Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Path to Respectability: Oakland A's

by Jason Wojciechowski

It’s a port
Photo by Daniel Ramirez

Having knocked out the Seattle Mariners yesterday, today sees my attempt to get the other half of the bottom-feeding portion of the A.L. West up to 88 wins and respectability. As you know, I'm an A's blogger, but I'm honestly not sure whether that helps or hurts this exercise. It's very likely that previous posts in this series have been unreasonably optimistic about some player or some event occurring such that fans of the team are silently laughing at me. Here, I'm more likely to silently laugh at myself.

Anyway, the baseline. PECOTA and the Baseball Prospectus depth charts currently have the A's finishing third in the West at 73-89, ahead of the Mariners but not even in hailing distance of the two division leaders. They feature an offense full of guys who project to be within a respectable distance of average, one star hitter who will be suspended for the first fifty games of the year, and one well-above-average guy who's never played in America. The pitching, by contrast, and contrary to what you've come to expect from the A's, looks poor. Brandon McCarthy is good, but behind him, there's nobody you can count on for 200 innings of solid baseball.

As always, I start the A's off with five wins of luck, pushing their record, before changes to the roster and individual players' expectations, to 78-84. I need to find ten wins.

The pitching is the easy place to start because of how poor the projections are. First, Bartolo Colon. PECOTA sees him as a mid-four ERA guy, which in Oakland is nothing special. Additionally, the depth chart only counts on him, at 39 and coming off a 164- inning stunning comeback with the Yankees, to pitch 144 frames. All of this adds up to just 0.3 WARP. He had 2.2 last year, but he doesn't need to replicate all that -- if he can split the difference and post 1.3 WARP, he'll more than earn his $2 million salary and add a win to the ledger for Oakland.

Next is rookie Tommy Milone, a soft-tossing lefty who came to Oakland from Washington and, while being the closest to the majors of the bevy of prospects the A's got for Gio Gonzalez, is also the one with the lowest ceiling. Still, 0.7 WARP in 122 innings seems ungenerous. Based on his innings counts and number of games started in the minors, it appears that he's been healthy coming up, so I think he can ask him for 180 innings instead of 120. Even without a quality increase, that pushes his WARP total to about 1.0. It also wipes the need for Sonny Gray to start for Oakland (Gray is projected for 40 innings and 0 WARP) and takes 20 innings away from Brad Peacock or Jarrod Parker, neither of whom PECOTA is at all a fan of, projecting below-replacement performance from each. Take the innings from Peacock (the lesser of the two) and round a little and you've basically got an 0.5 WARP improvement from Tommy Milone taking the ball all season instead of just 2/3 of it.

Finally, using my flip-a-coin methodology, I think the A's can squeeze two extra wins out of the rotation by asking for one of Tyson Ross, Brad Peacock, Jarrod Parker, or Graham Godfrey to seize the day and really pitch their way into a solid season. I'm basically counting this as +1 WARP of performance by whichever pitcher decides to be the hero and the removal of -1 WARP from the books as the below-replacement performances currently on it become unnecessary. If Tyson Ross throws 180 innings of good baseball, then there's simply no room for Brad Peacock to throw 100 innings of -0.5 WARP. Given the amount of talent on hand (two of the four are highly regarded, and Ross at least has a live arm; Godfrey is just a guy, though), this kind of performance from someone seems reasonable.

Out in the bullpen, Graham Godfrey is currently listed as the long reliever and Jordan Norberto does not appear on the depth chart. Norberto probably isn't very good, but the lefty has a big arm, so he's the type of bullpen pitcher you can dream on. He also spent the winter as a starter, so the A's could count on him to be a long reliever. If he fills that role instead of Godfrey and fills it well, putting up +0.2 WARP instead of -0.3, then the A's pick up half a win from the 50 innings their worst bullpen pitcher will be asked to throw.

Moving to the lineup, the major problem area is first base. Right now, it's a mishmash of Daric Barton (50% of the playing time, 0.9 WARP), Brandon Allen (30%, 0.4), and Chris Carter (20%, 0.2). Multiply those out and none of the three comes out to an average full-time player, who'd be expected to provide two wins above replacement. (Kila Ka'aihue doesn't appear on the depth chart, but I wouldn't expect him to have much impact on the season.) I have beautiful thoughts about Chris Carter, though. I see a big- time power hitter who makes enough contact to keep his average (and thus his on-base percentage) reasonable. I also see someone who can't play a lick of defense, but in this optimistic scenario, he learns. The A's are projected to get 1.5 WARP out of first base, but I think Carter can put a stranglehold on the position after he anger-mashes PCL pitching and Brandon Allen gets hurts. Carter puts up 2.5 WARP all by himself in basically 100% of the play time, and the A's net one win.

In right field, Josh Reddick is expected to be the man. He's got a WWE championship belt, he's got some fans among those who follow prospects, and he's got a full-time job with very little worry that someone will steal it from him. I think he can far out-hit his .248/.301/.414 projection and provide something more like his 80th percentile mark: .270/.325/.455. Hitting like that (and bumping his playing time a bit at the expense of Collin Cowgill) nets out to about a one-win improvement over his current 1.7 WARP projection.

Back to the infield, Jemile Weeks had a smashing debut, racking up 3.1 WARP in fewer than 100 games on the back of a .303/.340/.421 line powered by singles, doubles, and triples. In almost all the second-base playing time for 2012, though, PECOTA sees a step back to 2.1 WARP. That's nothing to complain about for the A's -- a league-average player for the price they're paying, and an exciting, crowd-pleasing one at that, is awfully nice. Still, the A's can do better. Weeks produced at basically a five-WARP pace last year, which is too thrilling for words. If we knock that down a bit because it's really hard to hit .300 in Oakland, we can still ask for a four-win year from the young keystoner, which is a two-win improvement over his depth-chart figure.

Weeks's double-play partner, Cliff Pennington, posted a five-WARP season of his own in 2010, with good-for-his-position hitting, a tremendous +13 fielding score, and even +4 runs on the bases, helped along greatly by a 29/34 stealing performance. Pennington's hitting numbers were eerily similar in 2011 (same OBP, one point difference in SLG), but True Average treated those performances much differently in its adjustments for park and league. He dropped to -12 runs in the field. He even went negative on the bases, not at all helped by going just 14/23 stealing. It was a crummy year, and it summed to just 1.0 WARP in nearly the full season of shortstop at-bats. His projection for this year is a bounce-back to two wins, but I think he can go farther, mainly with the glove. He has a beard now, you see, and he's the most experienced player on the infield. He's also, without being a stat nerd, at least someone who's willing to have conversations with Brandon McCarthy about those kinds of things. All of which means that he's going to be making serious improvement with the glove, a return to 2010 form. Ten more runs in the field over his PECOTA projection means one more win in his WARP total.

Finally, Josh Donaldson is a 25-year-old rookie who until very recently was a catcher who was learning third base to give himself some more roster utility. Now he's the A's starting third baseman because Scott Sizemore wrecked his knee. PECOTA thinks Donaldson will be mediocre, with a .252 TAv leading to 1.1 WARP in 424 PAs, mostly at third, with some at catcher. Bob Melvin has basically said that Donaldson won't be catching, though, so let's suppose that ridding himself of the tools of ignorance lets Donaldson free of the prison of not-really-hitting-very-well. Instead of 60% of the third base time, with Eric Sogard and Adam Rosales splitting the rest, we can have Donaldson take 90% of it, destroy his .227 projected batting average, and rack up north of two WARP, adding the last win the A's need to take them all the way to 88.

Summing up!

+1.0 wins (Bartolo Colon doesn't fall apart)
+0.5 wins (Tommy Milone starts 30+ games)
+2.0 wins (a young pitcher seizes the #5 spot)
+0.5 wins (Jordan Norberto pitches adequately in long relief)
+1.0 wins (Chris Carter becomes my hero)
+1.0 wins (Josh Reddick lives up to his promise)
+2.0 wins (Jemile Weeks is a star, not an average player)
+1.0 wins (Cliff Pennington can field like a dream)
+1.0 wins (Josh Donaldson is liberated)
+5.0 wins (run distribution luck)
+15 wins = 88 wins and respectability.


spinstripes said...

I liked your post.

And I believe in Weeks. He and his brother are premium second baseman. His brother's problem is staying on the field. Hopefully Jemile is not quite cut from the same ("fragile") cloth.

Erik said...

88 wins! Wow, that would be quite a magic trick. This team will be lucky to equal last year's mark. Hey, but I'm pulling for them.

As a Nats fan:

*I root for the second most popular team in its own home market
*Want to thank the A's for giving us Gio in a trade that we supposedly lost
*Want to let you know that if Milone can win .5 games this year that would be something, let alone providing a .5 WAR share...