The Two True Outcome Athletics

These aren’t your Moneyball Athletics, or so the saying goes. This Athletics team is thriving despite the third-worst on base percentage in the American League — Billy Beane must have moved on to a new statistic to find his undervalued assets. In any case, after being projected to finish below .500 and about 15 games out of the second wild card, the A’s have already matched their preseason win total and are in the catbird seat for the first wild card — and their offense is the most surprising aspect of their run so far. It’s a phenomenon worth unpacking.

Obviously, the offense wasn’t supposed to be good, at all. After losing their starting third baseman less than an hour into their first full-squad spring workout, the team was left with former non-prospect catcher Josh Donaldson as their only/best option at the position. That left with them with a potential offensive hole at third, a below-average shortstop in Cliff Pennington, a promising but questionable second baseman in Jemile Weeks, a gaggle of un-enticing options at first base, and a Cuban question mark, a tweener from Boston, and a couple platoon pieces in the outfield. It looked like a team that would score fewer runs than they gave up, not a team that would have the third-best run differential in the American League.

And it’s not like things got any easier for the Athletics once they left camp. Donaldson was terrible, Pennington had his worst year with the bat, Weeks regressed, and nominal starter Daric Barton was hurt for a couple weeks and then terrible for two months. In the end, Oakland has used 48 position players, a number that only the Blue Jays, Orioles and Red Sox can top.

Despite the constantly evolving personnel, there are some things you can say about the Oakland offense as a whole. Even as the ninth-best offense in runs scored, they’ve done enough to make this team work. And yes, they have the third-worst OBP in the AL, but that’s misleading. They also have the second-lowest batting average in the American League. Focus instead on rate stats, and the team has the third-best walk rate in baseball. And the worst strikeout rate in the American League. That’s how you get the bad batting average and the misleading OBP — you strike out a lot.

The three true outcome player walks, strikes out, and hits home runs. But the Athletics are in the middle of the pack when it comes to home run power (seventh in the AL). Once again, the counting stat might be misleading — the o.Co Coliseum does not dig the long ball. If you look at a rate stat instead, you’ll find that the team inches towards the top of the league in the power department (fifth in isolated slugging percentage).

Even then, this isn’t a beer-league softball team. They’ve got their two true outcomes, and then dominance in a couple (possibly) undervalued statistical categories has helped them add value to their offense.

The Athletics have added more value on the basepaths than any team other than the Angels or the Rangers in the American League. They’ve stolen 108 bases at a 78.9% success rate (second to the Angels). That might suggest a change in philosophy in Oakland, but really the denigration of the stolen base has always been tied to the success rate. Succeed almost 80% of the time, and the stolen base is an asset.

What else can you say, in general, about a team that now features new starters at six positions? For one, they can pick it. Our metrics have them as the fifth-best fielders in the AL, Defensive Runs Saved has them above scratch and in seventh in their league, and their pitching has allowed the lowest batting average on balls in play in baseball. And this should all improve, given the changes the team has made over the course of the season. Yoenis Cespedes is now in a corner outfield spot, since his defense in center wasn’t as good as Coco Crisp‘s. Cliff Pennington is now at second base, where he’ll mostly improve over Jemile Weeks with the glove, if not with the bat. Stephen Drew should be able to pick it just as well at short. With those changes alone, the team has neutralized their negative defenders at every position but first base. The jury is still out on Chris Carter, in more ways than one.

But we’ve wandered into run prevention, and that wasn’t the point. The point was that these are still your Moneyball Athletics — only two teams in baseball have more unintentional walks — but they’ve added some twists. Maybe it just made more sense to find some “athletic” baserunners to fill out the two-true-outcome lineup. Not only would they provide value on the basepaths at home, where the homers don’t fly as often, but their skill set also probably helps them field well, thereby adding value on the other side of the run scoring / run prevention ledger.

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Graphs: Baseball, Roto, Beer, brats (OK, no graphs for that...yet), repeat. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris.

11 Responses to “The Two True Outcome Athletics”

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  1. David Wiers says:

    I would have a tied in a “Bernie” mention, but that’s picking nits.

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  2. VORP is too nerdy says:

    The A’s have managed to extract significant value from a number of role players. Brandon Moss fills in at 1B/OF/DH and has been pretty successful this season. Johnny Gomes pretty much bats exclusively against LHP and mashes, while Seth Smith bats against RHP. As far as position players go, Reddick and Cespedes have been the only true staples on the team all season.

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  3. Shibboleth says:

    The contracted vowel teams have been such a pleasant surprise this year. Can’t imagine what will happen if they square off against each other in the post season. Probably some kind of universe rippling antimatter explosion.

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  4. Andre the Angels Fan says:

    These A’s are crushing my dreams.

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  5. channelclemente says:

    Sounds like a flounder out of water explanation to me. It seems to me Beane has had some insight that somehow weights the coin flip. I think you’re insight about dynamic stats and Woodrum’s comments about swing planes and GB/FB rates are a sample of where Beane is looking and finding players who drive synergy and not summative statistics.

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  6. j6takish says:

    Sounds weird to say, but power may be the skillset being exploited here. The Athletics have filled their lineup with players who have a lot of power but poor contact skills. Brandon Inge may very well be the poster child for the 2012 Athletics. He is a player who literally has 2 skills, he can play elite defense and he can hit home runs.He Has somehow accumulated 1.5 WAR for the A’s so far despite starting his A’s career at a WAR deficit from his awful month with the Tigers. Were talking about a 2-3 Win over a full season player signed for the league minimum who is accumulating his value solely by playing defense and hitting home runs

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  7. Derek Florko says:

    As Bill James says: Thous shall honor the leadoff walk and the 3-run home run

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  8. Billy Beane says:

    Suck it.

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  9. Will says:

    I think the prevailing characteristic of this team that is being overlooked is race. Over 30 white players have passed through Oaktown this year, and the black players are all American born. Outside of Cespedes you’re looking at a team almost 90% “born in the USA.” Its been that way for most of Billy Beane’s reign. Why would race and/or background become a valued commonailty? Perhaps the “overrated” cubhouse chemistry, or perhaps Beane finds that American born players are undervalued next to Dominicans. Say what you will, it’s one of the most obvious trends Beane has, and never examined out of fear of being called the lunatic fringe or a racist for bringing it up.

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