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August 4, 2006
Billy Beane's decision to bring in the oft-injured Frank Thomas on a one-year deal wasn't a gamble, in the sense that it was virtually risk-free. The low cost--$500,000 plus a potential $2.1 million in incentives, of which Thomas has earned $900 K thus far--made the move a lock to pay off if Thomas spent any time in the lineup. It's looking like another one of Beane's classically savvy pickups in his tenure as Oakland GM. The Big Hurt got off to a brutal start thanks to the lingering effects of the evil spell cast by Chicago's Ozzie Guillen and Kenny Williams, and after going 0-5 on May 9, he was only hitting .178/.270/.376. But since then, he has hit .285/.422/.592 in 225 plate appearances. That slugging percentage is all the more impressive considering that Thomas, once good for 30-40 doubles a year, can't run well enough to leg out extra base hits anymore: he has just six doubles on the season, and only nine in his last 464 PA. Thomas's late-career gameplan is pretty simple--hit a bomb or walk trying. Over the past two seasons, 35% of Thomas's hits have been homers--a percentage equal to that of Barry Bonds from 1999-2006--compared to 20% for his career before 2005. This year he's seen 4.36 pitches per plate appearance, third in the majors among qualifiers, which would be Thomas's highest total since his 60-game debut in 1990. Overall, Thomas stands to make $2.575 million this season, a bargain price for what will likely be about four wins of production (he currently has 2.1 WARP).
Oakland's disturbing lack of production last year from the left end of the defensive spectrum, revealed in BP 2006 (the A's got just 23.4 runs of VORP from DH, 1B, RF, and LF in 2005, second-fewest in the American League), has been turned around thanks to Thomas, 1B/LF Nick Swisher, and right fielder Milton Bradley. But the baseball gods have cruelly compensated by negating the team's core strenth at the premium defensive positions. Second baseman Mark Ellis, third baseman Eric Chavez, shortstop Bobby Crosby, and centerfielder Mark Kotsay ranked 1-4 respectively for Oakland in offensive VORP last year, and catcher Jason Kendall was sixth, combining for 109.8 runs above replacement. This year, that quintet has been aggregately worse than replacement level, totalling -7.7 runs of VORP. In the case of Kendall and Kotsay, drop-offs could be expected, but the real tragedy is the inability of the franchise cornerstones to stay healthy and productive--forearm problems have dramatically sapped Chavez's power (he's slugged .325 since April), and back, shoulder, and thumb issues have put Crosby and Ellis on and off of the DL in between periods of extreme offensive ineptitude. At this point, "the chronic" are words more likely to begin a discussion about the continued injury problems of Chavez, Ellis, Crosby and ace Rich Harden in Oakland than a conversation about seminal West Coast rap albums.
Things couldn't get much worse for Oakland's offense, which is tied for last in the AL with 490 runs. There is room for optimism, though. Bradley returned from the DL on July 14, and since then has hit .400/.458/.646, taking some of the sting out of Andre Ethier's unexpectedly quick success with the Dodgers. Bradley has provided a desparately needed running mate for Thomas, helping to make up for Swisher's continued swoon. After a fantastic start (16 homers, .631 SLG through May), Swisher has slumped to a .189/.317/.311 clip since, bringing back the old doubts about his offensive ability. Demoted first baseman Dan Johnson is hitting .421/.500/.750 in 19 games since reporting to Triple-A Sacramento, and while the A's seem to have no immediate plans to recall the humbled slugger, it appears Johnson is ready to duplicate his 2005 production. That would allow the A's to swap in Johnson for Jay Payton, while moving Swisher from first back to left. This move in turn would let Payton assist the balky-backed Kotsay in center, and free up Bobby Kielty to slot in against lefthanders where needed--he owns an 887 OPS in over 600 career at-bats versus southpaws.
More good news can be found in the bullpen, which seemingly represents the best chance for the A's, owners of the worst run differential in the AL West, to maintain their tenuous 1 1/2 game lead. Oakland has seven active relievers who have all posted positive Adjusted Runs Prevented figures and who are all making less than a $1 million this year:
Player IP ERA ARP SALARY STATUS ACQUIRED ------------------------------------------------------------------- Huston Street 50.2 3.02 14.6 Pre-Arbitration Via Draft Chad Gaudin 41.7 3.24 13.1 Pre-Arbitration Trade with Blue Jays Kiko Calero 43.7 2.89 12.5 1st Year Arbitration Trade with Cardinals Justin Duchscherer 32.7 2.76 10.1 Pre-Arbitration Trade with Rangers Brad Halsey 74.7 3.86 6.8 Pre-Arbitration Trade with D'backs Ron Flores 20.3 3.54 2.0 Pre-Arbitration Via Draft Kirk Saarloos 84.3 5.12 1.9 Pre-Arbitration Trade with Astros
Oakland's bullpen has been a textbook example of how a front office can assemble a good relief corps through smart, low-cost aquisitions, and they'll need their group of no-names to shut down AL West sluggers like Mark Teixeira and Vladimir Guerrero down the stretch in order to make the handful of runs the team's offense musters continue to stand up.
Considering the amount of attention focused on his public persona, Barry Bonds' 2006 season at the plate has been somewhat, dare we say, quiet. Currently in a three-way tie for the honor of being the 26th-most offensively challenged team in baseball when it comes to Equivalent Average, the Giants have struggled to field above replacement-level hitters at nearly every position. Bonds' efforts at the plate largely faded from view once he moved into second-place on the all-time home run list on May 28. "He's done," Giants fan and WFAN radio personality Chris Russo said recently. "He can't hit." Giants beat reporter Rich Draper opined in a mailbag that "Bonds is only an average player now."
The annual took a wild shot in the dark at Bonds this offseason, hitting a bullseye with his player comment, while missing more significantly on the projection. To wit:
Even if his numbers decline substantially in 2006, Bonds will produce a full win every 20 games; if he gets back to his 2001-2004 peak it's more like a win every 11 games. That means Bonds could play a historically awful left field with the leather, sit every day game after a night game, miss a month to injury, and he would still be worth almost ten wins in the standings. If the knee holds up, Bonds could easily lead a poorly constructed Giants squad to the playoffs, but if he misses substantial playing time this team is toast. PECOTA has absolutely no comps with which to make a Bonds prediction. A Wisdom of Crowds-style poll of BP writers yielded an average projection of .309/.474/.667 in 390 PAs with 32 home runs. If it happens, no one will be able to say that Bonds built his Hall of Fame case with steroids.
Bonds' return to the lineup at the end of 2005 was what tripped up the wisdom of this particular crowd. By coming back and recording 51 plate appearances while ignoring his missing knee for a few weeks, Bonds set up an expectation that he would be able to keep up his immortal levels of slugging. Instead, it looks like he was taking advantage of not having to worry about pacing himself.
Early on this season, Will Carroll immediately noticed the change in Bonds' plate coverage. "He's swinging all arms," he observed. Bonds' manager picked up a slightly different change recently. "I don't see the recognition of pitches the way he is accustomed to," Felipe Alou told MLB.com. "You didn't ever see Barry taking strikes without being ready to swing the bat. And he is swinging at some bad pitches. We're not used to seeing that." Since the batting eye is usually thought of as the last thing to go, it's possible Alou is simply examining an isolated chapter of a longer book, the one that Eddie Murray said really described the game, called "Adjustments." Unable to use his legs to power his swing, Bonds has focused on putting the ball in play and living with the results.
Assuming Bonds can stay healthy enough for another 200 at-bats, there's no reason to think he can't maintain his ridiculous strikeout-to-walk ratio, one that doesn't look remarkably different from his rarified peak. This year, his walks have stayed consistent even as his average (especially against lefties, against whom he is hitting .190/.420/.317) has declined.
BB K OPS April 26 6 1121 May 21 9 854 June 20 11 1026 July 21 10 838
Bonds' offensive contribution to the Giants isn't only the best on the team by a wide margin, his .328 EqA puts him right behind Manny Ramirez and Jermaine Dye as the third-best hitting outfielder in baseball. Or should we say, the best walking? So much of Bonds' offensive contribution comes from his on-base ability--he's second behind Bobby Abreu in walks, and would lead the league in OBP if he had enough plate appearances to qualify.
Walking 20 times in August and 20 times in September--a plausible estimate if he stays healthy--would see him finishing the season with 128 free passes, the seventh highest total of his career. With all the talk that Bonds has lost it, it's worth noting that as long as his body can function at this level, he probably never will. His penultimate season, marred by accusations from pretty much everybody that he was on "the s---" during his peak years, stands in stark contrast to the graceful way that Ted Williams, Bonds' number one PECOTA comparable for this season, left the game.
It's worth remembering that Williams' second-to-last year, 1959, was far more disappointing than Barry's. For the first time in his major league career, Williams struggled at the plate. Largely because of neck injuries, he finished with a line of .254/.372/.419, for a still comfortably above-average EqA of .283. Batting average was the rate stat executives were more comfortable with in 1959, so it was suggested that Williams think about hanging it up. After all, he'd never hit for this low an average in his life.
"I'm not wealthy," Williams said, as Leigh Montville chronicled in his 2004 bio of the Splendid Splinter. "I can certainly use the money. But that's not all of it. I'd kind of like to redeem myself for last year. Another important reason I came back was I want to reach 500 home runs." Barry likely won't admit this, either, but he'd like to break another home run barrier as well.
In return for coming back to the team, Williams offered to take the maximum pay cut--thirty percent less than his previous year's salary. MORP, a new addition to this year's PECOTA cards, estimates that Bonds will be worth a Marginal Value Above Replacement Player of $3.8 million dollars.
Ted Williams' farewell tour was a joyous one, and with his neck feeling a lot better, the slugger posted a .357 EqA, hit 29 homers, and dwarfed the second-best hitter on the team that year, Pete Runnels. Though he might have played on, he had already completed his farewell tour with a famous home run in his final at-bat, so he turned down the Yankees' $125,000 offer to become a bench player for the 1961 season. If the Giants decide to let Barry continue his quest in another city, the other 29 teams should give him more of a chance than they gave Ted Williams to keep playing the game.