What They Did: 94-68, 1st Place AL West. Lost 3-2 in ALDS.
Actual Runs: Scored 713 runs, Allowed 614.
Expected wins based on RS and RA: 92.0 (2.0 below actual)
Restated: Scored 696 runs, Allowed 626.
Exp. wins based on restated RS and RA: 88.8 (5.2 below actual)
(Glossary: Expected wins, based on a modification of Bill James’ Pythagorean Theorem, are the amount of wins a team should win in any season based on the amount of runs it actually scored and allowed. Deviations will be explained in the appropriate team capsules.
Restated Runs Scored and Runs Allowed are the amount of runs a team should have tallied based on its actual components of batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging achieved/allowed. In the case of the A’s, if they posted exactly the same stats in 2013 as 2012, they should expect to win 89 games.)
Sit back for story time, because I’m never going to have another venue to tell this one. As last year’s readers know – or anyone else who has been subject to my ego run amok – at the end of the third quarter of the 2012 season, when the A’s were 6 games out of first place after game 121, I wrote the following:
“Despite never leading the division at any point during the first 161 games of the year, the A’s will beat the Rangers on October 3, in Oakland, to take the AL West crown. “
As I’m fond of saying, an infinite amount of Joe Petas at an infinite amount of typewriters, may never again write something so prescient. But, that’s not even the best part of the story.
To create an epilogue for my book, I spent the better part of the 2012 season in Las Vegas. By the time the last day of the regular season rolled around, I was more than ready to get home but thanks to the possibility of the A’s actually winning the division in the manner I predicted, my interest in watching one last game in a sportsbook had been rekindled. So in the early afternoon of October 3, I strolled into the Venitian sportsbook with a take-out pizza from the Grimaldi’s restaurant upstairs and a “tall boy” from the Walgreen’s next door. I had no idea it would become the most memorable day of my time in Vegas.
On my way to finding a seat, I passed a group of guys, one of whom had a laptop open to the article on my blog that predicted the A’s division title. I turned and asked casually, “What’s that you’re reading?” A gentleman, in his late-30s turned to me and said, “I’m a huge A’s fan and if they win today some guy with a blog predicted this exact scenario.” I said to the group of guys, “I wrote that. That’s my blog.”
It took a couple of minutes for me to convince them I was indeed, Joe Peta the blog’s author. (I logged in, changed a character in the title of a story, and they were convinced.) They were all locals, all A’s fans and they started calling their buddies. By the time the game started I was seated with more than a dozen guys cheering me during every positive development in the game. Then things got strange.
When the A’s came back from a 5-1 deficit to take a 7-5 lead, the gentleman who I had originally seen reading my piece walked over, sat down next to me, and said, “This is unreal. I just got goosebumps. Buddy, I never get goosebumbs. After all, I hunt ghosts for a living.” It turns out that he worked at Madame Tussauds on the Strip during the day and was also the star of a ghost hunters show on TLC or some other cable channel. He proceeded to tell me all about his life as a ghost hunter. (I may have mumbled or looked at my feet.) When the game ended, he told me again, “No one gives me goosebumps. This is the most unbelievable coincidence of my life.”
How do you even respond to that? I think I just meekly replied, “Thanks, dude.”
I told a friend of mine the story and after listening to the entire story he exclaimed, “You gave a ghost hunter goosebumps! That’s like going into a gentlemen’s club and turning the strippers on. No one can do that except maybe Ashton Kutcher.”
So there you have it. When it comes to a discussion of the Oakland A’s, I’m the equivalent of Ashton Kutcher in a strip club. Or if you prefer, Joe Peta, the Ghost Whisperer.
Oakland may have been a little bit lucky in how it converted its offensive production into runs – to the tune of a 17 run benefit (713 – 696, see above) but they should still be able to overcome that hurdle and score more runs in 2013. That’s because, with the exception of 33 year-old Coco Crisp, every starter and virtually every offensive contributor will be on right side of 30. (Seth Smith is 30.) No one had a truly outlier season last year, so there is no reason the team that scored 407 runs in the second half of the year should regress meaningfully. (The A’s were the only team in baseball to score more runs in each successive quarter last year.)
The outfield (plus DH) is set, and rock-solid with Crisp, Josh Reddick, Seth Smith and Yoenis Cespedes. (I’m so high on Cespedes, who I think is a realistic way-off-the-radar MVP choice, I will be over-drafting him in every fantasy league.) After years of futility and unconventional choices dating back to Moneyball, it looks like Brandon Moss finally gave the A’s traditional power hitting from the first base position. Beyond that optimism, there are a number of changes in the line up. John Jaso, acquired in the off-season from Seattle for two prospects, will take a majority of starts behind the plate. He didn’t come cheap, and the A’s bought high off of his career season at the plate, but even if Jaso disappoints in terms of his cost, he will almost certainly still improve the A’s production from its catcher compared to 2012. (A’s catchers: 204/.262/325. Jaso: .276/.394/.456). When your new catcher had a higher on-base percentage than your old catchers had slugging, it’s hard not to improve.
The A’s ability to challenge the Angels (and/or Rangers) for the AL West title will come down to how much production they get out of free-agent signing Jed Lowrie at third base, Japanese import Hiroyuki Nakajima as shortstop, and Scott Sizemore at second base coming off a missed 2012 season with an ACL injury. It’s the uncertainty at these positions that keeps the A’s from a higher overall projection.
I can pretty easily see a path to even more offensive success than the total runs scored prediction below calls for, but I’m not so sure the A’s won’t struggle replicating last year’s success in suppressing runs allowed. A’s starters had the 3rd lowest ERA (3.80) in the AL and their relievers had the second lowest. The returning starters will be challenged to not only replicate that success, they must also replace 42 starts from Brandon McCarthy and Bartolo Colon who sported a combined ERA of 3.35 – substantially better than the overall team’s average. I’m skeptical – based on each pitcher’s underlying skill sets – A.J. Griffin, Tommy Milone, and Jarrod Parker can replicate last year’s success and eat up the extra innings required. Newly anointed ace, Brett Anderson certainly displayed the skill set to produce a mid-ish 3 ERA (but not the 2.57 ERA he posted last year in six late season starts) but it may be too optimistic to expect 30 starts from him.
The bullpen is subject to even more possible regression – and it's a very interesting case study, so let’s dive a little deeper. Of all the elite preforming bullpens in baseball last year, only Oakland’s success was somewhat confounding. The A’s pen, 4th in all of baseball with a 2.94 ERA, ranked 14th in strikeout rate and an alarming 26th in walk rate. Bullpens, of course, often inherit runners and the A’s, via their high walk rate actually compounded problems by adding runners to the basepaths. Double plays can correct a lot of those mistakes but the A’s pen was 28th in baseball at inducing groundballs. There is no way that formula can be expected to produce the fourth best ERA in baseball. The bullpen could pitch identically over 500+ innings this year and give up 50 more runs.
It turns out that the reason why the bullpen was so effective reveals yet another variation of cluster luck – this one, perhaps the most hidden of all. As many fans know, looking at an opponents’ Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) gives a decent approximation of a defense’s effectiveness at turning batted balls into outs. For instance, the Marlins opponents hit .300 on balls they hit into the field of play. Therefore the Marlins defense converted 70% of batted balls into outs. (A true measure of defense effectiveness adds a number of additional steps, but for this illustration, we can stop here.)
When the Oakland A’s starters were on the mound, the defense converted batted balls into outs at a 70.7% clip. However, when the relievers pitched the figure was an astounding 75%. How good is 75%? The best overall figure in the league belonged to the Los Angeles Angels at 72.3% – and an additional 2.7% spread is huge. So the A’s defense was simply average (14th in MLB) roughly two-thirds of the time (innings pitched by starters) and better than any overall defense has ever been the other third of the time. (That difference of 4.3% (75% - 70.7%) is way higher than any other team’s.) And that “other third” of the time came in more important, higher-leverage situations because they occurred when relievers were in the game.
This is a classic example of an unsustainable skill improvement in “the clutch”. The A’s defense hasn’t figured out a way to suddenly become the best fielders in baseball when the game is on the line. They simply represent another example of a specific type of cluster luck, and during 2012 their low-strikeout, low-groundball, high-walk bullpen was the beneficiary. When you see such a large increase below in the runs allowed projection for 2013, this is one of the biggest factors.
The projection has the A’s essentially performing at an identical level as the subject of yesterday’s preview, the Texas Rangers. (I “awarded” the Rangers the 2nd Wild Card berth on the flimsy basis of run differential.) The A’s have a number of question marks but thanks to a core of dynamic hitters, there is every reason to believe the excitement that gathered steam at the Coliseum during last season will continue this year and, in a turn of phrase my new friend in Las Vegas might approve of, the “ghosts of 2012” will be awakened.
Oddsmakers’ expectations: Outside of the Baltimore Orioles (AL East previews to come next week) oddsmakers have pegged the A’s to have the largest drop in wins from 2012 to 2013. Oakland won 94 games last year but its opening market this year is 83 ½. That 10 ½ game drop-off seems excessive, and if you believe the bullpen will be nearly as effective as last year, or if you think (like I do) that there is meaningful upside to the runs scored projection, it’s created a downright bargain. The A’s success last year on offense was skill-based and spread among a number of young players who can reasonably be projected to have continued success in 2013. I may have the A’s and Rangers finishing in a dead heat but there is more value backing Oakland (at least 5-1 odds to repeat as division champs.)
85-77 – Second (tied) in AL West
722 Runs Scored 684 Runs Allowed
Mop Up Duty:
Joe Peta is the author of Trading Bases, A Story About Wall Street, Gambling, and Baseball* (*) Not necessarily in that order, a Dutton Books/Penguin (U.S.A.) March 7, 2013 release. It is available for pre-order from a number of on-line booksellers. Here are three you can currently choose from:
He is also the author of Trading Bases, the Newsletter, a companion piece to the book. If you have been forwarded this issue and would like to be placed on the mailing list, please send an e-mail to email@example.com
All newsletter archives are located at http://tradingbases.squarespace.com
You can follow me on Twitter here: @MagicRatSF
If you want to be taken off the e-mail list, please let me know at firstname.lastname@example.org