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I'm Sorry, Coco

Don't worry, Coco. One day we'll all look back on this and laugh.
Don't worry, Coco. One day we'll all look back on this and laugh.

Heading into this season, I was not thrilled about Coco Crisp. Don't get me wrong; I'd been a fan of his since before he was even on the A's. I'm a baseball hipster like that. Despite my love for statistics, I am still captivated by the gritty, intangible types who hustle and steal bases and make diving catches and all the rest. The Dusty Baker Specials. Those guys are fun to watch. Coco Crisp is really fun to watch. So, when the otherwise unexciting A's signed him in 2010, I was excited to watch him. The statistics also happened to like him, saying that his defense and baserunning were awesome and that his hitting was close enough to average.

He had an excellent half-season in 2010, putting up a 112 OPS+ and stealing 32 bases in 35 attempts. Fangraphs and Baseball Reference agreed that he was worth a bit more than 3 WAR (Wins Above Replacement) in just 75 games, which was pretty incredible for him. He came back to Earth last year, but he still stole 49 bases at a good success rate, and put up a bit more than 2 WAR according to both WAR authorities. Also, he was still really fun to watch. Look, a leadoff homer! Hey, he stole 2nd and 3rd; that catcher is a doofus! Whoa, check out that running grab in center! See how his afro flows in the wind.

Things changed this winter, though. Boy, did things change. They got worse. But then they got better! Continue after the jump for a full explanation. And an apology.

Our tale left off in January of 2012. Coco was a free agent, and the A's had literally one outfielder (Ryan Sweeney, who they later traded). Needing a center fielder, they re-signed Crisp to a player-friendly 2-year contract. Things seemed OK for about a month, until the team unexpectedly signed an international maybe-superstar center fielder (Yoenis Cespedes).

Suddenly, Coco's position had been filled, even if his replacement didn't bring his level of defensive acumen. Since Coco's defense represents the bulk of his value, a move to a corner outfield position would decrease that value (since left field defense isn't as important or as difficult as center field defense). Plus, the A's had other players (Jonny Gomes, Seth Smith, the idea of Michael Taylor) who could hit much better than Coco, while playing adequate defense in left field. There were also many DH options (Kila Ka'aihue, Brandon Allen, Chris Carter, the specter of Manny Ramirez), making it tougher to fit everyone into the lineup. Long story short: There was a long list of players on the roster who were, in reality or in theory, better hitters than Coco, and his defensive advantage was gone when he lost his position. As a coup de grâce, the role of speedy leadoff hitter was also taken by Jemile Weeks.

There was no longer a reason for Coco to be on the team, even if he played up to his career norms (career .735 OPS heading into the season). Heck, even if he played slightly above his career norms, he still wouldn't be worth it. Every day that he played was a day in which a better hitter sat on the bench. To make matters worse, he struggled to start the season, got an ear infection, and went on the DL. I mean, c'mon. How could things get any worse for Coco's career in Oakland? I guess he could have released a statement saying, "I agree with the Giants. San Jose is their territory and we shouldn't be allowed to move there. Also, go Yanks and Angels!" That would have been worse. Or, he could have donated his afro to Locks of Hate, which sells the hair and uses the proceeds to run over kittens or something. I mean, I'm digging deep here. The point is, things couldn't get much worse for Coco Crisp's career than they did around April/May of this year.

What was Billy Beane to do, though? With the second guaranteed year on the contract, Coco was untradeable. His poor performance and questionable health didn't help matters. There was nothing to do but keep him on the roster and hope for improvement.

Now, from around March through early June, I was very vocal about my opinions about what to do with Crisp. I thought he should be traded, ASAP, regardless of the return. I thought he needed to be moved just to clear space for better players, even if the A's had to eat some salary. I was not alone. Lots of folks wanted him gone. Every time that Coco started in left field and Gomes sat on the bench, every day that Coco stayed on the roster and Taylor stayed in AAA, was another day that I would post some snarky comment on Twitter or AN about how Coco needed to Go-go. Like Jim Mecir, Jason Kendall, Bobby Crosby, Eric Patterson, and Brian Fuentes before him, Coco had become my "doghouse" player. That one particularly weak link on the team that I just couldn't shut up about, even if it meant that I was basically ripping on my own team.

I don't know when the transformation came. I can't pinpoint the exact moment when Coco stopped being superfluous and truly re-gained his role on this team. A number of factors went into it, though. The most obvious was that Yoenis Cespedes turned out be to a pretty bad center fielder. He takes horrible routes to fly balls, and even his lightning speed isn't enough to make up for it. I have counted three times this season in which Cespedes has taken a poor route to a ball which Crisp would have easily caught (and which Cespedes himself could have caught with a more sensible route), and instead watched that ball fall for a game-changing triple. When I say "game-changing," I mean that the A's lost the game, and the runs scoring on the triple were significant to that outcome. UZR hates Cespedes's defense in center. I mean, it hates him. If UZR saw Cespedes at a restaurant, it would spit in his food and throw a drink in his face. (That's nothing compared to how much it hates his defense in left field; given the same situation, UZR would also light Cespedes's tablecloth on fire.) So, with Cespedes no longer a preferable option in center, Coco had his position back. The rebirth had begun.

A second development would bring Coco further toward his old self. Jemile Weeks, who had been handed the leadoff spot in the order after hitting .303 as a rookie last year, was suffering through a major sophomore slump. On June 13, Weeks had a triple-slash of .224/.308/.323. Granted, at the time, Coco was sporting a line of .172/.234/.231, but he had been showing signs of life for a couple of weeks and Bob Melvin was ready to give him another chance. On June 14, Coco was inserted into the leadoff spot, and he has been there ever since. Since that day, his line (in 33 games, 148 PA's) has jumped to .336/.393/.496, with 4 homers and 11 steals. In July alone, his line is an incredible .342/.388/.562 (18 games, 81 PA's).

Coco is flying around center field again, he's hitting the crap out of the ball, and he's stealing bases at an amazing 87% success rate. What's that? You're not a fan of cold, hard stats? You prefer the eyeball test, and anecdotes of clutchiness? Alright, have it your way. Here is a sampling of Coco's work from throughout this season:

  • April 11, 7th game of the season. This is the "Jonny Gomes walk-off HBP" game, but Gomes wasn't the only hero that day. It's the bottom of the 12th, and the Royals have a 4-3 lead. The bases are loaded on an error and two walks (because, Royals), and Coco is up with one out. The task is simple: score the runner from 3rd with less than two outs to keep the game alive. The task is simple, but as A's fans know, it can be frighteningly difficult to execute. Coco got the job done, hitting a grounder to the right side to score the run without getting doubled up on the play. Two batters later, Gomes would get plunked to win it.
  • June 7, Yu Darvish is pitching for the Rangers. He had already dominated Oakland in his first start against them, but things wouldn't go so well for him this time. Already down 1-0, he served up a solo homer to Coco (his first of the year!). Down 3-1 in the 4th, with the bases loaded and 2 out, Coco came up again. This time he tripled to right, clearing the bases. The final score would be 7-1, and Coco drove in 4 of the runs.
  • July 3, Jon Lester is pitching for the Red Sox. Coco hits a leadoff homer in the 1st, but Boston takes a 2-1 lead into the 9th. Brandon Moss gets the big hit to tie the game, putting runners on 2nd and 3rd with one out for Coco. All he has to do is hit a fly ball to score the runner from the 3rd. He does exactly that, and Oakland walks off with a victory. Again, it sounds so easy when you say it like that, but how often do we watch A's players fail to hit that fly ball?
  • July 22, the final game of the Yankee sweep. Coco isn't in the starting lineup, but Melvin calls on him in the 8th. David Robertson is in to protect a 4-3 lead, and Melvin needs a baserunner. Coco gets the hit, and then steals 2nd base to boot. He ends up stranded at 2nd, but hey, he did his job. Walking up cold off the bench and getting to 2nd with no outs against David Robertson is one of the more clutch-tastic things you can do. Coco wasn't done, though. He would remain in the game, and extra innings would be played. With two out in the 12th, he lined a solid single to right, scoring Derek Norris from 2nd for Coco's second walk-off hit of the season.
That's two walk-off hits, making him the only Athletic with more than one this year. That's also a handful of huge, game-changing moments against top-shelf competition (and the Royals). Even when he was struggling, Coco was making a difference in the WPA department. In fact, for the season, Crisp ranks 5th on the team in WPA (Win Probability Added), which measures the extent to which a player's production affects the team's odds of winning games (for example, hitting a home run in a tie game would give you a positive WPA, regardless of the eventual outcome of the game, because you increased the team's chances of winning that game at that moment). Limit it to the past 30 days, and Coco leads the team in that measure. Fangraphs also keeps a stat called "Clutch," which is partly based on WPA. I don't know anything about this stat, but Coco ranks 2nd on the team (after Derek Norris, curiously), and the Fangraphs glossary defines his score as "great." It should be noted that the "Clutch" stat is not particularly predictive, but is rather a record of which players came through the most; Coco's career mark cancels out to just about neutral, because the stat fluctuates year-to-year. The point isn't that Coco is inherently clutch; it's that Coco has been quite clutch this year. Which is great, if you're a 2012 A's fan.

Coco's Oakland career was dead. It was burned to the ground, and the blog-vultures were circling, waiting to feast on its demise with a parade of jokes about how sugary cereal isn't the best choice to lead off your day or your lineup. But then, thanks to a combination of factors, that career rose from the ashes. He got healthy (current hamstring pull notwithstanding). He re-claimed his center field position. He reclaimed his leadoff spot in the order. He started producing, both overall and at key moments. And suddenly, Coco Crisp belongs on this team again. In fact, I would go so far as to say that I'm actually a bit bummed that he's not in the lineup today, since his leg is apparently still bothering him. If you'd told me three months ago that Coco would be on the bench and I'd be upset about it, I would assume that the rest of the outfield had been injured in a freak whipped cream pie accident along with the Sacramento outfield, and Luke Hughes was being forced to play center as a result. That would be the worst.

Coco Crisp, man. He's a joy to watch play, and it totally sucked being unhappy with him. I mean, c'mon; he had his own Chia Pet giveaway day. How awesome is that? I thought that relief would come in the form of a trade, allowing him to grit his gritty grits for another team. Instead, it came in the form of him just doing his thing, hittin' and stealin' and fieldin' and helpin' the team win games.

So, I'm sorry Coco. I'm an amateur blogger, so I don't really owe you an apology for writing things about your playing career. But as an A's fan, I'm sorry. I'm sorry that I doubted you in the face of newer, shinier toys (Cespedes and Weeks). I'm sorry that I bagged on you so much in April and May, when you were fighting that ear infection and playing below 100%. While I don't take back my opinion that you were a bad fit for the team in April, I'm sorry that I lost the faith and wanted to see you get traded, rather than being patient and waiting to see if you could still earn your keep.

I'm sorry, and I'm excited. I'm excited because I get to watch Coco Crisp play for my hometown team, in the middle of a pennent race which is as thrilling as it is unexpected. So get well soon, Coco. The A's need you.