clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Has Oakland Found Its First Baseman?

"Heeeeere I come, to save the daaaay!" - Mighty Moss
"Heeeeere I come, to save the daaaay!" - Mighty Moss

After the 2001 season, MVP 1st baseman Jason Giambi left the Oakland Athletics to sign a 7-year, $120M contract with the New York Yankees. What a douche. If it makes you feel any better, things didn't really work out.

I bring this up because, over 10 years later, the Athletics are still searching for his replacement. Since Giambi put up a 199 OPS+ in 2001, the best season that Oakland has gotten from an everyday 1st baseman is Daric Barton's 2010, in which he put up an OPS+ of 120 and somewhere between 4 and 5 WAR (depending on who you ask). Otherwise, it's been a lot of Scott Hatteberg (2002-04), Dan Johnson (05-07), sub-par Barton (08-11), and a bunch of filler. We've had the under-sized (Nick Swisher), and the over-sized (Tommy Everidge); the has-been's (Mike Sweeney, the return of Giambi) and the never-were's (Wes Bankston, Brandon Allen). In the worst of times, we've even had the "why-are-you-putting-that-offensively-challenged-shortstop-at-first-base's" (Bobby Crosby, Nomar Garciaparra). And seemingly always, Chris Carter, laughing at you from AAA as he crushes pitches off the Lenny DiNardo's of the world in a tantalizing image of the classic slugger we wish we had.

But then, something happened. The A's quietly invited a failed outfield prospect to Spring Training, and after an impressive performance, decided to stash him in AAA. Thanks to his success in Sacramento (15 homers in 51 games and a .952 OPS) and a clause in his contract allowing him to be released if not promoted before June 15th, Brandon Moss finally got his chance. After losing patience with Allen, Barton and Kila Ka'aihue (even more frustrating because I had finally memorized how to spell his name), Oakland selected Moss as their next 1st base experiment. Apparently the 5 games that he spent last year as a teammate of Ryan Howard's in Philadelphia were enough time for Moss to steal Howard's baseball mojo, because their stat-lines look like they have been reversed:

Moss: .804 SLG%
Howard: 0 Major League plate appearances

In his 14-game stint with the A's, Moss has passed "light speed" and gone straight to "ludicrous speed," resulting in 7 home runs, an 1.157 OPS, uncannily superb defense, and a long trail of plaid. So much plaid. Can he keep it up? Of course not, at least not at these levels. Even Barry Bonds didn't hit homers like this. Can he be good, though? Let's take a look!

Let's start with the bad news: Brandon Moss presents me with a serious case déjà vu. Last year, Oakland promoted a first basemen named Brandon (Allen), and he crushed the ball for a good 2-3 weeks in August, putting up a triple-slash of .290/.333/.551 with 3 homers over his first 18 games in the AL. One of those homers started in Yankee Stadium and landed in Citi Field. True story. After the league got a chance to adjust to him, though, Allen went .130/.192/.184 in September, struggling to make contact and failing to hit another home run. The dream was gone; the slugging first baseman the A's had acquired from Arizona turned out to be a mirage. Get it? That was a desert joke.

Allen and Moss are not the same person, though. Allen had always had trouble making contact, so it wasn't a big surprise when that problem continued. Let's take a look at Moss's career leading up to this point.

An 8th round pick out of high school by the Boston Red Sox, Moss excelled at the low levels of the minors and found himself in AA at age 21. He showed a bit of power and above-average plate discipline, and kept the K's at a reasonable level. In his brief Major League stints in Boston (and later, Pittsburgh), he was able to post barely-average walk rates, but otherwise showed ever-decreasing power and below-average contact rates. His prospect status faded with each passing year as his numbers got worse and worse and his playing time got shorter and shorter.

And then, without warning, he became Boss Moss. Here are some stats for your consideration. See if you can figure out which area Moss's improvement has come in:

BB%, career: 8.1% (league average: 8.5%)
BB%, 2012: 9.8% (slight improvement)

K%, career: 22.9% (league average: 18.5%)
K%, 2012: 29.4% (significantly worse)

Fly Ball %, career: 36.7% (league average: 36%)
Fly Ball %, 2012: 54.8% (oh, my)

HR/FB, career-minus-2012: 8.2% (league average: 9.5%)
HR/FB, 2012: 41.2% (wait hold on what the are you serious?)

Aha! So THAT'S how you succeed in the Majors! Only hit fly balls, and then make sure that 41% of them leave the yard for home runs. It's so simple. Why didn't anyone think of it before?

The answer is: They did. Think of it before, that is. It just doesn't work because that isn't a sustainable level of success. How unreasonable is that 41%? Ask Jack Cust, whose red-hot start in 2007 is another obvious comparison for Moss's recent performance. It only took Cust ten games to hit his first 7 home runs, making Moss look like a little wuss for requiring 13 games to do the same (and Cust didn't get 3 games in Coors Field to grease the wheels, either). The good news is, Cust didn't fade away like Allen did, finishing the season with 26 homers and a .504 SLG% in only 124 games. More importantly, by the end of the season he had converted 31.7% of his fly balls into home runs, a number which he nearly matched the following season (29.7%).

No one in the last 3 seasons has come particularly close to those levels of home run efficiency, though. The MLB leaders for the last few years:

2011: Mike Giancarlo Stanton, 24.8%
2010: Joey Votto, 25.0%
2009: Mark Reynolds, 26.0%
2008: Ryan Howard, 31.8% (followed by Cust)
2007: Cust (followed closely by Howard)
2006: Howard, 39.5%
Other guys who have broken 30% since the stat became available in 2002: Jim Thome (2002-03), Sammy Sosa ('02), Manny Ramirez ('02). Howard is the only one to do it 3 times, much less 3 years in a row.

As the Home Run Generation has wound down, Howard and Cust have been the last sluggers capable of converting even 30% of fly balls into home runs for even one full season, much less multiple seasons. Putting Moss's 41% in this context, it is a no-brainer that his home run binge will cool off as the numbers inevitably regress back to reasonable levels. With all due respect, here is a quick game of word association:

Ryan Howard: Power
Jack Cust: Power
Brandon Moss: AAA

One of those names doesn't belong, and it's no mystery which one. It's time for the good news, though: Moss doesn't HAVE to keep hitting the ball like this to be a valuable player. Just because those fly balls stop leaving the yard doesn't necessarily mean that they'll become outs; some could hit off the walls, or find the gaps, or bounce around randomly like in that movie Angels in the Outfield. He's making a decent amount of contact, he's getting on base (.353 OBP), and so many of his hits have cleared the fence that his BABIP is only .250; as his homers decrease, that figure should hopefully increase toward his career mark of .288. (Home runs don't count as balls in play, so they aren't included in BABIP.)

Furthermore, he is playing the hell out of first base. Daric Barton has made a name for himself as a defensive whiz at the...cold corner? room-temperature corner?...but Moss has matched him play for play. He is mobile, ranging far to either side to field balls that many players wouldn't get to; he has a plus arm, since he is a converted outfielder; and, while he can't do the splits like Barton can, he can pick low throws and stretch for that extra inch well enough that he looks like he's been playing the position for years. As impressive as Moss's hitting has been, I've almost been more impressed with his defense. Almost. Just ask Wash; it's incredibly hard.

Put it all together, and my official recommendation is: Enjoy the ride while it lasts. It is possible that, at age 28, Moss has made the necessary adjustments to succeed in the Majors. It's rare for a guy that age to make the leap, but it happens. At age 29, Jose Bautista tinkered with his swing to allow him to hit more flies and pull the ball more often, and he went from a journeyman to a perennial MVP candidate overnight. Success stories like that make it easy to imagine Moss going from a fringe Major Leaguer to a solid everyday player. Since there is more to his game than just the unsustainable power (average plate discipline, plus defense), it is entirely possible that Moss could stick in Oakland and end the decade-long quest for a decent first baseman. It's also possible that he could crash back to Earth in July. But why would I write an article about that? I'd rather convince myself, and you, that Moss is the Answer.

I sure hops he is, because if he's not then I'm all out of ideas for first base. Does anyone have Erubiel Durzao's number?