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Another East Bay Night: Understanding Oakland Athletics Offensive Woes

Felipe Melecio

Felipe Melecio was the managing editor for the blog Pathological Hate. He believes that math is your friend and numbers can be fun, especially when it comes to baseball. Keep tabs on all his knee-jerk reactions on Twitter:

As our own George Castle pointed out, it has been a year of collapses. But probably the biggest, most surprising and publicized collapse this season has come out of northern California. The Oakland Athletics seemingly did all the right things to win games now and setting themselves up for October success by trading for starters Jeff Samardzija and Jason Hammel in their trade with the Chicago Cubs and then, at the trade deadline, acquiring Jon Lester from the Boston Red Sox. Unfortunately, a fateful series in Anaheim in late August marked the beginning of the end of the A’s reign in the American League West.

General Manager Billy Beane has tried everything to get Oakland over the hump and in 2014, Beane has appeared to throw in the kitchen sink as well in his mission to not only bring back a World Series title to the proud Athletics’ franchise, but perhaps even laugh at all the naysayers that poke fun at his perceived, new-age way of scouting and evaluating baseball talent.

Ironically, the two trades mentioned were very uncharacteristic of Beane, but gave a sense of desperate determination, win-at-all costs attitude that seemed to have been lacking in the past. At the very least, they lacked that good-ole, razzle-dazzle that people are always hankering for. This season, Beane delivered for the team and the headlines.

Of course, in order to acquire Lester (currently owning an ERA of 2.30 and a WHIP of 1.07 since wearing an A’s uniform), the Athletics had to give up Yoenis Cespedes. Many pundits will point out that the Athletics’ offense has simply not been the same since giving up Cespedes and that perhaps they were too short-sighted in acquiring Lester. Trading Cespedes was ultimately the wrong piece to move.

But was he really that important? Cespedes was decent for the Athletics, but was he really that big of a difference for Oakland? Or are people just simply pointing out the obvious answer as a basis for their analysis? For that, we will not only look at the Oakland A’s offense, but we’ll also take a look at how much Cespedes contributed while he was with the team.

First and foremost, let’s look at the A’s offense throughout the season (The first half runs through June 29, 2014 for the team. The month of July would be the last for Cespedes in Oakland).

PRODUCTION

Oakland Athletics Offense Throughout Season
Period AVG OBP SLG wOBA BsR BB:K
1st Half 0.251 0.328 0.400 0.323 -0.5 0.54
July 0.251 0.307 0.403 0.312 0.1 0.47
August 0.223 0.300 0.345 0.289 1.0 0.49
September 0.229 0.288 0.318 0.272 -0.1 0.38

The A’s got off to a hot first half as they were one of the most efficient offenses in baseball and led the league in Walks:Strikeouts (BB:K). Unsurprisingly, they were one of the most patient teams in Major League Baseball. But in July, they began to see a dip in production and by the time Cespedes was traded, the Athletics became one of the worst offenses in baseball.

The only saving grace is that Oakland, for the month of August, improved their base running while maintaining a top five BB:K. But it would appear that the wheels have completely come off in the month of September (through September 14, 2014) and the “ha, I told ya’ so” rants from many baseball pundits (mostly on cable television, mostly ex-ballplayers), justified the belief that Cespedes played a major role in the A’s offensive success. How valuable was Cespedes in Oakland’s lineup? Well…

Yoenis Cespedes Offense Throughout Season
Period AVG OBP SLG wOBA BsR BB:K
1st Half 0.246 0.299 0.442 0.322 1.3 0.37
July 0.198 0.221 0.352 0.246 0.9 0.17
August 0.276 0.297 0.457 0.327 0.7 0.14
September 0.241 0.300 0.370 0.295 0.7 0.29

…in the first half of the season, Cespedes carried an uninspiring bat. He posted a decent slugging percentage (SLG%), but .442 is not a mark worth bragging about, especially if we are to believe that Cespedes provided other-worldly power for the ball club. During that same time span, Coco Crisp, known more for his speed than power, was able to post a .449 SLG%.

It got worse in July for Cespedes as his production and plate discipline all but disappeared. During this time, he was ranked among the worst outfielders in that month. It is amazing that Beane was able to acquire a pitcher of Lester’s pedigree for a struggling slugger like Cespedes.

After being shipped to Boston, Cespedes was able to increase his SLG%, even rating as a top 10 outfielder in that category in the month of August. Nevertheless, his other stats were pretty pedestrian and in September, his struggles reappeared despite playing in what is widely believed to be an ideal ballpark for his skill set.

Based on the numbers, the A’s were a top-notch offense in spite of Cespedes. After the deal for Lester, the struggles of Cespedes continued so he wouldn’t have made a major difference in Oakland’s lineup. With that established, what is wrong with the A’s offense? It’s the same thing that plagued them in 2013: an overdependence on fly balls.

BATTED BALLS

Oakland Athletics Batted Ball Rates
Period BABIP LD% GB% FB% IFFB% HR/FB%
1st Half 0.286 19.8% 39.6% 40.6% 10.0% 9.1%
July 0.275 20.7% 36.3% 43.0% 10.3% 7.4%
August 0.258 19.1% 38.4% 42.5% 10.2% 7.0%
September 0.274 21.3% 43.4% 35.3% 15.4% 6.5%

In 2013, the Athletics led the league in Fly Ball Rate (FB%). In the first half of 2014, they led the league in that category and continued to be among the league leaders in FB% in the subsequent months. Clearly, this is not a coincidence and is definitely done by design. The idea was that if the Athletics cannot acquire the best hitters due to financial struggles, they would acquire players that hit for a high percentage of fly balls. The more balls in the air, the more likely they are to land in the bleachers. A quick look at the current, top 20 qualified hitters in FB% category, and one will notice how it’s littered with current and former Athletics:

A very creative, pragmatic way to build a hitting lineup. Unfortunately, this dependency on fly balls comes with a sobering fact: it affects batted balls in play. The A’s Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP–per fangraphs.com, this stat “measures how often a ball in play goes for a hit”) has been among the worst in MLB. Even worse, they’re not hitting many home runs off of these fly balls. They’re also one of the worst teams in terms of Infield Fly Ball Percentage (IFFB%). All of this leads to a low BABIP, a lot more easy outs, and nearly a non-existent offense. For the month of September, it would appear that the team has adjusted their approach at the plate, hitting less fly balls and attempting to hit more line-drives, but that has done very little to improve their offense.

PLATE DISCIPLINE

If you have been paying attention to Felipe’s Ultimate Baseball Advanced Rankings (or FUBAR for short), the Athletics have stayed among the league’s elite because they ranked so high in one of the components of FUBAR: plate discipline and more specifically, BB:K.

A close look at their Plate Discipline numbers and one can see how they have maintained a patient approach for the majority of the season. They frustrate pitchers by not swinging and missing at a lot of pitches. They also have ranked among the league leaders in Contact Rate and despite swinging at a lot of pitches outside the strike zone, they also make plenty of contact on pitches outside the zone as well.

It’s a team that knows and understands the strike zone, does not strike out a lot, and makes plenty of contact. Yet, despite the marvelous approach at the plate, they are still slumping as they have failed to take advantage of this skill. To put that in perspective, among the top 13 teams in BB:K, nine teams are sporting a better batting average than the A’s, including divisional rival, the Los Angeles Angels.

BALLPARK INFLUENCE

And let’s keep in mind that O.Co Coliseum is a terrible park for generating offense. Per parkfactors.com:

In the years 2010-2013, Oakland Coliseum produced 93 runs for every 100 runs produced in the average MLB park and 78 home runs for every 100

It is currently ranked 24th in Park Factor and is described as “an extreme pitcher’s park.”

CONCLUSION

We can safely say that Yoenis Cespedes is not the reason the A’s have been struggling on offense and dealing him for Jon Lester was the right move to make at the time the deal was made.

However, the way the the club is built, with its high dependence on fly balls and knowing how to work pitchers deep into counts, has backfired on them. The fly balls especially have been magnified at Oakland Coliseum where long fly balls die at the warning track and infield fly balls stay in fair territory much longer than at other ballparks. Furthermore, the high rate of fly balls has crippled the team’s BABIP, which has caused an extreme amount of bad luck, despite the high Contact Rates that the team can generate.