For the Oakland Athletics, it was another great regular season that ended in playoff disappointment. The A’s won the American League West by five games, 5.5 if you include Game 163 for the Rangers in their play-in wild card game against the Rays, but were bounced in the American League Division Series by the Detroit Tigers for the second straight season.
There aren’t many secrets left about how the A’s front office operates due to both Michael Lewis’s 2003 book Moneyball and the 2011 movie by the same name that turned a new generation on to the study of advanced baseball statistics. The growth of sabermetrics, originally pioneered in large part by Bill James and Voros McCracken, has forced the Athletics to find other means of data analysis to be competitive in spite of their mid-market status, unappealing location and ballpark for free agents, and other teams starting to apply advanced metrics to their philosophy. Over the last two seasons, the A’s have done that successfully, using their home ballpark environment and platoons to their advantage.
Teams like the A’s continue to find ways to gain an edge. The A’s rank second to the Tampa Bay Rays, another very progressive organization, in percentage of total payroll spent on the bullpen. For years, advanced baseball thinkers believed that spending large sums of money on a highly volatile group of players like relievers was not the best allocation of funds. Now, two of the most analytically-minded front offices are leading the league in bullpen expenses. Like handicapping, finding any inefficiency to gain an edge is one of the chief objectives. The A’s have always been on the cutting edge and this is just another example.
Ultimately, the players still have to perform to their capabilities in the system that they are placed in. For the last two seasons that has happened. The A’s have won 190 regular season games over the last two years, the most in the American League, with a team payroll that ranked 26th and 25th, respectively, in all of Major League Baseball. They project to be around 25th in 2014 as well. Interestingly, the A’s are paying the third-lowest percentage of payroll funds to their starting rotation.
There’s no place like home, even if home includes some occasional sewage backup in the dugout. The A’s are 102-60 at O.co Coliseum over the last two seasons, a byproduct of having a team built to succeed in the pitcher-friendly marine conditions. The offense, a mix of patience and power, has helped the A’s on the road when their pitchers have allowed more runs.
Following back-to-back AL West championships, oddsmakers for BetOnline.ag, 5Dimes.eu, Bovada.lv, and BetDSI.eu all have the A’s at 88.5 wins. 5Dimes has the best over odds at +105, followed by BOL at even money, DSI, and Bovada at -105 and -115.
Key additions: Scott Kazmir, Jim Johnson, Luke Gregerson, Drew Pomeranz, Sam Fuld, Craig Gentry
Key losses: Brett Anderson, Seth Smith, Jerry Blevins, Grant Balfour, Bartolo Colon, Kurt Suzuki, Chris Young
For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. That’s Newton’s third law of motion and it applies to most of Oakland’s offseason. The A’s let Bartolo Colon walk in free agency and signed Scott Kazmir to replace those innings. Grant Balfour also left via free agency, so the A’s traded for Jim Johnson. The day that the A’s traded for Craig Gentry from Texas, they traded Seth Smith to San Diego. Brett Anderson was traded for Drew Pomeranz and a minor leaguer. After Luke Gregerson was acquired from the Padres, Jerry Blevins was traded.
What’s impressive about the A’s offseason is that Kazmir can replace Colon’s production, Johnson should replace Balfour, and Pomeranz has similar upside to Anderson that could shine through in a much friendlier park for a fly ball pitcher. In Sam Fuld and Craig Gentry, the A’s get two quality defensive outfielders, and in the case of Gentry, a player familiar with the AL West who, like the rest of the lineup, puts the ball in play and walks at an above average rate.
Seth Smith was a nice platoon partner as a guy with sharp splits that has decent power against righties. He didn’t really work out in Oakland, so the A’s don’t appear to be losing a whole lot there. Blevins was a very serviceable matchup lefty and the A’s will hope that Eric O’Flaherty is healthy enough to slide into that role later this season. A matchup lefty is about the only vacancy from the offseason that the A’s have yet to fill.
Why bet the over?
For starters, this team appears as strong or stronger than the two Athletics teams that have won 190 games over the last two seasons. Between the losses and additions, the A’s certainly haven’t gotten several games worse. The oddsmakers certainly shade win totals on the conservative side. The one thing that is nice about the A’s win total is that they aren’t being asked to go over a high number as a team that is overly dependent on one player. As most small or mid-market teams tend to be constructed, the A’s rely on everybody to contribute. They would be in a better position to withstand a major injury than say the Tigers with Miguel Cabrera or the Angels with Mike Trout.
Like the Indians, the A’s rely on platoon advantages to create above average offensive players at lower costs. “Flawed” players aren’t going to make as much money as guys who can regularly have 700 plate appearances with success against all players. The A’s had a platoon advantage in 70 percent of their plate appearances last season. What that means is that they had an opposite handed hitter against a pitcher.
In the American League last season, right-handed batters hit .259/.328/.416/.744 against left-handed pitchers. By comparison, they batted .252/.310/.395/.705 against righties. Left-handed batters hit .261/.329/.413/.742 against righties and .246/.303/.371/.674 against lefties. The top five teams in platoon advantage percentage last season were Cleveland, Oakland, Seattle, Boston, and Baltimore. It’s no coincidence that four of those five teams were in the top five in run scoring. The Athletics don’t have the big names that Boston or Baltimore have, but yet they’re right there in scoring runs. Platoon advantages are a big reason why. It’s also an element of the Athletics that probably is not factored into their win total. There’s no name recognition in the lineup, but it’s a solid, underrated group. The A’s were 20 games above .500 against right-handed starters and 10 games above .500 against southpaw starters.
The Athletics were among the league leaders in walk rate and slugging percentage. Platoons have a lot to do with that because guys are able to hang around in the Majors with severe batting splits because they tend to hit opposite-handed pitchers for power.
There were some everyday players that did shine and should do the same again, beginning with Josh Donaldson. Donaldson had no shot at winning the American League MVP award because of Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout, but Donaldson posted a 7.7 fWAR last season. He was terrific offensively with a wRC+ of 148, no small feat playing half of his games in Oakland, but he was also exceptional defensively, finishing fifth among third basemen in defensive value as measured by Fangraphs.
Coco Crisp is defying the aging trend with improving plate discipline stats in each of the last three seasons and a big power spike in 2013. Crisp doubled his 2012 home run output last season. Based on the number of balls in play for Crisp, one could argue that even despite the home runs, he should have hit for a higher average last season. His BABIP was just .258, in part due to hitting 22 home runs, but he also puts the ball in play nearly 80 percent of the time. Even if age does catch up with Crisp this season, he’s got 15 HR and 25 SB potential and sets the table for this lineup.
Two guys coming off of underwhelming seasons could certainly be in line for improvement. Yoenis Cespedes saw a huge drop-off in his performance due to an increased strikeout rate and fewer walks. Cespedes was rarely healthy last season, which probably led to cheating a little bit in the batter’s box. The counting stats remained similar, but his slash lines took the brunt of his swing-and-miss increase. A healthy Cespedes should be a better Cespedes.
Josh Reddick also fell victim to regression. His home run per fly ball rate of over 14 percent proved to be difficult to repeat as Reddick went from 32 home runs to just 14. The nearly 90-point drop in slugging percentage zapped most of Reddick’s offensive value. Most of it, however, appears to be injury-related, as Reddick had a sprained wrist most of the season and surgery in the offseason. Expect Reddick to bounce back and be a 20-25 or more HR guy this season.
Both Reddick and Craig Gentry are great defensive outfielders, so the A’s should be able to put players in positions to succeed offensively and also have the luxury of utilizing defensive replacements in the late innings.
Brandon Moss is one of those aforementioned platoon guys. With terrific splits against right-handed pitching, Moss bashed 30 home runs and posted a .904 OPS. Among players with 300 or more plate appearances against righties, Moss’s .904 OPS ranked 15th out of 197 players. Being awful defensively hurt Moss’s total fWAR, but his offensive performance looks legit and should continue.
On the pitching side of things, the A’s likely Opening Day starter will be Sonny Gray. Gray made just 10 regular season stars for the A’s last season, but he was very impressive with better than average strikeout and walk rates as well as a lot of balls hit on the ground. The 24-year-old can get it up into the high 90s with the fastball and has a wipeout curve ball to right-handed hitters. Most importantly, he can throw all of his offerings for strikes. Look for Gray to have a fine season.
Scott Kazmir is the most interesting piece of this A’s staff. After literally restarting from the bottom with the Sugar Land Skeeters in the independent leagues, Kazmir was a huge part of the playoff push for the Cleveland Indians. As Kazmir got stronger and was able to command his pitches, he was terrific, posting a 3.38 ERA and a 2.42 FIP in the second half of last season. His big problem was a penchant for giving up home runs, something that should be neutralized in Oakland. With a lot of foul balls last season that could become outs in the expansive foul territory at O.co Coliseum, those might as well be strikeouts and Kazmir could be in line for a very good season.
If Kazmir is most interesting, Dan Straily is the wild card. Straily has gotten above average swing-and-miss rates during his 191.2 Major League innings, but they haven’t translated into the expected strikeout numbers. But, Straily, a fly ball guy with good control, won’t have to worry about pitching himself into a job because he’ll have one this season. He made 27 starts last year with a 3.96 ERA and a 4.05 FIP, largely because of the strikeout rate, just above average at 19.4 percent. Straily has a lot of upside.
Behind those three, there are some questions, as Jarrod Parker is seeing Dr. James Andrews early next week and A.J. Griffin, who dealt with a loss in velocity last season, has been brutal this spring. Tommy Milone has shown the ability to pitch at the Major League level, especially at home. Milone’s home ERA is 1.24 runs better than his road ERA, which is 4.55. The silver lining that he is an experienced starter that won’t kill the team if they need him to make a substantial amount of starts. Jesse Chavez, who made 35 relief appearances last season, is being stretched out as a starter, something he did in the Blue Jays organization in 2012 and with the A’s Triple-A team in 2013. He showed good control in those outings.
The bullpen for the A’s has the chance to be elite. Jim Johnson will be the closer, bringing his 101 saves over the last two seasons with him from Baltimore. He’s not a big strikeout guy, but his heavy sinker has produced a ton of ground balls during his career. The home run spike that hurt him last year won’t be a factor in Oakland, especially with two friendly road parks in Anaheim and Seattle.
The bridges to Johnson, Ryan Cook, Sean Doolittle, and Luke Gregerson are arguably the best setup group in the entire league. Cook and Doolittle were outstanding for the A’s last season with nearly identical FIPs of 2.74 and 2.71 in their 141 combined appearances. Gregerson will reap the benefits of a league change and his advanced metrics put him in the same category of success that Cook and Doolittle are in. Gregerson is rare in that over 57 percent of his pitches thrown are sliders. That makes him incredibly difficult to square up, as evidenced by his low home run rate and career .210 batting average against.
Drew Pomeranz is being groomed as a matchup lefty as a guy with control problems but two plus offerings with a mid-90s fastball and a knuckle curve that can be a deadly weapon against lefties. Dan Otero showed near-elite control last season. The depth of the A’s bullpen, including three bona fide setup men, will go a long way in covering up for some of the lack of rotation depth due to the Parker and Griffin injuries. The bullpen will also shorten games, making it very difficult to come back against the A’s.
Why bet the under?
There are some flaws for the A’s and some guys who will regress. Coco Crisp won’t hit 22 home runs again. That’s almost a given. While Josh Donaldson was great last season, his BABIP of .333 is probably unsustainable in a park like Oakland’s. Expect that to drop at least 20 points, dropping his average and on-base percentage. He’ll remain a strong contributor, but not to the level he was in 2013.
One of the concerns with platoons is that if one of the guys goes down, a lot of the production goes down with it. That’s especially true if the hitter is left handed. Hitters will face a right-handed pitcher nearly 75 percent of the time. An injury to somebody like Brandon Moss will leave a substandard level of production in its wake. It wouldn’t cripple the team, necessarily, but it would make things a bit more difficult as a flawed player would have a lot of plate appearances at a disadvantage. The A’s have a bit more versatility this year with a guy like Gentry, who will be valuable defensively no matter what, but it’s something to consider.
The biggest concern has to be the starting rotation. The A’s have been able to get by without a big name starter because their ballpark is so easy to pitch in. Get a standard fly ball guy with good command and he’ll post an ERA under 3.50 at home and somewhere below 4.50 on the road. The offense and the bullpen do the rest. But, their depth has taken a serious hit this season. Jarrod Parker’s forearm injury sounds ominous and any time “pitcher and elbow” are in the same sentence, as they are with A.J. Griffin, there’s major cause for concern.
While Scott Kazmir was outstanding last season and even worked deep into games on a lot of occasions, the A’s are getting a pitcher who threw some high-stress innings at the Major League level last season for the first time since 2010. There’s no telling how his arm will hold up throughout the season. Kazmir lives on a high fastball and slider combination. If the fastball isn’t hard enough to go by hitters and elbow discomfort renders the slider ineffective, he’ll fall flat on his face.
Sonny Gray has a promising profile, but he does have difficulty with lefties and platoon advantages reached a new high in 2013. Starters can generally get by, but as Gray goes through the league a couple of times, he’ll have to make the adjustments to repeat the same success. It should happen, but growing pains are to be expected.
Ultimately, small or mid-market teams don’t have a massive margin for error like teams that can just throw money at problems or acquire pricey talent to get out of a situation. The A’s have had a lot of things go right over the last two seasons and it will need to continue.
A non-Athletics related point is that the AL West looks deeper, not necessarily stronger, than it did last season. The Rangers have pitching problems, but their offense will be better with Choo and Fielder. The Angels need to stay healthy, but they made some rotation improvements. The Mariners added Cano and have some strong young pitching. The Astros will be a punching bag, but probably not to the level that they were last season.
Pick: Over 88.5 (+105, 5Dimes)
The Athletics are built to dominate at home and play better than .500 on the road. That’s the recipe for winning 90 or more games. Reddick and Cespedes should be much better for an offense that still scored 767 runs last season. The rotation does have issues, but Kazmir should be fantastic pitching in Oakland, there’s a lot of reason to believe in Gray, and the depth of the bullpen will shorten games to around six innings anyway.
All of the signs point to a good season for the A’s. There’s no reason to believe that this team will be significantly worse than last season, especially since their Pythagorean Win-Loss record doesn’t show any negative trends. The AL West is supposedly better, but I’m hardly convinced. Frankly, as good, or better, of a bet as the over 88.5, the Athletics are +200 to win the AL West at BetOnline. With the Rangers rotation issues, the Angels health concerns, and the Mariners not ready for primetime, it’s hard to see any of those teams topping the A’s in the division.
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Adam Burke is a freelance writer and amateur handicapper with a knack for finding value through matchup analysis and a deep understanding of the sports betting market. His main area of expertise is baseball, with a background in sabermetrics and advanced statistics. He is the host of The Gridiron Gambling Report and our college football and college basketball BangTheBook.com podcasts on the BlogTalkRadio Network.