Oakland’s Options


Oakland has never believed in the complete from scratch rebuild, something that the Houston Astros and the Chicago Cubs have successfully done in the past five years.  The latter showing more sustainable success for this season at least.  In the national league: Atlanta, Philadelphia, and Cincinnati are in the throws of their complete rebuilds that mandate selling off any big league talent for higher ceiling, controllable prospects.  GM Billy Beane likes the idea of constantly improving and remaining close to contention every season, but if that’s 75 wins every year, is that a good structure?  Critics of this method would say that two seasons of 100 loses would be worth it to create a sustainable, talented team that is full of high first round picks, ie. the Cubs.  This continuous process trims the fat of under producing veterans by trading them for potential talent and creating openings for said prospects to prove themselves.  

Oakland (25-29) has had a history of unconventional drafts and player valuation that has led to successful first round picks: Barry Zito 1999, Nick Swisher and Joe Blanton in 2002, and Houston Street 2004.  More recently they have had success with Sonny Gray 2011 and Addison Russell 2012.  Russell remained with the team for two years before being dealt with starter Dan Straily, and Outfielder Billy McKinley to the Chicago Cubs for two established starters Jason Hammel and Jeff Samardzija.  As one of the smallest market teams, Oakland has to develop their own talent in order to be successful because they cannot afford to pay market value for it.  Everyone in baseball is aware of the lack of starting pitching available in free agency, following this season and the A’s are ready to capitalize on it in the trade market.  

Going into the season it was looking as if Oakland was prepaid for another huge haul for one of their first rounders, but Gray has largely underperformed so far this season.  In 208 innings last season, Gray was 14-7 with a 2.73 ERA, a 3.8 WAR (wins above replacement) total for the team.  He had 219 innings pitched in 2014, so a hangover from a large workload does not explain his lack of command.  He was undoubtedly the ace of the staff for 2015, but his FIP of 3.45 suggests that the defense certainly helped suppress his 2015 ERA.  So far this season he is 3-5 with an ERA of 6.19, with his FIP at 5.15 now is telling that he’s been not getting the same defense.  This data is somewhat counter intuitive considering shortstop Marcus Semien had 35 errors in 2015, far and away the most errors from a premier defensive position.  He’s on pace to only record 12 errors total this entire season, by contrast his pace from 2015 would suggest he would have an equal amount in the 54 games he’s played this season. Regardless of the other eight men on the field, Gray is not performing at the same clip as last year.  As we continue to pull at the string connected to the sweater that is Gray’s performance we can unraveling more shortcomings.  Gray has had trouble finding the zone and is walking two more batter per 9 innings than he did last season; 4.50 BB/9 in 2016 versus 2.55 in 2015.  Gray utilizes his dramatic 12-6 curve 16.1% of the time and gets many batters to chase, but so far this season all of his pitches outside the zone have generated 4.6% less swings than they did in 2015.  Batters have adapted to be more patient and lay off the breaking balls and his plus changeup, and have only swung and missed on 8% of pitches, a career low for Gray.  Understandably hitters are able to watch enough footage, see what counts he likes to throw the curveball in, and be able to lay off when it’s going to clearly be in the dirt.  Although hitters BABIP has been .318 so far this season is .045 above his career total, suggesting that the balls finding the gaps will find them less often as the season continues.  

Gray is a very talented starting pitcher that has been off, as have many starters: Matt Harvey, Adam Wainwright, Zack Greinke etc.  If he can string together some dominant starts through the dog days of summer he can certainly retain his 2015 value.  He is due to come of the 15 day disabled list this weekend and see how his balky shoulder is feeling.  Some of his diminished production could be attributed to playing through the pain with his shoulder injury, but he needs to prove he is back in old form to get peak value.  The market is incredibly sparse when it comes to controllable young pitching; Gray becomes arbitration eligible following the 2017 season, while remaining under team control through 2020.  

It would take most teams an arm and a leg to pry Gray away from Oakland considering the haul Atlanta got for Shelby Miller in the offseason: Dansby Swanson (SS, 2015 first round pick), Aaron Blair (SP, 2013 first round pick), and OF Ender Inciarte.  It took Arizona trading their best position player prospect, best starting pitching prospect, and a bonafide starting outfielder to get Miller coming off of a 17 loss season with a 3.45 ERA.  Gray certainly has performed much better than that and should have significantly higher value, but he isn’t the only Athletic that is rumored to be on the move this summer.  

Right fielder Josh Reddick certainly seemed like a candidate to be moved before his injury, this due largely to the fact that he will be a free agent at the end of the season.  He is a hard nose player, and that may have have contributed to his broken thumb that landed him on the DL on May 20th; he remains out of the line-up.  He tried to stretch a double and caught his thumb on second base on a headfirst slide.  He’s slashed .322/.394/.466 so far this season with 5 homeruns in 41 games.  A gold glover in right field with an arm that competes with some of the best outfielder’s arms like Yasiel Puig and former Athletic Yoenis Cespedes.  Reddick isn’t quite at the level defensively that the $184 million Jason Heyward is at, but it’s not unreasonable to expect Reddick to get four or even five guaranteed years in free agency, regardless of whether or not he is moved.   Brewer’s Ryan Braun is not a perfect foil to Reddick because Braun has had more offensive success, the likes of which is tarnished by steroids, but he is also likely on the move from the Brewers.  He’s slashing an outrageous .348/.415/.573, not unlike his 2011 MVP campaign.  He’s been in and out of the lineup for the past ten days with neck stiffness, but as long as he can keep it together, there are teams in contention willing to take on the $80 million guaranteed through 2020.  A team will likely be overpaying for less productive years as the 32 year old ages, and it will take a huge offer from a team with talent in the minors to get him from Milwaukee.  Many evaluators says players lose nearly 0.5 WAR for every year after 32, and a full win above replacement after 36, but there are certainly exceptions to the rule.  Carlos Beltran is producing offensively this year for the Bronx Bombers and is 39 years old.  

There is a 37 year old pitcher that the A’s took a chance on after seeing a string of four great starts for the Red Sox at the end of 2015.  They signed Rich Hill to a one year, $6 million deal and it’s an understatement to say he’s overperformed expectations.  In 11 starts, Hill is 8-3 with a 2.25 ERA and a WHIP of 1.13.  He has 74 strikeouts in 64 innings.  This is coming from a man that had not started a game since 2009.  His production at market value is clearly well above the current price of his contract. He has nearly as many innings so far this season as he did from 2010-2014 when he bounced around four different teams.  His production is well above anyone’s expectations and a team in contention would love to have a southpaw to not only eat innings, but to be an effective starter.  The A’s have other arms available out of the pen that could be valuable assets to contending teams down the line this fall.  

The relief market has become one of the more expensive areas tradewise in recent years.  The Yankees have a trio of lights out relievers in Betances, Miller, and Chapman.  Notably the Astros traded for Phillies closer Ken Giles and it took five pitchers including former number one overall pick in 2013, Mark Appel.  He wasn’t even the centerpiece of the deal.  Brett Oberholtzer has been a swingman in the pen so far this year, but has started.  Vince Velasquez has a complete game shutout with 16 Ks earlier this year for Philadelphia.  The other two pitchers are working in the minor league affiliates.   In other words, shutdown relief pitching value has skyrocketed in recent years and it could mean any of Oakland’s relievers could be on the move.  That could be Ryan Madson who is 12 of 14 on save opportunities this year with a 2.31 ERA or Sean Doolittle with a 0.93 WHIP.  

If offers come pouring in for Hill, Reddick, Gray, or any of the relievers than the front office may want to tag Billy Butler in on the deal to a team that is willing to take on the roughly $15 million owed to him in the second half of the three year deal signed before 2015.  In this way, Oakland can remove payroll and get controllable, young talent in the process.  It would rewarding to see the A’s look like the 96 win 2013 team that had names like Josh Donaldson, Yoenis Cespedes, and an 18 win Bartolo Colon.  

The ‘rolling rebuild’ may not be the best method to produce a dynasty because the team misses out on getting those top five picks in the draft for two or three years when the team is not competitive.  Those players chosen in round one develop into major league players and make the years off losing records worth it for rebuilding teams.  The question that GMs and their front office have to think about is how the effects of lower attendance and revenue from complete rebuilds will affect the team’s ability to sign free agents in the future.  Oakland has the prerogative to move some of their more valuable assets this July if they intend to be competitive in the coming years.   

Odubel Herrera’s Crash Course in Plate Vision

The average 45-52 year old Caucasian male baseball fan might not be paying attention to a rebuilding Philadelphia Phillies team in stages of its own infancy, nevertheless the development of the Rule 5 draft pick Odubel Herrera.  But an average baseball fan wouldn’t be reading about his new approach at the plate and development of a centerfielder on a maturing team.  

This 24 year old Venezuelan centerfielder signed as an international free agent with the Texas Rangers in 2008 and was selected with the 8th overall pick by Philadelphia in the 2014 Rule 5 Draft.  Herrera was groomed as a second baseman throughout his time with Texas, and only made the switch to the outfield for the 2015 season with Freddy Galvis and Cesar Hernandez currently in the lineup at shortstop and second base.  Although so far this season Hernandez has made some mental miscues on the base paths including misunderstanding the infield fly rule.  Currently Herrera offers the team a solid center fielder with an upside.  The rest of the outfielders in their system are largely unproven.  He slashed .297/.344/.418 through 495 at-bats in 2015.

 At a glance one would think that Herrera is the below average offensive production with only 8 homeruns and 41 RBIs in 2015.  Yet his 3.8 WAR from 2015 represents a solid everyday major leaguer.  There is a metric called weighted runs created (wRC+) that measures the additional runs a player adds to a team, 100 is the average value of a player.  Herrera’s 2015 wRC+ was 110, slightly above average, but so far this season has a 143 wRC+.  This measure represents not only his value as a hitter, but also as baserunner, critical in the leadoff spot he occupies.   

A significant part of successfully getting on base requires the ability to draw walks.  Herrera had 28 in 2015, for a walk rate of 5.2%, with the league average around 8%.  His 24% strikeout rate is well above the league average 20% of plate appearances ending with a K.  These percentiles represent a young player new to the National League. Herrera is facing more skilled pitchers than he was used to in High A and AA during the 2014 season.   Even his 129 Ks were second lowest of the 6 qualified National League rookie-status position players.  He actually led all of those 6 qualified rookies in batting average with .297.  His average was ahead of the rising stars: Matt Duffy .295, NL Rookie of the Year Kris Bryant .275, Addison Russell .242, Michael Taylor .229, and Joc Pederson .210.  

Following the 2015 campaign, he worked with Steve Henderson, Philadelphia’s hitting coach, to change his approach and strikeout less than he did in 2015.  He was not concerned about improving his walk rate, because even his .344 OBP led the team among those who played anywhere near a full season.  He also pulled the ball quite a bit in his rookie season, which has changed with his walk rate so far in this young 2016 season.  As it stands, Herrera is 3 walks shy of the total he had in 2015, and he’s only played 31 games.  


His swing is much more of an inside-out swing path and has improved his frequency that he hits balls to the opposite field, as to avoid being a victim of the shift.  A 2015 pull rate of 35.2% is down to 23.5%.  He is hitting 40% of his hits, straight back up the middle, and 36.5% to left field.  When he wants to hit the ball for power, he reverts to pulling the ball, and has certainly showed that he hasn’t lost any of his occasional power.  Additionally his ground ball rate has improved 7% and swung at fastballs 6.5% more often so far in 2016.  

Much of this information must be taken with a grain of salt, seeing as it is only May, but an indicator of sustainable success is batting average on balls in play.  This measures how many balls hit into fair territory fall for hits.  His 2015 BABIP was .387, and so far in 2016 that value is .390.  That negligible difference means he isn’t just having more balls fall or sneaking through shifts, but he is hitting to the same degree as he did last year.  A significantly higher BABIP this year could represent short term success, but similar values lend themselves to being repeatable.  

To represent the change in approach, one can look at the swing rate, the value represents the percentile of pitches that are swung at.  He has swung 5.2% less often so far this season and 11.6% less swings on balls, outside the zone.  His plate vision has improved in one winter more than any player in the league has in recent memory.  For the balls that he does swing at outside the zone, he’s making contact on those 11.7% more often than he did last year.  In essence, he has significantly improved his understand of the strike zone and has improved his ability to defend with 2 strikes to foul off pitches.  He’s seeing more pitches now and that’s reflected in his .330/.455/.418 slash line and .898 OPS.  He has already produced 1.1 WAR which is on pace to finish better than his 3.8 total in 2015.   He certainly represents a top of the lineup hitter for a budding and maturing Phillies club.  


Blockbuster Anatomy: Toronto GM Alex Antholopolis on the Tulowitzki and Price Deals


Amid the craziest trade deadline week for any team this year — and one of the craziest for any team, ever — Alex Anthopoulos can pinpoint the one moment when he nearly lost his nerve.

Thanks to the team’s league-best offense and shaky rotation, the Blue Jays general manager had been lusting over Tigers ace David Price forover a year. A little more

Then early Wednesday evening, less than 48 hours before the non-waiver deadline, Dombrowski called Anthopoulos. The Tigers were going to move Price.

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