Way back when in the halcyon summer days of 2019 I was watching Jurickson Profar soft lob throws to first and I became nostalgic for Jed Lowrie. I missed Jed's sure handed play at second, and his accurate darts. I missed his sweet doubles cracking swing, his barrels, his balanced switch-hitting. And I thought, "Surely Jed's 2018 season was the best ever for a second baseman in Oakland A's history."
So I looked it up in Baseball Reference. And then I compared it to Fangraphs. And soon I was scrolling through season by season lineups for all the Oakland teams, and began taking notes. I wanted to know what an All-Star Team of Oakland Athletics would like based on the best single season performances.
This turned out to be a fascinating exercise because it made me examine and reconsider players, research Athletics I barely knew, revisit teams and eras. It upended a lot of conventional wisdom and narratives that I had accepted unchallenged.
In some instances the results were exactly what you'd expect. (I think you know who's playing left-field for this team.) In other places, though, the received wisdom was wrong. Of the three A's pitchers who made the Hall of Fame, only one of them makes this team, and then just barely. One MVP doesn't crack this lineup. He doesn't even come close.
You'd think this would be as simple as ranking every position by single-season WAR (which is what I set out to do), but the problem is that there are some cases where the bWAR and the fWAR were wildly divergent. Some of our position battles were extremely close or even contradictory based on which WAR I referenced.
In these cases I first looked for candidates who had more agreement between the fWAR and bWAR. Then I looked at the player's wRC+. Finally, I tended to dock players whose WAR seemed inflated by a random surge of defensive value. BUT, that didn't seem fair to players with well established defensive reputations and consistent positive defensive numbers year after year. So I factored that in as well, looking at raw numbers like put-outs and double plays.
Ultimately I had to make a judgment call, because I decided there would be no ties. I would advocate for one clear all-star for every position. This is a feature not a bug!
Because there's no point in making a definitive ranking list if it ends discussion. I wanted it to generate
discussion, so I encourage you to disagree, or at least make an alternate case. I will note from the start that several of these position battles are extremely close and debatable. Note also this is not a Franchise best list, or you'd be seeing a lot more Jimmie Foxx, Al Simmons
and Lefty Grove. Just Oakland.
There was a time when my database skills were such that I would have downloaded all the data from FG and B-Ref and run my queries and spit out some reports. But I've let those skills lapse so I compiled this in the most tedious hand-annotated, season by season, side by side way. (There may be transcription errors too is what I'm saying. Also, annoyingly, FG keeps tweaking their numbers and some of them have altered by a decimal here and there as I've gone back to check them.) Undoubtedly, as soon as I post this somebody will point out a hidden button on Fangraphs that allows me to do this automatically, or refer to some Baseball Prospectus article that already did this.
So after that long preamble, here is your All Time Oakland Athletic All-Star Team Based On Single Season WAR, with one player per position (including DH and utility player), four starters and one closer. Because this is very long I'll break this up in three posts starting with the infield.
Catcher: Terry Steinbach, 1992 (4.0 fWAR, 4.0 bWAR)
This one was really close, and I must spitefully admit that I was happy that Steiny just beat out Kurt Suzuki's
(Ptooey!) 2008 season (3.9 fWAR/3.8 bWAR). Other contenders included Jason Kendall's
2006 season (3.7 bWAR / 2.9 fWAR), and Stephen Vogt's
2015 (3.7 bWAR / 1.8 fWAR). Note those significant discrepancies in the WAR numbers though for Kendall, and especially Vogt
. Fandgraphs realllllly doesn't believe in Stephen Vogt's
Terry was a reverse Josh Donaldson
, which is to say he came up as a third baseman and was converted to catcher. It was frequently noted at the time that with the A's veteran pitching staff, the pitchers were really calling their own games and Steiny was learning on the job. That said his defensive numbers are stellar and he compiled 80.5 defensive runs saved over the course of his career (FG). For those of us who watched him at the time, Terry was well known for his strong throws as he consistently posted CS% near the top of the league. But he also provided mid-teens HRs ever year. You may be wondering about 1996, his last year as an Athletic, where he popped a surprising 35 HRs. That got him a 3.9 fWAR and a 3.4 bWAR.
This one isn't close at all. The most surprising part is not that Jason beats out Mark McGwire, but that (a) it wasn't close; and (b) Jason's TWO best seasons are much better than any other first baseman's performance. He put up a 7.7 fWAR / 7.8 bWAR in 2000, his MVP year. I think there's a good chance that Sean Murphy
might ultimately best Steiny's single season performance, but there's almost no chance Matt Olson
is going to catch Jason at his best.
McGwire's best season in Green and Gold was 1992 with 6.3 fWAR / 6.5 bWAR. His all time best season, of course, came for the Cardinals
when he swatted 70 HRs, and put up 8.5 fWAR / 7.5 bWAR.
Second Baseman: Jed Lowrie, 2018 (4.8 bWAR / 5.0 fWAR)
This is the closest battle we've got, the most debatable and has some surprising contenders. Mark Ellis' 135 wRC+ in 2005 stands as the single best offensive season by an A's second baseman, and he put up a 4.4 fWAR / 4.7 bWAR. In 2007 Ellis put up 4.8 bWAR / 4.4 fWAR - so there's a bWAR equal to Jed's, and from a better defender. But there's more consonance between Jed's two WAR scores, with the average WAR being higher. Also, Jed's defensive numbers in 2018 were quite good with 7.1 runs saved comparable to Mark's 7.6.
I'll note two other contenders, and an honorable mention. Tony Phillips put up 4.4 bWAR / 4.0 fWAR in 1986. Dick Green put up 4.5 bWAR / 4.5 fWAR in 1969, with a very strong wRC+ of 121. Compare that to Jed's wRC+ of 123 in 2018. That was by far Dick Green's best offensive season though. Honorable mention to Mike Bordick who put up a surprising 4.3 bWAR / 3.8 fWAR in 1992.
I think there's a good case for Mark Ellis here, especially with his wRC+ being the best single season offensive performance. However, there was more agreement between the bWAR and fWAR for Jed, Jed also put up good defensive numbers that year, and Jed's a switch-hitter who set a doubles record for the team. Also when I drilled down on Ellis' defensive numbers they were good, but they weren't mind-blowingly good. Green has a better case as the best defensive 2b the A's have ever had, consistently saving around 13 runs per season. We'll get to a player with mindblowing defense on our next entry.
When I started this exercise during the summer and I drilled down on Bert Campaneris I was stunned looking at this defensive numbers. As a fan who learned the game through the Bill James Historical Abstract I'd been a little dismissive of Bert's career. He had a reputation as a good defender, but basestealing was overrated and his BB% was low and he had no power. But I discovered that Bert consistently put up fantastic defensive numbers, like...Andrelton Simmons
good. In '73 he saved 28.7 runs defensively! That's 2.8 wins just with his glove. In '72 he saved 24.2 runs. And those were not outliers. He was consistently putting up high teen/low twenties runs saved per season.
So I was already mentally writing up Bert's 1968 season where he posted a 6.6 bWAR / 6.0 fWAR as a surprise winner over Miguel Tejada's
MVP season in 2002 (5.6 bWAR / 4.5 fWAR, wRC+ 129). And then Marcus went out and blew them both away.
Third Baseman: Sal Bando, 1969 (8.3 bWAR / 7.7 fWAR)
2018 season came really close, and JD's 2013 is right up there. The A's have been blessed with some truly stellar third basemen. For five years Eric Chavez put up consistently all-star level production (yet was brutally snubbed for all-stars never making the team once!) whilst collecting Gold Gloves. Eric's best season was probably 2002 with 5.7 fWAR or 2001 with a 6.1 bWAR.
Chappy scored a 8.2 bWAR / 6.6 fWAR in 2018 with a wRC+ of 138. But Captain Sal's bWAR is a point higher, with less discrepancy between WAR values and he was a better hitter with wRC+ 152. Which is also better than Josh Donaldson's
wRC+ 147 in 2013 (7.7 bWAR / 7.3 fWAR). And Bando's defensive numbers were also very good, quite comparable to JD's.
I think Matt Chapman
has a 9 WAR season in him yet, but for now our third baseman is Captain Sal.
Utility Player: Tony Phillips, 1986 (4.4 bWAR / 4.0 fWAR)
Originally I had considered Tony as a 2b, because that's mostly where he played with the A's. But in truth the A's lined him up all over the field. In '86 he played 87 games at second, 31 at third and played short and played centerfield, and DH'd. Jed probably deserves some notice here too as he's played significant chunks of his A's career at SS and 3B (when Matt Chapman was hurt). I think Tony Phillips is a overlooked in A's history, perhaps because he blossomed into a truly all-star level hitter when he went to the Tigers
. He turned from having a good on-base percentage, to one of the elite in the league. Tony Phillps garnered 46.6 career fWAR. That's a lot closer to a Hall of Fame career (usually around 65 WAR) than you probably thought.
Next up: The Outfield (plus DH)
Bert Campaneris wasn't just a good defender, he was elite
Captain Sal was a stud
In a theme that we will see continued with the outfield and the pitchers, a lot of the greatest single season performances in A's history happened before the team won any World Series or national attention. Just in the infield alone, Campy, Bando and Dick Green all put up contenders for all-time best seasons in the late '60s.
Eric Chavez's consistency is why the A's gave him that record breaking contract. Every year for five years he put up all-star level production (5-6 WAR). That said, he never peaked anywhere as high as Sal, Chappy or JD.
The Oakland A's have never had a great second baseman or catcher. Good ones, but no great ones.
Miguel probably didn't deserve that MVP.
Appreciate the season you just saw out of Marcus Semien! We've never had a shortstop perform as well.
Terry Steinbach is the only A's player from the Bash Brothers era to crack this infield. That era was defined by consistently high production throughout the team, and less star dependent than you would think.
Nobody from the 2012-2014 teams crack the infield but JD came close.