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Oakland A’s 2016 review by position: Good bullpen, bad 2B and CF

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Missed it by THAT much.
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

As we continue our look back at a forgettable 2016, we must search for different ways to illustrate how bad the Oakland A’s were. Maybe if we check enough angles, we’ll learn something new! Here’s how they compared with the rest of the league at each individual position, ranked by bWAR. (“Avg” is MLB team average bWAR for the position, except for DH which is AL-only team average)

Pos A's rank bWAR Avg
SP 22 6.3 9.1
RP 5 7.4 4.6
C 12 2.3 1.6
1B 25 0.0 1.9
2B 30 -1.2 3.0
SS 14 2.9 2.6
3B 18 2.3 3.1
LF 13 1.6 1.4
CF 30 -0.6 2.6
RF 13 1.8 1.9
DH 12 1.2 1.9

The particularly bad ones are in red. The biggest strengths are in green. The ones in black were roughly average. Let’s explore.

Pitchers

Overall, the A’s pitching staff ranked 18th in MLB according to bWAR, within about a quarter-win of league average. However, the whole operation was backward, as the bulk of the value came from the bullpen.

By this measure, Oakland’s relievers ranked fifth in the majors, behind only the Orioles, Indians, Nats, and Cards. They were also one of only five teams whose bullpen posted a higher bWAR than their rotation, along with the Orioles, Pirates, Padres, and Twins, and Oakland had the biggest gap in that direction. (The O’s simply had the best pen in baseball, better than all but nine teams’ rotations; their own starters were also good, ranking 13th. The Twins’ entire staff added up to 1.7 bWAR, so it’s a mere technicality to say that one of their units was more valuable than the other.)

What’s truly amazing is that eight other teams managed to have worse rotations than Oakland’s. A few months of Rich Hill helped, and I suppose Kendall Graveman and Sean Manaea were decent enough anchors the rest of the way, but it’s amazing to think that it could have been even uglier. The Angels and Astros were two of the teams ranked below the A’s.

And there’s good news! The best parts of that top-notch bullpen are coming back in 2017 (so far, at least), and there are lots of rookie starters ready to step in next spring and shore up that rotation.

What about FanGraphs? It’s a similar story using fWAR, though slightly darker. The bullpen only clocks in at 11th (Dull and Madson aren’t as favored), while the starters remain similar in 23rd. That adds up to a total ranking of 21st, more than 2 fWAR below the league average.

Catchers

Purely in terms of outperforming the league average, catching was the strongest individual position group in the A’s lineup in 2016. They weren’t the best in the league, but they were one of the “haves” as opposed to the “have nots.”

That’s mostly because of Stephen Vogt, which helps explain why he was an All-Star despite posting stats that seem pedestrian out of context. The other backups each chipped in a bit, but Vogt was the primary engine. That makes him the architect behind the only notably positive position in Oakland’s lineup, in terms of outperforming the league average bWAR, which is a nice reminder of how important he is to the team. I hope he’s still here in April.

As things stand, the same cast should be back in 2017 — Vogt, Bruce Maxwell, and a hopefully healthy Josh Phegley, with Matt McBride waiting in Triple-A as an emergency backup.

What about FanGraphs? Same idea. The A’s rank a couple spots lower but still top-half, and they’re still a third of a win over the league average. Vogt is still the big dog.

Infield

This was a disaster, almost across the board. Three of the four positions were dumpster fires.

The culprit at first base was of course Yonder Alonso, who got the bulk of the time. He had a bad year, so the A’s had a bad year at his position. Third base was more complicated — Danny Valencia and Ryon Healy both hit well, but Valencia was so bad at defense for three months that he tanked the entire hot corner. Marcus Semien was the relative bright spot as he salvaged a good showing at shortstop, but even he was only a tick above league-average and therefore represented the absence of a weakness rather than a true strength.

And then there was second base, which was the worst in MLB. That’s the fourth time in the last five years the A’s have ranked bottom-10 at the position; the last time they were in the top half was 2011, thanks to Jemile Weeks. This time, the culprits were Jed Lowrie and a little bit Joey Wendle, but also a whole host of other riffraff: Coghlan, Ladendorf, Muncy, etc. Nothing worked, and it was bad.

The immediate future of the infield depends on your feelings about last year’s Nashville group. Do you think Wendle and/or Chad Pinder can plug up 2B? Will Healy turn 3B into a strength like we hope, or perhaps will Matt Chapman do so in the second half? Alonso is back, but will a youngster force him out? Things could get way better in 2017! Or not.

What about FanGraphs? Still the worst at second base, and by a comically large margin (-1.7 fWAR, runner-up Angels at -0.5). All the way down at 27th for third base, and much further below league average. Meanwhile, 1B and SS are around the same as on bWAR.

Outfield

Overall the A’s outfield ranked 26th, but the whole group is being dragged down by CF — Oakland was actually top-half in both corners. That’s the good news! The bad news is that most of the good corner guys are gone.

Just like at second base, the A’s were the worst in baseball in center field as well. Billy Burns was the frontman, but Coco Crisp and Jake Smolinski chipped in as well. None of them could handle it defensively, to varying degrees, and only Coco hit at all while playing there.

Khris Davis holds the interesting distinction of having gotten the most at-bats on the A’s at two different positions — LF and DH. Coco also got time in left and hit a little bit, while RF went mostly to Josh Reddick, a woefully misplaced Valencia, and a properly platooned Smolinski (and therefore productive on offense and capable on defense). That whole cast added up to just enough to be respectable on the corners.

More good news/bad news! The good news is that those departed corner guys (Reddick, Coco, Valencia) will have many of their at-bats filled by newcomer Matt Joyce, whether in the OF or at DH, which should be a good thing at the plate at least. The bad news is that CF is still a desolate wasteland — though that opens up the door for a classic A’s hidden gem to emerge. Jaycob Brugman or Jaff Decker, perhaps? (Bonus good news: Maybe we’ll see Valencia play RF again ... for the Mariners?)

What about FanGraphs? Not the worst in CF! Only 29th, ahead of the White Sox (largely Austin Jackson and J.B. Shuck). But also bottom-half in both corners, and 29th overall in outfield fWAR (above Arizona). The difference is largely in the defensive valuation of Davis and Reddick.

Designated Hitter

The A’s were weak here yet again, though Davis salvaged things a bit. They ranked 12th out of 15 AL teams. It was Davis doing good things, and then Billy Butler and friends dragging it back down.

The A’s haven’t yet added enough hitters this winter to consider DH addressed — if we pencil in Davis in LF and Joyce in RF, then DH is still open. But even if no more big additions are made this winter, there are plenty of internal names who could emerge as the next big thing — overflow from other positions like Joyce or Mark Canha; a top prospect like Renato Nunez; or even a rando like Chris Parmelee or Andrew Lambo. That type of open audition is often a recipe for disappointment, but there is more talent in this group (especially on the prospect side) than in your standard backup DH hoi polloi.

Until or unless the A’s add another bat this winter, it’ll be open season on DH next spring. I’m not sure that’s entirely a bad thing this time.

What about FanGraphs? It’s even worse. The A’s are 13th, and they were a full win below replacement via fWAR. Butler and Coco were bad, bad DHs.