The 2012 Oakland A's succeeded despite the fact that they played with only 7 position players. They literally did not have a catcher or a shortstop. Literally. They just set up a throwing net behind the plate so that pitches wouldn't fly to the backstop, and they used a cardboard cutout of Mike Bordick up the middle. And they still won the division.
That team had holes, and the offseason strategy last winter was to address those glaring weaknesses. Let's see how those moves have paid off by looking at the production that Oakland has gotten from each defensive position. In the interest of not spending an hour making an elaborate table, I am going to stick with just the OPS from each position. For a more complete breakdown of stats, here are links to the splits on Baseball-Reference for the 2012 team and the 2013 team. (The row at the bottom is for Pinch Hitters.)
|Position||2012 OPS||2013 OPS|
Numbers as of this morning, Saturday June 22
A few immediate reactions to this table:
1. The lineup is more balanced overall.
Last year, production-by-position ranged from .585 to .871. That's nearly 300 points of OPS between the best and worst positions. This year, the range is .663 to .840, which is less than 200 points, and that .663 is extremely likely to increase as Josh Reddick continues his resurgence (more on that later). There are still strengths, but the weaknesses have clearly been addressed.
2. The balance of power has shifted.
Last year, the robust outfield carried the weak-sauce infield. This year, the outfield has declined while the infield has picked up their slack. Teamwork!
3. Bob Melvin's pinch-hitting game has deteriorated dramatically.
Last year, the A's got great production out of 110 pinch-hitting plate appearances. This year, they've already had 80 pinch-hitter plate appearances, and they've essentially sent a pitcher up to bat in those situations. It's easy to chalk this up to small-sample noise; we're talking about ~100 plate appearances that are irregular by definition and often come in tough spots. It's also easy to chalk it up to personnel changes, as there is no Jonny Gomes to come in and OPS .829 off the bench. On the other hand, Brandon Moss has replaced last year's 5-for-11 with this year's 0-for-8, which is a major factor in the OPS dip on its own. Last year, Melvin pushed all the right buttons with his bench, and this year he has failed to replicate that success (so far).
And now, a quick position-by-position breakdown of Oakland's 2013 production:
This was one of the A's biggest weaknesses last year. Kurt Suzuki, who once struck out swinging on a pitch that actually hit him in the shoulder, provided nothing with the bat. Derek Norris struggled to get on base. George Kottaras was good for a few homers, but that was about it. Help was needed.
Enter John Jaso. While Norris has once again failed to hit his weight, Jaso has turned it on in June and has helped the team to a .696 OPS from its catchers - an increase of over 100 points from last year. This position used to be an auto-out, and now it bats at the top of the order half the time. That is a massive improvement.
This was the other dead position last year. Cliff Pennington insisted on wearing his fielding glove while batting, and it really hurt his numbers. Midseason acquisition Stephen Drew was better, but was still a tick below league-average.
This year, shortstop has been Oakand's third-best offensive position. The obvious reason is that Jed Lowrie is even better at hitting than he is bad at fielding. Hey, as long as he has a strong defensive counterpart up the middle, I can live with sacrificing a bit of defense for this level of hitting. Getting a .769 OPS out of the shortstop position is something that most teams would envy.
The hot topic on AN these days is the unfortunate tag-team of Eric Sogard and Adam Rosales. While those two have been bad at the plate, second base hasn't even been Oakand's worst position this year. Furthermore, it has actually improved significantly since last year, when Jemile Weeks spent about 500 plate appearances putting on a clinic in how to make weak contact. So yes, folks, it does get worse than Sogales. I said a moment ago that I was willing to sacrifice some defense up the middle for excellent offense, but that only works when the stronger defensive players don't give all of that offense back. Fortunately, they haven't. Sogales has not been as cripplingly bad as we all think they have.
This has been the second-biggest area of decline for Oakland this year, and the reason is not a mystery. Josh Reddick has gotten over half of the plate appearances at this position, and he had a miserable start to the season. A wrist injury and a bit of bad luck on balls in play accounted for at least some of that poor production, though, and he's been heating up since his return from the DL. He's been making consistently hard contact the last few weeks, and he's even re-discovered his power stroke. The really exciting thing about Reddick has been his plate discipline, as he's walking more often and striking out less. Check out the percentage of his plate appearances that have resulted in walks or strikeouts:
One of Reddick's downfalls last year was his aggressiveness. Pitchers could get him to chase outside of the zone, and he struck out quite a bit. His approach has improved dramatically this year, and between that and the good contact he's been making the last few weeks, I fully expect him to be a positive presence in the lineup from here on out.
This has been the biggest area of decline for Oakland, but don't blame Yoenis Cespedes - his OPS as a left fielder has actually gone up, from .875 to .893. There have been two key differences. The first is that, in 2012, Seth Smith hit great as a left fielder and poorly as a DH, and this year he has reversed that split. The second is that Jonny Gomes OPS'ed 1.002 in 117 plate appearances in left last year, and those at-bats have gone to Chris Young and Michael Taylor this year. That's sort of the equivalent of trading a Death Star for two TIE Fighters. As long as Cespy is manning left field, I'm not worried about the production from that position - although it would be nice to see him get his OBP up above .300, a mark that I have just decided to dub The Francoeur Line.
With Coco Crisp having a career year, it seems strange that center field would be an area of decline. However, a few dozen of Coco's best at-bats have come while DH'ing, and Cespedes and Young have each turned in a chunk of poor production to drag things down as well. But, as with left field, I'm not worried about center as long as Coco is out there.
In 2012, the A's didn't really have a specific DH, choosing instead to rotate a handful of players through the position. This year has been no different. The Smith/Gomes platoon took the bulk of the playing time last year, but it was Cespy's .958 OPS in 112 PA's that really pumped up the overall numbers. Eight different players have already DH'ed for Oakland this year, but only Coco and Smith have produced; the only other player to OPS better than .606 has been Luke Montz (.694 in 23 PA's). I wouldn't worry too much about this decline. We're talking about a handful of guys getting 40 or 50 PA's apiece, so there aren't a lot of long-term conclusions to be drawn here. Keep putting good hitters there, and eventually they'll start hitting.
Last year, first base was anchored by Brandon Moss (.955) and Chris Carter (.819), with Daric Barton (.614) dragging things down a bit. This year, it's been Moss (.858) and Nate Freiman (.816), with Barton dragging things down a bit (.527). To simplify things, the Moss/Carter platoon put up an .885 OPS last year, whereas Moss/Freiman is putting up an .846 this year, and most of the decline has just been Moss coming back to Earth after his insane 2012. The switch from Carter to Freiman has cost Oakland nothing production-wise, and netted them Lowrie in the Houston trade. That is quietly looking like one of Beane's all-time great trades, if you consider that Freiman became available (for free) as a direct result of Houston acquiring Carter (which seemed to be the case).
Looking for a reason why Oakland's pinch-hitting stats have gone down? Last year, Smith and Gomes got the bulk of the calls from the bench, with Smith hitting poorly (.539) and Gomes hitting well (.829). Moss also contributed with a 1.290 OPS in 16 trips, and nine other players chipped in with OPS's above .800 in 42 combined PA's. It didn't matter who Melvin sent up to the plate - he was going to get a hit. This year, he has inexplicably called on Adam Rosales more than anyone, and Rosey has responded by going 0-for-11 in 13 PA's. Moss is hitless in nine trips, and only Jaso and Smith have had any level of success off the bench (each has hit a pinch-hit homer). Everything went right last year, and everything is going wrong this year. When that happens, things usually tend to settle in the middle when all is said and done.
Overall, the news is good. Oakland has improved dramatically at three positions, has stayed mostly steady (within 75 points of OPS) at five others, and has seen sharp decline at only one spot (left field). Furthermore, their "floor" has risen from having two positions in the .580-range to having two positions in the .670-range. Last year, the A's used every spot on the 25-man roster to squeeze out as many wins as possible, but they were still a team with big holes. They're still using the whole roster this year, but the team is more complete overall. Production is coming from all over the diamond, and there are no true "auto-outs" in the lineup - at least, not at the level of Weeks/Penny/Suzuki.
Some teams like to sign a bunch of superstars and rely on name power. While those teams are busy building a payroll, Billy Beane has been busy building a team. And this time, he has players at all nine positions - no throwing nets or cardboard cutouts necessary.