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Oakland Saving the Best for Last

Billy Beane made it clear this past off-season that he intended to improve the A’s offense for the 2011 season. They had performed reasonably well in 2010, finishing with a 97 wRC+, which represented an improvement over the 2008 and 2009 teams. By trading for David DeJesus and Josh Willingham, and signing Hideki Matsui, Beane moved to bring that offense above the league average level, which, combined with its young and effective pitching staff, figured to make the A’s contenders in the AL West. Many writers indeed picked the A’s over the Rangers before the season began. But the plan hasn’t exactly worked. Oakland currently sports an 86 wRC+, which is third worst in the AL. Worse yet, they’re getting their best production from the lineup spot that bats least frequently.

Atop the leader board for production from the No. 9 spot sits Boston, which, given their league-leading offense, makes sense. But after that comes a trio of unlikely teams, with the A’s ranking among them. Their No. 9 hitters have produced a .746 OPS this season, which amounts to a 166 OPS+ for the lineup spot. It seems even more curious, because it is nearly 100 points better than the team’s overall .653 OPS. How could it be that the No. 9 hitter is bringing up the team’s offensive production?

Not only is the No. 9 spot raising the team’s overall numbers, but it is outproducing every other lineup spot — and it’s not particularly close. From the Nos. 6 and 8 spots the A’s have gotten a .669 OPS, and everyone else has produced below that. The .746 OPS from the No. 9 spot amounts to a 128 OPS+ in the lineup, which is something that simply should not happen. While we often cite the axiom that lineup construction can mean the difference of a single win during a 162 game season, that doesn’t mean teams should willingly put their best hitters at the bottom.

Looking at Oakland’s batting orders this season, we can see that Cliff Pennington has started 54 out of 73 games in the No. 9 spot, but his production hardly matches the A’s team total. He has just a .646 OPS on the season (.285 wOBA). For this poor production, he was rewarded with a move up to the No. 2 spot. Taking his spot in the No. 9 spot is rookie Jemile Weeks, whose torrid start has given the A’s that enormous boost at the bottom of the order. He has a .969 OPS in 46 PA, which was enough to raise the team OPS in the No. 9 spot from .674 to its current .746.

The solution might seem obvious at this point: move Weeks up in the lineup and demote Pennington back to a spot that better fits his production. As with most baseball decisions, it is not that simple. The most obvious flaw with moving up Weeks is that his production is completely unsustainable. It doesn’t take a baseball analyst to tell you that a guy with a .400 BABIP and a 2.2% walk rate will see his production plummet in short order. Maybe he has a little more left in his hot streak, but pitchers will eventually adjust to him, and it will take him time to make his own adjustments. We see it with young players all the time, and Weeks is no different. There will come a time this season when his numbers warrant his place in the No. 9 spot.

Pennington likely should be demoted, but probably not to the No. 9 spot. He’s not a great hitter by any measure, but he’s surrounded by peers who likewise have trouble hitting baseballs. Even before Weeks’s promotion and subsequent tear, the A’s were still getting a disproportionate level of production from the No. 9 spot. On Pennington’s last day there that spot had a .674 OPS, which ranked third highest on the team. The Nos. 6 and 4 spots were the only ones higher, while the No. 8 spot was just two points behind. That is to say that the A’s have plenty of problems, and the way that they arrange their hitters certainly ranks among them.

For a team with as many offensive problems as Oakland, it seems curious, at first glance, that they’d be batting their best producers at the bottom of the order. Upon closer examination it’s not that simple. Weeks will come back down to earth eventually, as will the A’s numbers from that last lineup spot. But even before him they had a curious construction. Lineup order might not make a huge difference, but for the A’s, a team that doesn’t hit with much power, having the best hitters bunched atop the order is even more important. They might not be able to do much about it, but they can certainly do something. Getting some of that No. 9 production higher in the lineup will be a good start.