Monday, March 14, 2011

What to Make of the Oakland Athletics

One of this writer's favorite places to go in the past few weeks is a blog called C70 At The Bat. It's run by Daniel Shoptaw, a writer from Arkansas. A couple of years ago, he started a series in the spring called, Playing Pepper. The feature culls opinions from two to four writers from each team's blog-sphere to answer specific questions about about that team's upcoming season. It's a fascinating concept and in essence led to the formation of the Baseball Bloggers Alliance, an organization that Shoptaw started and currently serves in the office of president. Most writers who start team blogs start out writing as huge fans of the team they cover. But over time, the writing demands a dose of realism to enter their posts. And as such, the contributors have provided honest assessments of their teams for the Pepper series. The lone exception so far has been the Oakland Athletic installment. Those two writers polled were absolutely bullish on the Athletics' season in 2011. Their optimism flies in the face of projections for the team. So who will be right?

First, the Fan has to admit something. The Oakland Athletics play so far away from where this author writes that they often become lost in the shuffle. It doesn't help that they are often mentioned more because of the disastrous ballpark situation than they are about their team. The other times you hear about the team mention the nebulous "Billyball" thing named after their longtime general manager, Billy Beane. With all of those factors in play, the Fan really had to dig to form any concrete opinions of this team. But there is nothing more fun than digging into things about baseball, so it was well worth the trip.

Okay, back to the point of this post. The largest part of the optimism of the Oakland bloggers was about the pitching. And there is no doubt that last season's version of the Oakland A's pitched about as well as anyone in the American League. As is the modus operandi in Oakland, the pitching, particularly the rotation, is very young.  It was this Fan's perception that this young rotation wasn't about fire-ballers who struck a lot of people out. Instead it seemed to be a group of young guys with a strong competitive desire to do well and to push each other to success. And certainly, guys like Trevor Cahill and Dallas Braden show a lot of competitive fire. Braden's was exhibited in the A-Rod incident in 2010 and by his no-hitter.

But the Fan also thought from looking at the stats that they were all pitching better than their xFIPs and had very low BABIP scores. This seems to be confirmed by the projections that predict regression for every single member of the rotation. For one of the few times this spring, the Fan can't take issue with those projections. But don't make the mistake of thinking that means the Athletics won't pitch well. They will. There isn't one starter in the bunch that is projected to have an ERA over 4.00. The projections all predict the rotation will be filled with guys with ERAs in the 3.50 to 3.80 range. That should still be better than anyone else in the American League West. It just won't be as good as the sub-3 ERAs we saw in 2010.

Add to the strong rotation a very good (if not great!) bullpen on paper. The addition of Brian Fuentes and Grand Balfour to an already strong group of Andrew Bailey, Michael Wuertz, Craig Breslow and Brad Ziegler make this a dynamic bullpen if they all pitch to what they've done in the past. Breslow has been one of the best kept secrets in baseball the last two years and his release two years ago by the Twins is one of the few bonehead moves that team has made in recent history.

So yes, the pitching is there for the Athletics to compete. Despite regression projections, they are still the best in the AL West and should allow fewer runs than anybody. But will the 2011 Oakland Athletics score enough to take advantage of the great pitching? Ah, there, friends, is the million dollar question.

Before looking at the projections, let's take a moment to look at context. The Athletics are going to play a bunch of games against its own division. This Fan is no fan of the unbalanced schedule. It gets boring when you are playing the same teams over and over again to the tune of 18 games a season. Even the Yankees/Red Sox rivalry gets watered down when they have to play each other 18 times. But that's where we are and that's what we have to look at. So the A's are going to be playing Seattle, the Angels (whose geographical name will never be correctly mentioned here) and Texas a lot.

When looking at those AL West opponents, the A's won't be facing a lot of great pitching. Seattle has King Felix and a bunch of question marks. The Rangers have a decent rotation, but they aren't dominant that way. And the Angels have Weaver and Haren and then mediocrity. That less than stellar competition within their own division should help the offense beat some very pessimistic projections.

And what of those offensive projections? They are brutal. Here are the projected OPS figures for their everyday players: Crisp (.691), Barton (.719), DeJesus (.713), Willingham (.782), Matsui (.749), Ellis (.648), Suzuki (.668), Kouzmanoff (.679) and Pennington (.647). Ugh! Willingham has the highest projected WARP at 1.8. That IS some serious pessimism.

At face value, those projections are easy to understand. Coco Crisp has been an enigma his entire career. He shows flashes of brilliance and then he goes on the disabled list. At other times, he shows flashes of mediocrity and then goes on the disabled list. But let's say he stays healthy and plays the entire season. If that happens, he should blow away his projection.

Barton just completed his second full season. The first was in 2008 when he batted .226 in over 500 plate appearances. In 2009, Barton fought to get out of the minors and then did well once he got with the A's. And then last season, he led the league in non-intentional walks. So it's easy to see how the projections can be low with only one successful season behind him. To think that he would only garner a 0.6 WARP after putting up a 4.5 WARP last year seems a stretch. The highest projection for Barton that the Fan has seen is 3.5 WARP. That seems at least more plausible than the 0.6 figure. Barton will beat projections. Now if only he could hit a few more dingers and stop bunting.

The DeJesus projection seems fair. But he could beat that if he stays healthy and he's another player like Crisp who has had trouble doing that. Willingham's projection seems too high but upon reflecting on his career, it's probably spec on. Matsui's projection is easy to understand because of his age. But he was much better than people think for the Angels last year. He had a good season, he really did. And there is no reason as a DH that he can't duplicate that. If he does, he'll blow away his projections.

There is little to expect from the offense of Mark Ellis, Kevin Kouzmanoff and Cliff Pennington. They all man the infield because of their gloves and not their bats. They are NOT good offensive players and their projections all seem fair to this observer.

That leaves us with the riddle of Kurt Suzuki. In 2008, it looked like Suzuki was going to be one of the better offensive catchers in baseball. But in 2009, his batting average went down five points, his OBP went down 33 points but he doubled his home run production. That in part helped him come close to the WARP of the previous season. But last year, his hitting fell off a cliff and his batting average, on base percentage and slugging all tumbled. Suzuki has lost all patience at the plate and his walk totals are starting to rival Benji Molina. He has to address that and take a few more walks. The projections seem to split the difference between a down 2009 and the downer of 2010. That seems fair. But if he can (perhaps stay healthier?) get back to his production of 2008, then he can perhaps blow away his projections.

So where does all this lead us? The Oakland writers that started off this piece predict 90 wins. The projections state 83. After working through all of the above, the Fan's conclusion is that they should win 85 or 86 games. Whether that is good enough to compete in the AL West depends on how well the Rangers do. The Rangers are capable of winning over 90 games. But if things don't go well, they could win as few as 85. The Athletics' chances depend on which Rangers team shows up.

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