2007 Sabermetric Year in Review: Oakland A’s

Moneyball.  There, I said it.  Stop #11 on the tour: Oakland.
Record: 76-86, 3rd in AL West
Pythagorean Projection (Patriot formula):  79.97 wins (741 runs scored,  751 runs allowed)
Team Statistical Pages:
Baseball Reference
Baseball Prospectus
FanGraphs
MVN Blog:
Athletics Supporters 
More A’s Resources:
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Contract Status
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Overview: Somewhere the wheels fell off the cart.  The much-vaunted A’s approach of on-base percentage Uber alles clearly didn’t filter its way down to the players.  A look through the A’s numbers show that a bunch of key players ended up with unfortunately low OBPs.  Maybe they didn’t get the memo.  Perhaps Mr. Beane is looking at a new stat?  Perhaps it was just a bad year in Oakland.
What went right: Some interesting facts about Jack Cust.  This was not his first season tasting the Bigs.  Cust has actually appeared in an MLB uniform with the Diamondbacks, Rockies, Orioles, and Padres.  He was acquired by the A’s on May 3rd for a PTBNL(!) from the Padres.  Oddly enough, he was in San Diego after spending the 2005 season in the A’s minor leauge system.  The A’s swung and missed on that one too.  He also struck out in 41.5% of his plate appearances, walked in 21.0%, and hit a HR in 5.1%.  That means that in 67.6%, more than 2/3rds of his plate appearances, the outcome was one of those three “true” outcomes.  For some perspective on this, I opened the Lahman database and calculated whether any other player had as high a percentage since 1959, with a minimum of 250 AB, just to keep it honest.  Nope.  In fact, Mark McGwire’s 1998 season (the 70 HR one) was the closest, and he was 10 percentage points behind.  And oh yeah, for a guy who wasn’t on the roster on Opening Day (or even in the organization), he was the best offensive weapon that the A’s had all year.
Travis Buck.  If you knew who he was before this year, you win a cookie.  (Note: no actual cookies will be awarded.)  What have we here?  Strikes out a little too much, but he’s on the right end of the age spectrum for that to be solved in the next few years.  Any 23 year old with an .850 OPS needs another look.  But a reminder, he had 334 PA in 2007.  For a lot of stats, that’s not really a big enough sample to get a good read on him.  It’s not to say that he won’t keep going, just that it’s still an open question.  The thing is that he’s not a good fantasy pick, because he likes to hit doubles rather than HR, but there’s a difference between a good fantasy player and a good player in reality.  I encourage everyone reading this to learn the difference.
What went wrong: Congratulations go out to Jason Kendall, who was the Least Valuable (or perhaps Least VORPy) Catcher of the year in the American League.  I can’t really blame Mr. Beane for this one.  In the two years before signing with Oakland, Kendall put up a nifty .399 OBP in each season and has proceeded to drop off over the last few years.  What’s the problem?  Well, being a 33-year-old catcher isn’t a good idea.  (Maybe a move to the outfield is in order?)  I’d love to say that there was some big reason for Kendall’s downfall this past season, but to look at his diagnostic stats, he’s seen a steady deline in walks and a bump up in his strike outs.  He did have a sudden drop in BABIP this year, but that doesn’t explain the previous two years.  He’s just… getting worse.  It’s amazing that the A’s got a somewhat promising lefty (Jerry Blevins) for him.  Kendall is in a downfall, but still has some name value to him.  So does Britney Spears.
But perhaps nothing can sum up Oakland’s dashed dreams than poor Eric Chavez.  Remember a few years ago when the A’s were trying to figure out whether to sign Jason Giambi, Miguel Tejada, or Eric Chavez long term?  According to RZR, Chavez had the worst range for a third baseman in the American League.  Then there was his offense.  His .752 OPS puts him in league with Melvin Mora and Jose Bautista.  Chavez might have the excuse of the shoulder injury that kept him out of the lineup for the last two months of the year and he’s still only 29.  He’s another case where his medical records will be a better predictor of his stat line than any algorithim, but ummm… I suppose it’s also possible that he just already peaked.
Yeah, that about sums it up: Total number of BB for the team in 2007: 664, good for second in the AL.  Yep.  Good to know that some things in the universe never change.
The obligatory “What I think of the Dan Haren trade” paragraph: Dan Haren.  Scarily consistent.  Pretty good pitcher.  27 on Opening Day 2008.  There’s nothing there to unearth in terms of unknown quantities there.  What did the A’s get back?  Brett Anderson, 19, about a 6:1 K/BB ratio in A-ball.   Carlos Gonzalez, 21, and a pretty consistent .800 or so OPS at all levels, most recently AA for a full season.  Aaron Cunningham, 21, around .900 OPS numbers and some wheels.  Seem like good bets.  It’s the classic future for present trade.  Billy Beane’s playing the multiply by trading game.  Trade one guy now and turn him into 3 or 4 good ones down the road.  An old trick.
I can only wonder what goes on in that man’s mind: Presented, for your consideration.  A 23-year-old lefty submariner who had been a 25th round pick and is festering in A-ball in the White Sox organization.  No one knows that he exists, not even his own mother.  No one, that is, except for one man.  A man named William Lamar Beane.  Mr. Beane sees that in A-ball, our submarining friend strikes out very many hitters and walks very few.  Mr. Beane selects this anonymous lefty with a pick in the Rule 5 draft.  Consistent with requirements, he proceeds to keep the young left-hander on the roster throughout the whole season.  This despite the fact that the young man does not have a discernible fastball, nor does he function above replacement level during his year in the big leagues.  However, instead of jettisoning this left-armed pitcher, Mr. Beane instead assigns him to LOOGY duties hoping that he will find the strike zone.  Mr. Beane has now wandered into an area we like to call The Twilight Zone.
Jay Marshall is a puzzle, but also a clue.  Billy Beane had to know before the season started that Jay Marshall was not going to be an amazing reliever and probably understood deep down that Marshall was a below-replacement-level proposition.  Had The. Smartest. GM. Ever! been playing for the immediate future, he could have signed some random lefty (there’s always a million washed-up lefties out there) or promoted from within, but instead he stuck with this guy.  Why?  This has all the earmarks of a sneaky devious Billy Beane move where he “calls” a guy way before anyone else.  Marhsall is now an Oakland A for the foreseeable future and he’s only 24, which means he’ll hopefully learn a few things in the next few years.  But, projects like that are for re-building teams.  I suppose then, had we been paying attention, we might have seen the trade of Dan Haren coming.  Marshall may or may not work out in the long-run, but it looks like Billy Beane, like a good chess player, has been thinking two or three moves ahead.
If Billy Beane is so smart, why hasn’t he won a World Series?: I made a promise to myself that I wouldn’t reference Moneyball during this post (the oblique reference above notwithstanding).  But, one of the big anti-Sabermetric arguments revolves around the very question above.  In theory, every team has a 1/30 (3.33%) chance of winning the World Series on Opening Day.  In reality, some teams have a better chance than that and some have no chance.  Any way you slice it, winning a World Series takes a lot of luck, no matter how good a team you are or how you approach the problem of team construction.  But let’s say that I’m a Sabermetrician who actually gets to be the GM of a team.  I will look for ways to increase my team’s chances, and let’s say I take a team which usually has a 5% chance of winning to a team that has a 7% of taking home the big prize.  Over five years, what are the odds that in at least one of those years, we’ll be celebrating a title?  About 30%.  Far from certain.  What were those chances before?  About 22%.  So, it’s possible that they’d win without me and it’s not certain that they’ll win with me.  Over a few hundred years, the team is better off with me at the helm, but most fans want results within 5 to 7 years.  It just doesn’t work that way.  If fans understood statistics, they’d understand why that’s far too small of a sample size.  Then again, a Sabermetrician is just a fan who understands the basics of statistics and the scientific method.
Outlook: Re-building.  And it looks like Billy Beane is cashing in his chips to get young kids who look like they have a chance to become something big.  With that said, I’m guessing that the Bonds-to-Oakland rumors aren’t actually real.  The A’s have Jack Cust to DH and why in a rebuilding year should they pay the price that even a steroid-tainted Bonds (assuming he’s a free man) would demand for his services?  Nah, the A’s are basically aiming for a few years down the road.

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