This is not an underground post on getting the most from the meth you cook up on your stove top, a drug that, as I teach my 8th graders, can be summed up as "house go boom". This is also not a rehashing of an age old, and frankly tired, debate over the relative virtues of small ball vs. power ball vs. take and rake ball...
The reality is that the A's will likely run a bit more in 2015 due to the composition of their roster, which absent Josh Donaldson, Brandon Moss, and Yoenis Cespedes lacks tremendous middle of the order power. Although it should be noted that reports of an Oakland power outage may be premature, given the potential of no fewer than 8 players to get into the 15-20 HR range. I'm counting Billy Butler, Coco Crisp, Ike Davis, Josh Reddick, and Ben Zobrist, who have done it before, along with Brett Lawrie, Marcus Semien, and Stephen Vogt, who should have a shot to hit 15+ HRs if they play most every day.
The question today is: If you do rely less on HRs and slugging, more on navigating around the bases in between doubles and HRs, what is the best way to incorporate this aspect of the game? A few thoughts...
"The Book" suggests that lineup construction is relatively unimportant, and it probably is compared to which 9 -- or in the A's case perhaps it's more like parts of 13 -- you're placing in any order. However, where a shrewd lineup order can become more useful is when you are foreseeing ways to manufacture runs.
If you have a hitter, like Eric Sogard or Craig Gentry, or Sam Fuld, who isn't robust overall but who has good contact skills, you can get more out of him if he bats behind Crisp than if he bats behind someone like Butler. Batting a speedster like Gentry, whose elite skill is getting himself from 1B to 2B, ahead of a singles hitter makes more sense than to bat him ahead of a power hitter who strands a lot of guys at 2B and drives in a lot of guys from 1B.
For this reason I'm not wild about the idea of batting Gentry #2 even against LHPs, because then when he does get on base (and the vast majority of the time it will be on 1B) he will be on for batters (Zobrist, Butler, Canha, Davis, Lawrie) whose strengths lie in slugging and/or OBP. If the next batter is going to walk, you don't want to be risking a SB that will be rendered irrelevant -- if you're not thrown out. And if the next batter is going to wallop a HR you also don't want to precede it with a stolen base attempt.
I would expect to see some lineup duos designed to utilize certain players' ability to steal, hit-and-run, etc. Gentry or Fuld batting 9th, with Crisp batting leadoff, offers a chance for the A's to take advantage of the speed they have with a good contact hitter and singles hitter in Crisp.
"Small Ball Specialists"
Sabermatricians tend to dislike the hit-and-run and to a large extent the stolen base attempt, where research shows you need around a 75% success rate to make it a net gain. Where I do think the A's have sometimes fallen behind the competition, however, is in not using these generally overrated tools with players who do not offer a lot of other offensive value. Sogard and Fuld would be excellent examples.
Left to their own devices, Sogard and Fuld are going to get out 70% of the time and when they don't they will rarely get past 1B. That's just who they are. So the status quo does not offer a whole lot. That's why they are excellent choices to become your "hit-and-run specialists" -- not every opportunity, of course, but perhaps more frequently than once in a blue moon.
The hit-and-run does have some big upside. The downside, of course, is that the swing and miss usually produces a caught stealing, which is why it's essential to put it on only with the right hitters and generally in counts where you can expect to see a hittable pitch. One upside is that with a middle infielder in motion, the defense is forced to leave one side of the infield wide open. Just play pepper on the correct side of the infield and the most ordinary of ground balls can become a base hit. The other big plus is that with the runner in motion, that bouncing ball through the infield is almost an automatic "1B and 3B". Given how shallow an outfield can play a Sogard or a Fuld and how many balls they slap to LF, it's actually not that easy for these hitters to get a runner from 1B to 3B under ordinary circumstances.
Runner at 1B, one out, 1-0 count to Sogard or Fuld? Not terrific odds of leading to a run ... Hit-and-run, bouncer into RF, 1B and 3B one out for the top of the order? I'm liking it a lot more. The hit-and-run is not, overall, a great play, but there is a place for it and I believe there is a real place for it in this A's lineup, this season.
That Decisive Run
I don't want to see the A's running wild early in games, even though a run in the 2nd inning counts as much as a run in the 8th inning. Fact is, in the 2nd inning you should be playing for the chance to find yourself in a big inning, which can happen when the SP just can't find his groove that day or when a key error opens up an opportunity. In the 2nd you don't yet know if you're in one of those 8-6 games or one of those 2-1 affairs, or perhaps an 11-3 blowout in the making.
The 9th inning is different. If it's 3-3 then you know the next run is also very likely to be the last run. Since apparently every post until spring training is required to reference the wild card game, consider the impact on Oakland's fates that Jarrod Dyson had when he swiped 3B off of Sean Doolittle and sat poised to score on a lazy fly ball to RF.
I would like to see the A's sit back in the early innings, stealing bags if ignored by pitchers but mostly taking, raking, hitting, playing for the big inning or the knockout punch. Late in games, though, unleash the running game if it gives you a chance to steal that all-important tying or go-ahead run. There, speed becomes a weapon and you don't bring your gun to the corral just to show off the shine. You fire the bullets you have, and in 2015 Oakland may find "the big steal" to be as much in front of them as "the big HR".
And let's face it, on paper the A's figure to be in a fair number of tight games. This is probably not a team that will thrive the best possible way: routinely blowing out the opposition. This is probably a team whose fortunes will turn on their ability to win their fair share, or more than their fair share, of close games. You can call that factor "luck" or you can hope that the team has some say over its fate in those close games. That say, as the Royals so beautifully demonstrated all last season, can be had by using speed late in games.
In the case of teams obsessed with "small ball" that use of speed and slap might be reckless. In the case of the A's, I am hoping it's judicious. Use it to get that last run and don't run into a bunch of outs early in the game. Use it to turn useless hitters into useful ones. And so long as no one ever gets caught stealing or whiffs on the hit-and-run, even the most devout sabermatricians are bound to embrace it!