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Who Are Oakland's Hottest (and Coldest) Hitters Right Now?

We just finished the fourth month of the baseball season, and full-season stats only average together the ups and downs of a long campaign. Who were the hottest and coldest players for the month of July?

Last week, Derek Norris set off a fire alarm just by walking into the room. True story.
Last week, Derek Norris set off a fire alarm just by walking into the room. True story.

The 2013 Oakland Athletics have been the model of consistency. To illustrate this point, here are their month-by-month records:

Month Wins Losses
April 16 12
May 16 12
June 16 11
July 15 10

Granted, separating the season into months sets some rather arbitrary endpoints, and indeed the A's have gone on their hot streaks (9-0 in April, 18-3 in May/June) and their slumps (1-8 in April, 2-8 in May). However, looking at the larger picture, the team has been remarkably consistent in their success. You could legitimately say that they've been good all year, even though they've had a couple of rough patches.

That's how full-season baseball stats work. They combine all of the ups and downs into one large sample size, and if you have more ups than downs then your overall record will look pretty good. It's the same with individual players. If you have an 850 OPS, then you're a pretty good hitter - but would you rather have a guy whose OPS just dropped from 950 to 850 over the last month, or the guy who went from 750 to 850? The two hitters have equivalent season stats, but one of them is hot and the other is slumping. Sure, the colder hitter will probably break out of his skid at some point, but who would you rather have in the lineup today? Most people would pick the hotter hand, all other things being equal.

With this in mind, I decided to take a look at the production that Oakland got out of its lineup in July. We can all agree that Josh Donaldson has been the best hitter on the team overall this season, but relying too hard on past success can get you into trouble. As the saying goes: What have you done for me lately?

Well, here is what he, and the rest of the team, have done for us lately (sorted by the highest wRC+):

Derek Norris 37 .367 .486 .767 18.9 16.2 244 0.8
John Jaso 44 .242 .432 .394 25.0 18.2 143 0.3
Eric Sogard 64 .295 .317 .508 1.6 14.1 128 0.5
Stephen Vogt 19 .235 .316 .471 10.5 15.8 119 0.1
Brandon Moss 67 .258 .313 .403 7.5 23.9 101 0.1
Josh Donaldson 106 .233 .340 .356 12.3 19.8 100 0.5
Yoenis Cespedes 86 .237 .326 .342 10.5 16.3 91 0.4
Chris Young 61 .196 .262 .411 8.2 31.1 85 0.1
Jed Lowrie 103 .245 .282 .388 4.9 15.5 83 0.0
Josh Reddick 83 .205 .277 .384 9.6 21.7 81 0.4
Nate Freiman 37 .243 .243 .270 0.0 10.8 39 -0.3
Coco Crisp 111 .186 .243 .225 7.2 15.3 29 -0.5
Seth Smith 61 .125 .197 .161 8.2 27.9 1 -0.6

(Note: Adam Rosales and Grant Green were omitted since they are no longer relevant to the team. Stats are taken from Fangraphs.)

These are all tiny sample sizes by definition, so my point isn't to suggest that Stephen Vogt should replace Brandon Moss at first base or anything crazy. However, there are some conclusions to be drawn here:

1. Derek Norris is earning his keep as the platoon catcher.

Athletics Nation has been waiting over a year for Norris to start hitting, and he's finally sort of doing it. He was Oakland's hottest hitter and most valuable player in July, and he earned that distinction in only 37 plate appearances (about a third of the catching workload for the month). He led the team with four homers, and he returned his plate discipline back to the form he showed in April by walking more than he struck out. For a guy who was billed as a power-and-patience hitter as a prospect, these are the types of numbers you want to see.

All of the damage that Norris did in July was off of left-handed pitching, including all of his homers and RBI. The obvious conclusion is that Norris is right where he belongs, getting regular playing time by starting against lefties. I might even suggest that he should be hitting high in the lineup against lefties; I'd rather have him batting second than Chris Young. Norris's July heater has also raised his overall season stats to a league average level (.709 OPS, 101 wRC+).

2. Oakland has three legit catchers.

The amazing thing about Oakland's July is that their top two hitters were both catchers. Norris was head and shoulders above everybody, by hitting for average, power, and patience. Jaso was the best of the rest, thanks mostly to the fact that he walked in a full quarter of his plate appeareances. He didn't hit for a high average, but his patience, combined with a bit of a power surge (.152 isolated power) made him a successful hitter. After getting almost nothing out of their catchers last year, the 2013 A's have a good hitter behind the plate every single day - even when third catcher Stephen Vogt (power and plate discipline) gets the nod.

3. Eric Sogard has arrived.

I've preferred Adam Rosales to Sogard all year long, but at this point I am out of arguments. Sogard has clearly set himself apart in the long run - he's become a league-average hitter in his platoon role, he's provided positive defense at second, and Baseball-Reference has him listed as the second-most valuable player on the team by WAR (2.4 bWAR; Fangraphs has him at 1.3 fWAR, 6th on the team). Read that sentence again. According to a very reputable website, Eric Sogard has been the second-most valuable player on the 2013 A's. Mind. Blown.

One of Sogard's calling cards is usually his plate discipline, but he actually drew only one walk in July. Instead, he started hitting for power; his nine extra-base hits led the team last month. Add in that his Elf Magic makes him immune to groundball outs, since teams just seem to err on every ball he hits these days, and Sogard is suddenly a very legitimate Major League starter. Like Norris, Sogard's success is largely a factor of his platoon role (.184/.295/.316 v LHP), but we all knew that the team would be relying on platoons when we got into this.

It seemed like second base was the last real hole on this team. Now, Oakland has a platoon of Sogard, who is playing like a Major Leaguer, and Alberto Callaspo, who just posted two straight three-win seasons. Someone should probably tweet Jemile Weeks the bad news.

4. Josh Donaldson is for real.

Wait, hear me out. Donaldson didn't have a great month, and he went through an 0-for-18 stretch last weekend. But check it out - even when Rainmaker went through a slump, he still posted league-average stats and accrued half of a win worth of production. If you produced 0.5 WAR in each month, then you would be a three-win player. So, at Donaldson's absolute worst, he is a league-average hitter and a three-win player. Oh, and he totally broke out of that slump this week. Dude's for real.

5. Yoenis Cespedes, Josh Reddick, and Chris Young aren't coming around (yet).

Oakland's outfield has been an enigma this year. Young has been awful, and continued to be awful at just about the same rate in July (but at least his defense has finally gotten better!). Cespedes hasn't been able to get on base, and he's still not doing so (though he did get slightly better in that regard). Reddick has been my hot pick to break out in the second half, but he didn't make a lick of progress in July except for a tiny uptick in slugging. They are each talented enough, and play strong enough defense, to keep running them out there every day, but one of them is going to need to break out of his season-long slump at some point. The troubling thing is that none of these guys are like 2012 Donaldson, where the first-half stats were so bad that they are masking the second-half resurgence; each of them is still struggling in the second half at almost identical levels to what they suffered through in the first half.

6. The rest of the outfield was even worse.

Cespedes, Reddick, and Young are struggling, but Coco Crisp and Seth Smith were easily Oakland's worst hitters in July. Smith suffered through an 0-for-34 slump, and now has a lower OPS than Norris. Coco crashed back to Earth after his huge first half (currently mired in an 0-for-19 slump), and even his full-season stats don't look that good anymore. Both guys still belong in the lineup, but Oakland's entire outfield is pretty much failing at the plate right now.

Final Verdict

Let's make one more table!

Hot (> 119 wRC+) Meh (80-119 wRC+) Cold (< 80 wRC+)
Derek Norris Stephen Vogt Nate Freiman
John Jaso Brandon Moss Coco Crisp
Eric Sogard Josh Donaldson Seth Smith
Yoenis Cespedes
Chris Young
Jed Lowrie
Josh Reddick

My favorite part of that table is that two of the hottest hitters last month were the guys who usually hit #8 and #9 in the order. When the middle of the lineup went cold, the weaker hitters stepped up and picked up the slack.

Remember again that a one-month sample size is tiny, and I'm not trying to suggest that, say, Jed Lowrie sucks now and needs to be replaced. However, when that one-month sample lines up with the previous three months of data (Cespy, Reddick, Young), or shows a huge extreme one way or the other (Norris, Smith), it's worth taking a look at.

The good news is that the team is still versatile and deep. With the catchers hitting and the second base platoon squared away, there is no serious weakness in the lineup. As long as a few hitters are hot each month, it doesn't really matter what names are on the backs of their jerseys.