It's been awhile

By Jason Wojciechowski on June 22, 2003 at 9:29 PM

What's happened in the two months that I haven't written this? Well, the A's have sucked offensively, that's what. After Tim Hudson couldn't get the job done yesterday, ending a seven-game winning streak (for the team), the A's are 6.5 games back of Seattle (though they're 7 up on Anaheim), and a game ahead of Boston and Toronto in the Wild Card. Their record places them sixth in baseball, which is pretty good considering they haven't made their "second half move" yet.

So, let's take a look at the components of the A's current position. We'll start with team-wide stuff, then move to individual reports. First, defense.
How on earth did this happen? The A's have the second best defensive efficiency rating in all of baseball, just a hair behind the Mariners.
They've been turning about 74% of batted balls into outs, while the average AL team is around 71%. That's maybe around an extra out every game, just from defense.

A big part of this is getting Terrence Long out of center. Having Chris Singleton roaming around out there with Long in left and Dye in right turns a lot of doubles into outs. Of course, Long's inability to hit has meant Adam Piatt getting some time in left, which hurts the defense a little. Also, though, we have Eric Byrnes absolutely ripping the ball (967 OPS), basically forcing management to stop ignoring him. He's been playing at Singleton's expense a lot, and though in my one personal viewing of him, he seems to get terrible jumps, he looks better out there than the reports of Long sounded, and the coaching staff says that his defense has improved. Dye's leg has been bothering him, which probably hurts his range, and also forces him to DH or sit more often than he normally would. Long or Singleton have been replacing him, though, so the defensive hit is probably minimal.

The infield defense has been pretty good for awhile, with Eric Chavez emerging as one of the best in the game at third, Miguel Tejada playing a steady shortstop, Mark Ellis being surprisingly good at second, and Scott Hatteberg playing better than expected at first.

Who would have thought we'd come to this after the years of Blowers, Stairs, Spiezio, Ernie Young, and so on?

Have the A's been lucky or unlucky to get the record they have now? Clay Davenport created a three-layered method of looking at this question. First, we ask what a team's record should be given their runs scored and allowed (using the Pythagorean or Pythagenport method). Then we ask whether a team's hitting and pitching components would predict that they'd score and allow as many runs as they did. Finally, we ask about the quality of the team's opponents, and see whether they would score and allow more or less runs against an "average" schedule.

So, from this page, we see that:

  • The A's record is predicted almost exactly by their runs: 42-30 vs. 42.1-29.9, using Pythagenport.
  • They've scored a few more and allowed a few more runs than the components would suggest, so that their second-order record is also almost precisely the same as their real record.
  • Adjusting for quality of opponent reverses the depressed effect on the second order, though, pushing expected runs scored to within 2 runs of the truth and expected runs allowed to within 3. This, then, predicts the A's record, again, almost exactly.

So the A's record pretty much reflects the quality of the team at this juncture.
The Mariners aren't significantly better than they "should" be, either, as they are 0.7, 1.1, and 1.6 games better than expected on the first, second, and third orders, respectively.

What about the individuals who have brought the team to this point? First, who is no longer around? Mark Johnson, who was hardly getting any playing time, was sent down in favor of Adam Melhuse, who's probably a little better with the bat and is also more of a utility player. Micah Bowie is on the DL and Aaron Harang is up. Harang has been put in the rotation, though, pushing John Halama into the bullpen after the team finally got tired of his mediocrity. Finally, Ron Gant was let go and Billy McMillon was brought back up. Gant proved (again) that he can't get around on major league pitching anymore, and he's not exactly a guy you'd use as a defensive replacement, so a sort-of Phelps All Star gets another shot with the A's.

Let's start with the bad first: the offense.

Ramon Hernandez has been a surprise. He's having his best season yet, reversing a few years of decline by posting an 806 OPS, .280 EqA, 13.3 RARP (9th for catchers) line so far. His walk rate is the worst it's ever been, at about a walk every 17.5 PA's, though he's seeing as many pitches per plate appearance as he ever has. His batting average, though, is the best it's ever been, at .284.
His power has also come around, not solely driven by average, as his SLG is almost 200 points higher than his average. Also, his nine homers and 13 doubles are the most he's had in a first half in his career. He's already passed last year's pitiful seven total home runs. All in all, it's nice to see Hernandez finally fulfilling some of his potential.

Mark Johnson really got no shot, only getting 30 PA's before being banished to Raley Field. That said, he managed to make outs in 23 of those 30, leading to a .114 EqA and -2.3 RARP. That's right ahead of Dan Wilson, though Wilson took five times more plate appearances to hurt his team that much. Johnson is a walks fiend (one every 8.8 PA's) and he got three this year, but the big problem was a .115 batting average. Just three hits in 26 AB's wasn't getting the job done. Of course, 30 plate appearances is no kind of sample, so it's hardly fair to judge him at this point. Hernandez has been hitting too well all season to bench him very much, though, so it's a tough situation for Ken Macha.

Adam Melhuse has been better, with a .209 EqA in 21 PA's. He's grabbed two walks in that time, and hit a homer and a double. It's really hard to say anything about him, though, and he probably won't log enough time this year to make any declarations about his ability as a major leaguer, though I seem to recall that he's been a pretty good hitter in the minors throughout his career.

Scott Hatteberg has been off. He's 22nd among first basemen with just 4.6 RARP.
His .265 EqA is disappointing following his .292 mark from last year. One problem is that he's seeing less pitches this year. He's slightly under four pitches per apperance, after seeing 4.15 last year, 4.09 the year before, and 4.22 in 2000. Are pitchers challenging him more? Perhaps. Maybe, though, his 2002 batting average was an upward fluctuation, and this year is a regression to his norm. He's a career .270 hitter, and he's closer to that mark than he was last year. His home run power is off, with just one every 50 at bats or so, but his doubles are up. What's hurt the most, though, is that his walk rate has fallen from .121 to .108. If he were walking at the same rate as last year, he'd gain about 13 points of OBP. I guess to sum it up, this is looking like a down year for Hatteberg, from a lower batting average to less patience to less power. Of course, maybe it all stems from the decrease in patience, though that could be traced back to pitchers having made adjustments and Hatteberg not having adjusted to that yet. Right now, he's on pace to lose about 15 EqR from last year. That's not a huge amount, but it's a win and a half, and it contributes.

Erubiel Durazo has been a very nice addition. He's stayed healthy and produced, putting up a .310 EqA, giving him 18.8 RARP, behind only Frank Thomas and Edgar Martinez among hitters in the "other" category. Durazo's 885 OPS is actually lower than his previous two years, but part of that may be explainable by park factors: Oakland traditionally plays as a pitcher's park, while the BOB is a nice hitting environment. While Durazo's home runs are down, his doubles are way up (this might be the biggest effect the A's park has had, though I'm speculating wildly here). His walk rate of .161 is the second highest of his career, behind last year's .181. That walk rate may have declined due to getting more pitches to hit, though, as he's seeing almost exactly as many pitches in each PA as he did last year, but his average has risen 33 points.
Batting average fluctuates wildly, though, so I wouldn't be surprised to see Durazo fall back to around .275 by the end of the season. If he bumps his walks back to last year's rate, though, he can maintain the .400+ OBP he has now.
Hopefully some home run power can come around in the summer, too, but even if it doesn't, he's a valuable member of the lineup who's doing about what's expected of him.

Mark Ellis started the year hot, but has slumped since then. He's been replaced with Frank Menechino a few more times lately than he had been earlier in the year. He's also been dropped to the ninth spot in the lineup, though I'd bat him in front of Terrence Long if I had the choice. Ellis is 20th in RARP among second basemen, with 6.6, as he has a .258 EqA and 720 OPS. His walk rate has declined ever so slightly, and he's lost his triples (he hit four last year, but none so far this time around), but he's already got five home runs (six last year), and he's hit one more double (17) than he did in 2002 (16). Where's the problem? It's almost entirely batting average based. His average has fallen twenty points, to .252. It's hard to know yet what his true level of ability is in the BA department, so I don't want to make any predictions about whether he'll rebound or whether this is what to expect from him.

Frankie Menechino has barely played (49 PA's), though he's put up a .275 EqA in that time. He's doing his usual thing: walking a lot, not much else. He's a pretty good option for the bench, especially since he makes so little money and can play the three hard infield positions. It's good that the team's confidence in Ellis has not been lost, because more PA's for Frankie wouldn't give appreciably different results, and Ellis would lose development time, perhaps along with confidence.

Where did our MVP go? No, not the Yankee. The one that's still with the team.
Of course, Tejada wasn't the MVP of the league, but he was elected so. This year, though, I don't think anyone would make that mistake. His 709 OPS is pitiful, and his worst performance since 1998. His walk rate is his best since 2000, and his strikeouts are down as well, but his batting average has fallen off the planet, to .230. However, his power is still around, and that average is significantly higher than it was a month ago, so I think Tejada just suffered through an awful early season slump that he's recovering from now. He's 14th among shortstops in RARP, but I think he'll finish up in the top 5 or 6, right around Alex Gonzalez (the Florida one) territory. If this slump had happened in the middle of the season, we might not even have noticed, but since it happened at the beginning, we all saw "Oh my gosh, he's hitting .134," and the season is impacted from there on out.

Eric Chavez has been a little disappointing. His walk rate is down from last year (which itself was up from 2001, but down from 2000), though he's seeing .1 more pitches per plate appearance this year. Unfortunately, along with losing 25 points of batting average from last year (and 22 from his career norm), he's lost some power in addition to that. He's hit some home runs and some doubles, but he's basically just not hitting like the A's need him to hit. He's ranked 10th in RARP, between Aramis Ramirez and Robin Ventura, but the expectation was that he'd be hitting more like what Troy Glaus and Hank Blalock are hitting.
You'd have to call Chavez the third best third baseman in his division right now. I do think he'll bounce back as well, though, especially since his "slump" hasn't been as profound as Tejada's was. Maybe he won't outhit Mike Lowell this year, but you have to believe he'll get up into Bill Mueller territory at least.

What about the outfield? Eric Byrnes has been a joy. He's tenth in the AL in EqA, at .332, he's got a 967 OPS, he's behind only Albert Pujols, Barry Bonds, Melvin Mora, and Manny Ramirez in RARP for left fielders (even though he's played more center recently), and he's a crowd favorite. Where would this team be if Terrence Long and Chris Singleton were still everyday players? I don't want to think about it. Byrnes is the offensive MVP right now.

As good as Byrnes has been, Dye's been that bad. Especially when you consider how much money Dye is making and how little Byrnes is taking home. Dye's hitting .164, has a 489 OPS, and only Darren Bragg has cost his team more runs among right fielders (and that only by .3 runs; the next up from Dye is Danny Bautista, who's almost four runs ahead). Dye has been hurt, and continues to need extra rest, but at some point, he has to start hitting. Hell, if nothing else, I want the A's to get good draft picks when he moves on as a free agent.
About the only good thing I can say about Dye's play so far is that he's still taking some walks. Let's move on.

Terrence Long was going to regain his stroke when he moved out of the pressures of center field, wasn't he? How's a 676 OPS sound? Long is in his third straight year of decline, and he's making Ben Grieve look good. He still doesn't walk enough, and there's still not enough power. He's durable, and he probably plays an ok corner outfield, but unless he hits .280, he has no value whatsoever. Among right fielders (though he's played all over the outfield), Long is just six spots above Dye in RARP.

Chris Singleton has been something of a pleasant surprise with the bat in the limited situations where he's been allowed to use it (he's racked up 164 PA this year). He's got a .266 EqA, which, while obviously not great, results in a positive RARP. He plays good defense, which is all the team wanted, and he's hitting close to .300, which is a bonus. The question becomes why Terrence Long is still even allowed on the field. Singleton is a better defender, he's probably faster, and he's hitting better. What other phase of the game is there?

Adam Piatt has continued to embarass me. I thought he could make a comeback from lack of opportunity and that terrible sickness he experienced.
Unfortunately, he's hitting worse than Terrence Long and has really not earned any more playing time than he's gotten. I never really had in mind that he'd become something special, but I thought he could be a regular or semi-regular player in the major leagues, but every start (and ofer) he gets seems to prove me wrong one more time.

Billy McMillon only came up recently and hasn't had time to impact things to this point. I see nothing wrong with McMillon taking playing time from Long and Piatt, though. Or Dye for that matter, at this point. Singleton, Byrnes, and McMillon looks like an A's circa 1998 outfield (scrap heap!), but that might be the best hitting combination there is, and the defense probably wouldn't be too shabby, either.

With all the doom and gloom above, one would think that this was a last place team. Fortunately, the pitching has been right on target all year. By the Support Neutral measures, the A's have had the second best starting staff in the majors, close behind the Dodgers surprise staff. The bullpen, which has long been a source of stress for A's fans, has steadied this year, resulting in the fourth highest ARP number in the majors, and the best in the "mortals" category (behind the unreal work of Houston, Los Angeles, and Anaheim).

Barry Zito's ERA is a little higher than it was last year, but it's still under three. His OPS against is 18 points lower, and he's dropped his walk rate again. Unfortunately, he's strikeouts are down, and he's been very lucky in the BIPR department (just over .200), so I'm a little worried that he's in for a little decline later in the year. That said, he's fourth in SNWAR, and might be the A's MVP (it's up between him, Mark Mulder, and Byrnes, I think).

Speaking of Mulder, he's been every bit as good as Zito, and has a gaudier record to show for it (10-4). He ranks fifth in SNWAR, just .1 behind Zito, and his 3.26 ERA is 7th in the AL. He's been pretty unlucky in the BIRP category, so his BA allowed is a little higher than we might expect. He gets ground balls, he doesn't really walk guys, he's efficient (just 13.8 pitches per inning) ... what more can you ask? He could make a serious run at the Cy Young this year, especially if he keeps getting enough run support to get wins when he should and balls start falling into gloves for him like they do for everyone else.

Tim Hudson hasn't been quite as good as his counterparts, but he's still 14th in SNWAR and 8th in the AL in ERA. His strikeout rate is on the decline once more, but he's getting more ground balls than he did last year, and his walk rate is essentially the same, so he's still been very successful. He's been unlucky again, as he's only been handed 5 wins, but perhaps this year and last year are just making up for his 20 win season in 2000, when he had an ERA over 4. I'd like to see Hudson be more efficient, but he's only slightly worse in that department than last year, which is significantly better than the two years that preceded that, and he's still pitching pretty deep into games (2nd in innings in the AL), so I can't complain too much.

Ted Lilly has not provided the fourth elite pitcher fans hoped for, but can one really complain about a basically league average fourth pitcher who has more potential than most to bust out and one-hit somebody? Basically, Lilly's been decent, mostly kept the team in the game, and generally been somebody to not really worry about.

Aaron Harang is back as the fifth starter, and while his first two starts weren't good, his first appearance of the year, four innings of shutout relief of John Halama was good, and his holding of the Giants to two runs in 5.2 innings kept the A's in a game they ended up winning. He's not a bad fifth starter, and I would have rather had him than Halama in the first place. We'll see how things proceed, but Harang isn't going to make or break this team.

I might be being a little hard on Halama, though, and the A's might have made a hasty decision to bullpen him. Before his last start as an Athletic, he had a 4.19 ERA. That game against the Twins bumped it to 4.79, but he's brought it back down to 4.30 now. No, he's not great, and yes, he was a sub-replacement pitcher as a starter, but maybe it's more of a tossup between him and Harang than my bias is letting me say.

Chad Bradford has been great. He's 17th in ARP in baseball, with 10.1, the best on the team. He gets strikeouts and groundballs, doesn't really walk guys, goes multiple innings at a time, pitches on consecutive days, and has generally been a great go-to guy in the bullpen. There are guys who make you cringe when they walk in, and there are guys who you feel like you can go to the bathroom and come back with everything stll ok. Bradford is in the latter category.

Keith Foulke has been a steady closer, much nicer than the white-knuckle work of Billy Koch (who's been terrible with the White Sox) and Jason Isringhausen (who's been hurt with Cardinals). Foulke's 8 ARP are second on the team. He gets strikeouts and ground balls, doesn't walk guys, and works very efficiently.
I routinely see 9, 10, 11, and 12 under "pitches" in the box score when he comes in for a save. He's also capable of working more than an inning at a time, though he's generally been used as a 'start the ninth' guy this year. Without a doubt, a big part of Oakland's success.

I'm tired. Maybe I'll finish this later. Then again, the rest of the parts aren't so important. Ricardo Rincon and Jim Mecir are maybe the only two important pieces I haven't talked about yet. Or Jeremy Fikac, who I forgot about, but has been sent to the minors. Maybe I'll come back later and talk about them.