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Small samples to track on the Oakland A’s

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Which early season numbers matter most?

MLB: Los Angeles Angels at Oakland Athletics Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The regular season requires a certain retraining of the mind. It’s easy to over-analyze early season performances when its’s all we’ve got to analyze at all. Things take a while to settle down, and for months numbers look hilarious while players settle in. Those early season numbers mean little a vast majority of the time; the Dodgers aren’t going to get shutout day in and day out. Baseball is a sport that takes a huge sample to mean a thing.

Except when they don’t.

Jonathan Lucroy’s groundballs

It’s not clear what the A’s are expecting and hoping for from Lucroy this season. His veteran presence is his veteran present to the team, and the A’s may be content with a light hitting catcher who helps solidify a shaky staff.

The bat is important though, and on a team with razor thin margins, a potential difference maker in whether the A’s are in it come August and September. To recount, Lucroy was a great hitter in 2016 (123 wRC+) and a bad hitter in 2017 (82 wRC+). The big culprit was his absent power (an ISO of .208 vs. .106). You can point to a lot of reasons why that number dropped but the most pressing is Lucroy’s newfound inability to get the ball in the air. You can’t hit a groundball out of the yard.

Lucroy’s groundballs skyrocketed in 2017, up to a career high of 53.5% compared to a year before where they sat at just 37.2%. Unlike most players, Lucroy’s strikeouts went down last year possibly indicating the increase in groundballs was intentional. Is he purposefully sacrificing power for contact? Or was he just battling minor ails that sucked his power and made him a groundball hitter?

Tough to say, but the answer may come sooner rather than later. Groundball and flyball rates stabilize rather quickly and will give us an indication of whether last year was a fluke or an indication of things to come.

Again, Lucroy can be a valuable asset without the bat. It’d be great to see him drive the ball for power too.

Franklin Barreto’s strikeout rate

It’s unlikely Barreto can stick around if he’s striking out a quarter of the time like he did last year. His spring stats didn’t show any improvement, but spring stats really don’t matter. Once the minor league season starts, we’ll be closely tracking whether or not he’s able to put the ball in play.

Strikeout rate stabilizes quickly and it shouldn’t take long to figure out whether or not Barreto’s offseason efforts to cut down on whiffs worked. It’s possible that Barreto has a 2017 repeat in which he strikes out but is still a valuable hitter in AAA which will pose the A’s with a tough question - should they bring him up if he’s unable to lower that strikeout rate?

Barreto is young and he’s got time to improve but it would certainly be alarming if his offseason training doesn’t show on field results.

The A’s win loss record

Here’s an obvious one. The A’s aren’t really going for it right now. Their reluctance in the offseason to bring in any real rotation solutions solidified that the contention window is still a year out. Yet you’d be hard pressed to find an A’s fan who isn’t at least a little hopeful that things can go right across the board this season resulting in a playoff berth, and for good reason. There is upside, even if it’s unlikely to all come together right now.

In order for it to come together, the A’s have to get off to a good start. Anything less than a good first half is prohibitive of a second half run, as it’s almost guaranteed the A’s would need to acquire rotation reinforcements in order to compete. Starting the season 25-30 won’t make for an insurmountable deficit, nor does it mean the A’s true talent isn’t of a playoff caliber. It will prevent the front office from going out and acquiring more talent for a playoff run as the front office is unlikely to acquire win-now players unless the team is clearly in the playoff hunt. In the near term, the team has pending decisions that can be affected by its record too. Stashing a Renato Nunez or Raul Alcantara on the roster is a lot easier if the team is well out of contention, and those decisions will be partially informed by how the A’s do over the next few weeks.

The inning distribution between the rotation and the pen

So far, the A’s starters have done a solid job getting into the middle and later parts of the game. That allows Bob Melvin to be more effective with the revamped pen, one that should be an asset to the A’s.

If the A’s starters do what we’re worried they’ll do and start pitching short stints, that’ll decrease the pen’s effectiveness. Sure, Petit and Pagan can throw multiple innings but the ideal situation is having them shorten games by taking higher leverage innings late and relying on those stretched out arms only when needed. If Melvin is forced to to use either as a glorified second starter, you’ll see more Casilla and Hendriks in those short inning spots, and yuck. No one wants that.

It’s true with every bullpen, but it’s especially important with a rotation this fickle: the A’s need the starting rotation to not overwork the pen and let the relievers do their thing.

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Which early season numbers are you watching?