Taking stock after 25 games

By Jason Wojciechowski on April 29, 2011 at 7:30 PM

In my daily recaps, I can end up bogged down in the details of the given game: who hit line drives at who, who missed what pitch by just inches, what hilarious thing Ray Fosse said in the fourth inning. The larger trends and performances can get lost -- I know David DeJesus is struggling, but how badly? How awesome have Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson been, exactly? The off-day yesterday allowed me the chance to take a larger look at where the team stands and how things have been going. Here, then, are 2300 words on just that.

Health

Let's start with the team's injury status, though. Adam Rosales hasn't played. Coco Crisp recently acquired a quad injury, Josh Willingham's back has been tight for a few days, and Cliff Pennington was limited for a few days with an infected sweat gland, but otherwise, the A's position players have been (remarkably, for this team) healthy.

On the pitching side, Dallas Braden came down with a sore shoulder in his third start, giving Tyson Ross his spot in the rotation, and Michael Wuertz was on the DL between Games 1 and 23. Andrew Bailey, of course, hasn't pitched yet this year. As you might expect to normally be the case, then, the pitching has been a little more hobbled than the offense. The A's have been well-covered in this area, though, with Grant Balfour and Brian Fuentes covering the back end of the bullpen for Bailey, a whole slew of guys pitching well in the middle innings so that Wuertz wasn't even missed, and Ross looking a little wild and a little lucky in Braden's stead, but generally ground-balling his way to adequacy.

Strategy

A standard lineup has emerged: Crisp, Barton, DeJesus, Willingham, Matsui, Suzuki, Ellis, Kouzmanoff, Pennington. On the Tom Tango "put your best hitters first, second, and fourth, and your next-best third and fifth" optimization model, this is a pretty good lineup. By ZiPS rest-of-season projections, the A's hitters line up like this:

Hitter ZiPS (ROS) wOBA
Willingham .349
Matsui .344
Barton .341
Crisp .330
DeJesus .316
Kouzmanoff .313
Suzuki .310
Ellis .302
Pennington .299

It seems highly unlikely that David DeJesus is batting third because Bob Geren thinks he's the A's fifth-best hitter, but who knows -- the front office might well have suggested this to Geren for precisely those reasons.

Anyway, Hideki Matsui is hitting too low and Coco Crisp too high, but if that's the only A's lineup problem, they're doing well compared to a lot of teams (who are still doing things like batting Juan Pierre first).

A note on Kevin Kouzmanoff, who I think the A's have properly evaluated as a #8 hitter: ZiPS has this weird belief that he's going to slug .423 the rest of the way and wind up at .415 overall. Here is Kouzmanoff's four-year trend in slugging and isolated slugging:

Year SLG ISO
2007 .457 .182
2008 .433 .173
2009 .420 .164
2010 .396 .149

Count me skeptical that Kouzmanoff is turning back the clock to 2008 this year.

On the pitching side, Geren has gone with Brian Fuentes as the drop-in replacement for Bailey in the closer spot. I'd hoped, of course, for a platoon in the high-leverage innings, with Grant Balfour facing more righties and Fuentes facing lefties. Instead, Balfour has faced 19 lefties out of 40 batters, while Fuentes has managed just 13 lefties out of 51. Given that neither Fuentes nor Balfour are Mariano Rivera, small gains (which have a way of adding up when you use them in high-leverage situations) should probably be sought out. It's hard to get incensed about this, though -- Geren has his positives (four sacrifices in 25 games, two of them from Cliff Pennington, is one example1), so when he's just like any other manager in other ways, I can live with that.

Tactics

The lack of sacrifices was mentioned parenthetically above. That's nothing new for Geren (putting Daric Barton to one side), but that doesn't make it any less a happy outcome.

Geren has gone to the pinch-hitting well with some frequency this year, mainly because he actually has some players on the bench who can outhit his starters:

Hitter ZiPS (ROS) wOBA
Sweeney .327
Jackson .329

Compare this table to the above, and note that Sweeney bats left while Jackson bats right, and you can find yourself plenty of pinch-hitting opportunities. While some may have snarked on Twitter that Conor Jackson pinch-hitting for David DeJesus, the team's number-three hitter, shows just how weak the lineup is, I say it's a smart deployment of resources against a lefty reliever, and even (again, inadvertently?) a classic Earl Weaver platoon: David DeJesus plays defense all game, and late in the contest, if the situation requires and the matchups favor it, you go to your bopper2 off the bench.

The A's only have one backup infielder (Andy LaRoche), unfortunately, which limits the pinch-hitting options -- you can't hit Jackson and Sweeney for Kouzmanoff and Pennington unless you're in a "if we don't tie or take the lead, the game ends this inning" situation, because then you're left with things like Conor Jackson or Josh Willingham playing third base.

To Bob Geren's credit, though, Conor Jackson did play third in Game 12 and Josh Willingham would have played third had the A's come back against Boston in Game 18. These situations could be avoided by swapping out, say, Jerry Blevins for a second bench infielder like Eric Sogard, but that ship has probably sailed. Geren will have another bite at the apple if/when Adam Rosales returns, but I can't imagine the A's keeping both him and Andy LaRoche on the roster and going with a six-man bullpen. Too radical.3

Outside of the closer situation, which is more about strategy than tactics (in that Geren has determined that he will have a solitary closer, and that that closer will be Fuentes, thus limiting his in-game options), I can't quibble with the bullpen management. Grant Balfour has pitched in the highest-leverage situations, Brad Ziegler has faced just ten lefties all year,4 and, with the exception of Fuentes, I've never felt that Geren was going to the well with any particular reliever too often.

Hitting results

The A's have had their struggles at the plate, scoring just 85 runs, down in Padres/Pirates (and Twins!) territory, but if you adjust for their surroundings, as wRC+ does, they're below average (88), but not quite so pitiful, putting three teams in the AL below them instead of just one. On the other hand, the Mariners have hit better, so ouch.

Some of the A's have hit below expectations, but not so horrifyingly as to be able to actually blame them: I'd put Josh Willingham (106 wRC+, 122 career) Daric Barton (92, 111) and Hideki Matsui (94, 123) in this category. Only Coco Crisp has done what you might guess, though he'll probably trade some walks for batting average as the season goes forward. Then there's the Fab Four of A's who have flat-out sucked:

  • Kevin Kouzmanoff, 70 wRC+, 22% strikeout rate, 2% walk rate. Upside? He's hit into just one double play after managing 45 over the last two years. That's like Jim Rice except without TEH FEAR. Also two steals, weirdly.

  • Cliff Pennington, 65 wRC+, walk rate down to just 5% (8.6% career), and it seems like pitchers throw him a lot of strikes (I don't think he's chasing a lot of bad pitches, but fewer than 1/3 of the pitches thrown to him have been balls) because they don't fear him hitting the ball. He's also been caught twice in six steal attempts.

  • David DeJesus, 62 wRC+, enormous disappointment so far. His walk and K-rates are unchanged, but his ISO is basically 1/6th his career score and his BABIP is down at .264 (.320 career). The move from KC to Oakland was going to have an effect, of course, especially on the type of offensive game that DeJesus has, but this isn't even Johnny Damon at this point. It's me playing right.

  • Mark Ellis, 58 wRC+, not enough walks, too many whiffs, BABIP lagging. Upside: his defense has been stellar. Not that you should be surprised.

Defense

You know and I know that errors are not all there is. Still, you could ask the A's not to be the worst in all of major league baseball in that category.5 Beyond that, I don't have a lot of insight on the defense. Nobody has shocked me, either positively or negatively, with their range or their arm. Kevin Kouzmanoff's hands started off poor, but seem to have stabilized.

Baseball Prospectus does not appear to have 2011 defensive efficiency numbers up right now, so I'll have to estimate based on BABIP -- the A's are at .278, tenth in baseball, though that number has to be raised a bit when considering defense because errors do not contribute to a higher BABIP, but do lower defensive efficiency.

Pitching

Excellent, duh. Sure, the errors (again) have artificially lowered the team's ERA: sixteen "unearned" runs have crossed the plate, tied with the Cardinals for second behind the Astros. But the difference between the Astros and the A's is that Houston has allowed a total of 145 runs, worst in the league by 13, while the A's have allowed only 82, a notch ahead of Florida and Atlanta.

The A's are tenth in the league in strikeouts per nine, sixth in walks per nine, and third in ground-ball percentage. In other words, they do all the things a pitching staff is supposed to do. The excellence has mainly been concentrated in Brett Anderson (7 K, 1 BB, 0 HR, 68% (!) GB), Brandon McCarthy (out of nowhere with 6 K, 1 BB, 0.25 HR, and 48% GB), and Trevor Cahill (8 K, 2 BB, 0.5 HR, and 49% GB), but Gio Gonzalez has been solid (too many walks, but leads the starters in whiff rate, resulting in a 3.88 FIP), and Dallas Braden was similarly solid before getting hurt (3.66 FIP, striking out shocking numbers of batters (given his stuff) at 7.5 per nine).

Brad Ziegler has, in no small part due to the usage pattern described above, been the man in the bullpen, with eight strikeouts and two walks in nine innings and a GB% above 80. In sharp contrast to the command-and-control top three of the rotation (top four when Braden is in), the bullpen has had its troubles with the strike zone -- I've mentioned Brian Fuentes and Jerry Blevins in a lot of recaps, for instance. Fuentes's walk-rate is merely mediocre (4.5 per nine), but Blevins's is downright shocking (a walk per inning).

Action items

This is a mix of pie-in-the-sky items and hopes for the players themselves, but what's a memo like this without action items?

  1. Dallas Braden should return healthy. Tyson Ross isn't going to keep the ball in the ballpark forever (no homers allowed yet), and I'm afraid that his swing-and-miss stuff simply isn't being chased because word has gotten around that you don't have to swing until it's 3-1. I want Ross to succeed, I promise, but I have extraordinarily little faith in his type of pitcher. (See also Gio Gonzalez.)

  2. Platoon Fuentes, Balfour, and Ziegler at the end of the game. If the tough innings involve lefties coming up ready to mash, Fuentes should get the call. If you're starting a clean inning against righties, you'll probably look to Balfour fairly often. But Balfour's profile (hard fastball, flyball pitcher) may not work for all hitters -- sometimes you want a junkballing groundball guy like Ziegler to neutralize a power hitter who can catch up to the Balfour heat.

  3. Send Jerry Blevins to Sacramento (does he have options?) and bring up Eric Sogard as a second infielder who can play late in games after pinch-hitting appearances by Ryan Sweeney and Conor Jackson.

  4. Andy LaRoche should get back to eating into Kevin Kouzmanoff's playing time. It's been a good long while since Kouzmanoff has hit successfully, and with LaRoche, whatever defensive advantage Kouzmanoff typically has over the backups may be erased. LaRoche, after all, looked almost competent at short, so he presumably has the range and arm to play third just fine. He's also received high marks for his defense in the past.

  5. David DeJesus (who has started knocking a few hits here and there in recent games) should pick it up with the bat.

Conclusion

The state of the A's is not bad. They've scored more runs than they've allowed, and while there's probably some negative regression in the pitching staff coming, there should be some positive regression in the bats and the hands portion of the defense. I would not say that I am confident that the A's will wind up the year in first place, but I am hopeful, and not in the "it's spring and anything is possible" way, either.

Two notes about this. First, when you throw in that the Rays are tied 
with the A's with just four sacrifices, you have to ask: why does the AL 
East hate America?

Second, none for the Orioles! Buck Showalter can manage for my team any 
day.

  1. Teams below the A's in this department: Red Sox (3), Yankees (3), Blue Jays (2), Orioles (0). 

  2. Yes, "bopper" is relative. It is what it is. 

  3. Sigh. 

  4. This particular trend is sure to continue, given that five of those ten batters have managed hits off the submariner. 

  5. Yes, I know the Astros have made three more errors than the A's. I said major league

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