I have to admit, at first glance I thought this was going to be an easy one. In 2006, the A’s were seventh in the AL in OBP at .340 and made the playoffs. Last season’s team was next to last in all of Major League Baseball in OBP and finished 25 games out of first place.
It’s just that simple, right?
The great Oakland teams of the “Moneyball” era all had one thing in common: high OBP. But Oakland GM Billy Beane is not obsessed with OBP. Beane fixates on performances that the market undervalues. Since “Moneyball” was published, OBP has become an expensive stat. So Beane moved on to the next most undervalued skill — defense. The result? Oakland had the best team Revised Zone Rating in MLB and were 4th in OOZ in the AL.
Of course, great defense isn’t enough. The 2008 A’s found that out the hard way.
But that doesn’t mean the 2009 A’s don’t have reason to hope.
First of all, let’s look at the competition. The Angels took the AL West in 2008, winning 100 games. But their Pythagorean record shows that they probably should have only won 88. They were lucky and good.
Meanwhile, the A’s won 75 games in 2008 — one less than their pythagorean record suggests they should have. Winning an extra 13 games is a big jump. But it’s not impossible.
Trading for Matt Holliday is a great first step towards respectability. Holliday’s .409 OBP probably will dip a bit now that he’s playing away from the hitter-friendly confines of Coors Field, but he’ll still rake. And his defense won’t hurt Oakland. Holliday was second among NL left fielders in both OOZ and RZR in 2008, though he did miss a significant chunk of the season.
What’s next for Oakland? The speculation is Oakland will try and sign Rafael Furcal, who is a solidly average defensive shortstop with an MVP-caliber bat. Best of all, because of his injury-filled 2009 Furcal wouldn’t cost the A’s a single draft pick.
The A’s could use more power in their lineup. The team hit 125 home runs last year, good for 11th out of 14 AL teams and more than 100 fewer than the White Sox hit. Again, adding Holliday and Furcal will help, but more is needed.
Let’s use one of my favorite stats to talk about the Oakland lineup — Offense Plus Defense. Obviously, Holliday is a huge upgrade in left field. And Furcal would represent a major improvement over shortstop Bobby Crosby’s -10.4 runs of OPD. But it’s not like Crosby was Oakland’s only problem last season. In fact, he was one of their best infielders.
Because of his position, first baseman Daric Barton is the A’s biggest liability. Last year, Oakland first basemen were good for -9.1 runs of OPD. That’s simply unacceptable. You can expect Barton to perform better in 2009, simply because he can’t get much worse. But if Barton doesn’t hit in spring training, don’t be surprised to see Beane shift quickly to Plan B (whatever that may be).
Beane just signed second baseman Mark Ellis to a two year extension. Here’s why: Last season, Ellis missed a bunch of time with an injury and, subsequently, Oakland’s OPD at second base was -9. But in 2007, Ellis’s OPD was 23.7, ranking him 10th in the AL.
Regarding the pitching, Oakland’s team ERA was fifth best in the AL in 2008, even though the A’s got almost nothing from supposed ace Joe Blanton in the first half of the season. Losing Blanton shouldn’t hurt Oakland much, and the team’s young starters will be a year older and wiser. That’s the good news.
The wild card is last year’s staff ace, Justin Duchscherer. He came out of nowhere to post a 2.35 ERA in 22 starts in 2008. But, of the 140 pitchers who threw at least 100 innings last season, Duchscherer had the lowest batting average for balls hit in play (.238), meaning he was lucky. You can expect Duchsherer’s numbers to rise in 2009, but maybe not too high. After all, it’s likely Duchsherer benefited as much from Oakland’s excellent defense as he did from luck in 2008.
So after all that, what does Oakland need? Holliday was a great start. Furcal would be an excellent second step. A full year of future star Travis Buck won’t hurt. Buck hit .325 and .403 in parts of four minor league seasons.
It should all come down to Barton. In 2008 he was a trendy preseason pick for rookie of the year. If he realizes that promise in 2009, the A’s could surprise a lot of people. Except, of course, those of us who worship at the church of Beane.
*Paul Moro co-authored this post, so if you hate it don’t forget to direct your nasty comments at him too.