It’s hard to find a more challenging season for Billy Beane than the one that ended in October. Sure, the Oakland Athletics have had playoff disappointments in the past, but they proved that Moneyball and advanced statistics could truly be used to go toe-to-toe with the high payroll giants of the American League. Last season, the A’s won 68 games. They finished with a Pythagorean win-loss record of 77-85 and an 80-82 BaseRuns record. Neither of those marks would have gotten them into the postseason, but a first half full of statistical anomalies transformed playoff hopes into a lost season.
As awful as Marcus Semien seemed to be defensively (UZR and DRS disagree), the Athletics were actually a pretty solid defensive squad overall. They were 20th in FIP and 18th in xFIP, but the Athletics rely on pitch-to-contact guys to fill out the rotation because O.co Coliseum is such a terrible park for offense, with high walls, marine air, and enough foul territory to match a small country in area. The offense was 23rd in wOBA with its use of platoons and lack of impact bats. All in all, this wasn’t a bad team, certainly not as bad as its record would indicate.
So, what happened? Well, Oakland was 19-35 in one-run games. They were 20-33 heading into June and had a 3-15 record in one-run games. As you see, they were 16-20 in one-run decisions the rest of the way, which is much closer to normal. Teams are generally plus or minus five games in one-run record. Anything well above or below that is subject to regression the following season.
As is often the case in a small market, the A’s were in last place with no playoff hopes and the fire sale began, as Scott Kazmir, Tyler Clippard, and Ben Zobrist were all traded. Oakland went 27-44 in the second half, even though they were 11-13 in one-run games. It’s hard to keep coming to the park every day in a lost season and the month of September is loaded with division games. Oakland was playing effectively three teams fighting for the postseason and that led to an 8-19 month.
Perception is very low on Oakland, who is being labeled the only team in the American League without a shot at the postseason. Is that a fair assessment? Will the anomalies of last season regress in a positive way to turn the A’s into a contender? Teams in small markets, like Oakland, simply try to put a competitive team on the field by using platoons and minor advantages in hopes that luck, variance, and the BABIP gods will be on their side. Is there more than blind hope and luck here for over bettors to take a shot?
Season win total odds:
BetOnline: 76 (-115/-115)
5Dimes: 75.5 (-135/105)
Bovada: 75.5 (-115/-115)
Key additions: Khris Davis, Ryan Madson, John Axford, Yonder Alonso, Jed Lowrie, Rich Hill, Liam Hendriks, Marc Rzepczynski, Henderson Alvarez, Chris Coghlan
Key losses: Edward Mujica, Jesse Chavez, Craig Gentry, Ike Davis, Jacob Nottingham, Brett Lawrie, Aaron Brooks
Billy Beane and new GM David Forst have been extremely busy this winter. Beane was elevated to the title of Executive VP of Baseball Operations, which seems to be the trendy thing to do in MLB front offices. Many are labeled Team President. Others get that title.
In any event, you really have to like what the Athletics have done this winter. They were one of the teams at the forefront in terms the current trend of allocating large percentages of payroll to the bullpen and the Madson and Axford signings certainly support the business model that they have adopted over the last few seasons. Acquiring Liam Hendriks and Marc Rzepczynski completes the overhaul of a bullpen that needed one.
Khris Davis is a controlled bat with power upside to fill a corner outfield spot and Yonder Alonso and Jed Lowrie are both Major League hitters. Lowrie actually spent a couple seasons with the A’s in 2013 and 2014, so he’s very familiar with how things go and he’ll be the starting second baseman. Rich Hill and Henderson Alvarez are lottery tickets. Hill shined in a four-start sample for Boston and Alvarez’s arsenal plays up in a park like Oakland, but he is coming off of a major injury. Chris Coghlan is a nice little platoon bat for a low cost in Aaron Brooks.
The losses are not that significant. Jesse Chavez was a valuable swingman, but his innings can be replaced. Brett Lawrie is replaced by Lowrie. Jacob Nottingham was acquired in the Scott Kazmir deal, so the Athletics, in essence, traded an impending free agent in Kazmir for a controlled slugger in Davis. Oakland traded from some minor league depth this winter.
Why bet the over?
Regression is the biggest reason. A lot of people hear regression and immediately gravitate towards the negative connotation of that word. In this case, positive regression should come Oakland’s way. The A’s were 19-35 in one-run games, which will not happen again. Simply going 27-27 in those games would have elevated them to 76 wins. Until they gave up 188 runs in September, the A’s were +21 in run differential over the first 132 games of the season. The way they finished the season and the perception biases of Athletics offseasons will create value on this team, both from a season-long standpoint and a game-by-game standpoint early on.
Oakland was 34-47 at home, despite a +11 run differential. Teams are able to construct rosters based on their home field advantages and that is something that Oakland has done with a large measure of success over the last 16 years. The Athletics don’t have to spend big money on pitching because they find pitch-to-contact, generally fly ball guys, that can have success at home and they hope for some decent starts on the road. Even when Oakland went 74-88 in 2011, they were 43-38 at home. I would expect significant positive regression with that home record.
Between injuries, trades, and ineffectiveness, the A’s used 30 pitchers last season. That is the most in franchise history. The next highest number of pitchers to appear in a game was 27, with the 1955 Kansas City Athletics and the 1915 Philadelphia Athletics. Thirteen different pitchers started a game. Scott Kazmir was traded after 18 starts. Jesse Hahn got hurt. Drew Pomeranz went to the bullpen. Sean Nolin made six starts and was DFA’d this winter. Barry Zito got a couple of nostalgia starts. Kendall Graveman started in MLB, went to the minors, and then came back. It’s hard to project that much uncertainty and turnover this season.
It’s clear that Billy Beane and his staff believe that this team can contend, otherwise Josh Reddick would have been traded this offseason. Now, Reddick could be one of the better free agent bats at the Trade Deadline, but he led the team in fWAR last season and was also its best qualified hitter. His power came back with 20 home runs and his defense didn’t cut into his offensive production. A bounce back season defensively and similar offensive numbers will make him a very valuable player.
Platoon advantages are the MO in Oakland and they have some good ones here. Danny Valencia mauled left-handed pitching last season and made some significant strides against righties as well. Those may not be sustainable, but he’ll keep bashing lefties and is a serviceable defender at a handful of positions. Mark Canha had reverse platoon splits, hitting righties better than lefties, but his minor league splits showed better performance against lefties. Canha has good power and may simply be a little bit of a late bloomer in his age-27 season. Marcus Semien owned a .329/.372/.507 slash against lefties and it all added up to a .377 wOBA and a 144 wRC+. He’s 29 percent above league average against lefties in his career.
Yonder Alonso is 12 percent above league average for his career against right-handed pitching with good walk rates and a great contact rate. Stephen Vogt hit 17 home runs against righties and posted a 128 wRC+. Vogt tailed off in the second half, but more options and more depth should allow him the ability to pace himself throughout the season. Reddick has had 140 and 129 wRC+ marks over the last two seasons against right-handed pitching.
One of the few guys without huge platoon splits is recent acquisition Khris Davis. Davis adds a nice element of power to this lineup. He’s a big swinger with some holes, but he worked counts last season and posted a 10 percent walk rate. Davis will see a drop in his offensive numbers because Miller Park is so much better for hitters than O.co Coliseum, but he should still be an above average hitter and patience will be stressed even more in a place like Oakland.
On the pitching side of things, this is a very interesting rotation that actually has some good upside. Everybody knows about Sonny Gray. The Vanderbilt product isn’t a big guy, a 5-foot-11, 195 pounds, but an intriguing arsenal. He’s got a very good two-seamer to complement a quality fastball. He throws a curveball that doubles as a slider with the movement and grip variations that he presents. He also has a developing changeup that got better last season per PITCHf/x pitch values. He induces a ton of weak contact and can get swings and missed when he needs them. Now about 500 innings into his big league career, the tools are there for him to take the next step forward.
One guy that I’m high on is Kendall Graveman. Graveman is an extreme ground ball guy with average command and control, but this will be his second full(ish) season in the big leagues and there’s a lot to like. The A’s got better defensively on the infield throughout last season, so Graveman could get some better batted ball luck. His command profile should improve, since he showed very good command and low home run rates in the minors. His 13.9 percent HR/FB% should regress, pushing his ERA into potentially the 3.75 range. It’s not great, but he’ll be an undervalued commodity and a guy that could really grow into his sinker/cutter arsenal this season.
Similarly, Jesse Hahn and Chris Bassitt are two guys that could really improve this season. Hahn flashed really good strikeout rates in the minors and actually jumped from Double-A to the big leagues with the Padres in 2014, but arm problems took away most of his 2015. He’s got good command and a nice ground ball split. With the O.co conditions and the underlying metrics really liking his makeup, Hahn is a guy that could be a big surprise.
The same can be said about Chris Bassitt, but for different reasons. Bassitt fits the mold of several A’s starters with really good stuff that just doesn’t get a whole lot of strikeouts. He can reach back for the mid-90s with a decent changeup and a very slow curveball. In terms of mixing pitches and changing speeds, there’s a lot that Bassitt can do with this arsenal. In the second half, his batted ball luck ran out, but he posted a strikeout rate near league average.
There’s okay depth here with Henderson Alvarez, who could really thrive in this run environment as a starter with one of the lowest strikeout rates, but a very high ground ball rate. He’s battling some shoulder injuries, so the upside is limited in the early going. Jarrod Parker returns from Tommy John surgery and Felix Doubront has flashes of usefulness at times.
The retooled bullpen is worth getting excited about. Sean Doolittle is hoping for better health after missing most of last season with a shoulder issue. When healthy, Doolittle has shown great swing-and-miss stuff with plus command and plus control. If the shoulder is healthy, he’s a great anchor. Ryan Madson also has a checkered injury past, but he was part of last season’s excellent Royals bullpen and will fit nicely in a setup capacity. Liam Hendriks has plus-plus control and thrived in a relief role last season. His 2.14 FIP was among the best in baseball. John Axford has given up his share of souvenirs, but the thought process here is that O.co Coliseum suppresses long balls, so he could have some value.
Why bet the under?
On teams like the Athletics, a lot of things need to go right and some of those things are out of the team’s control. Luck and variance are critical because these are teams largely built on statistical analysis. They’re looking to buy low on free agents, sell high on impending free agents, and put together a team that has a floor of competitiveness and a ceiling of something better. It’s why the A’s put together squads of “damaged goods”, which is how platoon players are perceived by the common fan. They find back-end of the rotation guys and try to elevate them to higher roles because of the home field advantage. When luck goes awry, like it did last season, the end result is gruesome.
The AL West is pretty solid top to bottom and there are surer things than the A’s. That’s a big part of why people are down on Oakland. Seventy-six of the 162 games on the schedule come against these division rivals and Oakland was 33-43 against these teams last season. One of the ways to eliminate yourself from the postseason chase is to play poorly within the division.
Not many teams have more health questions than Oakland (though a handful of them are in this division). Josh Reddick has been good when healthy, but there aren’t many guys that have performed at the same level year in and year out. Reddick has also battled his share of injuries. Yonder Alonso is another one. Alonso doesn’t really have a first baseman’s offensive profile, though there is some value there in his contact rate. But, he’s been hurt a lot and has posted wRC+ marks of 108, 100, 93, and 111 in his career. The worst year had his lowest walk rate. He’s played over 100 games once in a season.
Stephen Vogt had some offseason surgery and is expected to be ready for Opening Day, but when players spend the offseason rehabbing instead of training, it can have a negative impact on the following season’s performance. This is something that people tend to overlook, in both gambling formats and fantasy baseball formats. Vogt had a terrible second half with a .217/.280/.349 slash and then the injury situation over the offseason. Do we actually know what kind of player he is?
Coco Crisp played 44 games last season and he’s an important part of this team. He walks and manages to be an above average offensive player despite a serious lack of contact quality, but he’s a major injury risk this season. Add that to the fact that Sam Fuld comes in off of a 60 wRC+ offensive season over 325 plate appearances and the outfield depth becomes a worry.
Khris Davis can hit, but hitting in Oakland is a different beast. Davis has been a good power guy, posting a .494 SLG with Milwaukee, but his batted ball profile is not conducive to Oakland’s hitting environment. Plus, as a guy that swings and misses quite a bit, a league change and a bunch of new pitchers is sure to present some problems.
Rich Hill made four starts and parlayed it into $6 million. He hung a 1.55 ERA with a 2.27 FIP and a 2.50 xFIP in that small sample, with 36 strikeouts in 29 innings. It’s hard to see that being anywhere close to sustainable. Hill hasn’t started a game at the big league level since 2009 with Baltimore and he posted a 7.80 ERA in 13 starts and one relief appearance. But, this is how Oakland operates. Find a lottery ticket without a number scratched off and see if it cashes.
Sonny Gray is about the only pitcher not to worry about in this rotation, right? Well, that all depends. Gray is a guy that has enjoyed a lot of BABIP success and his advanced metrics have been higher than his ERA. Gray had a .255 BABIP against last season and a 2.73 ERA. He had a 3.45 FIP and a 3.69 xFIP. Some guys can sustain this because they induce a lot of weak contact. Gray is one of them, but there’s always the concern that luck is not on his side. He’s coming off of his worst season from a strikeout and command standpoint. An ERA in the 3.50 range might be a stretch with O.co Coliseum, but it also might not be.
That Kendall Graveman/Jesse Hahn/Chris Bassitt trio has some upside, but the floor isn’t all that high here either. Hahn has been hurt with “elbow tightness” and “forearm inflammation” of late, which are usually phrases used in Tommy John surgery discussions. Graveman is a pitch-to-contact guy on a team with an infield defense that would do well to be at league average. Bassitt hasn’t proven much at the big league level. Henderson Alvarez is coming off of a major shoulder injury. Jarrod Parker won’t be much help post-Tommy John until midseason or later. Oh, and it was his second Tommy John procedure. The success rate of one has gotten significantly better. The success rate of two is not good.
Then there’s the bullpen, which has a plethora of injury questions. Sean Doolittle opted to rehab his labrum injury rather than go the surgical route. Ryan Madson is a recent Tommy John recipient and did not pitch at all in the Major Leagues from 2012-14. There’s nothing quite like giving a three-year deal to a guy that went three years without pitching in the bigs. I’m always wary of guys like Liam Hendriks that failed as starters in their second seasons as relievers. Sometimes the arm doesn’t respond well.
Pick: Oakland Athletics Over 75.5 (-115 – Bovada)
To say that 2016 season was a strange season for Oakland is an understatement. I mentioned all of the numbers. They were awful in one-run games, which is both a testament to luck and also to a subpar bullpen. They had a positive run differential for 132 games before September struck. In my mind, Major League Baseball is about two things: adjusting and money. Teams without money need to adjust, both organizationally, and on an individual level. Teams with money can spend to hide problems. The A’s obviously can’t do the latter, but I trust what this front office does.
I’m buying this rotation and that’s the big reason for taking this play. I view the A’s as a team that should win no fewer than 43 games at home. That would mean they need to go just 33-49 on the road, which is unquestionably possible. The AL West is a little bit tricky to handicap, but I do like the upside of this team, even if the offense is littered with concerns.
-END OF 2016 PREVIEW
If the San Diego Padres and Boston Red Sox won the Offseason World Series, the Oakland Athletics didn’t even sniff the playoffs. That’s the perception that the A’s enter the season with after trading away Jeff Samardzija and Josh Donaldson, among others. Billy Beane is always trying to adapt and find new inefficiencies to compete in the land of the financial giants. Last season, Oakland spent an exorbitant amount of their team payroll on the bullpen and the results were mixed. Luke Gregerson worked out, Jim Johnson did not, but the A’s only allowed 572 runs last season. Only the Seattle Mariners allowed fewer runs.
Oakland went from looking unbeatable to nearly missing the playoffs altogether. They blew a 7-3 lead after seven innings in the AL Wild Card and eventually fell in extra innings to start the Kansas City Royals train rolling down the tracks. On August 12, the A’s were 73-46. They won 15 of their final 43 games. The A’s had some serious regression to the mean in July, August, and September. Through their first 82 games, the A’s were 51-31 with a +134 run differential. Over the final 80 games, the A’s were 37-43, even though they outscored the opposition by 13 runs. Pinpointing exactly what happened is tough, but Beane is not one to sit on his hands and he certainly had a busy offseason.
It’s admirable what the Athletics have been able to do in this millennium. They won at least 88 games every season from 2000-06 before the league was able to catch up with what the A’s were doing analytically. The popularity of Michael Lewis’s book Moneyball and a new generation of baseball thinkers were scooped up by Major League front offices. As a result, the A’s fell off in a big way, posting just one .500 or better season from 2007-11. Beane has found another working formula and the A’s have won at least 88 games in each of the last three seasons.
What does he have in store for 2015? Oddmakers certainly seem skeptical. The A’s opened offshore with a win total lined at 82.5 at BetOnline. Atlantis Sportsbook opened the same number last Friday, but it’s a two-win increase from what Westgate Superbook opened on Sunday. Bovada opened on Monday at 80.5 and went to 81.5 by Wednesday. All three of these numbers are very interesting, especially when compared with what the Seattle Mariners are lined at.
Key additions: Billy Butler, Tyler Clippard, Jesse Hahn, Marcus Semien, Ike Davis, Brett Lawrie, Sean Nolin, Josh Phegley, Ben Zobrist
Key losses: Jeff Samardzija, Josh Donaldson, Jon Lester, Jonny Gomes, Luke Gregerson, Jason Hammel, Jed Lowrie, Derek Norris, Geovany Soto, Brandon Moss, John Jaso
It’s clear to see why perception is low on the A’s. That’s an impressive collection of talent that left the ballclub and there’s not a whole lot of name recognition among the incoming players. After getting ownership to make a major financial commitment last season, Beane is back to his bargain hunting ways. Most will scoff at the Athletics roster, but Beane is at his best when he’s operating under strict financial constraints. His ability to pull value out of the market is second to none. It was weird to see him expanding payroll and taking big financial chances. Everything seems right with the world when Beane is doing the “rebuilding” that he did this offseason.
Josh Donaldson’s escalating arbitration salary may have been the catalyst behind his trade, but Beane and Donaldson reportedly had words last season and Donaldson is now in Toronto. The A’s picked up Sean Nolin and Brett Lawrie in that deal. Jeff Samardzija, a free agent at season’s end, was traded to Chicago for Marcus Semien and Josh Phegley. Jon Lester signed with the Cubs as a free agent.
What was interesting was that the A’s signed Billy Butler and everybody expected them to be buyers and go for it, but then the avalanche of trades began and the media started the head-scratching analysis of what Oakland was doing. There’s always a method to the madness and people that are low on the A’s are probably forgetting that.
Why bet the over?
The first reason to bet the over is perception. The A’s had a “bad” offseason according to oddsmakers and most of the traditionalists in the media. The A’s traded away bona fide, productive players for lesser names and that never sits well. It wasn’t a good look for the A’s to trade away Addison Russell for Jeff Samardzija, but the idea was that a year-and-a-half worth of starts from Samardzija could be what the A’s needed to get over the hump. Now, it looks like the A’s traded Addison Russell for Marcus Semien and Josh Phegley. That’s a net loss, but it’s not fair to evaluate the trade looking solely at the names involved and the high ceiling of Russell.
We’ll start with Semien. Semien posted good walk rates in the low minors, even though he struggled with plate discipline in his first full Major League season. He has adequate power, especially for a middle infielder, and can play three different positions. One thing that we’ve seen from sabermetrically-inclined teams is that they value versatility. Semien is a versatile player that can contribute in all facets of the game. He’s got some speed. He showed good plate discipline in the minors and some good bat-to-ball skills. He looks like an Oakland Athletic if you look at scouting reports and minor league stats.
Josh Phegley is already 27 and hasn’t been able to stick on a Major League roster full-time, even though the White Sox parade Tyler Flowers out behind the dish five times a week. Phegley has decent power and he’s a good defensive catcher. With the emphasis on pitch framing as the new market inefficiency, the A’s can enhance their run prevention ability. The A’s win by preventing runs. Their ballpark is tailored to not allowing runs. Derek Norris was below average and so was Geovany Soto. The A’s have to find value in players that other teams don’t see and that may be Phegley’s way into playing time.
The Josh Donaldson deal was the big one because he has been Oakland’s most valuable player over the last two seasons. Sean Nolin is exactly the type of pitcher that the A’s look to in order to fill out the back of their rotation. He’s sort of like former A’s southpaw Tom Milone, who was an extreme fly ball guy that often got battered on the road but pitched well at home. Brett Lawrie needed a change of scenery and he’ll get that in Oakland. Moving from hitter-friendly Toronto to pitcher-friendly Oakland is a concern, but the A’s are a better fit for a player like Lawrie and he’s just two years removed from adding a lot of defensive value at third base. Expect that to return in Oakland because it’s a better park to field in.
Derek Norris was sent packing for Jesse Hahn, another pitcher that perfectly fits what Oakland wants to achieve. Even though Hahn was primarily a ground ball pitcher during his cup of coffee with San Diego, his heavy usage of a curve ball led to a lot of pop ups last season and the expansive foul territory in Oakland will lead to more easy outs. The 25-year-old was fast-tracked to the Majors after finishing up at Virginia Tech and a lost year in 2011. Hahn made just 13 appearances at Double-A before winding up in the bigs. There’s some development left to go and Oakland is a good place to develop.
That leaves us with who is actually still in Oakland from last season’s team. Most of what remains is on the pitching side. Sonny Gray and Scott Kazmir tied for the team lead in fWAR among pitchers with 3.3 and both guys return this season. Kazmir shook off some Spring Training triceps soreness to make 33 starts with a 3.55 ERA and a 3.35 FIP. He came as advertised and was a great investment for Beane last offseason.
Gray is one of the most promising young starters in the game. He posted a 3.08 ERA with a 3.46 FIP thanks to a slightly high walk rate. In looking at the A’s for this season, they’re not going to score a lot of runs, but they’re going to be very good defensively and that helps a guy like Gray. Gray has a strikeout rate around league average, but he can eradicate the walks with double play ground balls and also limit their hurtfulness by avoiding extra base hits. Gray and Kazmir form a nice 1-2 combination.
Jesse Chavez should slot back into the #3 starter role after the turnover of last season. Chavez and Drew Pomeranz both posted similar numbers in their 30 combined starts, so there’s good depth in this rotation that includes Hahn and Nolin just a phone call away. Remember that fourth and fifth starters around the league tend to be league average or worse. The A’s rotation should be filled with that are capable of pitching above league average with help from the ballpark and a strong defense. That’s often overlooked by casual fans and oddsmakers.
The addition of Ben Zobrist screams “Oakland A’s”. Zobrist has probably been coveted by Billy Beane for years. He’s the ideal sabermetric player. He provides defensive and baserunning value along with above average offense and he does it at several different positions. The A’s will predominantly use him at second base, but Zobrist is also a good shortstop and a very talented outfielder. As much as the A’s lost this past offseason, they picked up at least five wins above replacement player from Zobrist.
There are two outcomes for Coco Crisp this season. Crisp will either improve his value or continue to decline in his mid-30s. Crisp had a major power spike in 2013 with 22 home runs and failed to replicate just about every stat from 2013 during his 2014 campaign. He started hitting more fly balls, which hurt his batting average, and the power spike was gone. He was also hurt a lot. The spike in walks kept him slightly above average offensively, especially given the park, but it was his drop in defensive value that hurt the most. He should recoup some of that lost value, though it’s not a guarantee.
This season’s buy-low candidate for the Oakland A’s is Josh Reddick. Reddick suffered a wrist injury that zapped all of his power in 2013, but there are some positive signs in his 2014 season that suggest that he will increase in value in 2015. Reddick’s plate discipline stats were the best of his career by cutting his strikeout rate and increasing his walk rate. As selectivity improves, so does power. Reddick only hit 12 home runs – the same total he posted in 2013, but his slugging percentage went up by 70 points. Injuries got in the way again, but I honestly believe Reddick hits 20 homers this season and bats .270 with a .330 OBP. For fantasy baseball purposes, I think he’s a great buy-low guy and I also think he’ll increase his value for the A’s by maybe a full win.
Sean Doolittle did an excellent job in the closer’s role and the A’s seem optimistic that he will be okay following shoulder surgery last month. Tyler Clippard has been one the game’s most reliable setup men over the last several seasons and a fly ball pitcher with great K rates is going to thrive in Oakland. Ryan Cook, Eric O’Flaherty and Dan Otero aren’t guys that most people pay attention to, but all of them are reliable relievers. This is a solid bullpen and quite possibly the best bullpen in the AL West when Doolittle is healthy.
Why bet the under?
It’s all well and good to talk about defensive value, but Oakland needs to find somebody that can hit. Six of the top seven A’s in fWAR from last season are on different teams. The A’s walked a ton, which usually creates good ratings for them in the sabermetric categories, but they were one percent above league average last season. As a team, the A’s posted a .687 OPS against teams with a record of .500 or better last season. Furthermore, the A’s had a .670 OPS away from O.co Coliseum.
If you believe what is being suggested in the win totals numbers, the AL West is going to have a lot more balance this season than the division has had over the last two seasons. Houston is a ton with a lot of helium among oddsmakers and both Anaheim and Seattle are pegged for high 80s. It’s not a stretch to say that Oakland may have the worst offense in the division, depending on how Houston’s high-power, low contact offense performs. No matter how good the pitching staff is, winning every game 3-2 or 4-3 is not easy to do over the course of a long season.
Coco Crisp is declining as a player and the A’s are trotting out a light-hitting Sam Fuld/Craig Gentry quasi-platoon in left field and center field when the inevitable Crisp injury hits. They’re relying on Marcus Semien figuring it out on the fly at the Major League level. Stephen Vogt is going to get a crack at catcher, with Phegley as the backup. Ike Davis, who has not lived up to expectations, is at first base. With the exceptions of Zobrist and Reddick, the A’s face the very real possibility of being below average offensively at every other position on the field.
Once again, the A’s rotation is built for O.co Coliseum and that means that the team will have to hit to win on the road. Everything about the A’s goes back to their offense. Walking is great. Occasionally hitting home runs is great. But, the A’s aren’t going to get many key hits to build innings and score a lot of runs. That puts a lot of pressure on a good, not great, starting rotation and a bullpen that is in a bit of a state of flux with a decent amount of turnover and a concerning injury to Sean Doolittle.
Can the A’s replace the 190 quality innings that they got from Jeff Samardzija and Jon Lester with Jesse Chavez, Drew Pomeranz and somebody like Jesse Hahn? The contributions that Samardzija and Lester made to the team wound up getting overlooked because the A’s completely faltered down the stretch, even though both guys pitched very well. Replacing that kind of quality is not easy, no matter how much Oakland’s pitching conditions and good field inflates performance.
Scott Kazmir managed to stay together for another season, but will that happen again? The velocity gains that Kazmir enjoyed with the Indians in 2013 went away last season, as his fastball averaged 91 mph, a 1.5 mph drop from the season before. He’s had a long medical history and that has to be a concern.
Pick: Over 81.5
I’m so confident in Oakland that I’ll even post this at the higher number offshore, even though Bovada came in at 80.5. The A’s may have lost in the eyes of the pundits this offseason, but they acquired huge value in other places. Ben Zobrist is a game-changer and a criminally underrated player by traditionalists. He’s going to add back the wins that Oakland lost and possibly then some from their flurry of transactions this winter. The A’s are a team built on defense and pitching. It’s not a sexy profile and that’s part of the reason why perception is so low on them.
Seattle is a good team, but as a flavor of the month, it has created some value on the Athletics. Personally, I think the Athletics are worth a look to win the AL West, let alone go over this win total. The people setting these numbers don’t truly understand the advanced analytics side of baseball. They see Josh Donaldson’s 30 home run potential traded to Toronto and immediately chalk it up as a loss. But Billy Beane cut costs and the team is as good or better from a projected WAR standpoint.
This is one of my favorite plays of this series so far and I think the A’s are going to have no problem going over this number. They’re built to win at home and contend on the road. All it takes is a 46-35 home record for us to need a 37-45 road record to go over this total and that is a good way to look at this. The A’s have won at least 48 games at home in each of the last three seasons and know that building to park factor is an important way to build a team at a low cost that can still compete. Take the A’s over and don’t worry about the big names that left.
-END OF 2015 PREDICTION-
For the Oakland Athletics, it was another great regular season that ended in playoff disappointment. The A’s won the American League West by five games, 5.5 if you include Game 163 for the Rangers in their play-in wild card game against the Rays, but were bounced in the American League Division Series by the Detroit Tigers for the second straight season.
There aren’t many secrets left about how the A’s front office operates due to both Michael Lewis’s 2003 book Moneyball and the 2011 movie by the same name that turned a new generation on to the study of advanced baseball statistics. The growth of sabermetrics, originally pioneered in large part by Bill James and Voros McCracken, has forced the Athletics to find other means of data analysis to be competitive in spite of their mid-market status, unappealing location and ballpark for free agents, and other teams starting to apply advanced metrics to their philosophy. Over the last two seasons, the A’s have done that successfully, using their home ballpark environment and platoons to their advantage.
Teams like the A’s continue to find ways to gain an edge. The A’s rank second to the Tampa Bay Rays, another very progressive organization, in percentage of total payroll spent on the bullpen. For years, advanced baseball thinkers believed that spending large sums of money on a highly volatile group of players like relievers was not the best allocation of funds. Now, two of the most analytically-minded front offices are leading the league in bullpen expenses. Like handicapping, finding any inefficiency to gain an edge is one of the chief objectives. The A’s have always been on the cutting edge and this is just another example.
Ultimately, the players still have to perform to their capabilities in the system that they are placed in. For the last two seasons that has happened. The A’s have won 190 regular season games over the last two years, the most in the American League, with a team payroll that ranked 26th and 25th, respectively, in all of Major League Baseball. They project to be around 25th in 2014 as well. Interestingly, the A’s are paying the third-lowest percentage of payroll funds to their starting rotation.
There’s no place like home, even if home includes some occasional sewage backup in the dugout. The A’s are 102-60 at O.co Coliseum over the last two seasons, a byproduct of having a team built to succeed in the pitcher-friendly marine conditions. The offense, a mix of patience and power, has helped the A’s on the road when their pitchers have allowed more runs.
Following back-to-back AL West championships, oddsmakers for BetOnline.ag, 5Dimes.eu, Bovada.lv, and BetDSI.eu all have the A’s at 88.5 wins. 5Dimes has the best over odds at +105, followed by BOL at even money, DSI, and Bovada at -105 and -115.
Key additions: Scott Kazmir, Jim Johnson, Luke Gregerson, Drew Pomeranz, Sam Fuld, Craig Gentry
Key losses: Brett Anderson, Seth Smith, Jerry Blevins, Grant Balfour, Bartolo Colon, Kurt Suzuki, Chris Young
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. That’s Newton’s third law of motion and it applies to most of Oakland’s offseason. The A’s let Bartolo Colon walk in free agency and signed Scott Kazmir to replace those innings. Grant Balfour also left via free agency, so the A’s traded for Jim Johnson. The day that the A’s traded for Craig Gentry from Texas, they traded Seth Smith to San Diego. Brett Anderson was traded for Drew Pomeranz and a minor leaguer. After Luke Gregerson was acquired from the Padres, Jerry Blevins was traded.
What’s impressive about the A’s offseason is that Kazmir can replace Colon’s production, Johnson should replace Balfour, and Pomeranz has similar upside to Anderson that could shine through in a much friendlier park for a fly ball pitcher. In Sam Fuld and Craig Gentry, the A’s get two quality defensive outfielders, and in the case of Gentry, a player familiar with the AL West who, like the rest of the lineup, puts the ball in play and walks at an above average rate.
Seth Smith was a nice platoon partner as a guy with sharp splits that has decent power against righties. He didn’t really work out in Oakland, so the A’s don’t appear to be losing a whole lot there. Blevins was a very serviceable matchup lefty and the A’s will hope that Eric O’Flaherty is healthy enough to slide into that role later this season. A matchup lefty is about the only vacancy from the offseason that the A’s have yet to fill.
Why bet the over?
For starters, this team appears as strong or stronger than the two Athletics teams that have won 190 games over the last two seasons. Between the losses and additions, the A’s certainly haven’t gotten several games worse. The oddsmakers certainly shade win totals on the conservative side. The one thing that is nice about the A’s win total is that they aren’t being asked to go over a high number as a team that is overly dependent on one player. As most small or mid-market teams tend to be constructed, the A’s rely on everybody to contribute. They would be in a better position to withstand a major injury than say the Tigers with Miguel Cabrera or the Angels with Mike Trout.
Like the Indians, the A’s rely on platoon advantages to create above average offensive players at lower costs. “Flawed” players aren’t going to make as much money as guys who can regularly have 700 plate appearances with success against all players. The A’s had a platoon advantage in 70 percent of their plate appearances last season. What that means is that they had an opposite handed hitter against a pitcher.
In the American League last season, right-handed batters hit .259/.328/.416/.744 against left-handed pitchers. By comparison, they batted .252/.310/.395/.705 against righties. Left-handed batters hit .261/.329/.413/.742 against righties and .246/.303/.371/.674 against lefties. The top five teams in platoon advantage percentage last season were Cleveland, Oakland, Seattle, Boston, and Baltimore. It’s no coincidence that four of those five teams were in the top five in run scoring. The Athletics don’t have the big names that Boston or Baltimore have, but yet they’re right there in scoring runs. Platoon advantages are a big reason why. It’s also an element of the Athletics that probably is not factored into their win total. There’s no name recognition in the lineup, but it’s a solid, underrated group. The A’s were 20 games above .500 against right-handed starters and 10 games above .500 against southpaw starters.
The Athletics were among the league leaders in walk rate and slugging percentage. Platoons have a lot to do with that because guys are able to hang around in the Majors with severe batting splits because they tend to hit opposite-handed pitchers for power.
There were some everyday players that did shine and should do the same again, beginning with Josh Donaldson. Donaldson had no shot at winning the American League MVP award because of Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout, but Donaldson posted a 7.7 fWAR last season. He was terrific offensively with a wRC+ of 148, no small feat playing half of his games in Oakland, but he was also exceptional defensively, finishing fifth among third basemen in defensive value as measured by Fangraphs.
Coco Crisp is defying the aging trend with improving plate discipline stats in each of the last three seasons and a big power spike in 2013. Crisp doubled his 2012 home run output last season. Based on the number of balls in play for Crisp, one could argue that even despite the home runs, he should have hit for a higher average last season. His BABIP was just .258, in part due to hitting 22 home runs, but he also puts the ball in play nearly 80 percent of the time. Even if age does catch up with Crisp this season, he’s got 15 HR and 25 SB potential and sets the table for this lineup.
Two guys coming off of underwhelming seasons could certainly be in line for improvement. Yoenis Cespedes saw a huge drop-off in his performance due to an increased strikeout rate and fewer walks. Cespedes was rarely healthy last season, which probably led to cheating a little bit in the batter’s box. The counting stats remained similar, but his slash lines took the brunt of his swing-and-miss increase. A healthy Cespedes should be a better Cespedes.
Josh Reddick also fell victim to regression. His home run per fly ball rate of over 14 percent proved to be difficult to repeat as Reddick went from 32 home runs to just 14. The nearly 90-point drop in slugging percentage zapped most of Reddick’s offensive value. Most of it, however, appears to be injury-related, as Reddick had a sprained wrist most of the season and surgery in the offseason. Expect Reddick to bounce back and be a 20-25 or more HR guy this season.
Both Reddick and Craig Gentry are great defensive outfielders, so the A’s should be able to put players in positions to succeed offensively and also have the luxury of utilizing defensive replacements in the late innings.
Brandon Moss is one of those aforementioned platoon guys. With terrific splits against right-handed pitching, Moss bashed 30 home runs and posted a .904 OPS. Among players with 300 or more plate appearances against righties, Moss’s .904 OPS ranked 15th out of 197 players. Being awful defensively hurt Moss’s total fWAR, but his offensive performance looks legit and should continue.
On the pitching side of things, the A’s likely Opening Day starter will be Sonny Gray. Gray made just 10 regular season stars for the A’s last season, but he was very impressive with better than average strikeout and walk rates as well as a lot of balls hit on the ground. The 24-year-old can get it up into the high 90s with the fastball and has a wipeout curve ball to right-handed hitters. Most importantly, he can throw all of his offerings for strikes. Look for Gray to have a fine season.
Scott Kazmir is the most interesting piece of this A’s staff. After literally restarting from the bottom with the Sugar Land Skeeters in the independent leagues, Kazmir was a huge part of the playoff push for the Cleveland Indians. As Kazmir got stronger and was able to command his pitches, he was terrific, posting a 3.38 ERA and a 2.42 FIP in the second half of last season. His big problem was a penchant for giving up home runs, something that should be neutralized in Oakland. With a lot of foul balls last season that could become outs in the expansive foul territory at O.co Coliseum, those might as well be strikeouts and Kazmir could be in line for a very good season.
If Kazmir is most interesting, Dan Straily is the wild card. Straily has gotten above average swing-and-miss rates during his 191.2 Major League innings, but they haven’t translated into the expected strikeout numbers. But, Straily, a fly ball guy with good control, won’t have to worry about pitching himself into a job because he’ll have one this season. He made 27 starts last year with a 3.96 ERA and a 4.05 FIP, largely because of the strikeout rate, just above average at 19.4 percent. Straily has a lot of upside.
Behind those three, there are some questions, as Jarrod Parker is seeing Dr. James Andrews early next week and A.J. Griffin, who dealt with a loss in velocity last season, has been brutal this spring. Tommy Milone has shown the ability to pitch at the Major League level, especially at home. Milone’s home ERA is 1.24 runs better than his road ERA, which is 4.55. The silver lining that he is an experienced starter that won’t kill the team if they need him to make a substantial amount of starts. Jesse Chavez, who made 35 relief appearances last season, is being stretched out as a starter, something he did in the Blue Jays organization in 2012 and with the A’s Triple-A team in 2013. He showed good control in those outings.
The bullpen for the A’s has the chance to be elite. Jim Johnson will be the closer, bringing his 101 saves over the last two seasons with him from Baltimore. He’s not a big strikeout guy, but his heavy sinker has produced a ton of ground balls during his career. The home run spike that hurt him last year won’t be a factor in Oakland, especially with two friendly road parks in Anaheim and Seattle.
The bridges to Johnson, Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle, and Luke Gregerson are arguably the best setup group in the entire league. Cook and Doolittle were outstanding for the A’s last season with nearly identical FIPs of 2.74 and 2.71 in their 141 combined appearances. Gregerson will reap the benefits of a league change and his advanced metrics put him in the same category of success that Cook and Doolittle are in. Gregerson is rare in that over 57 percent of his pitches thrown are sliders. That makes him incredibly difficult to square up, as evidenced by his low home run rate and career .210 batting average against.
Drew Pomeranz is being groomed as a matchup lefty as a guy with control problems but two plus offerings with a mid-90s fastball and a knuckle curve that can be a deadly weapon against lefties. Dan Otero showed near-elite control last season. The depth of the A’s bullpen, including three bona fide setup men, will go a long way in covering up for some of the lack of rotation depth due to the Parker and Griffin injuries. The bullpen will also shorten games, making it very difficult to come back against the A’s.
Why bet the under?
There are some flaws for the A’s and some guys who will regress. Coco Crisp won’t hit 22 home runs again. That’s almost a given. While Josh Donaldson was great last season, his BABIP of .333 is probably unsustainable in a park like Oakland’s. Expect that to drop at least 20 points, dropping his average and on-base percentage. He’ll remain a strong contributor, but not to the level he was in 2013.
One of the concerns with platoons is that if one of the guys goes down, a lot of the production goes down with it. That’s especially true if the hitter is left handed. Hitters will face a right-handed pitcher nearly 75 percent of the time. An injury to somebody like Brandon Moss will leave a substandard level of production in its wake. It wouldn’t cripple the team, necessarily, but it would make things a bit more difficult as a flawed player would have a lot of plate appearances at a disadvantage. The A’s have a bit more versatility this year with a guy like Gentry, who will be valuable defensively no matter what, but it’s something to consider.
The biggest concern has to be the starting rotation. The A’s have been able to get by without a big name starter because their ballpark is so easy to pitch in. Get a standard fly ball guy with good command and he’ll post an ERA under 3.50 at home and somewhere below 4.50 on the road. The offense and the bullpen do the rest. But, their depth has taken a serious hit this season. Jarrod Parker’s forearm injury sounds ominous and any time “pitcher and elbow” are in the same sentence, as they are with A.J. Griffin, there’s major cause for concern.
While Scott Kazmir was outstanding last season and even worked deep into games on a lot of occasions, the A’s are getting a pitcher who threw some high-stress innings at the Major League level last season for the first time since 2010. There’s no telling how his arm will hold up throughout the season. Kazmir lives on a high fastball and slider combination. If the fastball isn’t hard enough to go by hitters and elbow discomfort renders the slider ineffective, he’ll fall flat on his face.
Sonny Gray has a promising profile, but he does have difficulty with lefties and platoon advantages reached a new high in 2013. Starters can generally get by, but as Gray goes through the league a couple of times, he’ll have to make the adjustments to repeat the same success. It should happen, but growing pains are to be expected.
Ultimately, small or mid-market teams don’t have a massive margin for error like teams that can just throw money at problems or acquire pricey talent to get out of a situation. The A’s have had a lot of things go right over the last two seasons and it will need to continue.
A non-Athletics related point is that the AL West looks deeper, not necessarily stronger, than it did last season. The Rangers have pitching problems, but their offense will be better with Choo and Fielder. The Angels need to stay healthy, but they made some rotation improvements. The Mariners added Cano and have some strong young pitching. The Astros will be a punching bag, but probably not to the level that they were last season.
Pick: Over 88.5 (+105, 5Dimes)
The Athletics are built to dominate at home and play better than .500 on the road. That’s the recipe for winning 90 or more games. Reddick and Cespedes should be much better for an offense that still scored 767 runs last season. The rotation does have issues, but Kazmir should be fantastic pitching in Oakland, there’s a lot of reason to believe in Gray, and the depth of the bullpen will shorten games to around six innings anyway.
All of the signs point to a good season for the A’s. There’s no reason to believe that this team will be significantly worse than last season, especially since their Pythagorean Win-Loss record doesn’t show any negative trends. The AL West is supposedly better, but I’m hardly convinced. Frankly, as good, or better, of a bet as the over 88.5, the Athletics are +200 to win the AL West at BetOnline. With the Rangers rotation issues, the Angels health concerns, and the Mariners not ready for primetime, it’s hard to see any of those teams topping the A’s in the division.