The Oakland A's have added a lot of new players this winter. They lured a couple of late-inning relievers by dangling premium salaries, they bought low on two starting pitchers with injury asterisks, and they picked up more relievers and a pair of hitters via trade. But, even in this day of 50-deep prospect lists and discussions about Rookie League teenagers, there is one signing that flew so far under the radar that even most of us on Athletics Nation missed it.
Say hello to minor league free agent Matt McBride, who joined the A's on Christmas Eve.
Who is Matt McBride?
The basic facts: McBride is a 30-year-old (31 in May) who plays first base and both corner outfield spots. The right-handed hitter was a second-round draft pick back in 2006, but has topped out so far as a Quadruple-A slugger with brief stints of futility at the big-league level. He made his MLB debut in 2012 for the Rockies and also reached Colorado in 2014 and '15, but through 158 plate appearances over 72 career games he's batting .199/.228/.305 for a 35 OPS+ (with four homers and poor plate discipline). When Baseball-Reference lists "Pinch Hitter" as a player's primary position, it tells you something about how that player's experience in MLB has gone so far.
There's not much to learn about him from his work in MLB since he's had so little of it, so what about his minor league career? Using his numbers on B-Ref, as well as some extra info (including his injury history on Baseball Prospectus), I'm going to put together my best interpretation of his career so far.
Career history: Dingers and injuries
McBride was drafted by the Indians in the second round out of Lehigh University, where he held the single-season school record for homers with 12 (which was broken in 2015). He was a catcher at the time, so between that premium position and his power profile you can see why he was a high pick. He was decent enough in his pro debut and then his first full season in 2007, but offseason surgery on the labrum in his throwing shoulder cost him most of 2008 and seems to have ended his catching career.
He returned in 2009 (at age 24) and crushed High-A pitching for about a month before earning his ticket to Double-A, where he maintained enough power to hover around league-average. He built on that success in 2010 by swatting 17 homers in 96 games (128 wRC+) before being promoted for his first taste of Triple-A. As with his jump up the previous year, his numbers tailed off at the higher level but didn't completely tank (90 wRC+). At this point his prospect luster had definitely dulled, but at least he had reached Triple-A by age 25; there was still a chance that his slow-and-steady development could turn him into a late-bloomer at the MLB level.
However, in 2011, the Indians sent him back to Double-A to start the year. He proved himself again, this time with a .535 slugging and a 141 wRC+, and he was a dozen games into his next attempt at Triple-A when he was traded to the Rockies (along with Drew Pomeranz!) in the Ubaldo Jimenez deal. Colorado put him back in Double-A for the rest of the year, but it didn't matter because he strained an oblique and missed most of August anyway.
Most of the rest of his minor league career came at Triple-A Colorado Springs, which is not only higher in elevation than Coors Field but is actually the highest pro ballpark in the U.S. according to Wikipedia. But man, he sure could hit at elevation judging by his Triple-A batting lines:
2012: .344/.365/.535, 128 wRC+ (469 PAs)
2013: .328/.359/.683, 164 wRC+ (195 PAs)
2014: .305/.345/.487, 112 wRC+ (206 PAs)
2015: .328/.380/.549, 146 wRC+ (337 PAs)
Again, those numbers all came at ages 27-30 while beating up on minor league pitching in the thinnest air in American professional sports. They also came in between stints of total failure in the thinnest air in Major League Baseball, and the number of plate appearances dips in the middle because he missed half of 2013 to a neck injury and half of 2014 to a fractured foot. That all is why the player who owns those numbers was a minor league free agent this winter.
Still, what we've got here is a guy who played his way into a late-season call-up in three of the last four years, and the only thing keeping him out in that fourth year (2013) was that his season ended in June due to injury. He's Quadruple-A, but at least he keeps consistently playing himself into chances in the bigs when healthy.
What does this mean for the A's?
Honestly, it might mean nothing at all. We must consider the Moss-Kila Spectrum of Quad-A sluggers. Or, you could call it the Canha-Pridie Rating, or perhaps the Cust-Carson Scale. Some of these guys eventually make the jump to MLB success even after having been given up on by most of the world, but many more of them never find that final piece to the puzzle. Jai Miller says hi.
So, how does McBride compare with some of those other guys? The first thing we have to acknowledge is that his age probably limits the possibilities. Canha was 26 last year as a rookie, while Moss and Cust were each 28 in their first seasons in Oakland (by the way, happy birthday to Cust today!). McBride will turn 31 in May. The success stories were either entering their prime years or right in the thick of them, whereas McBride is closer to declining than peaking -- and his peak years weren't even enough to cut it in the bigs. It's tempting to say that as long as he's ripping the ball at the highest level of the minors he at least has a chance of making some noise in MLB, but last year the 31-year-old Pridie put up an .894 OPS, 20 homers, and a PCL All-Star berth and still couldn't crack a last-place A's team.
So, the chances seem low for a guy who hasn't yet made it by age 31. But there's still one stat from his Triple-A career that we can to cling to:
2012: 10.0% Ks
2013: 10.8% Ks
2014: 9.2% Ks
2015: 12.2% Ks
Those are extremely low strikeout rates, and they're not what I was expecting to find. When you think of a Quad-A slugger who flames out, you usually expect that he struggled to make contact against top-level pitching -- and indeed, in his MLB career his K% has jumped up to 20.9% overall, though that's still not cripplingly high. But McBride's Triple-A stats make him look like a contact maven fit for the Royals lineup. For an idea of what a low K-rate looks like in practice, consider that only 6-of-141 qualified MLB hitters managed a single-digit mark last season, and Josh Reddick led the A's at 11.2% (15th overall).
Even when Moss was shredding the PCL in 2012 before his call-up, he still fanned around 18% of the time. Canha was at 20.9% in his one full season in Triple-A, and of course Cust was as famous for his whiffs as his dingers and put up a 21% rate in Triple-A the year before he came to Oakland. This is one serious statistical advantage McBride has over those guys, and it's not just a factor of being old for his league; he has consistently sat in that 10-13% range for his entire career with minimal exceptions. Even Pridie was at 18.9% last year.
The depth chart will also be an issue, not due to quality but quantity. Reddick is entrenched in right field and stayed healthy enough to play 149 games last year, and Yonder Alonso figures to team up with Canha to keep first base covered. That leaves left field for the rest of the candidates, including:
- Canha, who is currently expected to play LF when Alonso is at 1B
- Coco Crisp, who will be on the roster if/when healthy
- Sam Fuld, if he's still here by Opening Day
- Jake Smolinski, who is currently the spare right-handed bat in LF
- Andrew Lambo, who at age 27 has better odds of becoming the next Moss
- Matt Olson, a top prospect who seems ticketed for the Triple-A outfield and could be fighting for his own midseason call-up
- Jaycob Brugman, another actual prospect who will be fighting for playing time in Triple-A
Most of those names stand in the way of McBride reaching MLB, and the two at the bottom could make it tough for him to even get at-bats in Nashville.
Realistically? McBride is unlikely to ever play for Oakland. There are too many other flyers to take on too many other equally promising but younger players, and he'll probably serve as organizational depth. But there is an interesting skill set here, and now you're aware of it. Crazy things happen in this sport, and a lot of the time they happen in Oakland.
You have just read 1,500 words about a player you may never actually see. Sorry? At least I'm not the only one to go too in-depth on McBride; here's another look from Purple Row a couple years ago.