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January 12, 2011

Expanded Horizons

White Elephants

by Tommy Bennett

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‘I said we could have everything.’
‘We can have everything.’
‘No, we can’t.’
‘We can have the whole world.’
‘No, we can’t.’
‘We can go everywhere.’
‘No, we can’t. It isn’t ours any more.’
‘It’s ours.’
‘No, it isn’t. And once they take it away, you never get it back.’
‘But they haven’t taken it away.’
‘We’ll wait and see.’
—Ernest Hemingway, “Hills Like White Elephants

The Athletics’ promise is less than a decade removed from synonymy with baseball savvy. When Jason Giambi left the team before the 2002 season, the decision not to pursue him was viewed as shrewd acceptance of baseball economic realities. When the club let Miguel Tejada walk prior to the 2004 season—only to sign Eric Chavez to a six-year, $66 million deal the following year—it was explained by the necessity of choosing only a few elite talents to build around.

This is a familiar story—it’s about the straightjackets imposed on teams with limited revenue (often confusingly labeled “small market”) by baseball’s contract rules. It’s a story whose epitaph has been written for numerous occasions: the retirement of Jeremy Brown; the 2009 pennant chase; and, inevitably, the decision to stop production on the Hollywood adaptation. But now it’s 2011, and Chavez—the last of the holdovers—is a free agent. What is left to say about the white elephant not only that nobody wants, but that Oakland has found so difficult to shed?

The only way to dispose of an unwanted narrative is to make a new one. Instead, the Athletics have failed even to become a mystery. They are a vanilla also-ran, a team that finished in second place by default, and an injury prone one to boot. In the last four seasons, they have finished with 76, 75, 75, and 81 wins each year. They have neither outscored, nor been outscored by, their opponents by more than 50 runs in any of those years. What meaningful purpose can be drawn out from such drab results?

First, note that this is a team with basically zero stars. With apologies to Trevor Cahill, the shine on whose sophomore season has not yet worn, there aren’t even very many baseball fans who could recognize a corner position player on this A’s team (heck—can you even name them?). The most famous players in the lineup, Coco Crisp and Hideki Matsui, were last counted as superstars when the A’s were still in the habit of making the playoffs.

And yet the team managed to win 81 games last year. Eight of the 11 hitters with at least 200 PA had above average offensive seasons last year. Six of them will return, while new additions Josh Willingham, David DeJesus, and Matsui each would have been among the best hitters on last year’s team. Odder still is that the 2011 lineup as it stands features exactly zero players who sported slugging percentages north of .460 last year, but five (Willingham, DeJesus, Matsui, Daric Barton, and Crisp) with True Averages over .290.

But before you squint too hard and see Barton as a latter-day Scott Hatteberg, keep in mind that the team’s biggest strides have been in baserunning and defense. The leap forward in baserunning came three seasons ago, when they went from one of the worst to one of the best teams in that category. Additions like Ryan Sweeney and Rajai Davis (since traded to the Blue Jays) dramatically improved the team’s efficiency on the base paths. Of course, such changes come at a cost, and the cost of their two-win swing in EqBRR was offset by a drop in team TAv from .261 to .244 between the 2007 and 2008 seasons. Now, players like Crisp, Cliff Pennington, and Barton ought to keep Oakland an above-average baserunning team without the concomitant drop in offense.

The team’s defense has improved significantly too. Thanks to a nifty home park chock full of foul territory, the team posted the best defensive efficiency in baseball last year. Even after adjusting for park (via PADE), the team was still about 1.3 percent better than average at converting balls in play into outs, which is how a pitcher like Cahill can go a whole season with a .238 BABIP. The defensive success was in stark contrast to the miserable rates the team recorded the year before: the A’s improved by over three percentage points in PADE from 2009 to 2010.

The loss of Rajai Davis—also a strong asset in the field—ought to be offset by the acquisition of David DeJesus, who is essentially a better version of Davis. That will again give the A’s at least two, and potentially three (if Ryan Sweeney spells Willingham against a righty), true center fielders in the outfield every game. Other than perhaps starting pitching, it’s hard to identify an area of the game in which the 2011 Athletics will be noticeably worse than their 81 win counterparts from a year ago. Except last year’s team wasn’t a .500 ball club at all; its third-order winning percentage was a robust .530.

So how about the pitching staff? No, Cahill won’t be that good again. But some of his correction will be offset by more innings from true ace Brett Anderson, who was limited to just 19 starts by elbow problems in 2010. Brandon McCarthy and First Team All Name selection Josh Outman join Gio Gonzalez as young pitchers who could lift the rotation in 2011. McCarthy was impressive in limited time in Triple-A last year, while Outman missed the entire season recovering from Tommy John. The A’s have eschewed the logic that led them to overpay Ben Sheets last year, and instead focused on cheaper options. And, hey, Dallas Braden threw a perfect game and even Rich Harden could be shiny for 75 innings or so.  The bullpen, carried over almost entirely from 2010, remains as terrific as it is inexpensive.

The funny thing about narratives is that they are a conclusion, not an argument. If you assemble an 85 win team at a cost of $55 million, that is just exactly what it is. Nothing else matters if you win the ballgames. As a matter of fact, nothing else matters if you lose the ballgames either. Unwanted and unnecessary as narratives might be, they are nevertheless painful to lose because of the human reality that worked so hard to shape them in the first place. Being unsaddled of their weight, though, can be a relief.

‘Do you feel better?’ he asked.
'I feel fine,’ she said. ‘There’s nothing wrong with me. I feel fine.’

Related Content:  The Who

18 comments have been left for this article. (Click to hide comments)

BP Comment Quick Links

Manprin

Wow. Started off strong. Then tripped and flubbed it.

No comment on the changes in the front office since 2002, huh?

Nothing about the draft approach?

Training?

Coaching?

Management?

It would be real keen if when a BP author makes a comment about defense they actually have a statistic at the ready. Otherwise we have to take your word for it. Not that we don't trust you - but numbers make it so much easier.

Jan 12, 2011 00:51 AM
rating: -1
 
Tommy Bennett

No problem. Their defensive efficiency last year was .713 (best in the majors), and their PADE was 1.27 (fourth overall). In 2009, their defensive efficiency was .683 (24th overall) and their PADE was -2.86 (second worst in the majors).

Thanks for taking the time to read and comment.

Jan 12, 2011 06:04 AM
rating: 0
 
Manprin

Specifically you wrote, "The loss of Rajai Davis—also a strong asset in the field..."

Please explain with data, as it is, many A's fans saw Rajai Davis in the field get poor jumps, roundabout routes to balls and did not have an accurate arm. I'd prefer to see data that confirms or refutes what the eyes saw.

Jan 12, 2011 15:19 PM
rating: -1
 
BillJohnson

The phrase "Oakland an above-average baserunning team" reminds me of a famous John Russell quote: "Certain phrases stick in the throat, even if they offer nothing that is analytically improbable. 'A dashing Swiss officer' is one such. Another is 'the beautiful Law Courts.'" In fact, Oakland has indeed been "an above-average baserunning team" for the last two years. Before that, they played plodding, station-to-station ball for so long that the phrase just doesn't want to come out. Times change, and so do teams.

Jan 12, 2011 06:57 AM
rating: 1
 
ofMontreal

I think the real Oaktown narrative has been 'trying to win without paying for power.' Since emphasizing speed & defense is the nice way of saying we have no (affordable)power hitters. When viewed from this perspective, the A's make much more sense.

Jan 12, 2011 10:09 AM
rating: 6
 
nacknet

But the A's have produced terrific power jitters in the past through their system - guys like Giambi, Chavez, and Tejada. They've simply failed to do that as of late. Perhaps Carter can end that drought.

Jan 12, 2011 14:31 PM
rating: 1
 
juiced

I think the loss of Lee to the Rangers, as well as Guerrero's production if not the player, brought them back fairly close to level with the A's after Matsui, Willingham, Dejesus et al were brought on board. This is why the Beltre sweepstakes became vital, because that's worth +4 wins or so to the team that acquired him, even if that meant a strong overpay for the out years #4-6 on the deal. I think , as is, the A's have a slight edge on the Angels and a large one on the Mariners, and, with Beltre, would have been the slight favorites to edge the Rangers for the division. Right now I see them falling short by about 5-6 games, and that's a shame considering that they could be a wonderful darkhorse contender with Beltre, and seemingly could be in a position to duplicate the Giants' formula from last year.

Jan 12, 2011 10:23 AM
rating: 2
 
scareduck

Since when has Beltre been a four-win player on a reliable basis? B-Ref shows him as four or more WAR three times in his career, once in his 2004 walk year with the Dodgers, again in 2006 with Seattle, and last year with Boston:

http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/b/beltrad01.shtml

Texas WAY overpaid for him. He's iron pyrite for the most part, mitigated by the fact that he's been pretty good about staying on the field for the most part. That's likely to change now that the odometer has ticked past age 31.

Jan 12, 2011 13:03 PM
rating: 0
 
yadenr

The "White Elephants" analogy is bold, Tommy. Are the A's still in the train station? Or are they coming home?

Jan 12, 2011 13:37 PM
rating: 1
 
Tommy Bennett

Suffice it to say they have picked up their bags and carried them around the station to the other tracks.

Jan 12, 2011 16:28 PM
rating: 0
 
ostrowj1

I feel as if I may be kicking a beehive here, but maybe Beane isn't nearly as good of a GM as he has gotten credit for. I don't want to argue about how much, if any, steroids help players, but attributing the success of the A's during the Giambi and Tejada years to steroids is an easy narrative to write. Maybe he was just some guy lucky enough to be manning the ship when the right players on his team started to take steroids?

Jan 12, 2011 14:31 PM
rating: 0
 
juiced

scaredduck:

Last year Beltre was worth 6.1 wins over replacement just using baseballreference.com's metric, even higher if you use baseballprospectus' calculation of WARP. Over 12 full seasons (he played a partial 13th) he's compiled 42 WARP per BR, or about 3.5 WARP per year. I do agree with you that Texas "way" overpaid for him for his age 32-36 seasons, particularly the back end of it.. But my point was that before the signing, for 2011 purposes, Texas and the A's were about even talentwise with Texas having a slight edge. The Beltre signing changes that calculus for 2011, and that's a shame because of all the under the radar run prevention talent that the A's have acquired. "Overpays" tend to be justifiable if they produce enough additional postseason revenue, or even rings.

Jan 12, 2011 14:43 PM
rating: 0
 
drmorris

The biggest single concern has got to be the paucity of regulars developed via the draft. Never mind Jeremy Brown -- how about first-rounders Bobby Crosby, Travis Buck, and Landon Powell? It's being generous to say the jury's still out on Cliff Pennington, who is looking decidely like a nine-hole hitter on a sub-.500 team.

Coughing up the MVP-caliber Carlos Gonzalez didn't help matters, either.

Jan 12, 2011 15:05 PM
rating: 2
 
Manprin

Do you mean that Pennington was not worth a 1st Round Pick? That I can agree with.

However, he is a nice little player who has shown decent WARP when compared to the other SS in MLB. He's no world-beater but he's a decent player.

With a 1st Round Pick, though, you'd expect All-Star or at least All Star capable. Those tricks aren't in Pennington's bag, though. He'll never hit for a high average, or any power and he doesn't walk enough for a stellar OBP.

Jan 12, 2011 15:25 PM
rating: 0
 
gaucho777

Nothing in the historical data suggests it is fair to expect All-Star caliber play from a 1st round pick. Further, thanks to Matt Schwartz's BP idol entry on early draft choices (http://www.baseballprospectus.com/article.php?articleid=9013), we know that 1st and 2nd round draft choices have almost a 50% chance of never, ever playing one single MLB game.

Jan 13, 2011 15:20 PM
rating: -1
 
Manprin

That is in reference to all teams drafting, correct?

The A's are supposed to be smarter than that and beat the curve.

Jan 20, 2011 08:35 AM
rating: 0
 
yankee

Would Billy Beane ever decide to go elsewhere ? Five more wins this year or five more losses, what's the point. It is still an organization with limited resources playing in a lousy ball park.

Jan 13, 2011 09:16 AM
rating: 0
 
gaucho777

Yes, Billy would gladly go somewhere else: San Jose.

Jan 13, 2011 15:21 PM
rating: 0
 
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