Five Questions: Oakland A’s

After losing cadres of closers, oodles of outfielders, and furlongs of first basemen following the 2001 and 2002 seasons, the Little Engines That Could, also known as the Oakland Athletics, were widely dismissed as serious contenders by some wags, pundits, and Peter Gammons.

In a particularly bizarre thesis, Gammons, following the A’s slow start to the 2002 season, compared Oakland to the legtimately re-building 2002 Cleveland Indians:

The A’s are coming off 91 and 102-win campaigns in each of the respective last seasons with what appears to be one of the best Big Threes of any pitching staff in the game. The Indians are coming off eight years of power and glory, six division championships, two trips to the World Series and seasons of sellouts at The Jake. But now the A’s and Indians are retreating, trying to re-assemble the talent to return to the top in the next two years. The A’s this week essentially sold off Jeremy Giambi, sending him to the Phillies for John Mabry, and by this time next week likely will have shipped out two or three more veteran players so they can afford to sign their draft choices — they have [seven] of the first 39 picks in the upcoming draft — and restock their farm system.

It turns out the Athletics re-stocked to the tune of 103 wins in 2002 and 96 wins in 2003, while the Indians claimed 74 and 68 wins in the respective years. Gammons gets it wrong about 90 percent of the time, but this was bad even for him, and we didn’t need to finish the 2002 season to know it; it was a baseless argument at the time, for reasons which are so obvious they don’t need to be mentioned here.

Flash to 2004, which is not really necessary, because we’re already here. Gone is Miguel Tejada, an MVP and arguably the soul of the club. Gone is Ramon Hernandez, who had a (mild) offensive breakout last year and was generally regarded as a good signal caller. Gone is Keith Foulke, one of the best relievers in baseball. Gone is pitching coach Rick Peterson. Gone is Ted Lilly, who at this time last year had some people (present company excluded) whispering “Big Four.” Gone are two-thirds of the starting outfield, Chris Singleton and Terrence Long, who, despite all their faults were…well, okay, they were terrible, and good riddance to them. Gone is Jermaine Dye, who had one of the worst seasons in baseball history last year and who…no, wait, he’s still here. Never mind.

So once again the A’s have endured an avalanche of player defections, free agent forays, and trades that have some pundits and wags predicting the end of the Billy Beane era in Oakland, especially since the perception is that the Angels are a vastly improved team.

If you’re visiting this website, you know that’s nonsense. Not that the Angels haven’t improved — they have — but that the A’s remain an excellent baseball team, even if not in the way a certain book would lead you to believe. There are many new faces, but a core of old ones — namely Tim Hudson, Barry Zito, Mark Mulder, and Billy Beane — are still around, and they are the ones who make the organization go.

1) Is the A’s offense better this year? Tejada and Hernandez are not Alex Rodriguez or Jorge Posada, but they’re not exactly Neifi-rific, and replacing them with a rookie and a catcher who likes pitchers so much he’s decided to hit like them can’t help.

I know it looks grim, but despite the loss of Tejada, and, to a lesser extent, Hernandez, the A’s offense has improved. Way back in early February, Baseball Prospectus‘ Dayn Perry wrote an article comparing the A’s 2003 and 2004 offenses, using Value Over Replacement Position (VORP) as his metric. Using the magic known as “cut and paste,” behold!

     2003 VORP                                   PROJECTED 2004 VORP
 C   Ramon Hernandez          30.3           C   Damian Miller             5.0
1B   Scott Hatteberg           6.9          1B   Scott Hatteberg           8.8
2B   Mark Ellis                8.6          2B   Mark Ellis               15.4
3B   Eric Chavez              55.8          3B   Eric Chavez              50.7
SS   Miguel Tejada            50.4          SS   Bobby Crosby             18.1
OF   Terrence Long            -8.5          OF   Mark Kotsay              19.6
OF   Eric Byrnes              19.7          OF   Bobby Kielty             16.7
OF   Chris Singleton          -2.3          OF   Jermaine Dye              3.8
OF   Jermaine Dye            -20.6          OF   Eric Byrnes              15.0
OF   Jose Guillen              4.1          OF   Billy McMillon            4.2
DH   Erubiel Durazo           32.2          DH   Erubiel Durazo           22.6
----------------------------------          ----------------------------------
     2003 TOTAL              176.6               2004 TOTAL              179.9

Three runs should not make us run out for chocolate ice cream, but the fact that Long and Singleton are gone calls for some sort of sugary treat. Taking a closer look, we see that Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projection system is relatively down on, among others, Erubiel Durazo and Bobby Kielty, and not without cause.

Kielty was Rey Ordonez against right-handed pitching last year — .216/.328/.328 in 237 at-bats, while playing in two hitter’s parks — while Durazo’s slugging percentage was average at home (.442), on the road (.419), during the day (.401), at night (.447), when I ate chicken (.430) or sushi (.412). Okay, so those last two are made up, but overall Durazo’s season was disappointing; the walks were there, and he was healthy, but as far as Holy Grails go, I’d rather have this one.

I’m worried about the low slugging percentage on the road, but it’s a small sample, and there is a good chance that Durazo will improve, not regress, this year, despite PECOTA’s pernicious pessimism. Look for a slightly higher AVG, about the same number of walks, and a slugging percentage over .500 for Durazo, which will help offset Tejada’s departure.

There is further optimism in the outfield. What the numbers above really tell us is that the A’s outfield was dreadful last year. Basically, they could have thrown Gleeman, Burley, and Gizzi out there and received similar production. In fact, if not for Eric Byrnes imitating Jim Edmonds in April and May, quite possibly it would have been the worst outfield in the history of the game.

Hyperbole aside, that won’t be the case this year. This year’s quartet of Kielty, Mark Kotsay, Byrnes, and Dye — who, if healthy, will easily top his projected VORP — does not have to be all-star caliber to help the club. Further, the A’s will acquire a hitter at the all-star break, maybe even before. At press time, we learned that Mark Ellis was done for the year; though the A’s will go in-house short term, it would not be surprising to see “Vidro, 2B” on the A’s lineup card come July.

Still, we must inject some caution here. The A’s will continue to receive below-average production at first base, catcher, second base, and possibly shortstop and right field. Ken Macha is saying some dangerous things, alluding to possibly giving Eric Karros some at-bats against right-handers. This would have been a bad idea three years ago, but to do it now is almost criminal.

Facing north-paws, Scott Hatteberg (.269./358./.404 in 1,025 at-bats the last three seasons) is not Carlos Delgado, but compared to Karros (.246/.298/.374 in 998 at-bats during the same time)…on second thought, they both stink. Like many people, I was not a fan of the Hatteberg extension, but I’d rather have him than Karros against righties. This is the very definition of “damning with faint praise,” however.

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Meanwhile, Bobby Crosby is a top prospect, but Sacramento is a long way from Oakland. (Well, it’s only about 85 miles, but you know what I mean.) If he can produce what Eric Chavez did his rookie year — .247/.333/.445 — and play solid defense, the A’s will be happy. And while injuries can happen to any club, if we were to assess the A’s injury-risk alert status it would be orange. Kotsay has had back woes in the past, Dye is coming off 67 knee and elbow procedures, Durazo will do some time on the DL, Kielty suffered nagging ailments a year ago (as did Hatteberg), Karros and Damian Miller are not only mediocre hitters but they’re also old, etc. etc.

All in all, however, it’s safe to conclude that the 2004 offense will be at least as good as — or as mediocre as, depending on your place in the optimist/pessimist scale — and more than likely better than the 2003 version. And given the pitching the A’s possess, they don’t need to be bashing like the Red Sox. Though in the past the A’s have emphasized “power and patience,” now the club wins with pitching and defense, and there’s nothing wrong with that.

2) With the exception of a few bumps, the A’s pitchers have been remarkably healthy the last four years. How much will Rick Peterson’s loss affect the club?

Short term? It won’t. Long term? It won’t. Will Carroll, a name that is no doubt familiar to THT readers, thinks it will take time to prove this, but in general concurs.

[Peterson’s effect] is an unknown right now, and it’s a good test of “person” vs. “system” in Oakland. Curt Young has been part of the organization for years, but Harden’s struggled. Young doesn’t look to be much of a tinkerer, but that’s not bad. I think we’ll need a full year to even have a clue, much like Peterson will need more than one year to have much effect on the Mets. But the A’s do everything pretty well. Most importantly, they’re centrally controlled and everyone can articulate what the organization’s philosophy is. They’re ahead of the curve by years, and where only a handful of teams are even on their path, the A’s have done what I advocate in Saving The Pitcher (Carroll’s forthcoming book) for a long time. Just look at the results.

Throwing a baseball 90 miles an hour off a mound of dirt from sixty-feet, six inches away is not a natural process. All pitchers must therefore be considered injury risks, but the A’s reduce that risk as much as they can, and, as Carroll says, the system is established to the point that the loss of one member of the organization will scarcely be felt.

At the same time, this does not mean there aren’t question marks. If there are problems with the A’s staff this year, it will be because Mark Redman was overworked at times last year and will blow out his elbow this year; because Rich Harden will not be able to command his considerable arsenal; because Arthur Rhodes will not recover from an off-year in a set-up role and is being counted on for higher-leverage innings now; because Mulder is still hurt; because Zito, who threw the most pitches in the majors last year, will wear down. If more than one of those scenarios becomes reality, it will not be because Rick Peterson is no longer in town. But you can bet that’s what one of Gammons’ sources will tell him.

Let’s return to Harden for a moment. Many are quick to proclaim him as the next member of the Big Three, but those comparisons are pointless, because trying to cram four pitchers into the Big Three would necessitate bumping one of the original members down to sergeant, and who’s going to do that? Harden is slated to the be the A’s fifth starter, and here’s a sampling of projected fifth starters from some of Oakland’s main competitors, complete with selected PECOTA projections.

                        EqERA    EqK9   EqBB9   EqHR9     VORP
Rich Harden, Oak         4.59     8.2     4.6     0.9     15.2
John Lackey, Ana         4.43     5.9     2.7     0.7     25.1
Gil Meche, Sea           4.73     5.9     3.1     1.2     15.0
Joaquin Benoit, Tex      4.72     7.1     4.1     1.2     12.8
Josh Towers, Tor         4.78     4.8     1.4     1.5     11.6
Jon Lieber, NY           5.28     4.9     1.4     1.2      7.0
Bronson Arroyo, Bos      4.21     6.3     2.3     1.0     15.2
Jimmy Gobble, KC         5.11     5.8     3.2     1.4      9.5

This compilation is more impressive than Dexy’s Midnight Runner’s Greatest Hits, but not as impressive as a collection of ALF Pogs. According to PECOTA, and compared to some names above, Harden is an average number-five starter.

The number that pops out is in the BB/9 category; Harden is the wildest of the group. This is not surprising, because he’s always struggled with his command in the minors, and since major-league hitters not named Marquis Grissom are more patient than those in Sacramento, some sort of adjustment period is necessary. Similarly, with the exception of Jimmy Gobble, these pitchers have taken their lumps at the big-league level. While I’m as sanguine as anyone about Harden’s long-term prospects — his ceiling is virtually limitless — if he is able to best those PECOTA projections in 2004, I’ll be surprised.

Of course, Harden doesn’t need to be Hudson, Mulder, or Zito to help the A’s, because, in a happy coincidence, the A’s already have Hudson, Mulder, and Zito, not to mention the very underrated Redman. Sweet.

3) Are the A’s trying to establish a record for most consecutive years with a different closer?

Maybe. I’m not privy to the machinations of Beane and Co. Facts are facts, though, and for the fourth straight year the A’s will have a new closer, Rhodes, who follows Jason Isringhausen, Billy “Kardiac” Koch, and Foulke in the Official Oakland A’s Closer Procession (the Broadway production is coming soon to theater near you).

But what’s really at stake is whether overall the A’s bullpen is better or worse than it was in 2003, not whether Rhodes can chalk up an “S” on his stat line 45 times. In Houston, where Octavio Dotel should seamlessly replace Billy Wagner as the Astros ace reliever, who replaces Dotel? Okay, Brad Lidge, but who replaces him? And so on. In a sense, the Astros don’t have to replace one player, they have to replace two: Wagner and Dotel. This is not to minimize the loss of Foulke but to emphasize that the A’s are only replacing one player.

Here’s how the key members of the A’s 2004 bullpen stack up, using Michael Wolverton’s Adjusted Runs Prevented. (In the case of Rhodes and Mecir, we’ll use an average of their 2002 and 2001 season numbers, because I think that’s more appropriate.)

Rhodes (19.3)
Chad Bradford (17.3)
Ricardo Rincon (6.6)
Chris Hammond (9.9)
Jim Mecir (6.1)

Simply put, this is an outstanding — and cheap — bullpen. Overall, in 2003 the A’s ranked third in the American League (behind, not surprisingly, Seattle and Anaheim) in ARP. Granted, those numbers were compiled with Foulke (26.5 ARP) closing games, but if Rhodes can return to his 2001/2002 levels, the difference between Rhodes and Foulke (or even between Bradford and Foulke) will not be the death blow to the A’s ‘pen. And while Hammond could turn into a pumpkin, Bradford is not going anywhere, and assuming that Mecir can stay healthy 83 percent of the time, the club will have a high-end bullpen without the millions of dollars being spent in Philadelphia.

All this could change if Rhodes is hurt or ineffective, because then the A’s wouldn’t just be replacing Foulke, they’d be replacing Foulke and Bradford, who, assuming the A’s don’t trade for Ugueth Urbina, would probably be saved for the ninth-inning role rather than the high-leverage seventh- and eight-inning situations.

4) Will all the hoopla over Moneyball affect the A’s?

If it has an effect, it will be that Beane may never be able to trade with the Chicago White Sox as long as Kenny Williams is their GM. Rats. On the other hand, if the A’s fall to 85 wins this year, certain members of the media will be quick to proclaim that the “Moneyball method has failed.” I’m generally less reflexive with praise for Beane than most in the analyst community, and I think some of the praise is not only misguided but also wrong, but on the field, no, of course there will be no effect.

Unfortunately, however, some of the players from the “Moneyball draft” may be under more pressure than normal, because no doubt that same media will direct its ire at them if they are perceived to be underachieving. The reality of the profit-driven corporate media world tells us that if Nick Swisher doesn’t make it, he will be singled out for why the Beane philosophy is bunk, because that is a sexy story.

It doesn’t take a Pynchonesque miasmic haze to imagine this line coming from some writers: “Remember Nick Swisher? One of supreme stat-head/megalomaniac Billy Beane’s Super Seven draft picks from 2002? Well, it turns out Swisher is a complete bust, further proof that baseball players are living, breathing entities, not computer-generated numbers.”

Given how much Beane boasted about the draft, and how much Lewis embellished that boasting, like any good writer would, it’s not unreasonable for the average fan to expect the draftees to excel. But this is not the same thing as taking it out on the rookies, which should be avoided at all costs, because they are human beings, and it’s hard enough to make it to the majors if you’re a normal minor leaguer.

If Swisher or the other six members of his Class of Seven From the First 39 don’t make it, it will not be because of some failed system, but because playing major-league baseball is like wrestling alligators, similar to how William Saroyan viewed writing: you can dabble in it, but attempting to make a career out of it is not the easiest way to earn a living.

5) Is this the year the A’s get past the first round of the playoffs?

What am I, Kreskin? I do know this much: The old saw “You’re only as good as your weakest link” found some teeth in the top of the ninth inning of Game 5 of the 2003 ALDS, when, with two outs, the bases loaded, and the A’s down by a run, Terrence Long stood in the batter’s box against Boston’s Derek Lowe.

We further know this much: if a similar situation occurs in the 2004 playoffs, Long will not strike out looking to end the game, the series, and his increasingly dismal career with the A’s. Though last year’s first-round exit was possibly the most painful yet, that Long is no longer around is a never-ending source of joy for A’s fans.

No matter how weak the A’s weakest link is this season, you’d have to think that the breaks will fall their way and eventually they will pull one of these series out. But nine straight losses in games when they could have clinched cannot all be chalked up to bad luck. The good news is that most of the ghosts of recent playoff failures past are elsewhere. The bad news is that the zero-sum savagery of playoff baseball means that new ghosts await their moment of immortality. For the sake of A’s fans everywhere, here’s hoping those names aren’t “Kielty,” “Harden,” or “Rhodes.”

In Closing…

Since the A’s rely so much on math, let’s borrow the logic from a rudimentary geometric proof to determine how they will do in 2004.

– Any team that no longer has Terrence Long will be better (Universal Axiom #4893e), no matter who else they lose;
– The A’s won 96 games in 2003

– The A’s will win 97 games in 2004.

1) Any team that no longer has Terrence Long will be better no matter who else they loseGiven
2) The A’s no longer have Terrence LongLong has been traded to San Diego
3) The A’s will be better in 2004Postulate (2)
4) The A’s won 96 games in 2003Given
5) Every Oakland team this decade that has lost a former MVP has won one more game the first year without said MVPWhen Jason Giambi left the club in 2001 the A’s went from 102 wins to 103 the following year
6) The A’s have lost a former MVPMiguel Tejada is now in Baltimore
7) The A’s will win 97 games in 2004Postulates 5 and 6

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