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Athletics pivot on fly ball strategy

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The Athletics were re-made in more ways than just new players.

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

The Athletics underwent an overhaul during the offseason. Billy Beane, always on the lookout for deals both to extract poor value from his team while inserting value from other teams, had us confused for a long time. Now that the offseason is complete, his view of the team is more clear. Beane enacted a clear pivot from last season's strategy to this season's.

In one big way, the Athletics were an outlier on offense. Fly balls. Below is a screengrab from a Tableau visual of FB% on the x-axis and HR/FB rate on the y-axis.

athletics fb hr_fb

I have taken the liberty of highlighting the Athletics on the visual. The other outliers are the Royals (bottom left), Rockies (top left), and Orioles (top right). The other teams make sense. The Rockies and Orioles hit a lot of home runs for different reasons, while the Royals have neither power nor fly ball capabilities. The Athletics, though, hit a ton of fly balls (they led the league in FB% by quite a bit) and had a lot less to show for it (near the bottom in HR/FB). Because of the combination of lots of fly balls and weak power, the Athletics had a stunningly-low team BABIP of .279.

That's not the complete extent of the Athletics' fly ball futility. As you would expect from the above chart, the Orioles and Rockies led MLB in BA/SLG on fly balls. The Athletics did not compare well.

Team BA SLG
Rockies 0.264 0.762
Orioles 0.240 0.687
Athletics 0.194 0.518

The Athletics have a pitcher friendly park, so they get some credit for that. However, it's really not enough. The Cardinals, who had virtually the same BA/SLG as the Athletics, had a 90 wRC+ on fly balls. The Athletics had a 93 wRC+. For better or for worse, Billy Beane has shifted the Athletics' batted ball strategy on offense.

As has been noted elsewhere, many of last year's starters are no longer on this year's team. Here's an approximate comparison of who's in and who's out ("regular" players):

Out In
Josh Donaldson Josh Phegley
Derek Norris Ike Davis
Brandon Moss Billy Butler
Yoenis Cespedes Ben Zobrist
Jed Lowrie Marcus Semien
John Jaso Brett Lawrie

That's a lot of regulars changing out. The regulars coming in also have a different fly ball tendency than the regulars going out. This isn't a perfect comparison (not weighted by # of BIP*, 2014 numbers only), but I have compared the average FB% of the outgoing group to the incoming group. The incoming group hits fewer fly balls than the outgoing group. I included below Cespedes' stats after the trade to Boston.

*Weighting by PA increases the difference in FB% between the two groups from 5.7 percent to 9.0 percent.

athletics fb out in

The scale of the y-axis perhaps over-exaggerates the comparison, but the point stands. Brandon Moss, Yoenis Cespedes, and Jed Lowrie favored fly balls quite a bit, while newcomers Billy Butler and Ben Zobrist favor other types of contact.

The Athletics overall prioritize walks above other teams: They led MLB in free pass rate last season. While making the tradeoff for fewer fly balls, the Athletics will lose some walks. Phegley has 5 walks in his career 241 PA, Brett Lawrie isn't much for walking, and Billy Butler had a down year last year in terms of walks. Even if Butler rebounded to his career walk rate, it still wouldn't make up the gap. Despite Davis and Zobrist taking plenty of walks, the players the Athletics have seen depart took a ton of walks.

Despite the cost, the Athletics made a change. They might be hoping that they can coax different contact from their new players. Given their stadium situation, it might not be a bad idea to focus on ground balls and line drives on offense. After all, the Athletics pitchers led MLB in FB% as recently as 2013. However, they were near the middle of the pack in 2014. Tommy Milone and Bartolo Colon were a big part of that, and those guys are no longer on the team. It's all part of the rapid adaptation strategy that the Athletics employ.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

Kevin Ruprecht is the Managing Editor of Beyond the Box Score. He also writes at Royals Review. You can follow him on Twitter at @KevinRuprecht.