The Dark Horse Chronicles Part 3: The Oakland A’s

Way back in around aught-two, a former bond sales wrote a small book about market inefficiencies that would forever change they way crotchety old men complained about baseball. Wait, what?

Lewis' Moneyball, is for many people outside the sabermetrics community, the emblem of all that is wrong with baseball, especially American league baseball, today. The title of book has come to be synonymous with station-to-station offence, slow, fat three true outcome hitters and obnoxious computer geeks waxing on about the importance baseball's most boring play (the walk) and spouting a series of incomprehensible acronyms (as I am about to do). Meanwhile, the analytical principles touched on by Lewis in his exploration Billy's front office have marched on, outstripping what most people seem to glean from their non-reading of the book and engrained themselves deeply in the sport's culture. Even ESPN broadcasters are now referencing UZR for god sakes!

While that has been great for franchises with the money to exploit their new found understanding of the game, it certainly has made it harder to find market inefficiencies which the Oakland A's can afford to exploit. As of this writing, Oakland is a surprising 24-23, just two games behind the Texas Rangers in what might be baseball's most wide open division race. Like fellow dark horse candidate Cincinnati, the A's have bested their Pythagorean record (22-25) while remaining decidedly average in nearly every category. Will the A's once again surprise baseball with a torrid second half run? Let's see-

If San Diego and Cincinnati were young teams, the 2010 A's are baseball's kindergarten class. The team's average age is only 27.2 years and Mark Ellis at 33 years old is the oldest player on the team. Their pitching is even younger with an average age of 26.6. That to me is reason enough to think this might be a dark horse team in the making. Young players are the hardest ones to project, young pitchers especially. If any team may be chronically under rated, it is the A's. Outside of Zombie Eric Chavez, Ellis Coco Crisp and Jack Cust, every player on the team is an unknown quantity in some way.

In spite of their middling FIP (4.26, 7th in the AL), the strength of this team figures to be those young arms. Brett Anderson is assuredly the most promising among them. In 2009 he was 25th in WAR among all pitchers at the age of 21. When healthy he has been nearly as good this season with a 2.30 FIP despite striking out a nearly one less hitter per 9. Unfortunately he is injured now, though he may return soon. A healthy return for Anderson would be a huge boost since it seems that two other pitchers might be on the verge of breaking out this season for Oakland giving them a strong rotation in an already weak hitting division.

The first major breakout candidate is fairly obvious; Dallas Braden. Throwing a perfect game at age 26 will do that for you. Braden might be the pitcher who most resembles the Moneyball era Oakland A's pitcher. His fastball averages just under 88 mile per hour and yet he put together a minor league track record that many people throwing 95 miles an hour would love to have, posting a K/BB ratio over four at different levels in just two years. This season, in addition to accomplishing baseball's most astonishing feat, Braden has upped his groundball percentage and lowered his walks significantly. He has been close last season's strikeout rate though and an improvement in that area is really the only thing missing from him realizing a major break through. While his junk-balling ways might not punch out major leagues to the tune of one per inning, a move into the 6 K/9 or 7 K/9 range should send his stock soaring.

Second is Gio Gonzales, another lefty. Gonzales has a bit more heat with a fastball around 91 mphs and can already put guys away at a good rate (9.94 k/9 last season), but he has never had the control that Braden does, walking an average of 5.02 batter on his career. The good news for Gonzales is that his walks are down significantly to 3.95 BB/9 thus far. Unfortunately, the K's are down as wel,l as is his GB%. Though he has been relatively luck with balls in play this season (.260 BABIP) and with home runs (5% HR/FB), he has the raw stuff to remain successful so long as he can sustain a reasonable walk rate. With Ben Sheets and Trevor Cahill both capable of giving the A's league average innings, the emergence of two more young studs in the rotation could be enough to vault Oakland above the Rangers and into a playoff berth.

Given their offense though, even that might not be enough. The A's, like the Padres, are offensively anemic. The team is second to last in the AL in wOBA just ahead of the Mariners. Power is especially lacking from the Oakland lineup with their ISO at a David Eckstein like .108, last in the league. Emblematic of this, their best player, thus far has been Daric Barton. Barton is atypical since, as a first basemen, as he has never topped .200 ISO at any level over a full season. He has gotten on base at a high level though and he is doing so thus far this season. He might be unlikely to add serious power to his game this season but Barton has very good at getting on base thus far this season (.390 OBP).

The hitter who looks most capable of joining Barton in the productive category is second basemen Adam Rosales. Rosales plays a good second base and has yet to find the ability to get on base or hit for power that he had show in minors. ZiPs does not think he will maintain his current .344 OBP or hit with as much power as he has thus far, but he history suggests that he might be capable of doing so and even some slight improvement. His minor league walk rates were consistently better than the 8.4% he is showing right now. He has been lucky on base in play (.354 BABIP) in large part because he is hitting an incredible 35% line drives. His power could very well increase with a rise in his fly balls which currently only make up 28.2% of his batted balls.

Even with a few players improving at the plate Oakland is unlikely to win their division without being a force in run prevention. UZR currently has the team at -0.4, but it seems certain that their true talent is greater than that as DRS has then with 19 runs saved, good for fourth in the AL. Team defense might be the biggest breakout candidate in Oakland as they will need to give their good young pitching a hand if they are to overcome their lackluster offense and play dark horse in the AL.