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AN Mailbag #9: What Could Go Wrong?

This is an article all about things which could go wrong for Oakland this season. And it's Monday. Man, I'm a jerk.

Moss was trying to hit the camera, but it was juuuust a bit outside.
Moss was trying to hit the camera, but it was juuuust a bit outside.
Christian Petersen

Welcome back to the AN Mailbag! ( Today's question, from Erik in Fremont, addresses the giant elephant in the room. No, not Stomper. The figurative elephant in the room.

"The more and more I look at the lineup, bullpen, and starting staff, the more and more I'm convinced that this is a wholly better team than last year's. Also, looking at a schedule where nearly a quarter of it is against Houston or Seattle, I can't help but be optimistic. Other than injuries, what could hold this team back from reaching 90+ wins again? What I mean to say is, what deficiency, if any, is most likely to cause a slip from last season? Or do you see our biggest obstacle as an improved Angels team and a vastly improved AL from top to bottom (Toronto, Kansas City, Cleveland, Boston)."

Look, Oakland had a great run last year. A bunch of guys came out of nowhere to have awesome seasons. Some of those success stories had solid track records or prospect pedigrees behind them, and some were completely unexpected for a variety of different reasons. Granted, Billy Beane spent the offseason acquiring above-average players to fill the weak parts of his lineup, but every baseball team, no matter how well-constructed, has a list of things which could cause it all go to pear-shaped. Today, we're going to look at three of the top things which could go wrong for Oakland. As Erik noted in his question, we are going to avoid talking about injuries. Sure, some guys are more injury-prone than others, but we all understand that any player could theoretically go down at any time with a season-ending injury. These things happen.

I promise that I'm not doing this to be a dick. I'm doing this to keep us grounded, and to keep our expectations realistic. I like this Oakland roster, but sometimes, things just don't work out like you think they will - remember, the 2011 Red Sox didn't even make the playoffs. Also, Erik's the one who asked the question, so if anyone's a dick then it's him.

1. Josh Reddick and/or Brandon Moss might have been flukes.

Reddick and Moss both came out of nowhere last year, more or less. Reddick was supposed to be a light-hitting corner outfielder with plus defense, and instead he hit 30 homers and won a Gold Glove. Moss was a career minor-leaguer, and then randomly slugged .596 in a half-season in the Coliseum while also learning a new position.

Back in October, Nico walked through some reasonable expectations for Reddick, and came up with a line of .267/.335/.450 with 23 homers. I think that sounds very fair - I agree that I don't think he'll hit 30 homers again, and I have a good feeling that he'll bring his average up into the .260 range, where he spent most of last season until his sharp September slump (remember, it was his first full season in the bigs). What if he does lose the power and doesn't bring the average back up, though? That could happen if he continues his free-swinging ways and pitchers find a couple of weaknesses to consistently exploit. And if his line looks more like .240/.300/.425? Sure, he'll still be an above-average player with his Gold Glove defense (there is no reason to believe that his defense isn't for real), but he'll no longer be a guy whom you build your lineup around.

Nico struck again in December, taking a look at Brandon Moss and regression. This time he came up with a line of .240/.320/.500 with 28 homers and 200 K's, which pretty much sums up my thoughts on the matter as well. The power is definitely for real, and, as Nico said in his post, "It's hard for me to imagine Moss getting 500 AB's and not hitting 25+ homers." That is, if Moss makes enough contact to merit a full season's worth of playing time, then he's going to get his dingers. That's the problem, though - is he going to make enough contact? Fangraphs has a chart in its glossary which provides context for K% (percentage of plate appearances in which the player struck out):

Rating K%
Average 18.5%
Below Average 20%
Poor 25%
Awful 27.5%
Have you considered being a pitcher? 30%

Moss's K% last year was 30.4%. Yikes. At least there is precedent for 1st basemen becoming pitchers in this organization.

Couple that strikeout rate with a Contact% of 67% (league-average is 81%) and last year's .359 BABIP, and you start to realize why there is concern about Moss's ability to keep his average up. Just as with Reddick, pitchers will have a full season to root out Moss's weaknesses. If he fails to adjust, and/or those hits don't fall in like they did last year, then that .291 batting average might creep down closer to his pre-2012 career mark of .236. His league-average walk rate from 2012 (8.8%) could rise if his power forces pitchers to work around him more, but if he starts chasing too many pitches then a line of .235/.305/.475 might not be out of the question. A .780 OPS would probably clock in above league-average in the Coliseum, but it would be a far cry from the .954 that he put up last year.

Although Reddick's final line last year included a .768 OPS, I think that most of us picture the .832 OPS slugger he was at the end of August when we stare into his lush, untamed beard. What if he turns out to be a .732 OPS hitter instead? And sure, we all expect Moss to fall off at least a bit after his ridiculous 2012, but what if he falls off a lot? It could happen, folks. Just saying.

2. Infield depth may not result in infield quality.

There has been a lot of talk this winter about the depth that Billy Beane has built in the infield. He's given Bob Melvin a wealth of options and the ability to mix and match the roles of versatile players. However, the question remains: Will the quantity of players also add up to quality production?

The closer you look at the projected infield, the easier it is to see how things could go wrong here. Weeks and Sizemore have both demonstrated a half-season of tantalizing, above-average hitting, but have also struggled enough to cast doubt on those brief runs of success. If Hiro Nakajima becomes even a league-average hitter, then he will become the first infielder from Japan ever to do so in MLB history. A's fans better hope that he makes that kind of history, because his counterpart, Jed Lowrie, can't be counted on for a full season until he actually plays one. Furthermore, Lowrie's poor range in the field has already garnered negative attention, leading to questions about how well he has recovered from a serious leg injury last year. Grant Green looks like a serious hitter, but he'll have to find a home on defense in order to get his bat in the lineup.

That brings us to Josh Donaldson. I am all about the guy, and you should be too. But if you're looking at him like a sure thing, then you're fooling yourself. He was mind-numbingly bad in the 1st half last year, and it's impossible to know how much of his 2nd half resurgence was for real. I have reasons to believe that it was, which mostly revolve around him getting out from behind the plate and then getting comfortable at his new position (two-part process). That doesn't make it a reality, though. The Rainmaker is failing to make it rain so far this spring, although it can't be ignored that he homered twice in the game which got rained out (did he bring the rain, or did the rain just unlock his dormant super-strength?). Reports have suggested that he is killing the ball and getting BABIP-unlucky in a small sample size, but you have to prepare yourself for the possibility that Donaldson was a fluke last year.

The whole point of the infield depth is to allow for these kinds of worst-case scenarios. With multiple options at each position, Melvin can absorb a couple of disappointing players and still put out a good lineup. But buying 100 lottery tickets instead of 10 doesn't necessarily mean that you're going to win the jackpot. Out of all of the options, Melvin will probably find three good infielders in 2013, but it wouldn't take a lot of imagination to see how Oakland could be scrambling for help at the trade deadline. It could happen, folks. Just saying.

3. The top relievers may regress sharply.

On last week's Phil Naessens Show podcast, I voiced my concerns about Oakland's bullpen and whether or not it can match its 2012 performance. Oakland's bullpen posted a 2.94 ERA last year, good for 4th in the Majors. Fantastic! However, that same bullpen posted only a 3.74 FIP (Fielding Independent Pitching), good for 15th in the Majors. In short, ERA measures what a pitcher did in the past, and FIP strives to predict what that pitcher will do in the future by looking only at the things which a pitcher can control: strikeouts, walks, HBP's, and home runs. FIP suggests that the bullpen outperformed its abilities pretty significantly last year.

Furthermore, xFIP is a stat which measures exactly what FIP does, but uses the league-average home run rate due to the fact that home-run rate (homers per fly ball) fluctuates significantly and generally shouldn't be trusted in single-year samples. This stat hates Oakland's 2012 bullpen even more, ranking it 27th in the Majors with a 4.20 mark; it believes that Oakland got a bit lucky with its MLB-best HR-per-flyball rate, and is due for regression back toward average. It should be noted that xFIP might be wrong here - Oakland has been in the top 3 in MLB in HR/FB in 6 of the last 7 years, so the Coliseum may be a factor in consistently suppressing homers. However, another predictive metric, SIERA, ranks Oakland 25th in the Majors. You can see the pattern forming.

So, who are the main culprits in this potentially overrated bullpen?

Grant Balfour 2.53 3.03 3.83
Ryan Cook 2.09 2.89 3.48
Sean Doolittle 3.04 2.08 3.02
Jerry Blevins 2.48 4.21 4.48

Let's start at the top. Grant Balfour put up an awesome season in 2012, becoming a closer for the first time in his career and setting the all-time record for saves* while enjoying a 92.3% success rate. We know that Balfour is good, but is he that good? His high xFIP suggests that his low HR rate isn't to be trusted - to illustrate that point, in 2011 he allowed homers on 11% of his fly balls, and in 2012 that rate shot down to 5.3%, with a league-average of 9.5% for context. His ERA and FIP are almost identical for his career, so he's not a Matt Cain type who consistently "beats" FIP. Oakland fans should brace themselves for at least a small dropoff from their 35-year-old closer who set a career high in innings last year.

Next, I look at Ryan Cook. Whereas I expect a small step back from Balfour, I am genuinely worried about Cook. I just have a bad feeling that he is going to struggle in 2013. Even last year, he was prone to meltdowns - say what you will about the "blown save" stat, but Cook racked up 7 of them last year in his various late-inning duties. His All-Star first half was fueled by the fact that he didn't allow a single homer in 38 innings, a performance which proved to be unsustainable when he went on to allow 4 dingers in 35 second half innings (note: that's not a bad rate, just average, which is a step back from "All-Star"). His half-season splits are worth a look, as well:

1st half - 1.41 ERA, 39/21 K/BB, 0 homers, .103 BAA
2nd half - 2.83 ERA, 41/6 K/BB, 4 homers, .221 BAA

In the first half, Cook got small-sample lucky in homers and opponents' batting average (BAA), but was also fairly wild to make up for it. In the 2nd half, he stayed in the strike zone and shot his K/BB rate into Rivera territory, but the hits started to fall in at a more normal rate and a few balls left the yard. If Cook's 2nd half is for real, then he's still an excellent setup man, but he's no longer the unhittable menace who made the All-Star team. If the walk rate also creeps back up a bit, or he gets hit-unlucky, or he has a sophomore slump after a heavy rookie workload, then that ERA could go above 3. Last year, Cook looked like a future closer. I'm unconvinced that he will still look that way at the end of 2013.

I don't think that anyone expects Jerry Blevins to repeat his 2012 performance. That's not to say that he'll stink, but when you outperform your career ERA by a run and a half, and your xFIP by two full runs, then there's a good chance that you just had your career year and are due for a slide back. If Blevins puts up a 3.50 ERA this year, then he'll still be good. He just won't be one of the go-to cogs of an elite bullpen like he was last year.

There is good news! Sean Doolittle might be for real. FIP actually loves him, and even if you assume that he'll give up a couple more homers this year, xFIP still thinks that his performance was repeatable. Of course, there is so little data to go on that it's tough to make predictions about him. Furthermore, the league hasn't had a full season to figure him out and adjust to him, so there is still the chance for decline in that way.

The A's pitching staff relied on Balfour, Cook, Doolittle and Blevins to do some serious heavy lifting last year. They were up to the challenge in 2012, and each one of them could be just as good in 2013. However, relievers are notoriously volatile from year to year, and it's far more likely that at least one of them will fall off (or get injured, but we're ignoring that for now) and fail to repeat his previous success. What if two or three of those four fall off, though? Will Beane's insane bullpen depth be able to replace their quality of performance in high-leverage situations? Will someone like Hideki Okajima or Mike Ekstrom step up to become that consistent lights-out guy at the end of the game if Cook and Blevins can't handle it? We should at least prepare ourselves for the possibility that they won't.

It could happen, folks. Just saying.

*by an Australian