What has been the secret to Oakland's early success?

Strap on your spectacles; we're goin' stat-huntin'!


Heading into the 2012 season, most people expected a very poor season from the Oakland Athletics. Predictions varied from 3rd or 4th in the AL West to, potentially, dead last in the Majors. Most reasonable people braced themselves for a 90-loss season, even after the team unexpectedly signed Yoenis Cespedes.

It is now May 10th, and the Athletics are 16-15, playing above-.500 baseball and sitting in 2nd place in the division. Wait, what?

The team has alternated between showing flashes of brilliance and moments of utter futility. Overall, though, they are playing winning baseball. Even in the early-going, that is not something that very many people were expecting. This leads to two obvious questions:

  1. How are they doing it?
  2. Will they keep it up?

It is these two questions which I will attempt to answer in this post. Get ready for a magical journey through the land of Microsoft Excel; that's right, we're about to dive into the world of sabermetrics! If you are unfamiliar (or just uncomfortable) with advanced stats, I recommend taking a quick look at this Fanpost, which spells things out pretty clearly. All of the statistics used in this article were taken from Fangraphs, who also provide explanations of the numbers. (exception: Pythagorean records were taken from ESPN)

A lot can happen on a baseball field, but everything ultimately falls into one of three categories: offense, defense, and pitching. Let's take those areas one at a time:

***Defense***

The Athletics did not play good defense in 2011, ranking in the bottom third in the Majors in both Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) and Defensive Runs Saved (DRS). In 2012, however, only three regulars have returned to their 2011 positions: Kurt Suzuki, Jemile Weeks, and Cliff Pennington. Everyone else is new. Let's see how the 2012 team stacks up so far:

UZR: -2.7, 19th in MLB
UZR/150: -3.2, 21st
DRS: +8, tie-6th

Defensive stats aren't that helpful after only 31 games, since it can take several years to compile enough data to get a reliable sample. Case in point: According to UZR, Oakland has played below-average defense; according to DRS, Oakland has played so far above-average that they have almost gained an entire win through their glovework (8 runs saved so far, with 10 runs equaling one extra theoretical win)

Looking deeper into where those numbers come from, we can see how individual players have affected the team's performance. Kurt Suzuki has effectively controlled the running game so far, having saved 2 "stolen base runs" (rSB) already. Josh Reddick has a game-changing arm, and has already saved 2 runs with it (rARM). Brandon Inge has only been with the team for a week, but has already saved 3 runs with his stellar defense. Two results which you may not have expected, though: the metrics LOVE Eric Sogard so far, as he has provided positive value in limited duty at each infield position (+2 at 2nd base, +1 at SS, +3 at 3rd base); however, they hate Yoenis Cespedes, claiming that he has lost eleven runs with his questionable play in center field despite his absolute cannon of an arm. You heard it here first, folks: DRS is racist. Shame on you, DRS.

Since defensive stats can be a bit of a mixed bag, it makes sense to apply the eyeball test to complement them. Suzuki has cut down 8 out of 18 base stealers, and is visibly quick and agile behind the plate. It's not unreasonable to suggest that he is a plus defender. The infield is solid up the middle with Weeks and Pennington, but not amazing. Third base looked like a mess until Inge arrived, and now has stabilized. With Coco Crisp's noodle arm removed from left field (-1 rARM in only 132 innings), the outfield consists of two fast runners with cannon arms (Cespedes and Reddick), along with Jonny Gomes, who has stumbled into several impressive plays so far.

Verdict: Neutral, so far. While DRS suggests that the defense has added almost an entire win, I am reluctant to take that as gospel while UZR simultaneously claims that they have been below average. I think that it is safe to say that the defense hasn't hurt the team, and that it is more likely to have been a mild positive. Furthermore, it is reasonable to expect things to improve over the rest of the season. With Inge slotted into the hot corner for the rest of the season, Cespedes looking better every day, and Daric Barton appearing to have re-gained Bob Melvin's confidence at 1st base, I expect that the defense will add a couple of wins to the ledger by the end of the season.

***Offense***

Scouts and statheads don't always agree on things, but there is one statement that they can both get behind: Few teams put the "off" in "offense" like the Oakland A's. They look bad, and the numbers back up that assertion.

OBP: .290, 28th in MLB
SLG: .336, 29th
wRC+: 80, 28th
wOBA: .283, 29th
BABIP: .252, dead last
Eyeball test: Terrible
Contemporaries: Padres, Pirates, Mariners

None of those numbers should come as any surprise to you. The A's have a weak lineup, and even their recent power surge hasn't changed that. You might see that low Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) and think that it could represent bad luck and, therefore, positively regress (that is, go up) as the season goes on. This raises the question: Is the low BABIP a factor of bad luck, or weak contact by the hitters? Let's investigate.

Oakland hitters produce the lowest rate of ground balls in the Majors, at 38.0%. Since pitchers prefer to induce grounders, it would stand to reason that hitters should prefer to hit fly balls. Flies can leave the yard for homers, they can find the gaps for extra bases, and they rarely result in double plays. Fly balls are good, and no one hits more of them than the A's do (41.5%). That's the good news.

The bad news is that those fly balls aren't doing the good things which I mentioned a moment ago. Only 7.7% of all those flies are clearing the fence for homers, ranking 27th in the Majors. With only 49 doubles (22nd) and 1 triple (30th), they don't appear to be finding the gaps either. Rather, that league-leading percentage of fly balls appear to be a bunch of lazy flyouts, complemented by a huge number of infield popouts (13.0% of the fly balls have stayed in the infield, good for 2nd in the bigs; by comparison, 10 teams are under 10% in that area). Since Oakland isn't driving the ball well enough for consistent homers, or even consistent doubles, I have to assume that their low BABIP is not that far off-base. It is mostly the result of a lot of weak contact, rather than a lot of bad luck. (Note: Home runs do not factor into BABIP, but they are a good indicator of how hard the team is hitting the ball; low HR totals suggest that the fly balls are not being hit very hard, in general).

Verdict: Negative. I know, you're shocked. The A's early success is NOT a result of their offensive prowess. The only real surprise is that it took me over 400 words to come to that conclusion. There has been one saving grace, however: Good baserunning has provided an extra boost of 1.7 runs, tied for 7th in the Majors. This has mostly come in the form of an AL-leading 30 stolen bases, with an 81% success rate. That 81% would be even higher, except that Cespedes has been tagged out once after over-sliding the base on an easy steal, to go along with at least one or two instances in which the replay showed that the Athletic was clearly safe despite being called out. The lineup has picked up a bit lately, with Reddick, Gomes and Inge flexing their power in the last several games. The impending addition of Manny Ramirez could help matters as well, but at this point I would recommend assuming that the offense will remain terrible and accepting any positive value as a bonus.

***Pitching***

Ahh, pitching. The one thing that Oakland fans can always count on. No matter how bad things get, we can always look forward to watching Billy Beane's most recent collection of quality pitchers. Let's see how they're faring so far:

ERA: 3.52, 11th in MLB
Bullpen ERA: 2.73, 6th

Nicely done! Just as you would expect, the A's rank favorably in ERA, thanks in large part to a strong bullpen. Par for the course, right?

Unfortunately, no, that is not right. ERA was once the main analytic tool for pitchers, but it has fallen out of favor in recent years. (Note: A more recent analytic tool). Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) provides a more isolated look at pitchers' performances, by removing the effects of the defense behind them. Let's check the two major versions of this metric:

FIP: 4.15, 25th
SIERA: 4.39, 30th

Whoops. Not only is that 3.52 ERA something of a mirage, but Oakland pitchers actually rank toward the very bottom of the Majors when you remove the contributions of the defense. However, there is an exception to every rule, and the face of the anti-FIP crowd is San Francisco's Matt Cain. Cain has consistently outperformed his FIP by showing an unusually consistent ability to limit the number of hits he allows. Over a large enough sample size (in his case, 6+ seasons), that stops being a fluke and starts suggesting a sustainable skill. Therefore, isn't it possible that Oakland's pitchers are legitimately "beating" their high FIP?

We'll start with Oakland's .261 BABIP allowed, which ranks 5th in the Majors. An elite defense can result in a low BABIP, but we have already determined that the defense is solid at best. This raises the same question as it did with the hitters: Is that low BABIP a factor of good luck, or of weak contact induced by the pitchers?

Pitchers prefer ground balls, since they constitute weaker contact, they can result in double plays, and, by definition, they can't clear the fence for homers. Oakland pitchers, however, have induced ground balls on only 41.3% of batted balls, which ranks 29th in the Majors. This means that they have allowed opponents to hit a lot of balls in the air. Is that such a bad thing, though? Of those flies, 12.5% have stayed in the infield as popups, and only 9.1% of them have become home runs (both stats rank 6th in MLB). The Coliseum has certainly helped these figures, as the ample foul territory increases popups and the park is notorious for being a tough place to go yard. All that said, I think that it would be reasonable for the pitchers' BABIP to increase a bit as the weather warms up and fly balls start carrying a bit further. (Note: I came to the opposite conclusion for the hitters with nearly identical data, so there is a bit of a double standard there. I guess that I have more faith in our opponents' hitters to improve than in our own. Can you blame me?)

How else might a pitcher's ERA end up lower than his FIP? One place to look is percentage of runners left on base (LOB%). The overall league average is generally considered to be about 72% of runners stranded; Oakland's mark of 75.2% ranks 10th in the Majors. Like with BABIP, though, LOB% can vary for reasons other than luck. For example, strikeout pitchers can keep their rate depressed by getting out of jams with a K, rather than relying on a well-placed batted ball. This is not the case for the Athletics, though, as Oakland pitchers register only 5.64 strikeouts per 9 innings, 29th in the Majors. On top of that, they are dead last when it comes to generating swinging strikes, achieving that result on only 7.3% of pitches. Even with strikeouts out of the picture, some pitchers have a true talent level higher or lower than the league average of 72%; let's see how the hurlers are doing on an individual basis.

Oakland's middle relievers are all stranding runners at unexpectedly (and unsustainably) high levels, with Ryan Cook, Pedro Figueroa, and Jim Miller all registering at 100% (Note: a solo homer doesn't count against your LOB%, nor does allowing an inherited runner to score; the inherited runner is credited to the pitcher who allowed him to reach base). Joining them in the Land of Unsustainability is Jerry Blevins, who sits at 93.2%. Brian Fuentes and Grant Balfour are each beating the 72% average, but are also both below their career/true talent LOB%'s, suggesting that their positive performances could be sustainable (even considering Balfour's recent struggles). The two biggest red flags are Bartolo Colon (2012: 84.1% vs career: 72.7%) and Brandon McCarthy (2012: 76.9% vs career: 71.0%). Both of them are stranding a ton of extra baserunners, and both are prime candidates to regress in this category. The same goes for the middle relief corps; nobody finishes with a 100% LOB%, so they are sure things to begin allowing at least a few runners to score. The team's ERA will almost certainly rise when these numbers stabilize. (Note: Tommy Milone and Jordan Noberto are each below-average, sitting around 66%, but neither have a career baseline to compare those numbers to, so they are nearly impossible to analyze)

Verdict: As expected, the team's success has clearly come from the pitching. That pitching is walking a tightrope, though, without the ability to strike out hitters, keep the walks down (3.14 BB/9, 16th in MLB), or induce grounders. They are currently relying on keeping their fly balls in the park, if not in the infield, and on stranding runners in tough spots. That is just not usually a sustainable strategy, and I fear that Oakland fans are in for a bit of a letdown when the Luck Dragon extinguishes some of their pitchers' smoke and mirrors. One reason for hope is that the defense could be playing a part in keeping the hits down, and, as mentioned earlier, could even improve in this regard. Another reason for optimism is the eventual return of Brett Anderson, who could come back as early as July, bringing with him his low walk numbers and high ground ball rate.

*******************************************************

We have answered our first question: The A's success has come on the backs of strong pitching, and the pitching has succeeded on the backs of a solid defense.

Can they keep it up? The pitchers will have to strike out more hitters, and the defense will have to continue improving in order to field all of the solid contact that they allow. The offense is terrible, but there is reason for hope: Cespedes could continue to improve, Manny could help, Weeks could break out of his slump (4-8 with a double, a walk, and 2 steals in the two games against Toronto). However, the offense is likely to remain in the bottom 5, unless a 40-year old Manny somehow hits like a 30-year old Manny.

Oakland's Pythagorean Record (based on run differential) suggests that they have played well enough to deserve a 14-17 record, rather than their actual 16-15 mark. A .500 record could be for real, but so could a .450. One thing is for sure, though: The current roster is unlikely to improve on their current record, and are very likely to decline. Luckily, the current roster is not something that we are stuck with. If Jarrod Parker competes for the Rookie of the Year, Anderson returns strong, Manny goes nuts (in a good way), and no one else gets seriously injured, then maybe this team could compete for a Wild Card. Maybe.

To be honest, that is a lot more hope than I had for this club in March.

Bartolo Colon attempts to strand more runners tonight in the opener of a 4-game series against the Detroit Tigers. He will face Max Scherzer and his 6.32 ERA at 7:05pm.

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