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Jonathan Lucroy and versatility in the Oakland A’s lineup

Bob Melvin’s job just got a little bit easier.

MLB: NL Wildcard-Colorado Rockies at Arizona Diamondbacks Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The A’s issues over the past few years come down to not having enough good players. The team has relied on a few relative standouts in their feeble attempt to contend, requiring their best players to play day in and day out to keep their replacement level backups off the field. Remember 2015 when the A’s had exactly one good reliever in Tyler Clippard? It was such a delicate balance of when to use him. There were ample chances of course, as the A’s repeatedly were in close games. But overusing him hurt his productivity. Bob Melvin had the remarkably difficult task of using Clippard at the right time without overdoing it.

That’s been an issue for the A’s in recent years behind the dish. Every team carries two catchers, and many of those teams utilize a platoon system. That gives the primary catcher (who hits well against righties) built in off days anytime the team faces a lefty.

The A’s have used that model the past few years since the acquisition of Josh Phegley. Phegley has mostly been as advertised, a solid hitter against lefties who probably shouldn’t be exposed to right handed pitching all that frequently. There have been times where he hasn’t been all that great against lefties either, but Phegley deserves the benefit of the doubt. He’s a fine platoon guy.

Catching is a tough job. Its rigors make platooning in the role more difficult. Between squatting all game and taking errant pitches and foul tips off various body parts, playing the position requires ample rest. The 75% starter, 25% backup equation makes sense in theory but as we’ve seen in practice, doesn’t work perfectly. It’s why Stephen Vogt took 109 subpar at bats vs. lefties in 2015, Phegley 109 vs. RHP, and probably played a part in the former’s hot start and quick fall. Players get nicked up and are unable to take their scheduled start, exposing their platoon mate to face a worse matchup. The A’s have had a particularly difficult limiting Phegley’s time against righties which has kept him in the lineup in an almost futile situation.

A’s catching

Year Catcher % ABs vs. same handed pitchers wRC+ vs. same handed pitchers (career)
Year Catcher % ABs vs. same handed pitchers wRC+ vs. same handed pitchers (career)
2017 Bruce Maxwell 14% 42
Josh Phegley 43% 59
2016 Stephen Vogt 18% 65
Josh Phegley 53% 59
2015 Stephen Vogt 24% 65
Josh Phegley 48% 59

With Jonathan Lucroy in town, it shouldn’t be as difficult to optimize playing time. We won’t know for some time how concerning his poor 2017 should be, of course. This could all be for naught if he really has nothing left in the tank.

But if he does have something, he’ll give the A’s more flexibility than Phegley did. Lucroy always had the ability to hit both righties and lefties. If Bruce Maxwell suffers a small injury, the A’s will be able to play Lucroy without fear of having a black hole in their lineup. If Lucroy seizes the starting job, it won’t be difficult to find Maxwell days off, with the A’s facing righties on most days meaning most games work just fine with Maxwell’s splits. It’s a small thing but an important thing, and will hopefully give the Bob Melvin more freedom to give rest when needed.

Versatility around the league

The A’s aren’t the only team signing players who pay dividends across the diamond, versatility is now the name of the game. We saw that in the bullpen with Andrew Miller who pitched in almost every situation in the 2016 MLB playoffs. The Dodgers, the cream of the crop in baseball have a catcher who also plays second base and multiple infielders who play outfield with total competency. They’ve withstood injury because good lord that payroll, but also because they can seamlessly move players across the diamond.

The A’s are not versatile right now, but they’re moving back in that direction. Chad Pinder can play just about anywhere and if his bat can hold up, he’ll rack up loads of at bats without a strictly defined position. Sean Murphy should give the A’s the ability to use Bruce Maxwell in his most effective way. Dustin Fowler can play all three outfield spots. It’s important.

The A’s made a huge endeavor to make their pen more diverse too, and the multiple players who can throw multiple innings will supplement a weak pitching staff. If that staff improves in 2019 and beyond, the pen’s effectiveness will only increase further. It means an injury to a key reliever won’t debilitate the pen and when one guy goes down, the A’s can lean more heavily on an Emilio Pagan or a Yusmeiro Petit to eat more high leverage innings. It doesn’t make the A’s immune, but it helps them sustain injuries that might take place.

Versatility isn’t paramount on a team where the starters can’t carry the load like the A’s of the past few years. For playoff teams, the ability to shift players around the diamond and into different roles helps to mitigate the inevitable wear and tear of a long season. The A’s are still in figure it out mode which is why the last roster spot may go to a non-versatile player like Renato Nunez. Overall the team is certainly moving in the direction of versatility.

The A’s have made the choice to get more versatile in the pen, at catcher, and have stumbled into a dynamic backup infielder/outfielder. It’s hard to measure the tangible effect of those guys, but at the least it keeps the team fresh, sustains the team when guys do go down with injury, and makes Bob Melvin’s job a lot easier.