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2014 Team Previews: Oakland Athletics

Can Scott Kazmir stay good? Will the pitchers stay healthy? Who is Yoenis Cespedes, really?

Thearon W. Henderson

Before we take a look at the Oakland Athletics chances on the field in 2014, it is important to consider some larger circumstances surrounding the team.

I personally know exactly one Oakland Athletics fan. Though I'm pretty sure he started life as a Mariners fan, his family moved to a state without a professional MLB team when he was young, and so even though he stuck with the M's for a long time, when he graduated college he decided it was time to lay down some new roots. He moved to Oakland (or at least to the east bay) and adopted his new home-town team with huge amounts of enthusiasm. This was completely genuine, mind you, but given that it happened when he was an adult, it was purely by choice. He's not there anymore, but he's stayed an Oakland fan because of the team's connection to a certain important time in his life. I asked him recently about the team's potential move to the south bay area, and whether he'd stay a fan. He told me he probably wouldn't; his emotional connection is 100% due to their association with the city of Oakland itself, and so if they move away, he'd take it as time to find a new team.

I personally hope the A's don't move. I get the economic reasons behind it, and I think the Giants are being pretty unreasonable about the whole thing given the original circumstances of the territorial rights agreements, AND I know the A's have a long tradition, if you will, of moving cities, but the team has a character very distinct from the other professional Oakland teams, and I have no doubt that the A's mean more to the people of Oakland than they ever could to San Jose.

2013 Season in Review

Have the A's had enough recent success for 2013 to be considered a disappointment? Given everything that went right for the team, it'd be tough to find fault with fans who felt let down by yet another first-round playoff exit. Josh Donaldson, who somehow is just barely over one year of service time, was a legitimate MVP candidate (and actually finished above winner Miguel Cabrera in WAR, both f- an r- varieties). Coco Crisp, despite a third consecutive drop in steals, put up the third-best season by FanGraphs Baserunning Runs of his career to go with 22 home runs on his way to almost doubling his previous year's WAR. Bartolo Colon, 40-year-old Bartolo Colon, had his highest WAR season since 2005. Yet once again, to paraphrase Billy Beane, his [stuff] didn't work in the playoffs. The A's were done in by the epitome of small sample sizes - a single pitch from Sonny Gray to Miguel Cabrera ended their hopes of finally making it back to the ALCS. Still, the A’s have plenty of reasons to think their recent success will continue, starting with a few key moves they made this offseason.

Key Offseason Moves

1. Scott Kazmir (signed for two years, $22 million)

Call this the team’s most important *and* highest-variance move. If Kazmir can repeat, or even come close to repeating, his 2013 season, this will be the biggest steal of the entire offseason. Kazmir threw more than a strikeout per inning, and managed an xFIP of 3.36, good enough for 20th among pitchers who threw at least as many innings as he did. Nothing about his performance jumps out as unrepeatable, so as long as he can stay healthy - which is a serious question mark for him, of course - he looks poised to be a top-level starting pitcher.

2. Luke Gregerson (trade for Seth Smith)

With the exception of the 2011 season, when he forgot how to strike people out, Gregerson has been terrific in relief for the Padres since 2009. It's hard to make much sense of their decision to send him to Oakland in exchange for Seth Smith, who shouldn't be anything more than a backup outfielder this year. While it's slightly concerning that he's lost a mile per hour of his fastball every season he's been in the league, and his 4.9% HR/FB from 2013 isn't repeatable, his wOBA allowed, against either right- or left-handed batting, gives him the look of an important component of this year's bullpen.

3. Coco Crisp extension (2 years, $22 million with vesting option)

No one should reasonably expect Crisp to hit 22 home runs again this year. The baseball community at large would be blown away if that was anything more than a Mauer-esque single-season power binge, never to be seen again. He won't have to, though, to provide the A's with profit on their $11 million/year investment. As long as Crisp reaches ~2 wins per year, which he hasn't failed to do in a non-injured season since *very* early in his career and which his baserunning acumen will definitely allow, he's more than worth this deal.

One to Watch

Yoenis Cespedes

There might not be an MLB player who had a more disappointing 2013 season than Yoenis Cespedes. After a 3-win 2012 in which he hit for a 137 wRC+, he effectively fell off a cliff in 2013. Although he partially made up for it with significantly better-rated defense, so that his overall value only dropped by about half a win, you can't help but think that if he had hit as well as he did in 2012 (or even just above league-average, really) the season could have gone even better for the team. Taking a look through the numbers, the major culprit looks like the times he made contact and it stayed in the park. Cespedes's BABIP dropped by a solid 50 points from 2012 to 2013, which mirrors the drop in both his overall batting average and his OBP. The best explanation looks to be a jump in his fly ball rate, which rose from 40% to 45% at the expense of both liners and grounders in about equal proportion.

We've now had two season-long looks at Yoenis Cespedes, and seen two distinct versions of him. One, the 2012 edition, is a strong, balanced, maybe slightly aggressive hitter who is an important-enough component of the A's offensive lineup that his possibly below-average defense can be overlooked. The other, the 2013 edition, is somewhere around league average at the plate and league average in the field, probably justifying a roster spot but standing out as taking up a position at which a real contender may want to try to improve. Which player he really turns out to be, or at least which of the two he's more similar to being, will have a large bearing on the direction of the team in the next few years.

Athletics by the Numbers

It's no secret the A's like to use platoons. They had the platoon advantage in fully 70% of their plate appearances in 2013, good for second in the majors. This isn't anything new - Earl Weaver was a big advocate of platoons, after all - but it's still been incredibly important. I'm not covering any new territory here when I say teams like the A's try to find whatever advantage they can. There was a whole book written about this, I think, and maybe even a movie, too, but that doesn't mean it isn't still true. Andrew Koo at Baseball Prospectus revealed another kind of platoon advantage the Athletics held in an article from December, noting that they've focused on having fly-ball hitters to face ground-ball pitchers.

Koo focused on batters, mostly leaving out pitchers - but the team really stands out from the league in this regard, too. The Athletics were the only team in 2013 whose pitchers allowed fewer ground balls than fly balls. At the extreme opposite end, the Pirates allowed twice as many GB as FB, and most teams ended with a ratio around 1.3; the A's were at 0.97 grounders for every fly. The difference between their 40.8% fly ball rate and the rate of the second-highest team (the Cubs, at 36.6%) was the same as the difference between the second-highest and *twenty-fifth*-highest rates. This is *clearly* something the A's were emphasizing, and to great effect - fly balls go for hits fewer than any other batted ball type, and the team allowed the sixth-lowest SLG last year.

Importantly, though, the team's pitchers also limited line drives - their 19.6% rate was the lowest in the league. As Koo pointed out (for hitters), the value of having fly-ball hitters comes in that their propensity for putting balls in the air drives up their LD%. It's not clear if there's any skill involved here or if it was just luck, but if the team can actually maintain high-FB, low-LD, low-GB pitching, their cavernous park will help keep opponent's batting success low. As a last note, this does add another dimension of strangeness to the acquisition of Jim Johnson as their closer - his recent performance as a closer has been highly dependent on his GB% being at 55% or above.

Team FB% GB% LD%
Athletics 40.8% (1st) 39.5% (30th) 19.6% (30th)
Cubs 36.6% (2nd) 42.4% (25th) 21% (16th)
White Sox 36.4% (3rd) 43.3% (22th) 20.3% (26th)
Red Sox 36.4% (3rd) 42.9% (23th) 20.7% (21th)
Angels 36.3% (5th) 42.1% (27th) 21.6% (10th)
Royals 36.2% (6th) 41.8% (29th) 22% (4th)
Blue Jays 35.9% (7th) 44% (18th) 20.2% (28th)
Orioles 35.9% (7th) 42.2% (26th) 21.9% (5th)
Astros 35.8% (9th) 43.9% (20th) 20.3% (26th)
Reds 35.3% (10th) 44.1% (17th) 20.6% (23th)
Twins 35.1% (11th) 43.7% (21th) 21.2% (13th)
Phillies 35% (12th) 44.5% (13th) 20.6% (23th)
Rangers 34.8% (13th) 42.8% (24th) 22.4% (3rd)
Giants 34.8% (13th) 42.1% (27th) 23.1% (1st)
Rays 34.7% (15th) 44.6% (12th) 20.8% (19th)
Mets 34.4% (16th) 44.5% (13th) 21.1% (15th)
Yankees 34.3% (17th) 44% (18th) 21.7% (8th)
Nationals 34.1% (18th) 45% (11th) 20.9% (17th)
Tigers 33.9% (19th) 45.4% (8th) 20.7% (21th)
Mariners 33.8% (20th) 45.3% (9th) 20.9% (17th)
Indians 33.8% (20th) 44.5% (13th) 21.6% (10th)
Brewers 33.7% (22th) 44.4% (16th) 21.8% (7th)
Marlins 33.6% (23th) 45.3% (9th) 21.2% (13th)
Padres 33.4% (24th) 45.8% (6th) 20.8% (19th)
Diamondbacks 32.4% (25th) 46% (5th) 21.5% (12th)
Braves 32.3% (26th) 45.8% (6th) 21.9% (5th)
Cardinals 31.4% (27th) 48.5% (2nd) 20.1% (29th)
Dodgers 31.2% (28th) 47.1% (4th) 21.7% (8th)
Rockies 30% (29th) 47.3% (3rd) 22.7% (2nd)
Pirates 27% (30th) 52.5% (1st) 20.5% (25th)

2014 Team Outlook

Expectations remain high for Oakland headed into 2014. How could they not? They lost Bartolo Colon, but gained Scott Kazmir. They lost Grant Balfour, but gained both Jim Johnson *and* Luke Gregerson. Sonny Gray will have a full season in which to show the skills that will potentially make him an ace. This is a team that will be, even despite the Rangers and Angels, in contention for the AL West crown for seasons to come. Of course, as I finish writing this, it sounds like the team could lose between one and three expected starting pitchers for extended amounts of time; obviously that could wreak havoc with their plans and everyone's expectations.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

John Choiniere is a researcher and contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @johnchoiniere.