Monday, November 10, 2014

Have You Accepted Billy Beane As Your Lord and Savior?

In early November of last year I wrote a somewhat over the top article arguing that Billy Beane should take decisive and potentially destructive action to improve the Oakland A’s.

Beane did eventually consummate two of his patented “fuckin A trades,” but he did so midway through the season, and focused on acquiring star caliber pitching, while I had guessed he would attempt to shore up the weak A’s offense.

I have been patting myself on the back for predicting the Rangers would ship out Ian Kinsler for a flawed power-hitting first-baseman, and I am sure that in retrospect the Rangers would have preferred my proposed Brandon Moss and Alberto Callaspo package, despite its flaws, over the less than princely haul they received from the Tigers.

In the wake of what essentially amounted to a self-immolation in the half of the season and an unnecessarily painful collapse in the AL Wild Card Game to the suddenly unbeatable Kansas City Royals, Beane’s A’s suddenly have a great deal of soul searching to do, and have had about a month longer than expected in which to do it.

So, with your indulgence, I will begin the age old practice of the fan whose beloved team has bowed to the cold winds of winter (or rather the foot speed of Jarrod Dyson) and speculate wildly about the BIG things Beane can do to rebuild the club this offseason. Here I present the first installment in my infinity part series: “Have You Accepted Billy Beane As Your Lord and Savior?”

As wild as this speculation may eventually become, I do intend to maintain a semblance of rationality. Despite the emotional damage inflicted on my A’s fan psyche, I am strangely and calmly enthusiastic about this coming year. 2014 was a year of uncomfortably sky-high expectations. The Oakland A’s… of Oakland, CA… were actually talked about throughout the year as World Series favorites. I know that such chatter goosed my enthusiasm in the first half of the season, and exacerbated my melancholia throughout the late-summer collapse. I can only imagine the impact it might have had on the A’s players. By which I mean that literally my imagination is the only tool I can bring to bear on any discussion of the mental state of the players.

My imagination is the kind of thing that is suited to parsing whether the Democratic Party convention in 1896 would have swung away from William Jennings Bryan if Ben Tillman had been a better public speaker, but it has no experience to call upon regarding how professional athletes think. As I hope I have capably demonstrated, I carry both the non-athletic and supremely nerdy stereotypes of Sabermetrics geeks to their logical extremes.

So let’s start with what the A’s have on the books:
SP: Jeff Samardjza
SP: Sonny Gray
SP: Scott Kazmir
SP: Drew Pomeranz
SP: Jesse Chavez/Jarrod Parker/AJ Griffin

RP: Sean Doolittle
RP: Ryan Cook
RP: Dan Otero
RP: Fernando Abad
RP: Eric O’Flaherty
RP: Evan Scribner
RP: Live Arm Number 42B

C: Derek Norris/Steven Vogt
1B: Brandon Moss
2B: “Eric Sogard- Nedpower!”
SS: “Nick Punto”
3B: Josh Donaldson
LF: “Sam Fuld”
CF: Coco Crisp/Craig Gentry
RF: Josh Reddick
DH: John Jaso

The players in quotations are presumably placeholders, because a playoff contending team would never give someone like Eric Sogard 300+ at bats!... right guys?

Well, to start with, that is a wonderful pitching staff! Even without Jon Lester the A’s are shaping up to be one of the better pitching teams in the league. However, that doesn’t mean they will necessarily be the best at preventing runs, which brings us to the first potential strategy Beane could pursue.

If Defense is 50% of Pitching,* Does That Mean About 47% of American Baseball Pitchers Are Dependent On Handouts From Defensive Players Who Work Hard For their Millions?

*it isn’t, btw.

Wow, Mitt Romney jokes just never get old! Unlike John McCain! 

Ok... I promise I'm done.

In 2014 the A’s were 3rd in ERA, but just 14th in FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching). In short, their solid defense 8th in the majors in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR), combined with stellar pitching and a pitcher friendly ballpark to prevent runs at a championship rate. But their pitching needed lots of defensive help, and the love of the BABIP Luck Dragon to rate 3rd.

So, if the A’s did so well, why am I talking about the defense and pitching? Why not improve on that mediocre offense? Well the answer is that the A’s offense actually wasn’t that bad (9th in the majors in Offensive WAR), and that regression to the mean suggests Beane should act to shore up what was a strength last year to keep it that way.

So, if we are going to do this, let’s go all out. Start by trading for Cincinnati shortstop Zack Cozart, since someone needs to play between Donaldson and whichever blow-up doll we install at secondbase. Cozart is a resolutely terrible batter, “hitting” 26% worse than league average for his career, and improving, if that’s the word, that mark to 44% worse than the league in 2014. But this is the remarkable thing about baseball, Cozart is such a superb fielder that even in his flaming wreck of 2014, he was still worth 1.2 WAR.

Jed Lowrie, who will almost certainly depart the A’s this offseason for a multi-year deal, only produced 1.9 WAR. And though Cozart may take the concept to an extreme, he does illustrate nicely that it doesn’t matter what side of the ball you contribute on!

Then snag Kris Davis from Milwaukee. They have a glut of outfielders and seemed to have soured on Davis after his half-season 2013 breakout. Davis has some serious power, and if his walk rate regresses closer to his minor league stats he has the makings of a solidly above average hitter, but it is his defense that is most interesting to me. This might seem strange considering he was barely above average in UZR this last year, but it is the breakdown of that rating that presents what I think may be an opportunity.

UZR has multiple inputs- Range, Errors, and for outfielders, Arm scores. Davis’ Range rating was, at 7.3 runs, the 7th best among outfielders in 2014, however, his Arm score was a subpar -4.7 runs (12th worst in the majors), dragging down his overall defensive rating. Here’s the thing though, the Arm score section of UZR is notoriously volatile, and is not nearly as important a defensive skill as Range. While Davis’ arm might be quite the disappointment for A’s fans after enjoying the heroics of Yoenis Cespedes and his league leading 12 Arm runs, he presents a potentially interesting addition to an A’s super outfield of Craig Gentry/Coco Crisp/Sam Fuld and the rocket armed Josh Reddick. Plus he can really hit!

At second base, let’s buy low on San Diego’s Jed Gyorko. After an excellent if somewhat hack-tastic freshman season, and with a $35.5 million contract newly in hand, Gyorko pancaked. But aside from a spike in groundball percentage, there is little to suggest why he fell apart so thoroughly. With just about average defense and a small offensive bounceback, Gyorko could be a superb building block at secondbase. Bonus- I would be able to like Eric Sogard if he were a seldom used backup as opposed to a depressing regular.

So, Cozart, Davis, and Gyorko. Fix the defense, add a little pop, and just hope last August and September can be excised from our collective memories!