Expectations

By Jason Wojciechowski on April 1, 2013 at 9:03 AM

The magic of the A's 2012 season fades little by little, through the inevitable passage of time and the just-as-inevitable turnover on the roster. As to the latter, Jonny Gomes, credited with massive, if intangible, contributions in the clubhouse (and excellent platoon performance at the plate), is gone to Boston; Brandon McCarthy, Twitter superstar and ace pitcher, when healthy, is a Diamondback; and Brandon Inge, one of the catalysts of the team-wide "Bernie" dance craze even as he struggled with the bat and his health, is on the fringes of Pittsburgh's roster.

What remains, including Brett Anderson and Jarrod Parker, Grant Balfour and Sean Doolittle, Yoenis Cespedes and Josh Reddick, is far from insubstantial, but every day that passes is one more day between now and the astounding sweep of the Rangers in the final series of 2012, the sweep that shunted the mighty Texans into a mere play-in wild card slot (a sudden-death contest they were unable to escape) while the plucky A's took the road straight into the real playoffs. That Oakland was then dominated twice by Justin Verlander in a five-game series en route to elimination is a sidebar. No A's fan could be so churlish as to have expected more from the hometown squad. Indeed, the fuzzy feelings Oaklanders felt for the hometown squad were amply illustrated by the goosebump-raising extended ovation A's fans gave the just-eliminated team after Game Five in October, an ovation that even the victorious Tigers found themselves unable to resist—Justin Verlander tipped his cap to the A's dugout when he had every right to be absorbed in his own boisterous victory dance. How often do you see that?

Much as baseball culture is obsessed with the past, though, the games are played in the present. What do A's fans have to look forward to?

The team has not been wildly overhauled, which is no surprise. The 2012 roster won, first of all, nobody likes fixing what ain't broke. Further, the makeup of the team did not necessitate turnover—the A's had few free agents and few newly arbitration-eligible players who might bust the budget. Thus, at catcher, first, third, all three outfield spots, and designated hitter, either the starter or half of the platoon that finished 2012 will return for 2013. The starting rotation is entirely intact as well, recalling that the departed McCarthy was on the disabled list at the end of the year due to a massively unfortunate (and incredibly scary) line drive to the head. Finally, the three most important members of the 2012 bullpen (Grant Balfour, Ryan Cook, and Sean Doolittle) remain.

So if the A's have returned most of their team and the major turnover (at second base and shortstop) came at positions of weakness (by adjusted OPS at Baseball-Reference.com, the A's had the fourth-worst hitting at second base and third-worst at shortstop in all of baseball), and if 2012 resulted in 94 wins and a first place finish in a tough division, well, then A's fans ought to be bursting at the seams with excitement for 2013. If my interactions on Twitter are representative, fans have reasonable but high expectations. Indeed, a did a brief informal survey, asking A's fans to tell me how many wins they thought the team would have at the end of the year. The average of the ten responses was 86.6, though that's dragged down by two respondents who thought the team would be well under .500. If we put them in their own bucket, the average of the eight non-pessimists was 89.6. There are a few ways to look at those numbers. On the one hand, they're entirely respectable. Who doesn't like a 88- or 90-win team? The Tigers didn't even win 90 last year, after all. On the other hand, it took 93 to get a wild-card slot in the American League in 2012, so if the distribution remains somewhat similar, even optimistic A's fans on average may well be putting the A's on the outside looking in.

And then there's the deep, abiding dread I have as an A's fan that even 89.6 wins is overly optimistic.

Some of this dread is surely a lingering feeling of having been burned by expectations before, such as in 2009, when Oakland acquired Matt Holliday before the season, yet finished 75–87. There are plenty of objective reasons to feel fretful about this version of the A's, too, though.

Injuries: Coco Crisp and Jed Lowrie have never consistently stayed healthy, Brett Anderson has already lost essentially two years to elbow problems, and Yoenis Cespedes was dinged up with various small injuries for most of 2012. The A's put together a significant amount of depth this offseason, but if Anderson or Cespedes goes down, they don't have another ace-quality pitcher or superstar left fielder ready to go.

Also, while the Verducci Effect has no empirical support, it's hard to look at Jarrod Parker going from 136 2/3 innings in 2011 to 214 2/3 in 2012 (counting the minors and playoffs) without cringing, especially since he's had Tommy John surgery and stands just 6'1" without an imposing build.

Career years: With Josh Reddick's plate discipline, will he see enough pitches to hit 30 or more homers ever again? Can Brandon Moss really come anywhere close to a .291/.358/.596 line, especially given that he struck out in over 30 percent of his plate appearances in 2012? Who is the real Josh Donaldson? The one who hit .153/.160/.235 in the first half, or the one who hit .290/.356/.489 in the second? Pitching can't possibly be so easy that Sean Doolittle, who prior to 2012 had faced exactly four batters as a professional, could repeat his 11.4 K/9 with a walk rate just over two per nine, can it? If finding a shutdown lefty setup man is as easy as taking your minor-league washout first baseman who pitched in college and putting him back on the mound, everybody would do it!

Smoke and mirrors pitchers: Neither A.J. Griffin nor Tom Milone is blessed with a wicked fastball or vicious breaking stuff, yet they managed a 3.06 and 3.74 ERA, respectively, in 2012. Milone, at least, is a classic crafty lefty, but is Griffin even a rotation-quality right-handed pitcher with his 90-mph fastball and unremarkable secondary stuff? Ryan Cook fits this category as well, though in a different way—he's got 96-mph heat and a Ginsu-sharp slider, but he frequently appears to have no idea where the baseball is going. He succeeded in 2012 anyway, but his ability to do it again is certainly in question.

Recovery from knee injuries: Grant Balfour hurt himself this spring and Scott Sizemore hurt himself last spring. The A's second base crop suddenly looks very weak, so Sizemore's ability to return after missing all of 2012 will be key. Balfour's injury was much less severe, but with pitching mechanics, the smallest thing can sometimes set off a cascade that alters effectiveness or even results in injury.

There's an extent to which you could engage in this exercise for every team in the league, of course, but the A's, along with the above list of glass-half-empty issues, seem short of Sure Things. If you run through the American League contenders list, you can name a player or three who, while not free of issues or uncertainty, you can pencil in for a star-level performance with a fair degree of confidence:

  • Yankees: Sabathia, Cano
  • Rays: Price, Zobrist
  • Tigers: Verlander, Fielder, Cabrera
  • Angels: Pujols, Weaver, Trout
  • Rangers: Beltre, Andrus

(The Blue Jays are perhaps a notable exception, with Jose Bautista's wrist, Jose Reyes's injury history, and R.A. Dickey's knuckleball providing plenty of room for doubt.)

All of this is not to say that the A's do not have upside: Anderson and arguably Parker have the talent to be in the realm of Weaver, while Cespedes can be as good as anyone. The gap is in the odds you would lay that the A's stars reach their peak compared to the odds that the Yankees' stars or the Rays' stars or the Tigers' stars reach theirs.

In any case, upside isn't the issue. Nearly every team has playoff upside, after all, with only true sad sacks like Houston, Minnesota, and Miami appearing to be completely out of the race before the season even begins. Even fans of the Mets, say, or the Mariners, if you squint and tilt your laptop to catch the light just right, can dream on exceeding their expectations by 15 games and grabbing the second wild card spot. So, sure, we can imagine 95 wins and a division crown for Oakland, and if we can imagine a division crown, we can imagine a World Series, but what can we reasonably expect? What's the middle of the A's range of outcomes?

My view of the answer to that question lies not much lower than my A's fan friends surveyed above, but enough lower that I have little expectation of a playoff run. That is, I see something like 82 wins for Oakland, or 83 or 84 or even 85. Beyond 85, though, I think the team has to either do what it did last year and get massive performances out of unexpected sources, or it has to do what the Orioles did and win impossibly large numbers of close games that should by all rights be coin-flips. All of the above issues with the team, the uncertainties and the fluke 2012 performances and the injury risks and the lack of sure-thing stars plant serious seeds of doubt that this is anything other than a good, solid team with a nice young core. "Good," "solid," and "nice," of course, being the sort of soft-pedal adjectives one uses for an 84-win team.

Baseball Prospectus's team projections, which result from thousands of simulations based on the PECOTA projection system for the individual team members, have the A's winning 83 games. (Disclosure: I write a weekly column at Baseball Prospectus.) On the one hand, that's just one system. On the other, when you compare the results of Dan Szymborski's ZiPS projections to PECOTA, you don't see much difference. Here are the three hitters and pitchers that PECOTA and ZiPS disagree on the most, ranked by difference in OPS or ERA projections:

HittersPitchers
NamePECOTA OPSZiPS OPSNamePECOTA ERAZiPS ERA
Hiroyuki Nakajima734686Ryan Cook4.323.43
Derek Norris692648Sean Doolittle2.333.16
Jed Lowrie703738A.J. Griffin3.674.20

The easiest way to summarize that table is to say that the two systems don't disagree much. Now, maybe there's a bias against the A's in projection systems in general. At bottom, they rely on a shared set of very basic ideas about how baseball works. Maybe many of the A's players defy those general rules in a way that algorithms built to capture the performance of populations of baseball players cannot see. Or maybe the A's clubhouse atmosphere, even in the absence of Gomes and Inge and McCarthy, is going to pump more performance into the players than these cold, unfeeling computers can ever understand. Maybe.

It's hard to let go of the past, and the emotional high A's fans ran on from basically June 12th to the end of the season, as the A's went a still-astounding 68–33 and overcame what maxed out as a 13-game deficit in the division, grabs hold of the imagination like few feelings in baseball can. The immutable baseball rule that "youneverknow" exacerbates those feelings: if the A's did it last year, what's to stop them from doing it again this time around? Who's going to stand up and say they can't?

But there's a difference between saying they can't and saying "the most likely outcome isn't." I would not espouse artificially low expectations for fans to avoid disappointment, but I would suggest that 2012's run was perhaps more improbable than fans would like to believe and thus that the expectations for 2013 are higher than they should be. Nobody can say the A's will win any number of games, but any fans expecting a playoff run seem quite likely to go home unhappy come October.

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