In the comment thread of yesterday's trade rumors article, Trainman posted a link to an article by fellow blogger Ken Arneson. In the post, Arneson muses about the areas in which sabermetrics may fall short in his investigation of how the playoff crapshoot could have been so statistically cruel to the Oakland Athletics over the last 15 years. He cites the chances of the A's losing 13 out of 14 potential series-clinching games at 1-in-1,170, which we can all agree feels like something more than random chance. It may in fact be random, but that explanation is tough to swallow and it's worth considering if there is more to it.
The post is long, but it'll make you think and I promise it's worth a read. I won't give it all away here, but the core concept is the question of whether sabermetrics takes too much of a big-picture approach to analysis and misses some of the smaller details, like pitch sequencing and hitters who excel at hitting tough pitches, which he believes to be the most important aspects of the sport. This part really struck me:
To me, the biggest difference between the A's in the playoffs and the Giants in the playoffs is Pablo Sandoval. Because there may not be anyone in baseball right now better than Sandoval who does damage even when he does not get a good pitch to hit. He can turn pitches in the dirt, in his eyes, and/or six inches off the plate into a hit. He's almost immune to prediction state manipulation by opposing pitchers. And Hunter Pence, though not as extreme as Sandoval, has similar characteristics.
The A's simply do not pursue those types of players.
I've been thinking a lot about Sandoval lately. No player embodies the current Giants dynasty better than the Panda, as a guy who sort of shuffles his way through a decent regular season and then turns into the Incredible Hulk in the postseason. Sure, Madison Bumgarner was clearly the singular driving force of the 2014 champions, but Panda batted .366 throughout the playoffs, and before that he swatted six home runs with a .364 average in the 2012 postseason en route to a World Series MVP trophy.
Arneson suggests that Sandoval succeeds because, when the chips are down and the best pitchers are throwing their best offerings on the biggest stages, he's still able to make contact with anything, even if it's not the pitch he was looking for. The eyeball test clearly agrees that he possesses that skill, and in the absence of a better explanation for his October success I have no reason to reject this one. He goes on to mention that an entire lineup of free-swingers would bring diminishing returns, and that balance and diversity from No. 1 to No. 9 is the best way to keep pitchers off their guards. However, guys like Sandoval tend to be overlooked by modern analysis because they post low OBPs over the long-term.
(Moving on from Arneson's thoughts to my own extrapolation.)
You're not going to like this next part. The A's did have a Panda, and his name was Yoenis Cespedes. He was the bad-ball hitter who would have ups and downs during a good-but-not-great regular season, but couldn't be easily dispatched in the playoffs because he can hit whatever you throw. The numbers support that theory -- as you probably know, Cespedes has a .350/.395/.525 line in his 10-game playoff career, having performed well in both of Oakland's recent ALDS losses.
Of course, it may ease your mind to remember that even with Cespedes in the picture, the A's still couldn't advance, so it's not like they've lost their one true savior. They won exactly as many playoff series this year without him as they did with him in 2012-13. But this could provide a talking point for the folks who believe that the loss of Yoenis was the thing that tanked the lineup in the second half, rather than the injuries to Moss and Coco and Jaso and Gentry and pretty much everyone else on the team. They had their power-and-patience guys, like Moss and Donaldson, but they were missing their unpredictable free-swinger who mixed things up in between them and forced pitchers to change their approaches. Josh Reddick sort of took up the mantle, but not to the same degree. Coco could have been that guy, but he was too injured. Adam Dunn didn't help, because he was too similar to what Oakland already had.
This is not me flip-flopping and blaming everything on the Cespedes trade. I still believe that was merely once piece in a much larger puzzle, and that without Jon Lester it would merely have been the rotation that failed us instead of the offense. And furthermore, Cespedes isn't the perfect comp for Sandoval because the former swings and misses more often, and high contact is the skill that the latter has supposedly ridden to victory. But the scientific mind is always looking for new information to challenge its current beliefs, and Arneson has given us a whole new angle with which to look at things. He freely admits that he has no evidence to support his ideas, but I don't think that should be important when you're dealing with a thought experiment. There are no hard conclusions here, just some neat new ideas to toss around in your brain.
If you are willing to challenge the old school of baseball wisdom with the current form of sabermetrics, then you're probably willing to challenge those sabermetrics as well when new information (even in the form of a subjective brainstorm) enters the equation. After watching the high-contact offense of the Royals and the rise-to-the-occasion lineup of the Giants both tear through seemingly superior squads and stacked starting rotations to reach the World Series, I'd imagine a lot of us are searching for new explanations to the same old questions.
So check out Arneson's post, and let's discuss it. If you're not yet sold, then at least read it to find out how A's fans are like magical elves (that is also discussed in the article).
Then consider these questions:
- Do you think the A's should have more variety in their lineup, with a balance of Three True Outcomes types and average-dependent free-swingers?
- If so, is there a Panda in the organization right now?
- If there isn't, who is someone the A's can target this winter to give their lineup that extra dimension? (And you can't say Panda himself, because Billy Beane isn't spending $100 million and a draft pick on him.)