The method remains the same as before, ranking players by single season WAR. When there were conflicts and contrarieties between bWAR and fWAR, first look for consonance between the two values, then go to wRC+, then deep dive into fielding stats to weed out one-season surges in defensive value that seem driven by small sample noise.
So for this chapter we’ve got two Hall of Famers and one player who came completely out of...well, not left field. Center Field in this instance. Designated Hitter will be an interesting discussion as well. Just think of all the Hall of Famers who played their last season at DH for the A’s.
Left Fielder: Rickey Henderson, 1990 (9.9 bWAR / 10.2 fWAR)
Holy shit! You knew Rickey was great, but those aren’t just numbers. That’s epic. That’s the baseball equivalent of the Riders of Rohan topping the hill with the dawning light behind them and cleaving through the Uruk-Hai at Helm’s Deep and driving the forces for darkness before them.
Two things I remember Rickey doing in his MVP year: 1) He tagged up from third and scored on a pop-up to the shortstop who backed up to take it in short left field. (That shortstop was Cal Ripken.); 2) He scored from second on a grounder to the shortstop. He was past the SS when they fielded the ball, and just rounded third and took off as soon as the throw went to first. Pure swashbuckling baserunning. His wRC+ was 190.
Can I blow your mind a little bit more? He did that in 136 games.
Who’s our back up Left Fielder though?
Joe Rudi came in second in MVP voting in 1972 with a 6.1 bWAR/ 5.3 fWAR, and he consistently put up 3-4 WAR seasons during that dynasty’s run. Curiously despite his reputation and Gold Gloves, the numbers don’t really like his defense that much. He put up negative defensive numbers more often than not and finished with negative defensive career WAR. Nonetheless you have to love Joe’s wRC+ of 151 in 1972.
There’s a surprising alternative to Joe though from 1977. Mitchell Page put up 6.1 bWAR / 6.2 fWAR with wRC+ of 157. It’s by far Mitchell’s best season, and it’s not driven by inflated defensive numbers. Dig his slashline: .307/.405/.521. The classic 3/4/5!
Center Fielder: Billy North, 1973 (7.0 bWAR / 6.2 fWAR)
This one is highly debatable, as I actually diverge a bit from my own criteria as you’ll see. But let me make my case.
North came over to the A’s from the Cubs after they had already won their first World Series championship in ‘72. From a SABR article about Billy: “[Dick] Williams took an immediate liking to his new speedster, “the only player I’ve ever seen literally strut on to a world championship team. I saw North and thought, ‘This will be fun.”
Billy North was a speedster, a base-stealer, a plus defender with high OBP and a switch-hitter. Though he never won a Gold Glove he actually lead all major league outfielders in put-outs from ‘73-’76. He covered a lot of ground. Two time base-stealing champion too with consistently strong base-running.
Billy was more famous though for his dugout fight with Reggie. And that wasn’t a lone instance. He was straight-up scrappy and got into it with everybody. This is my favorite from that SABR article, again drawing from Dick Williams memoir:
”...the A’s were leading 5-4 when North stepped to the plate in the bottom of the eighth against Royals rookie reliever Doug Bird. On Bird’s first pitch, North swung and missed, and his bat sailed out near the mound. “Walking to the mound,” Williams wrote, “just before he reached his bat, North stopped, turned, and nailed Bird with a right to the jaw. Bird dropped, but North didn’t stop — he jumped on him and pounded him. What in the hell is Bill North doing pounding a guy after the guy throws him a strike? Did I have an insane man on my hands? I mean, more insane than the guys I already had?”
Williams called North into his office after the game and demanded an explanation. North told the manager that in a Midwest League game in 1970, he came to bat after Bird surrendered back-to-back home runs. Bird knocked him down with his first pitch, then drilled him in the left ear with the next. North had not forgotten the incident and vowed to get even. Williams chastised North for taking the game into his own hands. “Why didn’t you at least tell us, and we would have gotten back at him some other way!” Williams bellowed. “This is a team that doesn’t just play together, it fights together!”
SABR article: https://sabr.org/bioproj/person/f881684a
On the other hand, we have Dwayne Murphy’s season in 1980 where he put up 6.9 bWAR / 6.3 fWAR. 22 defensive runs saved, and a wRC+ of 117. Dwayne anchored THE Outfield of A’s lore - Rickey, Dwayne, Tony Armas - consistently putting up 4 WAR seasons, fantastic on-base percentage and collecting Gold Gloves.
So why not take Dwayne over Billy? Though Billy’s bWAR is one tick higher, there’s more agreement between Dwayne’s two WAR values (though we’re talking about the difference between 0.8 and 0.6), and Dwayne’s fWAR is one decimal better. Also Dwayne’s wRC+ is slightly higher at 117 over 115.
Also, we don’t have any other representatives from the Billyball era, it honors that outfield as a unit, and Dwayne’s season-to-season production was more consistent.
I’m taking North because he never got any national recognition, though twice local sportswriters voted him the most valuable player on the team. Never got a Gold Glove despite putting up vastly superior defensive numbers to Joe Rudi. Lead ALL major league outfielders in put-outs over a four year stretch. Third all-time basestealer in A’s history.
The decider though for me was this chart in B-Ref, Single Season Top Ten Defensive WAR for the A’s:
1. Matt Chapman, 2018 - 3.5
2. Bert Campaneris, 1973 - 3.3
3. Bert Campaneris, 1972 - 3.2
4. Billy North, 1973 - 2.9
5. Eddie Collins, 1910 - 2.8
(T) Mark Ellis, 2008 - 2.8
(T) Cy Perkins, 1920 - 2.8
8. Jack Barry, 1914 - 2.7
(T) Josh Donaldson, 2014 - 2.7
(T) Walt Weiss, 1990 - 2.7
Fourth best defensive season by an Athletic of all time, third best basestealer, Number One Fightin’ A. Billy North.
Honorable Mention to Hendu! Dave Henderson put up some fantastic seasons for the A’s in center field with strong defense as well. His best season was 1988 where he put up 6.3 bWAR / 6.4 bWAR with a stellar wRC+ 151.
Right Fielder: Reggie Jackson, 1969 (9.2 bWAR / fWAR 8.9)
You knew it was going to be Reggie, but did you think it was going to be 1969? (Or maybe you thought it was Canseco? We’ll get to him.)
Reggie won the MVP in 1973, leading the A’s to a championship with a stellar 7.8 bWAR / 7.1 fWAR. A great year on a championship with national attention. And he was fantastic all during that run of A’s banners, consistently putting up better than All-Star numbers.
But in 1969 when nobody was much paying attention to the recently transplanted ex-Kansas City Athletics, Reggie went off. He had 40 HRs before the All-Star break. wRC+ of 179, but check out his slash .275/.410/.608.
Jose Canseco makes a fine backup in Right Field with his best season being the MVP campaign of 1988 when he put up 7.3 bWAR / 7.6 fWAR, wRC+ 169. And Jose was a consistent offensive force, he followed that season with wRC+ of 144, 157 and 152. Negative defensive numbers in every season though dampened some of his value. Conversely, Reggie had slightly above average defense for the A’s.
Designated Hitter: John Jaha, 1999 (4.6 bWAR / 4.1 fWAR)
You thought it was going to be KD, didn’t you? Or Frank Thomas? This really comes down to Jaha’s wRC+ of 149, with a bit of positive baserunning on top.
Khris Davis has consistently put up WAR between 2.5 and 2.9 for the A’s with his best wRC+ 136 coming in 2018.
The Big Hurt’s sole season with the A’s was a triumphant wRC+ of 139 with 3.2 bWAR/ 2.4 fWAR.
Let’s savor Jaha’s entirely delectable trad slash: .275/.414/.556. 35 Home Runs, good average and fantastic OBP.
“North’s an aggressive player,” said Dick Williams, admiring his combative style of play. “He can play for me anytime.”
Too bad Jaha got hurt after his one great year with us. That combo of Jaha/Stairs/Giambi absolutely mashed.
I won’t bark if you prefer Dwayne Murphy in center.
If the ‘69 A’s had any decent pitching, they would have arrived much earlier. Bando with 8.3 bWAR and Reggie with 9.2, Bert’s 3.7, Rick Monday 3.8 et al.
Also, the Swingin’ A’s were a stellar defensive team with Bando, Campy, North, Green putting up fantastic numbers.
Next up: The Pitchers