A's traded for a closer who is due to make $10 million this year. That's analogous to the Jaguars trading for a competent quarterback. It just doesn't happen. Jim Johnson is going to look golden in that green, though. A's pitchers combined for 46 saves last year, and Johnson averaged 50.5 over his last two seasons in Baltimore. Johnson has instant fantasy value, even if it does go completely counter to an entire chapter of Moneyball.
Will They Win the West?
Looking forward for the A's, it seems hard to believe they won't win their third consecutive AL West Crown. Yes, they lost Colon, but the offense looks like it should be improved over where it was last year, which wasn't bad to begin with. And if the young starters can live up to their potential, scoring runs will not be easy against this team.
The Rangers should contend again, and the Angels have to be better than they were last year, right? The competition will be stiff, but the Island of Misfit A's should be in position to record somewhere in the ballpark of 95 wins and complete the triumvirate.