November 19, 2003
Anchored by an incredible and ever-growing group of young, front-line starting pitchers, and aided by an excellent pitcher's ballpark and a good defense, the Oakland A's have been one of the best teams in the American League at preventing runs over the last five seasons.
Runs Allowed: Year AL Rank 1999 5th 2000 4th 2001 2nd 2002 2nd 2003 2nd
I think it is pretty obvious that, no matter how much you hear about the A's employing sabermetric principles by valuing on-base percentages and power and not using the running-game, the biggest key to Oakland's success over the last several years is their ability to prevent runs as well as any team in baseball.
Of course, how much of the credit for that run preventing ability should go to the pitchers, the defense and the ballpark is highly debatable. What I do know for sure is that Oakland's defense, long talked about as a big weakness, has been one of the best in all of baseball at turning balls in play into outs over the last two seasons.
In 2002, they converted 71.9% of balls in play into outs, ranking third in the AL. This year, they turned 72.6% of the balls in play into outs, ranking second in the AL and second in all of baseball. I do think their ballpark, with its spacious foul territory and generous dimensions, lends itself to fielders being able to convert balls in play into outs easier than most parks, but the A's defense has been impressive regardless of that.
One of the biggest reasons for Oakland's improved defense is a fairly obvious shift in organizational philosophy. A few years ago, the A's were known as a slugging team with a lineup full a guys who looked perfect for a softball league. Matt Stairs, John Jaha, Jason Giambi, Olmedo Saenz, Ben Grieve, Jeremy Giambi. Not a single good glove among them, but they could all hit.
Somewhere along the line though, things changed drastically. The softball sluggers started leaving, some big-time pitchers started arriving, and the A's shifted their focus to more well-rounded players. In some cases, they even brought in guys who could be called "defensive specialists."
After starting Terrence Long in center field for the majority of the past three seasons, the A's finally decided that Long's defense was no longer acceptable. After playing all 162 games in center field in 2002, Long didn't play a single inning there in 2003.
The A's brought in Chris Singleton, who doesn't hit much, but who is widely regarded as a very good defensive centerfielder. Singleton logged 737.1 innings in center this year, while hitting just .245/.301/.340. At the same time, the A's shifted Long to left field and then later to right field, where his defensive skills were much better suited. They also played Eric Byrnes, a solid defensive outfielder, in both center and left field on a semi-everyday basis.
The result of this new outfield alignment, completely without guys like Stairs or Giambi or Grieve, had a big impact on Oakland's defense. At the same time, it effected their offense quite a bit too. The A's ranked 9th in the AL in runs scored this year and the production they got from their outfield was particularly bad.
Using OPS (on-base % + slugging %) as the measurement (I don't like to use OPS much, but it comes in handy in this sort of situation), here is how the A's outfielders ranked among the 14 AL teams last year:
OPS Rank LF .805 6th CF .638 12th RF .632 14th
That's just awful.
Eric Byrnes started the season extremely hot and then went into an incredibly long tailspin, but his overall offensive production for the year was fairly good. He hit .263/.333/.459 in 460 plate appearances. The A's also got decent offense from Billy McMillon, who hit .268/.354/.458 in 175 plate appearances.
Other than that, it was pretty ugly. Terrence Long somehow managed to accumulate 522 plate appearances while hitting .245/.293/.385 as a corner outfielder. Jermaine Dye, who hasn't been the same player since breaking his leg in the post-season a couple years ago, hit an absolutely horrendous .172/.261/.253 in 65 games. As mentioned earlier, Singleton hit .245/.301/.340 in 341 plate appearances. Adam Piatt hit just .240/.280/.460 in 107 plate appearances and was let go. Even Ron Gant hit just .146/.182/.220 in 17 games before he was let go.
Overall, Oakland's outfield just couldn't hit last year. Sure, they played good defense and that helped the A's win a lot of games, but I think Billy Beane, Paul DePodesta and company made it a priority to improve their outfield offense this off-season.
They made a couple of moves on Tuesday that should go a long way towards that goal. Well, actually they made one move and one other that isn't quite official as of this writing. The A's and Padres have agreed to a deal that will send Terrence Long and Ramon Hernandez to San Diego for Mark Kotsay. According to ESPN.com, the deal is official, but the A's want to check on Kotsay's health (he had back problems last year) before they pull the trigger.
Assuming that deal goes through, the A's have just acquired a starting centerfielder who is solid on both offense and defense. Kotsay isn't a great player, by any means, and there are some health concerns, but he is the type of guy who allows them to maintain their focus on pitching and defense while simultaneously improving the offense quite a bit.
Ramon Hernandez had a very good year for the A's and it's tough to give up a 27-year old catcher coming off a breakout-year. That said, the types of players the A's are now apparently targeting are a little tougher to find and a little more expensive to acquire than born-DHs like the guys the A's featured a few years ago.
I think a Hernandez for Kotsay swap is pretty fair. They are both 27 years old and they have both shown the ability to be assets on offense and defense. I don't think either of them are going to become superstars, but they should both be solid second-tier players at their position. Unloading Terrence Long and his contract on the Padres breaks the tie, in my opinion. It's an interesting trade, in that it is fairly even for both sides and also involves both teams dealing away players from a position where they seem to not have a whole bunch of other options.
Kotsay leaves center field open for San Diego, and the early things I have read seem to suggest that they may consider playing Brian Giles there full-time in 2004. That would likely mean a Ryan Klesko/Brian Giles/Xavier Nady outfield, which will probably give Jake Peavy nightmares for the rest of his life.
For the A's, they get rid of a guy who has been their starting catcher for the last four years. Hernandez has been a workhorse, playing 143, 136, 136 and 140 games in that span. Their best internal option to replace him right now seems to be Adam Melhuse, a minor league veteran who had a nice year in limited playing time as Hernandez's backup. Either Beane is extremely confident in Melhuse or he's got something else up his sleeve. I would guess the latter.
Assuming Kotsay is healthy, he should be a massive upgrade offensively over the guys who manned center field for the A's this year. And there shouldn't be much of a defensive drop-off, if any. With center field taken care of, the A's then turned their attention to the corner outfield and made a second deal, one that is actually official.
Oakland sent Ted Lilly to the Blue Jays for Bobby Kielty and a Player to be Named Later (PTBNL) or cash. All indications are that the "or cash" portion of the deal is for very little money, which leads me to believe the potential PTBNL is no one particularly significant.
If that is the case, it is essentially Ted Lilly for Bobby Kielty. Now, those of you who are long-time readers of this website know how much I love Bobby Kielty. I've written about him numerous times and I became pretty distraught when he was traded from Minnesota to Toronto this year. At the same time, I've also made it very clear on numerous occasions that I think Billy Beane is one of the top General Managers in baseball.
Those two facts, taken together, would probably lead you to believe that I think Beane committed highway robbery in this deal. Or, as Beane himself has been known to say, that he just made a "F---ing A Trade." You would think that, but you'd be wrong.
I actually think this deal works out well for both teams and, if anything, I would say the Blue Jays got the slightly better end of the deal (depending largely on who the PTBNL turns out to be, of course). It is really a classic case of teams dealing from strength to acquire something to help their main area of weakness.
The A's have a starting rotation that will almost certainly feature a front-four of Barry Zito, Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder and Rich Harden next season. They also have a few interesting minor league options, including Justin Duchschrerer, whom I think can be a very successful major league pitcher. To them, Ted Lilly was nothing more than a #5 starter. And, as I already discussed, Oakland's offense, and particularly their outfield offense, was very sub par in 2003.
At the same time, the Blue Jays are definitely not hurting for hitters and they have plenty of good corner outfield options, both at the major league level and in the minors. Their pitching-staff, and particularly their starting rotation beyond Roy Halladay, is severely lacking however.
So, you've got one team with plenty of pitching that needs hitting and another team with plenty of hitting that needs pitching. Throw in the fact that the two GMs, Beane and J.P. Ricciardi, have worked together in the past and have a very good relationship, and it is basically a match made in sabermetric-heaven ("Where everyone walks and nobody runs").
After a very impressive rookie season in 2002, when he hit .291/.405/.484 in 348 plate appearances, Bobby Kielty's stock dropped quite a bit this season. He got off to a very hot start, hitting .324/.425/.588 in April, and then went into a prolonged slump, finishing the first-half at .252/.370/.420. He was then dealt to Toronto, where he hit just .164/.325/.284 in August, before ending the year with a decent September (.268/.337/.423).
Overall, here are how his numbers from his first two major league seasons compare:
Year PA AVG OBP SLG AB/HR AB/2B PA/BB PA/SO 2002 348 .291 .405 .484 24.0 20.6 6.7 5.3 2003 509 .244 .358 .400 32.8 16.4 7.1 5.5
Kielty's overall numbers fell, across-the-board. His batting average and on-base percentage both fell 47 points and his slugging percentage dropped 84 points.
Looking a little deeper, you can see that Kielty walked and struck out at essentially the same rate in both years. In addition to that, his doubles-rate actually improved slightly in 2003. The two things that hurt him were that his home run-rate dropped significantly and he hit a whole lot less singles.
Kielty's overall extra-base hit-rate dropped 5.7%, while his singles-rate dropped 10.4%. Obviously any time someone loses that much total production from one year to the next it is troublesome, but the fact that singles are the biggest area of the drop-off is relatively good news.
One other interesting thing about Kielty's decline this season is that he struggled mightily against right-handed pitching, after doing very well against them in 2002.
vs RHP AVG OBP SLG 2002 .303 .417 .495 2003 .216 .318 .328
Kielty's always present ability to draw walks stayed...well, always present. At the same time, his batting average fell off a cliff and took all of his power with it.
Making things even more interesting is that Kielty did better against left-handed pitching in 2003 than he did in 2002.
vs LHP AVG OBP SLG 2002 .264 .380 .464 2003 .300 .417 .550
My observation from having watched Kielty, who is a switch-hitter, is that his right-handed swing (against left-handed pitching) is a lot more consistent, a lot more natural, a lot more powerful. His left-handed swing was very good in 2002, but it never looked to me to have been as easy or as natural. It got sort of long and loopy at times and I noticed that a lot more while he was struggling this past season. I also remember reading a few things near the end of the year where the Blue Jays were talking about trying to fix a problem with Kielty's left-handed swing.
As a switch-hitter, the determining factor for whether or not Kielty is going to be a good, everyday player is how he hits left-handed, simply because he is going to face far more right-handed pitchers than left-handed pitchers. What you think of Kielty's future is probably determined by which set of numbers against right-handers you trust the most.
I would definitely trust his 2003 numbers the most, not only because they are the most recent, but also because they are a slightly larger sample-size. At the same time, his good numbers against righties in 2002 weren't put up in 50 at bats, they were over the course of a full-season of playing on a semi-everyday basis. He had over 230 plate appearances batting left-handed in 2002.
In addition to that, Kielty's minor league "splits" are not widely available, so it's tough to say whether he struggled from the left-side in years past. It seems like it would have been very tough for him to hit as well as he did consistently throughout his minor league career if he was struggling that much against right-handed pitching, however.
If Kielty ever finds a way to combine what he did against righties in 2002 with what he did against lefties in 2003, he will be one of the best hitters in the league. If he continues to struggle against righties like he did this year, he is no longer more than a platoon-player. I think it is obvious by the fact that the A's gave up a pretty good pitcher for him that they believe, at the least, Kielty's future lies somewhere in-between those two options. I'm a little less sure of that than I was this time last year, but I still agree with them, and I think Oakland's outfield is going to be significantly improved in 2004.
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