First off, let’s set the mood by having this song by Rancid play in the background. Secondly, let’s take a look back at the most high-profiled transactions performed recently by Oakland Athletics’ General Manager Billy Beane:
- Shipping the 22nd best baseball player, Josh Donaldson, to Toronto for Brett Lawrie and three minor league players.
- Acquiring and then signing to a one-year contract, left-handed slugger, Ike Davis.
- Signing Billy Butler to a three-year contract.
These are transactions that have the fan base angry and disenfranchised. Currently, this is what the Athletics lineup looks like and :
- Coco Crisp–Our 11th best player of 2014.
- Josh Reddick
- Brandon Moss—rumored to be traded to the Cleveland Indians.
- Billy Butler
- Ike Davis
- Brett Lawrie
- Derek Norris
- Eric Sogard
- Andy Parrino
Missing from the lineup that lost the one-game Wild Card playoff to the Kansas City Royals are Donaldson and Jed Lowrie, with bench player Jonny Gomes also more than likely going to free agency. Without Donaldson (and Moss), the lineup is not as formidable, but let’s attempt to make some sense of this major reconstruction that is occurring in Oakland.
DISASTROUS 2014 SEASON
We took a real close look at the Oakland Athletics’ offense back in mid-September. While many took the easy way out and pointed at the absence of Yoenis Cespedes as the primary reason for the A’s offense being so terrible, we came to the conclusion that Cespedes wouldn’t have made a difference in this lineup as he too was marred by inconsistent play. Instead, we located the main culprit to be an overdependence on high volume of fly balls in order to increase the chances of hitting home runs.
It looked like Beane realized the error in roster formation with the signing of Billy Butler…
Once regarded as a can’t-miss-power-bat, Butler looked to be on his way to fulfilling that promise in 2012, when he hit 29 home runs and drove in 107 RBI. However, in 2013, his h0me run total was cut in half and last season, he only managed to hit nine. That’s the lowest total since his rookie season in 2007 when he hit eight.
In short, Butler had a miserable 2014 season. But, this would appear to be a classic case of a team “buying low” on a player who has shown production before. Aside from his past, short-lived success, Butler brings something to the A’s that they were lacking last season; a high BABIP.
In 2014, 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”) had been among the worst in MLB. When looking at the players that earned a minimum of 200 plate appearances, the A’s only had three players with a BABIP over .300. Their divisional rival, the Los Angeles Angels, had a total of eight players. Butler generated a BABIP of .310 in 2014 and owns a career mark of .324. If we were to average both figures (.317), Butler would own the second highest BABIP mark on his new team.
His BABIP is a result of Butler’s ability to generate a lot of ground balls and enough line drives to keep his BABIP above .300. As far as fly balls go, Butler finished his third consecutive season of having a Fly Ball Rate (FB%) less than 30 percent.
Butler also has a track record of understanding the strike zone well, which will fit right in with the A’s approach as a whole. Although, his 2014 plate discipline figures shows a player that was more aggressive at the plate than in years past. This resulted in Butler finishing with a higher than usual Strikeout Rate (K%) and a career high Swinging Strike Percentage (8.3 percent).
Unfortunately, we can’t find much positives in terms of production: his power was down, slash line was down, and his Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) was pedestrian for a guy of his pedigree. But it’s clear to see that bringing in Butler was a way to bring balance to a lineup that leaned heavily on fly balls.
It’s safe to say that Davis was brought in to make sure they had a replacement ready in the event they would trade Brandon Moss. Here’s a quick glance at both players’ 2014 season:
|2014 OFFENSIVE PRODUCTION|
Besides Davis being much younger entering the 2015 season, Moss has the advantage in almost every category listed. Davis has shown the ability to hit with consistent power and definitely has the size (listed at 6-4, 220 lbs.), but Moss has actually been one of the best sources of power in the majors, hitting 20+ home runs for three consecutive seasons.
Just like Butler, it would appear that the A’s are buying low on Davis with the hopes that he can provide more bang for their buck. Just like Butler, Davis provides variance with his batted balls, slightly hitting more grounders than fly balls as well as having the ability to be a line-drive hitter.
In terms of plate discipline, Davis is similar to Butler in his understanding of the strike zone. In 2014, Davis established himself as one of the most patient hitters in baseball, sporting a career high Walk:Strikeout (BB:K) of 0.81. That’s better than David Ortiz or Adrian Beltre did in 2014. Aside from swinging at less pitches, he also increased his Contact Rate to 82.1 percent (also a career high). On the other hand, Moss is one of the more impatient hitters, but saw immense improvements to his approach last season. Nevertheless, he still owned a Strikeout Rate of 26.4 percent, finishing among the top 15 in that category.
On defense, Moss has proven to be versatile, playing at first, left and right field. Conversely, Davis is primarily a first baseman. The lack of flexibility that Davis creates is not what we’re used to from the A’s, but again age and salary would appear to be the main motivation here.
Many in the baseball world were left perplexed after Oakland dealt Josh Donaldson. A story involving an altercation between Beane and Donaldson (h/t Scott Miller) has leaked and being used as a primary reason for the trade. Whatever the case might be, the trade has been done and Lawrie has big shoes to fill for the A’s.
What can be said about Donaldson that hasn’t been said already? He finished in the top 10 in WAR, is a great source of power, a great run producer, possesses a good batting eye, and is an above-average defender. Donaldson will be 29 for the 2015 campaign. At little less than $5 million, Donaldson is the epitome of player value.
Despite Donaldson’s production, the A’s were not getting over the hump and needed to go back to the drawing board. Trading away their most important player was a great way to shore up their farm system as shortstop Franklin Barreto became the Athletics’ second best prospect in their system. Meanwhile, pitchers Kendall Graveman and Sean Nolin also were named by Baseball America as top 10 players in the Oakland farm system.
As far as Lawrie goes, the oft-injured, former highly touted prospect has been frustrating to watch. He is still a raw talent and lacks the polished game and mature approach at the plate that the other players mentioned possess.
Lawrie has displayed flashes of power in the past and the A’s are banking that it will come to fruition while he’s wearing an Oakland uniform. And just like the other players acquired, Lawrie has also proven to be a ground ball hitter. Last season, Donaldson also hit more ground balls than fly balls in 2014, but his fly ball rate was still among the top 25 qualifying hitters last season.
At the plate, Lawrie goes out there hacking, but he balances his free-swinging approach with a decent Contact Rate and a relatively low Swinging Strike Percentage. To his defense, Lawrie also saw 50.9 percent of pitches in the strike zone. Had he qualified, Lawrie would have finished in second to Dustin Pedroia in that category. To reiterate, there is some hope that Lawrie can eventually live up to the hype bestowed upon him as a prospect.
Once again, Beane is using outside-the-box thinking to restructure (not rebuild) the ball club. It’s interesting to note that Moss and Donaldson were a couple of late-bloomers who took advantage of an environment that encouraged them to succeed without the fear of signing a big-name free agent to take over their starting roles. With Butler, Davis, and Lawrie, the Athletics will be banking on three, former first round picks to transform the offense and prevent their 2014 second half slump from reoccurring in 2015.
In the meantime, with these transactions, Oakland has admitted that their strategy of relying on hitters who hit for a high percentage of fly balls did not work and are rectifying that issue by bringing players that can hit for more line drives and ground balls to put more balls in play. Of course, whether these three players can drive in runs and display the power that they have shown in the past needs to be proven on the field and will definitely make or break the A’s 2015 season.