Did Oakland's Offense Get Better This Offseason?

Thearon W. Henderson

Based on a simple online exercise using crudely figured sample lineups for 2013 and 2014, the answer is no.

Bear in mind that everything that follows is very generalized and not entirely specific, mainly due to the fact that the A's don't have a regular starting lineup. Moreover, Oakland doesn't even have particularly consistent lineups within the constraints of a specific platoon — Bob Melvin trotted out dozens of different looks against both right-handed and left-handed pitchers in 2013, despite firmly sticking to his righty/lefty platoons.

I noticed in Nico's post from Jan. 26 that commenter KillVolume used the Baseball Musings "Lineup Analysis" tool to find an ideal spot in the batting order for Rick Gentry — if you input offensive stats for nine players, it constructs the (hypothetically) most productive batting order for those nine. Another cool thing the algorithm does, though, is calculate an expected run value for a given lineup without making you do any of the math yourself — all you have to do is input every player's OBA and SLG, and you're good to go. So I decided to take advantage of that, since calculating expected run values for four different lineups (vs. LHP and RHP, 2013 and 2014) is extremely labor-intensive if you're crunching the numbers yourself.

Everything that follows is based on a pretty straightforward set of assumptions, most of which are simply my best guess as to what Oakland's roster will look like on March 31. I'm sure I'll be proven wrong about at least one of these predictions by Opening Day, but I needed something to work with. I'll try to not go into too much depth since lineup predictions are worth their own article, but those predictions (and their justifications) are as follows:

  • The A's will carry three catchers: John Jaso, Derek Norris, and Stephen Vogt. Jaso's bat is valuable and every indication is that he won't be able to do much catching, so Vogt stays. Look for Jaso to DH in a platoon role — his career wRC+ against righties is 126.
  • The Opening Day roster will feature six infielders, and barring something unforeseen, four of them are locks: Jed Lowrie, Nick Punto, Josh Donaldson, and Brandon Moss.
  • That leaves Alberto Callaspo, Eric Sogard, Nate Freiman, and Daric Barton to compete for the two remaining spots. One of those needs to go to a first baseman who can hit lefties and play defense, given Moss' limitations. That — don't shoot me — will be Daric Barton, thanks to his weird reverse split. Freiman has options, can't play defense at all, and had disappointing power numbers for a "power" guy in a corner position. It makes sense to stash him in Sacramento, where he can continue to develop.
  • The last infielder has to be a utility man capable of playing the other three infield positions well and holding his own on the offensive side. I still think that Callaspo might be another team's starting third baseman come Opening Day, his defense is below average at best, and Sogard seems to be a favorite of Beane and Melvin's. Sogard it is.
  • Since Moss can play outfield when needed, there's no need to carry more than four outfielders. Those spots will be occupied by Yoenis Cespedes, Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick, and Craig Gentry. Besides, there's nobody on the 25-man roster right now who seems like a legit candidate to break camp as Oakland's fifth outfielder, and carrying three catchers makes sporting four outfielders on the roster all the more likely.
  • Considering all of the above, the A's starting nine (ignore the actual order) against righties and lefties should look something like this:

Against LHP: Crisp (DH), Lowrie (SS), Donaldson (3B), Cespedes (LF), Norris (C), Gentry (CF), Barton (1B), Punto (2B), Reddick (RF)

Against RHP: Crisp (CF), Lowrie (SS), Donaldson (3B), Moss (1B), Cespedes (LF), Reddick (RF), Jaso (DH), Sogard (2B), Vogt (C)

  • Compare that to last year's:

Against LHP: Crisp (CF), Lowrie (SS), Donaldson (3B), Cespedes (LF), Freiman (1B), Young (RF), Callaspo (2B), Norris (C), Smith (DH)

Against RHP: Crisp (CF), Lowrie (SS), Donaldson (3B), Cespedes (LF), Moss (1B), Smith (DH), Jaso (C), Sogard (2B), Reddick (RF)

Obviously, all of those lineups are very rough — Crisp almost certainly won't DH full-time against lefties, for instance. Callaspo didn't play a full season, either, but had more at-bats than any middle infielder besides Sogard and Lowrie. Reddick probably won't play every day. There are a million more small issues like that, but hey, I said it's crude.

The hole in both of those lineups is the last spot against left-handed pitchers — the roster was, and is, such that one lefty had to get at-bats against left-handed pitchers whenever the opponents started a southpaw. In 2013, it was often Seth Smith who played that role — this year, I'd guess it'll be Reddick, which would allow Gentry to show off his speed in center while giving Crisp a chance to DH.

I plugged in the career stats in the appropriate context (i.e., I only used Craig Gentry's career numbers against lefties) for each of the above players, which is a bit of a contradiction in of itself — Nate Freiman, for example, didn't have career numbers before 2013, so when I plug his 2013 numbers in, Baseball Musings is giving me a reverse prediction of what he'll contribute to the A's offense in 2013 based on what he actually contributed in 2013. Likewise, Yoenis Cespedes' 2013 offensive contributions are included in the algorithm's "prediction" for his performance in 2013. Oh well.

Using career numbers can also be unfair to younger players, assuming they weren't playing fantastic baseball for their first few months in the league. The effect those horrible first 50-ish at-bats have on a younger player's numbers is much bigger than, say, the impact Coco Crisp's first 50 at-bats are having on his career numbers today.

Since the A's face so many more righties than lefties, I weighted the offensive projections as such: 30% lefty, 70% righty. That's based on the fact that the percentage of left-handed MLB pitchers tends to be slightly less than 30%, but in the late innings when Bob Melvin is mixing and matching, he'll typically get the platoon advantage he wants, even against a lefty reliever.

As I understand it, the site uses a simple regression equation to predict run output based on only two stats — on-base percentage and slugging percentage. Just for reference's sake, here's the equation for the combined 2001, 2002, and 2003 seasons:

R/G = 17.11*OBP + 11.13*SLG - 5.66

Here were the expected values for runs scored for each of the four lineups I had the tool analyze:

  • vs. LHP, 2013: 5.321
  • vs. RHP, 2013: 4.756
  • vs. LHP, 2014: 5.195
  • vs. RHP, 2014: 4.432

If you use the righty/lefty weighting I described above, the 2013 expected runs/game value comes out to 4.92 runs per game. That figure drops to 4.66 in 2014. In actuality, the A's scored 767 runs in 2013, good for 4.73 per game, so the system was a little too optimistic. Then again, nobody saw Chris Young's season coming and Josh Reddick also severely underperformed, among other factors.

So what made the difference between last season and the upcoming one? Chris Young is gone, for one, but given his disastrous 2013 season, you wouldn't expect that to have any negative impact at all on the A's projections vs. LHP. Nick Punto, though, is a much less productive offensive player than Callaspo. Again, it's a huge leap of faith for me to not include Callaspo in this exercise, but it's my honest prediction, and given the way the past two seasons have gone, there's little point in predicting mid-season rosters in February, anyway.

The offensive prediction for facing righties suffers from the indirect substitution of Stephen Vogt for Seth Smith. Vogt will catch and Jaso will likely DH against righties, as opposed to last year when Jaso caught, Smith DH'd, and Vogt was in Sacramento. Smith was very good against righties, and the transition to Vogt means the offensive production should take a hit.

There's no way of knowing how Barton's production (if he's even on the roster — another huge leap of faith) against lefties will stack up against Freiman's. I think it's safe to call that one a wash for now. Gentry in for Chris Young against lefties should be a slight improvement, though not as much as you'd think given Gentry's complete inability to hit for power.

I've said all along that this was just a fun exercise to see how the A's offense in 2014 stacks up against last year's, but by all means, leave a comment with suggestions for different lineups to try out, or plug the numbers in yourself (link). Bear in mind that I used platoon statistics — only use Barton's OBA and SLG against lefties when getting numbers for the lineup agains a left-handed pitcher, etc.

If there's any hint of validity to the minor offensive downgrades, they could be more than offset by general improvements in pitching and defense. This year's bullpen should be lights-out, Punto is one of the game's best defensive infielders, and Barton is lightyears ahead of Moss and (especially) Freiman defensively at first base. That's not to mention the fact that the A's young core of starters could see several breakthroughs this year. Scott Kazmir should fill in admirably for Bartolo Colon, especially considering that very few expect Colon to play well in 2014. Beane is clearly aware of the slight offensive downgrade potentially coming in 2014 — maybe that's why he built a bullpen capable of stringing together five shutout innings a few nights a week.

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