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.