Thanks to Ryan Armbrust of Athletic Supporters and The Pastime for putting together this review for us. Ryan knows his stuff, and you can find him over at Athletics' Nation in the comments all the time as well.
"I've come loaded with statistics, for I've noticed that a man can't prove anything without statistics. "
-- Mark Twain
"There is no safety in numbers, or in anything else."
-- James Thurber
Before I begin this sort of review of the A's recent season, I'd like to say that I'm as big a believer as you'll find in the ability of statistics to understand baseball. But I'm nevertheless amazed when, against all odds, something else happens. To me, that just means we need to look deeper, and look in a different way.
With that said, here's what surprised me about this season.
In 2006, Oakland scored 771 runs, and allowed 727. Their Pythagorean record was 85-77, second best in the AL West, behind Texas.
They actually won 93 games, and lost only 69, an eight game improvement over the expected win-loss record. That was good enough to take the AL West crown.
That eight game difference was the biggest overachievement in baseball. It was the second largest difference between expected wins and actual wins, trailing only the befuddling Cleveland Indians, who lost 11 more games than expected.
To what should this difference be attributed? I have a couple of ideas.
Was it that the A's were so stellar in one-run games? They played the second most of any team in baseball (54 to the Pirates' 55). They had the fourth highest winning percentage in those games in the majors (.593). They were also 10 games over .500 in one-run games, 32-22, the best in the AL.
That could be an answer, but it doesn't address the why of the matter. My guess is that the runs scored were just timely. When the A's scored, they did so at an opportune time. They didn't "waste" runs.
For instance, I'd draw your kind attention to the Opening Day. The A's were waxed by the Yankees to the tune of 15-2, then won the next game 4-3, a great example of how things happened for the rest of the season.
Yes, I know the concept of "wasting runs" is ridiculous, but what I mean is that when the A's scored, they usually just happened to score enough to win. They had few blowout wins, and played most teams rather closely. No less than 107 of the games that the A's played were decided by 3 runs or less.
Adding to that effect was that the A's, when they did give up runs, gave up a lot of them. They gave up more than six runs just 34 times this season, but in those 34 games they gave up an average of 8.88 runs. They gave up 42% of their runs in only 21% of the games. In the other 128 games they played, the A's only allowed 3.32 runs per game.
Let's examine games that would be consider blowouts, where runs would be "wasted". There were 18 games that the A's lost by 6 runs or more, and 14 that they won by 6 runs or more. Over those 32 games, Oakland scored 137 runs and allowed 174. They went 14-18 in those "blowouts", a reasonable record for having a run differential of -37, over a run a game.
If, for argument's sake, you removed those games, Oakland's expected winning percentage (with a new RS-RA of 634-553) would jump from .528 to .560, much closer to the actual winning percentage of .574.
Of course, that all smacks of cherry-picking the stats, but I think it's nevertheless interesting to dig into.
How in the world did the A's manage to score any runs this year? Everyone has heard about the A's woes when hitting with runners in scoring position. With men on second or third, they were 29th in average, 25th in on-base-percentage, and 26th in slugging.
Of course, much of that is weighed down by how awful the A's were before the All-Star break. After July 14th, the A's ranked 5th in AVG, 3rd in OBP and 12th in SLG, a marked improvement.
Nick Swisher was dead last in hitting with RISP among everyone in baseball with 100 plate appearances. How he managed to get 95 RBIs is a minor miracle. Hitting 35 home runs will help, especially when 21 of them came with runners on base, and only 4 with RISP.
If you predicted that Frank Thomas would have the kind of season he had, please get in contact with me so we can go to Las Vegas in the offseason.
Production from a designated hitter to the tune of .270/.381/.545/.926 with 39 home runs is outstanding. As a DH, Frank Thomas only trailed Hafner, Ortiz, Thome and Giambi in EqA, my personal favorite way to evaluate a hitter. Thomas put up an EqA of .309, 49 points higher than league average. Last year Oakland got so little production from the DH spot that at some points they resembled a National League team.
The general consensus on Thomas at the beginning of the season was that at best he'd play in perhaps half of Oakland's games, and might hit around .240 with an OBP of .350 and hit 15-20 home runs. The worst case scenario was that he'd break his foot off and never play.
Baseball Prospectus' PECOTA topped out at a 273/.384/.597 line for Thomas, with 30 home runs. He met or exceeded his 90th percentile projection in almost every way. And he's not the comeback player of the year...?
On May 31, Jason Kendall did the impossible. After a string of 961 at-bats without a home run, he hit one. It cleared the left field fence by a few inches. It ended the longest homer-less streak by a major league player since the immortal Rey Sanchez went 1,094 at-bats in 2000-2002 without a round-tripper.
Oakland's infield was a fascinating mix of surprises this season.
In 632 total chances, Mark Ellis only made two errors. That sets the record for highest fielding percentage by a second baseman at .997, and should win Ellis a well-deserved Gold Glove.
Eric Chavez developed tendonitis in both forearms, limiting him to his worst statistical season at the plate since his rookie year, but he had perhaps the best defensive season of his career. He made just 5 errors, fielded .987, and turned 43 double plays. He led all third baseman in those categories, and should be in line for a sixth consecutive Gold Glove.
Bobby Crosby fell further into his offensive slump, doing his best Neifi Perez impression, before he was injured twice and spent most of the season on the DL. Marco Scutaro, super-backup and the most "clutch" hitter on the team (take that for whatever it's worth), filled in for Crosby. Scutaro hit .218/.292/.309 with one home run before the All-Star break, and .305/.396/.470 with four homers afterwards.
Dan Johnson had the dubious distinction of being the major league player to go the longest without a hit to start 2006. He started 0-for-26, and by the second week of July, was hitting only .237/.326/.373, and was demoted to AAA Sacramento. Nick Swisher moved in from the outfield to first base, and then proceeded to drop off his torrid offensive start. As late as June 24th, he was hitting .289/.402/.570 with 19 home runs, but after Dan Johnson was went down, and Swisher became the full time first baseman, Swisher hit .248/.364/.472, and only hit 15 home runs the rest of the season. Whether Swisher's offensive numbers tie in with where he plays would be difficult to figure, because he played 1st and OF interchangeably throughout the season, although he played OF more often in April, May and June, while the rest of the year he was more often at 1B.
And then there's the case of Antonio Perez... In just 110 plate appearances, Perez managed to strike out 44 times. His line for the season was (look away if you're squeamish) .102/.185/.204/.389. Yes, that's an OPS of .389.
Here's an interesting list of the worst batting averages in baseball for players given at least 110 plate appearances.
|1 Sandy Nova||1884||0.095||127||35||11|
|2 Mike Jordan||1890||0.096||143||19||12|
|3 Antonio Perez||2006||0.102||110||44||10|
|4 Ben Egan||1915||0.108||132||14||13|
|5 Jose Gonzalez||1991||0.111||134||42||13|
Antonio Perez has the worst batting average since 1890. Also notice that no one on that list has more strikeouts. That's a rough season.
There were few surprises in the A's starting rotation this year. Barry Zito pitched like he has over the last few seasons, didn't miss a start, and will leave as a free agent this winter. Dan Haren had moments of brilliance, a few rough starts, and looked like the talented young pitcher he is. Joe Blanton had the drop off that most foresaw at the end of last season, and Rich Harden showed yet again that he has a gallon of talent and an ounce of health. If Harden can ever stay healthy enough to start 30 games in a season, he should be unstoppable. But his elbow and oblique may get in the way.
Esteban Loaiza was nothing short of unpredictable this year. He began the season with high expectations, then posted an astronomical ERA and was only hitting the mid-80s on radar guns. He went on the DL with a phantom arm problem, came back, got arrested for DUI and speeding, and then proceeded to pitch a great complete game win. Take a look at the following chart:
|First 4 starts||8.35||2.9||4.4|
|Next 2 starts||2.77||4.8||2.1|
|Next 8 starts||7.21||5.6||3.9|
|Next 7 starts||1.42||6.2||0.9|
|Next 2 starts||2.45||5.5||1.2|
|Last 2 starts||8||6||1|
I know that I'm selecting streaks of uneven length, but I wanted to illustrate how unpredictable he's been. He reeled off four awful starts, two very good ones, eight terrible games, seven masterful ones, a terrible outing, two good games, and then two poor starts to end the season.
Some would say they were taken by surprise at Huston Street's mediocre season. Well, mediocre by the expectations they placed on him after his stellar 2005 rookie campaign. They expected a closer who would put up sub-2.00 ERA seasons with a 9.0+ K/9 rate and 40 saves a year for the next 20 years. Street was just 22 years old this season. He had a decent year, 3.31 ERA and 37 saves. Yes, he blew a few too many save opportunities, but he pitched extremely well for a kid in his second full year in the majors. After all, he was pitching in the College World Series only 30 months ago.
I'd love to write something witty and insightful here about the 2006 postseason for the A's, and how they miraculously swept the Twins, a heavily favored opponent. I wish I could write about the disappointment of being steamrolled by the Tigers. I have three things keeping me from doing that, though. One, it's still too soon to look back with any kind of perspective. Two, we're talking about only seven games here, so you can't draw any real conclusions based on that kind of sample size. Three, it's already been, and will be, completely over analyzed by hundreds of people. I'm not going to contribute to that annual avalanche.
Thanks once again to Ryan for writing this review. We'll be back with more team previews as the postseason progresses, and with the weather the way it is, they should be wrapped up sometime in December.