It's getting tougher and tougher to find positive aspects of this Oakland A's team to appreciate. The rotation is still excellent, and Pat Venditte is here now, but the rest of the bullpen is still hot garbage and the defense, while improving, still has a long way to go to repair its reputation.
But what about the lineup? It's easy to get discouraged after its lackluster performance in Boston and its failure against Nick Martinez on Tuesday, but the A's did just score 35 runs in a seven-game span against the Yankees and Tigers. It's not like they're the Mariners or something. Better yet, they currently have seven players on the active roster who rank as average hitters better, with an eighth in Ike Davis when he returns (he's nearing rehab, via Slusser).
Does that number surprise you? It often feels like only two guys in the lineup are good bets for hits on any given day, but this unit is a bit more complete than it initially appears. After all, you can't leave the bases loaded several times per game without loading the bases several times per game.
Here is a ranking of each A's hitter on the current active roster (plus Ike), using OPS+ as the measure. If you're not familiar with OPS+ (available at Baseball-Reference), it compares a hitter's OPS to the league average with an adjustment for park factors, with a mark of 100 being average, 110 being 10% better than average, and 85 being 15% worse. (I'm also including wRC+ from Fangraphs, which does the same type of thing but using a different formula. Note that the rankings of the 13 active guys are exactly the same either way, but I know some folks prefer one stat over the other.)
1. Stephen Vogt | 160 OPS+ | 159 wRC+
Vogt has clearly been the A's best hitter so far this year, as he leads the team in ... almost every good thing. Unfortunately, he has finally cooled off from his season-opening five-week hot streak. His stats as of May 12, followed by his stats in his 24 games since:
Vogt, thru May 12 (119 PAs): .337/.420/.673 (1.093 OPS), 9 HR, 30 RBI, 15 BB, 18 Ks
Vogt, since May 12 (90 PAs): .225/.344/.352 (.697 OPS), 2 HR, 10 RBI, 15 BB, 19 Ks
I wouldn't normally list RBI, but driving in runs is clearly a big part of Vogt's role on the team and, at least from my memory, I don't feel like he's had a lack of baserunners to work with. In this case, the drop in RBI isn't just from a lack of opportunity, but at least partly because Vogt hasn't been cashing in those runs -- like when he failed to drive in Reddick from third with one out on Tuesday, opting instead to swing at the first pitch and ground out.
Of course, to be fair, Vogt may just have been anxious to get a swing in before Martinez could pitch around him and get to Billy Butler with a force at second. So, maybe Vogt was actually being unselfish, in a way, by going against his normally patient approach to give the best chance of helping the team. And indeed, it has sure looked like opponents have stopped giving Vogt much to hit, knowing that he's the biggest threat in the lineup, so that might help explain some of the drop-off.
And finally, the good news. When pitchers start to work a hitter carefully, it's on the hitter to make adjustments. One of those adjustments is not chasing the slop they give you, and it's crucial to note that Vogt has maintained his plate discipline for the most part. He's had virtually identical walk and strikeout numbers during the hot streak and the slump, albeit in non-identical numbers of plate appearances, and that at least tells me that he's staying patient with his current situation. His four-digit OPS was always going to come down, but I'm confident that he'll work through this rough patch and be a potent force in the A's lineup for the rest of the season.
2. Josh Reddick | 150 OPS+ | 156 wRC+
Let's play the same game we just played with Vogt:
Reddick, thru May 15 (127 PAs): .339/.417/.589 (1.007 OPS), 6 HR, 28 RBI, 15 BB, 13 Ks
Reddick, since May 15 (89 PAs): .259/.326/.407 (.733 OPS), 2 HR, 4 RBI, 8 BB, 9 Ks
Basically the same story. Reddick was red-hot, and now he's cooled off a bit while still maintaining his surprisingly strong plate discipline. And my conclusion is the same -- he's not as good as he was to start the season, but he's a great bet to work out of his current slump. Reddick looks like a completely different hitter this year, in exclusively good ways. He's swinging at better pitches and letting the bad ones go by in a way that I didn't think he would ever be capable of doing, he's hitting more liners than he ever has, and he's spraying the ball to all fields.
There is one little problem, though. Reddick has done nothing against lefties this year. He's 6-for-50 with one extra-base hit, good for a .120 average and a .360 OPS. His wRC+ against southpaws is 4. Actually, as Jeremy pointed out to me earlier, that's small enough that I should really write out the numeral. His wRC+ against southpaws is four. Of course, that means that he's destroying right-handers, to the tune of a 1.077 OPS (208 wRC+), but it would be nice if one of the top two hitters on the team wasn't effectively a platoon player. And this weakness hasn't come out of nowhere, either, as his career split is nearly 130 points higher against righties.
Those splits help explain why Reddick was lifted for pinch-hitter Josh Phegley on Tuesday against a southpaw reliever. It seems odd to swap out arguably your best hitter in favor of your backup catcher, and I don't agree with the move, but it was defensible. Melvin wanted to seize the chance to score, Phegley is one of the team's hottest hitters (more on him sooner than you think), and Phegley had the platoon advantage (and favorable split) that Reddick lacked. In terms of that specific matchup, the numbers made sense. But I still wouldn't have done it. I'd still stick with my big gun; heck, his plate discipline against lefties (8 Ks, 5 BB) suggests that he isn't as bad as that .360 OPS anyway. Plus, it was only the seventh inning, and that meant a virtual guarantee that if the A's started a rally in the ninth then Reddick's spot would be the one coming up to cash in against a right-handed closer. I thought the move was overaggressive to several degrees, but it wasn't head-scratching like Adam Melhuse pinch-hitting for Jermaine Dye in the playoffs.
3. Josh Phegley | 129 OPS+ | 133 wRC+
Raise your hand if, back in March, you would have guessed that two of the top three spots on this list would be held by catchers. Anyone? After trading Derek Norris and John Jaso last winter, catcher looked like a weak point on the roster, but so far it's been one of the biggest strengths yet again. Now, while I genuinely think Vogt has developed into a star hitter, Phegley is probably just on a hot streak; he's more likely to settle in as a low-OBP guy with some power a batting average that fluctuates with his BABIP. He's one of the toughest strikeouts on the whole team, so at the very least you can be confident that he'll make contact. Except for last night, in the biggest spot of the game, because 2015 A's.
In his last 11 games and 40 plate appearances, Phegley is hitting .389/.450/.667, with 7 extra-base hits, 4 BB, and 6 Ks. I am still in favor of giving him more starts while he's hot, at the expense of Billy Butler (could be Vogt to first base, Canha to DH, to avoid losing the backup catcher to the DH spot.)
Ike Davis | 118 OPS+ | 123 wRC+
Nothing much to add to him right now. I just wanted to show where he would fit into this list.
4. Billy Burns | 114 OPS+ | 119 wRC+
Burns went 0-for-5 on Tuesday, which broke a 12-game hitting streak during which he was batting .346. He's hitting well from both sides of the plate, which is just a jaw-dropping shock given how relatively new he is to left-handed hitting. I'm still really unhappy that he isn't attempting waaaay more stolen bases, but I'm already past 1,500 words so that'll have to be a story for another post.
5. Marcus Semien | 111 OPS+ | 115 wRC+
Who knows what to make of Semien at this point. His defense is actually getting better, as he's only made a pair of errors in his last dozen games and I think he's visibly looked better. He has looked more sure-handed lately, he's made some good plays to his right, and he's turned some good-looking double plays. On the other hand, his hitting is going in the other direction.
Semien, thru May 19 (172 PAs): .313/.357/.506 (.863 OPS), 6 HR, 11 BB, 37 Ks
Semien, since May 19 (70 PAs): .188/.257/.219 (.476 OPS), 1 XBH (a triple), 6 BB, 12 Ks
There was a time when Vogt, Reddick and Semien were carrying the lineup, but now all three have fallen on hard times. If I had to guess, I'd say that Semien is probably really, really, really focused on his defense right now, and that could mean his hitting is being neglected a bit, but that's my speculation. I'll also note that his strikeout-to-walk rate has actually improved during his slump, which is a big sign for hope. And again, if you're going to sacrifice your hitting in the short-term to shore up your defense in the long-term, it's at least nice to see that the defense has in fact improved.
6. Mark Canha | 107 OPS+ | 112+ wRC+
I was so excited about Canha all winter, and nothing has changed. In fact, now that I know he has awesome hair and sweet sideburns, I like him even more. Don't ever undervalue sideburns.
Canha is looking like a best-case scenario so far. His power is as advertised -- seven homers in 170 PAs, and an isolated slugging percentage of .180. The strikeouts, once a concern, are totally benign at only 20% of his trips to the plate. He's got enough patience for a decent walk rate. He can handle right-handed pitching, and in fact has hit all of his dingers off of righties, so he's not limited to a platoon role. In Canha's last five games, he's 6-for-17 with a homer, two doubles, and only one strikeout. If you're wondering who's hot and who to get excited about right now, this guy should be on your short list until further notice.
7. Brett Lawrie | 100 OPS+ | 102 wRC+
Surprised to see Lawrie on the proper side of average? I can't blame you, because even when he's playing well he just looks terrible at baseball. He can bobble a grounder at third, recover, and throw to first fast enough that it's like it never happened. He can leg out a heads-up hustle double, and then nearly get thrown out a few pitches later lollygagging to third on a ground ball. And it seems like he can swing through a dozen pitches and then hit the next one over the fence, and his swing will look every bit as out-of-control either way.
But he does have talent, and we're finally starting to see it. He recently enjoyed a 14-game span in which he hit .389/.400/.648 with three homers, though he only walked once in that stretch and he then followed it up with an 0-for-9 the last three games. The one thing I still can't figure out is how he's struck out 62 times already, a trend that hasn't slowed down no matter how hot or cold he's been at any given time. His career-worst entering the season was a strikeout in 18.1% of his PAs, and this year he's at 27.7%; to put it another way, his career-high is 86 Ks (in 125 games) and he's already nearly there in early June. At the same time, he's essentially stopped walking (8 total this year).
8. Max Muncy | 94 OPS+ | 98 wRC+
I continue to be impressed by the fact that Muncy is in the Majors. He's clearly not quite ready, but he's holding his own far beyond what I thought he could do (with a note that I'd never actually seen him play before this year). I think he's underrated as a defender at first base and could even improve more with experience, though I'm starting to like Canha even better there. And at the plate, he is fantastic at working the count until he gets his pitch to hit. Now, the next step it to consistently hit that pitch, which he is not doing often enough.
But the process is in place, and I am exponentially more hopeful for his future than I ever have been before. Granted, that might still mean he tops out as a platoon guy or a backup, but I didn't know if he would ever even make the bigs at all given how blocked he was on the depth chart and how lackluster his 2014 was in Double-A. You never know when opportunity will knock in baseball, and Muncy has answered his unexpected call about as well as anyone could have hoped. His batting eye is legit and he has at least some power. That's usually a pretty good combo.
T-9. Billy Butler | 84 OPS+ | 85 wRC+
I don't want to talk about Billy Butler. Thinking about him makes me upset right now. Here, I just wrote about him in-depth on Tuesday.
T-9. Ben Zobrist | 84 OPS+ | 85 OPS+
You guys! We have Ben Zobrist! And he's ... kinda bad so far. WTF? Do you think this is funny, universe?
For six years, Zobrist averaged 153 games per season with an .801 OPS (123 OPS+). The A's acquired him for his walk year, as he's looking ahead to the only somewhat big contract he'll ever get in his career, and so far he's missed a month for knee surgery and can't even keep his OBP over .300. We just aren't allowed to have nice things.
Let's look for happy thoughts. He's 7-for-42 since returning, which ... jeez, seriously? Well, at least those seven hits include a game-winning grand slam and three doubles, so the successes he is having aren't just lucky grounders through holes. And, he's still striking out more than he walks; like so many others on this list, he's not simply getting overpowered and flailing away.
11. Eric Sogard | 64 OPS+ | 65 wRC+
Sogard can play really good defense. Sogard cannot hit. That's the deal, and we all knew it coming in. "It could be worse," said Alberto Callaspo. Sogard belongs in the bigs, but he is miscast as an everyday starter, and he's not even a great option as a platoon guy. But with injuries to Coco and Ike, and for a while Zobrist, Sogard has been forced into action. He still can't hit lefties, he isn't really hitting righties this year either, and his clutch stats are all terrible so we can't even take solace in the fact that some of his rare hits are bigger than normal. But man, you could do a lot worse than that glove at second base. I'm glad Sogard is here, but I wish he were beginning most days on the bench.
12. Sam Fuld | 54 OPS+ | 53 wRC+
Did you remember that Fuld was still on the team? I'm pretty sure I've forgotten that fact several times this month. He got his last hit on May 26, and his last plate appearance on June 4 (today is June 10). He might seem like the next obvious guy to get cut when space is needed, but that might not be the case. When Ike returns, I have to think that Muncy is the one who will go down, since they both hit lefty and they mostly play the same position. Also, Muncy has options, whereas Fuld will have to clear waivers to go down and then could reject the assignment and force his release if he wanted.
With the loss of Coco and the perplexing decline of Craig Gentry (.480 OPS in Triple-A), Fuld is still the only viable backup in center field, and while we all love Burns he is far from a sure thing right now. If the A's cut Fuld now, they risk having to turn to someone even worse as a long-term replacement down the road (like Matt Carson). Not every sub-par player makes as many awesome plays as Fuld does.
13. Andy Parrino | -47 OPS+ | -36 wRC+
Note that those are minus signs in front of each number. Parrino's OPS+ is negative-47. But that's really just an example of fun with small sample sizes; his MLB season line is 0-for-5 with a walk. And five strikeouts. Which means he's come up six times and hasn't yet put a ball in play.
andy parrino back in oakland... pic.twitter.com/5VJS8VN7uH— Duncan Morrow (@DunxMuro) April 21, 2014