The Hidden Juggernaut in Oakland

One of my favorite toys here on FanGraphs is the Past Calendar Year split. I like the rolling 365 day line, as it gives us a good view of what a player (or team) has done in the equivalent of the most recent full season they have played. Because the MLB season started earlier this year, the totals don’t work out to exactly 162 games, but it’s close enough to give you the right idea at least.

Just for fun, here are the win-loss records for every team in the American League, using the data from the past calendar year filter.

Team Wins Losses Winning %
Athletics 108 60 0.643
Yankees 97 70 0.581
Tigers 96 70 0.578
Rangers 96 70 0.578
Orioles 96 72 0.571
Rays 90 77 0.539
Angels 84 82 0.506
White Sox 80 85 0.485
Red Sox 81 87 0.482
Royals 78 89 0.467
Mariners 77 90 0.461
Twins 71 94 0.430
Blue Jays 70 95 0.424
Indians 68 100 0.405
Astros 52 117 0.308

While the St. Louis Cardinals have steamrolled baseball for the first couple of months of 2013, the A’s have been winning games at an equivalent clip to STL for the past year. A .643 winning percentage over 168 games is an impressive accomplishment, especially considering that the A’s are still overshadowed by the Rangers, Tigers, Yankees, and Red Sox when people talk about AL contenders. However, none of those teams have even been with 10 games of Oakland over the last year.

Once again, Billy Beane, David Forst, Farhan Zaidi, and company have built a terrific baseball team despite limited financial resources. Unlike the A’s from the Moneyball era as chronicled by Michael Lewis, there really are no home grown “stars” that you can point to as the reason for the team’s success. This team was built almost entirely by acquiring undervalued assets via trade or free agency.

The team’s best player over the last year has been Coco Crisp, who has put together a pretty remarkable stretch of baseball in the last 365 days. Since June 13th of 2012, Crisp has played in 132 games, racked up 590 plate appearances, and has hit .293/.368/.494, good for a .370 wOBA while playing half his games in a pretty extreme pitcher’s park. As a center fielder who also happens to be one of the game’s premier baserunners, the total package adds up to +5.4 WAR, and that’s with UZR rating his defense as slightly below average.

This is not a fielding driven valuation. The only players with significant CF time who have posted a higher wRC+ than Crisp’s 138 over that stretch are Mike Trout (159), Andrew McCutchen (147), and Shin-Soo Choo (145), and those numbers don’t even account for Crisp’s baserunning. We’ve got him adding an extra 7.8 runs of value, so when you factor in that value, Crisp has been nearly Choo’s offensive equal while adding significantly more value with the glove. On a per plate appearance basis, Crisp has basically been the offensive equal of Andrew McCutchen.

Before the start of last season, the A’s signed Crisp to a two year, $14 million contract with a team option for a third season. He’s making $7 million per year to put up the kinds of numbers that are worthy of a down-ballot MVP vote. Crisp has been paid about $2 million per win since signing with the A’s; that’s a remarkable steal given the going rates for talent.

Right behind Crisp is Josh Donaldson, who has racked up +4.8 WAR in the last 365 days, and remarkably, that only covers 114 games and 477 plate appearances. Donaldson has actually hit even better than Crisp, putting up a .375 wOBA/141 wRC+, which is basically a dead on match for Evan Longoria‘s .376 wOBA/143 wRC+ over the same time period. Toss in his positive defense at third base, and Donaldson has played at an elite level ever since getting recalled from Triple-A last summer.

And Donaldson is one of those classic Beane acquisitions, as he was the fourth prospect in the deal that sent Rich Harden to the Cubs in 2008. At the time of the trade, Donaldson was a 22-year-old hitting .217/.276/.349 in the low-A Midwest League. He’d been taken 48th overall in the 2007 draft, showing some offensive ability in college, but this wasn’t a highly valued prospect who has finally lived up to the hype. Donaldson looked like a bust very early on and then improved enough to make himself a fringe prospect who might have a future as a bench guy. Moved out from behind the plate and with a new approach to hitting, the A’s have helped turn Donaldson into a quality third baseman.

After Donaldson is the one Oakland hitter who hasn’t struggled to get recognition for his success. Yoenis Cespedes was something of a splashy acquisition for Oakland, as they gave him a four year, $36 million deal as a free agent before the start of last season. The A’s aren’t generally known as big spenders on veteran international free agents, but they landed Cespedes by giving him a shorter deal that would allow him to reach free agency sooner. It has paid off in a big way, as Cespedes has been a +4.0 WAR player over the last year, hitting .277/.342/.504 in the process. For comparison, Cespedes’ deal with the A’s is basically Cody Ross‘ deal with the Diamondbacks, just with one extra year of team control. I’d call that a nice bargain.

Cespedes actually doesn’t lead the A’s in home runs over the last 365 days, though. That honor belongs to Brandon Moss, who has hit 31 bombs in his 489 plate appearances. The A’s signed Moss to a minor league contract at the end of 2011, after the Phillies outrighted him through waivers and every team decided to take a pass. Moss was called up on June 6th of last year and has mashed ever since, posting +3.2 WAR in the process.

We don’t have time to go through all of the rest of the hitters the A’s have cycled through, but it’s just more of the same idea. They spent $1 million on Jonny Gomes last year, then watched him mash as part of a DH platoon with minor league lifer Chris Carter. Carter was used as trade bait this winter to land Jed Lowrie, who has given them quality production while holding down both middle infield spots. At catcher, they’ve gotten quality production from George Kottaras (acquired after Milwaukee DFA’d him), John Jaso (stolen from the Mariners for a couple of lower level prospects), and Derek Norris (the third prospect in the Gio Gonzalez trade). They got Seth Smith from the Rockies for a couple of nothing pitchers and Josh Reddick from the Red Sox for Andrew Bailey.

Basically the A’s entire line-up came from somewhere else. Donaldson is the closest thing they have to a home grown player, but he was drafted by the Cubs and acquired only when he looked like a busted pick. This is an offense of veteran players that the A’s targeted as undervalued by the other 29 MLB teams, and that motley crue leads the majors in runs scored over the last year. While playing in a pitcher’s park.

You can run the same story on the pitching side. The A’s signed 39-year-old Bartolo Colon for $2 million, then re-signed him for $3 million this year, and he’s been one of the better starters in the American League in each of the last two seasons. Tom Milone was the throw-in fourth prospect in the Gio Gonzalez trade, and has been an above average starter since the day he got to Oakland. A.J. Griffin is a home grown player, but he was drafted in the 13th round of the 2010 draft, and he’s wildly outperforming all expectations for him as a prospect. Dan Straily was even more of a longshot, taken in the 24th round in 2009. The only premium arms they’ve relied on are Jarrod Parker (acquired from the Diamondbacks for Trevor Cahill) and Brett Anderson (acquired in the Dan Haren trade), and Anderson has been hurt for most of the last two years.

There’s not a Mark Mulder/Tim Hudson/Barry Zito trio of All-Star hurlers that every team covets here. There’s no Miguel Tejada or Jason Giambi. The 2012-2013 Oakland A’s are an almost complete embodiment of a team building a winner by targeting players who were undervalued by other clubs, beating everyone else with waiver wire pickups and secondary free agents who weren’t that highly regarded by the rest of Major League Baseball.

With a payroll of $50 to $60 million for each year, the A’s have built something of a juggernaut, almost entirely through bargain veteran acquisitions and looting other teams of their fringe prospects and role players. And they’ve run circles around the American League in the process.

This is probably Billy Beane’s best accomplishment. Getting this kind of production out of these players, in an era where nearly every team has an army of nerds looking for undervalued assets… it’s quite a story. And it’s one that probably deserves more attention than it has gotten.

Can they hang on to take the division from a very good Texas team once again? I don’t know. They’re fighting a bunch of really good teams, and they might not end up playing in October. There’s no “past calendar year” championship to celebrate, but that doesn’t mean we can’t recognize it anyway. 168 games playing .643 baseball with a shoestring payroll full of guys other teams didn’t see much value in. Kudos to the A’s front office. They know what they’re doing.



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Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.


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Forrest Gumption
Member
Forrest Gumption

Considering how Reddick, Young, Anderson, Parker, Norris, Rosales, Sogard, Moss, Cespedes, Jaso have all underperformed dramatically, this A’s team doesnt even look close to being at full strength. If those guys come close to how they were last year (some are showing signs: Parker is coming back, Jaso is looking better, Cespedes got BABIPd to death in his first 2 months, Moss slumped badly but looks to be getting back into gear) then this team might be crazy good.

Bab
Guest
Bab

Agree here. The A’s have compiled a good record while never seemingly running at *full* strength.

Reddick does look like he is gradually getting his timing and confidence back, which would be a huge boost for the lineup. Chris Young is baffling. He looks lost at the plate.

Can’t say that Rosales or Sogard are underperforming. Rosales is basically hitting better than he has in the past. They just are who they are.

Forrest Gumption
Member
Forrest Gumption

Crazy to think Young still has a place on this team, while Michael Choice is just sitting at AAA.

I’d rather see Grant Green & Michael Choice on the team, than Young or Sogard.

Tim A
Guest
Tim A

Jemille weeks too. One thing I can’t figure out, is who goes out when Anderson is healthy. I would put him in the top 3 starters on the team, and with all five performing well right now I have no idea who goes.

Jason B
Guest
Jason B

Are many teams at “full strength” for very long? Sure some seem to get a little luckier than others on the injury front, but every team does have and should have it’s fair share of injury setbacks to deal with. (The A’s depth has helped them stay afloat better than a lot of others, however.)

brendan
Guest
brendan

I’m an A’s fan, but I don’t agree that this team has more upside. Reddick/Young/Anderson and the underperformers doing better will be balanced by regression from Crisp/Donaldson/Colon, most likely.

That said, I’ll take it! winning 60% of games is fun for the fans, even if I agree w/ Dave that texas is probably the better team, and still the favorite to take the division.

Bab
Guest
Bab

I’m not so sure that team batting success follows a strict equilibrium dynamic??? I see what you’re saying though.

Forrest Gumption
Member
Forrest Gumption

@Brendan I disagree with your regression candidates:

1. Crisp has shown a drastically altered approach at the plate: he’s drawing more walks, being more selective and striking out less. You’d be right if he were hitting .350 with a .400 BABIP but his K & BB %s are too much to ignore, and his BABIP is the same as it was last year and league average at .285. He has changed his game, that does not regress unless he decides to start swinging more on the first pitch like he used to. By the way, he currently has a massive 2.2 WAR in 48 games, over 162 (which, I know, he wont get to but still), is a 7.4 WAR season. Which is MVP-level. Pretty crazy, huh?

2. Donaldson has been good since August 14, 2012. He has never played badly in between those times. He actually is a very good ballplayer, his bat has gotten so fast through the zone, players who hit massive opposite field HRs regularly don’t tend to ever regress too much.

3. Colon. He throws one pitch. He throws it for a strike. That is his game plan, and he’s been doing it for years now. Now if youre saying that that 1 pitch, the 89-93 mph fastball, is suddenly going to drop to 82-84 mph, then I guess I can’t argue but I have no idea why that would happen so suddenly, so, again, you dont have a leg to stand on with that though.

BookWorm
Guest
BookWorm

The possibility of a 100-game suspension for Bartolo Colon could certainly cause him to produce less for the remainder of the season. I’m not saying I would agree with that suspension, but it’s a possibility that he might not add much more to this team in 2013.

Jeff
Guest
Jeff

At least in the last start against the Yankees Colon was touching 95 at the end of the outing. It’s scary that a guy that old with that body can bring it like that.

Jasper Francisco
Member
Member
Jasper Francisco

@BookWorm

We need more facts on Colon and a 100-game suspension. We don’t know when Colon’s dealings with Biogenesis occurred, just that he’s associated. It’s possible that his association led to the 50-game suspension last season.

Mike D
Guest
Mike D

Sogard has ‘underperformed’?

Jason B
Guest
Jason B

Yeah, generally speaking I don’t like the notion of “players A, B, C, D, E, and F have underperformed and are sure to get better!” but then the person turns around and explains away why players X, Y, and Z are NOT candidates for downward regression; they’re sure to keep this up, and/or this time it’s different! Best shape of his life! New approach! Etc.

Basically, it’s not a particularly credible approach.

Forrest Gumption
Member
Forrest Gumption

Did you even read what I wrote? There’s stats and much better reasons than “best shape of his life”, which I didn’t say.

Jason B
Guest
Jason B

You’re right of course. Scores and scores of guys will improve, no one will tail off or get hurt. Got it.

Jeff
Guest
Jeff

Is any team ever at “full strength?” Do you think no one on the A’s are over-performing either?

Forrest Gumption
Member
Forrest Gumption

No one’s really overperforming, Lowrie maybe? Donaldson is but he hasn’t had a bad stretch yet, he’s raising his ceiling – we dont know how high it will go. Maybe he’s turning into a superstar 900 OPS+good D 3B.

Young & Reddick are .240 hitters, not a .170 hitters. These arent mysteries.

NS
Guest
NS

Ceilings can be raised, but never lowered. Gotcha.

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