The Jim Johnson Game Plan

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

How will the A's — and their defensively iffy middle infield — deal with Jim Johnson's ground ball-inducing tendencies?

The A's are not an organization well known for high-profile, big-name acquisitions, so whenever Billy Beane commits eight figures annually to a player, eyebrows go up around the league.

One of those glance-worthy moves this past offseason was Oakland's trade for Jim Johnson, a former Baltimore Oriole and the American League saves leader in 2013. Johnson will make $10 million in 2014, though the net cost for Oakland might be far less than that given the millions his presence could save the team in future arbitration, as Alan Torres discussed last week. The trade was an effective salary dump for the Orioles, in which they picked up Jemile Weeks and minor-league catcher David Freitas, neither of whom had any real future in the A's organization.

Johnson, of course, will try to fill the shoes of Grant Balfour, who set Oakland's franchise record for most consecutive save opportunities converted in 2013, surpassing one of the all-time greats in Dennis Eckersley. While Johnson and Balfour are statistically comparable in many categories, Johnson does have a major disadvantage when it comes to pitching at the Coliseum — his ground-ball rate. The vast amounts of foul territory at the Coliseum help fly-ball pitchers at all times, as pop-ups and fly balls that would be in the 10th row at any other ballpark can end up near the bullpen mounds at the Coliseum. More importantly, the infamous marine layer knocks down fly balls on cooler evenings; a ball that ends up in the bleachers on Wednesday afternoon might be caught on the warning track Tuesday night.

League-average fly ball and ground ball rates have held constant over the last decade at around 36% and 44%, respectively. Balfour's career rates are nearly flipped — he career FB% is 43.6, while his career GB% is 35.2. Johnson's splits are more extreme, with a fairly low FB% of 24.8 and a crazy-high GB% of 57.2. And while Johnson's nasty, ground ball-inducing, mid-90s sinker could was a fantastic asset in Baltimore, it's possible that it does more harm than good in Oakland. Balfour, obviously, is much better equipped than Johnson, tendency wise, to succeed at the Coliseum, which ranks as the sixth-hardest park in which to hit a home run. Use that same chart to evaluate Camden Yards in Baltimore, which is the fourth-easiest. And that's not even taking into account the A's defensive outfield, which is defensively superb — Coco Crisp, Yoenis Cespedes, and Josh Reddick cover as much ground as any other outfield in baseball.

The problem, essentially, is this — while the A's infield alignments will usually be determined by the handedness of the opposing starter, you can still break the unit down into two groups: offensive and defensive. Without yet knowing the 25-man roster, these are rough guesses, but let's say for now that Bob Melvin goes with the sextet of Brandon Moss, Eric Sogard, Alberto Callaspo, Jed Lowrie, Josh Donaldson, and Nick Punto. Nate Freiman, too, could sneak his way back onto the 25-man roster if the A's go with only four outfielders, and would get a solid chunk of at-bats against righties while doing his best to man the not-as-hot corner. And for the sake of the exercise (just for the sake of the exercise!), it's worth considering Daric Barton for that hypothetical seventh-infielder spot, too.

Offensively, around the horn, Melvin would probably go with Donaldson, Lowrie, Callaspo, and Moss in the lineup. Sub in Sogard for Callaspo and you get the lineup that you'll probably see frequently against right-handed starting pitchers. Against a lefty, you'd go Donaldson, Lowrie, Callaspo, and Freiman — or Punto and Callaspo, if the latter's recent workouts at first base end up being more than just an early-spring experiment. Punto and Callaspo don't platoon well together; they're both above average against lefties and below average against righties, but assuming Punto's role is more than that of a late-inning defensive replacement, getting him at-bats against lefty pitching is the most logical option. You could say, even, that Punto and Johnson's acquisitions go hand in hand, and that Punto will see the bulk of his playing time when the A's have the lead and are attempting to shorten the game with the 1-2-3 punch of Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle, and Johnson.

The defensive side is where you have to start making sacrifices, because the simple reality is that with a pitcher as ground-ball prone as Johnson, you don't want Lowrie, Callaspo, or Freiman anywhere near the field. Their respective career UZR/150 values at shortstop, second base, and first base, respectively, are -0.7, -8.4, and 3.4, and anyone who has ever seen Freiman play defense knows that any positive value is the result of small sample size and the infantile state of defense-oriented sabermetrics — nothing else.

On the other hand, Punto's career UZR/150 at shortstop is an incredible 18.6, Donaldson's at third base is a very good 11.0, Barton's  is 9.4 at first base, and Sogard's is a respectable 2.8 at second base. Moss' career UZR/150 of -10.2 at first base is a definite issue — one that would partially justify Barton making the 25-man roster at some point this season.

The question is this: in the event of a tie or one-run game in the 9th inning, do the A's gamble and put Donaldson, Punto, Sogard, and Barton/Moss (let's ignore the numbers and call Moss a better defender than Freiman) on the field? That forces the offensive sacrifice of Lowrie and Callaspo, two offensively capable middle infielders who you want in the batter's box in the bottom of the 9th or in extras. But if you opt for offense, it's easy to foresee a scenario in which Lowrie, Freiman, or Callaspo fail to make plays that Punto or Barton would make in their sleep.

Opting for defense poses matchup issues, too — replacing Callaspo with Sogard, for instance, takes away a switch-hitting threat and makes the A's especially susceptible to a lefty specialist at Sogard's spot in the order.

I've long since learned not to question the workings of Beane, Forst, Zaidi and Co., but it seems that with Johnson's acquisition, they've very uncharacteristically created a strategic catch-22 for themselves in the late innings. I don't doubt Johnson's ability to close successfully, and as Susan Slusser wrote about in today's Chronicle, he's a phenomenal teammate and all-around human being, by every account, and he can only improve upon Oakland's already unique and successful clubhouse vibe. But Bob Melvin now has a tough choice to make in the 9th, whereas in the Balfour era, Lowrie could play shortstop, stand a relatively small chance of negatively impacting the outcome with his defense, and still have the opportunity to hit a double in the 9th to help the A's regain the lead, if necessary.

I'm inclined, personally, to play the "win now" game and stack the defense behind Johnson with capable infielders like Punto and Sogard. But again, it's a choice that Melvin didn't have to face last year, at least to the same degree, and the A's defensive alignments in Johnson's first few regular-season outings should make for one of the early season's more interesting story lines.

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