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2015 Oakland A's outfield breakdown: What went wrong and what lies ahead?

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The Athletics outfield had its bright spots, like Billy Burns and Josh Reddick, but it still needs a little bit of help to put a competitive team on the field in 2016 and beyond.

Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

We continue our discussion of where things went wrong for the Oakland Athletics by looking at the A's outfield. Again, I will clumsily break down WAR by position. First, an overview of how thing have changed. For non-pitchers, I assigned WAR proportionally to how many plate appearances they took at a position. For pitchers, by how many innings they pitched as a starter and as a reliever:

Oakland A's Fangraphs WAR by position (approximation)
C 1B 2B 3B SS LF CF RF DH PH SP RP Total
2015 (122 games) 3.0 0.1 0.7 0.3 0.8 0.4 1.3 2.3 -1.1 0.1 12.0 1.1 21.0
2015 (projected 162) 4.0 0.2 0.9 0.4 1.1 0.5 1.7 3.0 -1.4 0.2 15.9 1.5 27.9
2014 (162 games) 3.9 2.3 -0.1 6.0 2.2 3.1 2.5 4.0 1.6 0.5 11.9 5.4 43.2

I think there are two major culprits for the decline in the outfield's performance that I will get into, at least in terms of WAR on FanGraphs. The first is that there are more groundball pitchers throwing on the A's than in recent years, so there are fewer opportunities for good outfielders to make the marginal plays that separate them from average outfielders and less time to separate signal from noise. The other culprit is that role players who previously hit decently while playing great defense just stunk at the plate this year.

If I really wanted to be precise about assigning a player's WAR to a position, I would work out all the components earned by a player while playing at each position, but the data for that isn't easily accessible. So we'll roll with this, because we're just ballparking here.

For the projection out to 162 games there's also a problem where players that have been traded, like Ben Zobrist and Scott Kazmir, are still part of the calculation. I'm not too worried about being precise here, but I'll note that issue as it crops up in a position-by-position breakdown. All references to WAR are from FanGraphs.

Corner outfield

We'll start with the corner outfielders, since the free agent discussion between left fielders and right fielders involve a lot of overlap.

Left field
As left fielder
2015 (proj.) 2014
WAR 0.5 (replacement level) 3.1 (good starter)
Mark
Canha
Sam
Fuld
Ben
Zobrist
Coco
Crisp
Jake
Smolinski
Craig
Gentry
Cody
Ross
Yoenis
Cespedes
Brandon
Moss
Sam
Fuld
Jonny Gomes
Craig
Gentry
Andy
Parrino
Stephen
Vogt
WAR 0.6 0.1 0.4 -0.5 0.3 -0.3 -0.1 1.7 0.8 0.4 -0.2 0.2 0.0 0.0
AVG .237 .204 .253 .163 .294 .071 .000 .258 .223 .169 .262 .316 .667 .250
OBP .280 .267 .364 .264 .294 .133 .167 .312 .361 .234 .340 .350 .750 .250
SLG .382 .290 .506 .225 .824 .071 .000 .484 .439 .254 .286 .395 1.000 .250
OPS+ 81 55 138 38 194 -41 -48 117 121 36 77 107 382 40
PA 214 134 131 121 23 20 8 343 180 66 47 40 4 4

HOW'D THEY DO? The A's felt the absence of the 2014 versions of Yoenis Cespedes and Brandon Moss from the left field spot. Returning left fielder Sam Fuld and Craig Gentry are combined by this system of appropriating WAR by position to cost the A's nearly a win by themselves despite additional playing time for Fuld in left field.

Mark Canha has taken the plurality of time in left field, where he rates either average (by UZR) or a little below (-2 DRS) by the advanced defensive metrics. Canha has actually performed a lot better on offense as a first baseman (132 OPS+ vs. his 81 in LF), which is probably totally random.

Ben Zobrist was the best left fielder with over 100 plate appearances, but his defense in left field dragged down his value quite a lot after a long career of excellent defense in multiple positions. Zobrist only actually got 99 plate appearances, so the extra 32 plate appearances given to him by extrapolating out to the rest of the season maybe add up to a tenth of WAR.

When Coco Crisp was healthy, he was a disaster at the plate, while defensive metrics call him an average left fielder. It's a downgrade from his previous status as an excellent veteran center fielder, but the move to left field seems to have helped him by giving him less ground to cover out there. There's still a chance that the bat may still come around after going 2-for-45 before his second trip to the disabled list. Since returning, he is 11-for-38 with four doubles and walks for a .289/.357/.395 line, which lifted his season line from .044/.173/.067 to .157/.255/.217.

Jake Smolinski has impressed in the limited time he's been here, though he's mostly been limited to facing left-handed pitching.

NEXT YEAR INTERNALLY: Coco Crisp and Sam Fuld are both in their final years of team control, and one wonders if either of them will hit enough to justify significant playing time out there. As I said, Crisp has done okay since coming off his second trip to the disabled list, but he'll be 36 next year. Fuld only has to be a little bit better with the bat to keep his good outfield defense out there, however.

Mark Canha and Jake Smolinski are both right-handed batters, though the A's are giving Canha more chances to play against right-handers, especially with Canha able to play first base. Among Oakland's internal choices, it's these two that have to step up and show consistent power for the A's to compete in 2016. My hope is that both of them, along with an improved Coco Crisp, can make left field a 2-3 WAR position even before looking outside the organization.

Don't forget, Danny Valencia gave left field a try for the first time this year with the Blue Jays, though he's probably better in the infield.

Oakland's prospect depth is a bit slim, though Tyler Ladendorf is on the mend with Nashville and could be called up in September to give the A's a good look at him compared to Jake Smolinski. When Ladendorf played in the outfield, he mostly played center field. We could also look with intrigue at left-handed batting Jason Pridie, the journeyman 31-year-old with a .301/.371/.493 batting line with Triple-A Nashville.

Beyond that, the closest left fielder with a shot isn't all that close at all. Colin Walsh has gotten a little bit of time in left field lately with Double-A Midland. Walsh owns the fifth-best OPS in the Texas League, hitting .306/.436/.476 with 12 home runs in Midland at age 25.

Right field
As right fielder
2015 (proj.) 2014
WAR 3.0 (good starter) 4.0 (very good starter)
Josh
Reddick
Sam
Fuld
Cody
Ross
Jake
Smolinski
Craig
Gentry
Ben
Zobrist
Mark
Canha
Josh
Reddick
Brandon
Moss
Craig
Gentry
Stephen
Vogt
Sam
Fuld
Kyle
Blanks
WAR 3.3 0.0 -0.3 0.2 -0.2 0.0 0.0 2.5 0.5 0.4 0.2 0.3 0.0
AVG .282 .097 .133 .375 .000 .429 .000 .265 .236 .264 .400 .229 1.000
OBP .332 .176 .188 .455 .222 .500 .000 .318 .314 .328 .451 .308 1.000
SLG .457 .226 .133 .375 .000 .714 .000 .439 .425 .302 .556 .371 1.000
OPS+ 105 5 -12 124 -32 215 -100 105 100 75 174 85 452
PA 560 46 21 15 12 11 5 388 118 61 51 40 1

HOW'D THEY DO? Josh Reddick is on a pace to improve upon his 3 fWAR performance of 2014, though he'll get over 500 plate appearances to do it this time. A slight improvement in his hitting has been countered by a marked decrease in UZR, the defensive component of fWAR. In 2012, Reddick's Gold Glove campaign resulted in a UZR/150 of saving 20.2 runs above the average right fielder. In 2013, it was even better, 22.3 runs. 2014 saw it fall off to 7.8. 2015 has him down at -2.2.

How to explain this downturn? Reddick's Inside Edge buckets actually shows us this might just be a lot of random noise. When we're trying to figure out who is a great fielder and who is not, we really only care about the marginal plays. Most plays are classified as "Impossible" or "Routine," when it's the "Remote," "Unlikely," "Even," or "Likely" plays that separate fielders from each other.

Despite playing about the same number of innings this year as he did all of last year in right field, Inside Edge shows that Reddick has only had 23 chances for a ball rated between "Remote" and "Likely", as opposed to 37 chances in 2014. Reddick's outstanding 2013 defensive year comes from him going a perfect 17 for 17 on plays rated "Even" or merely "Likely". Reddick has still done well in those categories in 2015, but he's had fewer opportunities to do so.

And why is this the case? Well, A's pitchers have more of a ground ball profile than they've had in awhile. I could write a whole article on the shift in batted ball profile. And I will, soon.

Another part of the downturn in right field is that the supporting cast was for the most part not a positive contribution this year. Last year, Sam Fuld, Stephen Vogt, and Craig Gentry were together worth about one WAR in their 150 plate appearances while playing right field, and Brandon Moss' good first half carried him to an okay half-win as well. This year, Cody Ross and Craig Gentry were poor enough to cancel out Jake Smolinski's positive contributions.

NEXT YEAR INTERNALLY: Josh Reddick, Sam Fuld, and Jake Smolinski return, while Craig Gentry stands a good chance to be non-tendered. Smolinski turns 27 next season.

Reddick could come back next year to enjoy an average defense season. He started the year on the disabled list with an oblique injury and missed a good deal of spring training. One wonders if that had any lingering effect on his abilities in the outfield, combined with the noted limited number of chances he got this year. If Reddick can put together a season on offense like the one he has enjoyed this year and play merely good defense, we could be looking at a 4 WAR season from Reddick alone.

Combined with positive performances out of occasional platoons by Jake Smolinski and Sam Fuld to rest Reddick against the possibility of injury, it's optimistic, but not completely crazy, to think 5 WAR out of right field is possible in 2016.

Corner outfield free agents

The top outfielders available are going to be quite expensive, but outfield is Oakland's thinnest position in the minors. It's actually a deep free agent class for the corner outfielders: Yoenis Cespedes, Justin Upton, Gerardo Parra, Jason Heyward are the top bats 30 and under. Heyward is going to get ridiculous money, as he's only 26.

For something in the shorter term, the A's could look at older role players, like Nori Aoki, turning 34 next year, or even at someone like Colby Rasmus. I'll talk about him more in the center field free agent section.

Center field

As center fielder
2015 (proj.) 2014
WAR 1.7 (adequate starter) 2.5 (adequate starter)
Billy
Burns
Sam
Fuld
Craig
Gentry
Josh
Reddick
Tyler
Ladendorf
Coco
Crisp
Craig
Gentry
Sam
Fuld
Yoenis
Cespedes
Josh
Reddick
Billy
Burns
WAR 2.0 0.1 -0.4 0.0 0.0 1.0 0.9 0.6 0.1 0.0 -0.1
AVG .296 .217 .063 1.000 1.000 .254 .246 .224 .188 .500 .000
OBP .337 .300 .118 1.000 1.000 .345 .321 .290 .176 .500 .000
SLG .382 .340 .063 1.000 1.000 .371 .270 .353 .188 1.500 .000
OPS+ 97 76 -48 453 453 100 67 79 2 435 -100
PA 547 161 23 1 1 467 141 93 17 4 4

HOW'D THEY DO? Billy Burns' excellent bat and base running balanced out a UZR that rated him a quite poor to put him on pace for a 2-WAR season. In 800 innings, Inside Edge Fielding says Billy Burns has had only 20 opportunities to make a marginal play, one that is not a routine or impossible play for any outfielder. Compare that to the 41 opportunities Coco Crisp had in his terrible defensive year in 2014 in around 900 innings.

That means that Burns hasn't had all that many chances to show off what his speed can do in center field, and it also exposes his so-so arm to runners grabbing an extra base if he's not paying attention, which was something we saw from the rookie early in the year. Burns is probably a much more valuable defender to a team with more fly ball pitchers in its rotation.

As was the case with the corner outfield positions, the secondary outfielders just did not produce the way they did in 2014. Craig Gentry last year almost matched Coco Crisp's value with a third of the playing time thanks to a so-so bat and great center field defense. Gentry's ability to hit a baseball just disappeared, unfortunately.

Burns and Crisp have comparable OPS figures because Billy Burns is compensating for his comparative lack of walks with more base hits.

NEXT YEAR INTERNALLY: Burns appears to have cemented himself in center field, though his defensive ceiling is limited if the A's trot out a starting rotation that includes extreme ground ball pitchers Sonny Gray, Jesse Hahn, and Kendall Graveman. Scott Kazmir was fourth among the starters in ground ball rate at 45.9 percent, and Jesse Chavez fifth at 41.8 percent. The American League average for starting pitchers is 44.3 percent.

The main place for the A's to improve is in the fourth outfielder role. Tyler Ladendorf might try to fit the bill as a right-handed batter. Sam Fuld will have to get better at the plate. Otherwise, the A's need to look outside the organization for someone who can hit.

FREE AGENTS: Dexter Fowler, Colby Rasmus, Denard Span, Austin Jackson, and Drew Stubbs are the center fielders in this year's free agent class. Fowler has particularly enjoyed consistent offensive production, even after he was traded from the Colorado Rockies in the 2013-14 offseason to the Houston Astros, and then to the Chicago Cubs the next year.

Colby Rasmus could be an interesting value choice for the A's. Rasmus continues to hit for power with Houston and continues to have a huge strikeout rate (32.2 percent). Rasmus is playing all three outfield positions though he has played mostly in center field throughout his career, where he rates as an average center fielder by UZR. He has 17 home runs already, and he's not hitting cheap oppo tacos to the Crawford Boxes, he's pulled 15 of 17 into right field. Will he get something similar to the one-year $8 million deal he signed with Houston or try for multiple years?

Some thoughts

A 25-man roster with Crisp, Burns, Reddick, and Rasmus works great with complimentary pieces to cover the inevitable injury (or possible release, in Coco's case) to one or more of them. Wouldn't you feel great about that outfield with Canha, Smolinski, and Ladendorf waiting in the wings?

Next time

I didn't get around to talking about the designated hitter, so that will be our next installment, where I have some thoughts about the theory of signing a dedicated designated hitter rather than using the DH spot as a "half-day off" position. After that, I'll get to pitchers.