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Michael Saunders, Doug Fister, and another reminder that baseball is a random number generator

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Before the 2015 season, the A's and Royals each signed a new designated hitter to a multi-year deal. The A's chose a 29-year-old former All-Star who'd just had a slight off-year (96 OPS+) on a pennant-winning club. The Royals chose a 32-year-old who'd just had a massive off-year (75 OPS+) after missing months to a contract holdout, and he also carried a significant injury history. The A's guy flopped (98 OPS+) for a last-place team, while the Royals' guy enjoyed the second-best year of his entire career (127 OPS+) and was a key figure in a championship run.

We can (and frequently do) second-guess Oakland's decision to give Billy Butler a three-year contract, especially since the Royals only needed to commit to two years to sign Kendrys Morales. But purely in terms of what these hitters could have been expected to contribute on the field, contracts and salaries aside, they were basically a coin flip entering 2015. In fact, there is an easy argument to be made that Butler was the slightly better bet. But then all the odds and percentages and possible outcomes were inputted into baseball's random number generator, and the results are now the stuff of our nightmares.

Every transaction has a wide range of potential outcomes. Trade your star for a prospect, and you might be a genius or a fool just based on which one tears his UCL next. Pick between two mediocre free agents, and that choice could be the difference in your season. Make the easy call to dump a failing reliever, and watch him rebound immediately into a star. It's easy to look at a player, to take his entire career into consideration relative to the conventional norms and averages of player career arcs, and assume we know exactly what a guy is and isn't capable of. But that doesn't mean we're always right.

Today's example of that phenomenon is Michael Saunders. In late February, I wrote a post titled, "Oakland A's pursued Michael Saunders, but they're better off with Khris Davis." It included the following summary of Saunders' skills:

His offensive profile is comprised of a low batting average, decent on-base skills, and middling power.

... as well as this big finish:

But Saunders? I can't for the life of me imagine why Oakland would go after him. He has skills but doesn't bring anything that the team doesn't already have, he carries enormous risk, and even if all goes great he's a free agent after the season. And all of that could have cost someone like Pinder or Chapman or Munoz to acquire (or maybe even Nottingham himself).

And let's check in on what he's done so far this year:

Saunders, 2016: .314/.389/.610, 167 wRC+, 15 HR, 9.9% BB, 25.8% Ks

Because of course. Forget everything you know about baseball because they make it all up as they go along. Saunders has been worth 2.1 bWAR and 2.3 fWAR, which would put him comfortably atop the A's position player leaderboard (Reddick at 1.5 bWAR, or Semien at 1.5 fWAR).

Now, even given all of that, it's almost certain that Davis was the proper target. Saunders will come down a bit from this peak, at least in terms of his unsustainably high batting average (characteristically high strikeouts buoyed by a .382 BABIP). Even if he keeps hitting homers, well, that's the one thing Davis does too -- in fact, Davis has the lead in that department, even after Saunders' three-dinger day on Friday. Neither plays good defense, but Davis is less of an injury risk and has three more years of team control remaining. Khrush was the right choice.

But what about Chris Coghlan? It's not a perfect comp, since one thing that brought Coghlan here was his ability to play the infield as well as the outfield, but it's a lot closer than Davis/Saunders. Take these guys at their cores -- 30ish-year-old lefty hitters with inconsistent pasts but the ability to hit above average, who primarily play in the outfield, and both in their final years before free agency. If I'd waited two more days to write that article, then perhaps the newly acquired Coghlan would have taken Davis' place in the discussion.

Who would you have taken in late February?

Player A: Coming off a 119 wRC+ in nearly 1,000 PAs in 2014-15
Player B: Played 9 games in 2015, and 78 in 2014

I would have taken Player A, which is Coghlan. You would have too. Why in the world wouldn't you? It was a no-brainer.

Except no, haha, instead it's mid-June and Saunders is already nearing his career-high in dingers, while Coghlan batted .146 in 51 games before being dumped. Fooled you!

How about a pitching example? In January I wrote a post titled, "Doug Fister vs. Rich Hill: Which AL West team got the better bounce-back pitcher?" I mostly called it a wash but sided slightly with Hill. And I have good news this time -- the A's probably picked the right guy! Hill has a 2.24 ERA, backed up by a 2.68 FIP and a massive strikeout rate, and although he's on the DL it's not an arm injury. If he returns soon, he could still be Oakland's All-Star rep.

Fister has also been good, though. His 3.26 ERA earns him a 126 ERA+, he's finished six innings in 10 of 13 starts, and his peripherals are shaky but not so bad that you know they'll catch up to him. Most importantly, he's pitched against the A's twice and shut them down both times in Houston victories, allowing one total run in a dozen frames. In one of those games, he went head-to-head against Hill and out-dueled him for a 2-1 win. That sound you hear is baseball cackling at you.

I figuratively give up. Just when you think you know a thing or two about this game, a trapdoor opens beneath your feet and sends you to another dimension in which Marco Estrada is one of the better pitchers in baseball. Most players do fall within their reasonable range of expectations, and the leaderboards are usually populated with familiar names, but the insane exceptions are frequent enough that you can't escape them -- like Sonny and his 5.54 ERA, or Danny Valencia and his 152 wRC+.

So when we're all arguing this winter about which players the A's should pursue or avoid based on their statistical histories and the supposed limits of their talents, remember that Mitch Moreland will be the 2017 MVP and Ivan Nova will be the 2017 Cy Young because that's what the Magic 8-Ball decreed.

This is where I remind you once more that Fernando Abad (1.16 ERA) and Dan Otero (1.05 ERA) are still far, far better than they ever were for the A's. Otero even learned to strike batters out! Dangit.


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