Another Way the A’s Might Be Shifting Gears

Nothing’s ever really settled in Oakland. They can’t afford to settle, not if they want to be able to keep up despite their budget constraints. The A’s always have to be trying to think one step ahead, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but Billy Beane, if nothing else, is doubtlessly bold. And he made a bold move the other day, exchanging a very excellent Josh Donaldson for a package of less excellent players. It remains to be seen how Oakland will build out the rest of its roster, but it’s obviously a team in transition. Beane stated as much in saying he wanted to stay away from having a roster in decline.

In terms of just looking at the depth chart, the A’s are shifting gears by bringing in new personnel. But there might also be something else going on, underneath. It’s nothing we can know, and it’s probably nothing we can ask Beane about while he’s still trying to work, but the recent A’s had a particularly distinctive characteristic, and one wonders whether Beane might be moving away from the philosophy. We can observe what might be interpreted as points within a pattern.

At the end of September, I wrote about what I thought to be the three most distinctive team philosophies. Among them, I talked about Oakland’s building a roster of fly-ball hitters to counter the league-wide trend toward pitching lower and lower. I wasn’t by any means the first person to talk about it, but there was little sign of things slowing down. It had been noted in The Book that fly-ball hitters do better against groundball pitchers than groundball hitters, and here are the year-to-year differences between Oakland’s FB% and the average FB%:

2010: 1.0%
2011: 2.2%
2012: 5.6%
2013: 7.4%
2014: 6.5%

You can see a three-year spike. Between 2012 – 2014, the A’s hit 41% fly balls. Second place was about 36%. The average was about 34%. In this subtle way the A’s stood out from the pack, and you can see the effects elsewhere. Over the three years, the A’s ranked third in baseball in OPS against groundball pitchers, according to Baseball-Reference. Against fly-ball pitchers, they ranked 22nd. They ranked fifth in baseball in slugging percentage against pitches in the lower third of the zone, and 27th against pitches in the upper third of the zone. Just last year, they ranked sixth and 28th. The A’s were built to hit the low pitch, and they hit the low pitch, while struggling higher. It didn’t apply to every single player, but it applied to many of them.

That’s what happened. That’s history. Now the A’s are trying to build for the future. The process is currently incomplete, but if I may, let’s try something. Back during the season, the A’s traded Yoenis Cespedes. Maybe that was the only way for them to get Jon Lester, but Cespedes, as it happens, is among baseball’s very most extreme fly-ball hitters. He’s not part of the picture anymore.

Neither will Jed Lowrie be, most likely. Lowrie is also a fairly extreme fly-ball hitter. Free-agent acquisition Billy Butler? He’s a groundball hitter. Eno wrote a little about this at the time. Josh Donaldson is out, and Brett Lawrie is in, and Donaldson is more of a fly-ball hitter than Lawrie is. And then there’s the non-roster element: the A’s lost hitting coach Chili Davis to the Red Sox. Davis was the coach in Oakland for three years, during which the team he coached put the ball in the air with relatively extreme frequency.

On average, hitters are a little bit more productive against fly-ball pitchers than groundball pitchers. Donaldson’s career split is 41 OPS points better against groundball pitchers. Butler’s been 132 points better against fly-ball pitchers. Lawrie’s been 129 points better against fly-ball pitchers. Individually, these don’t mean much of anything, but if they are part of a pattern, it’s interesting. Oakland was doing one thing more than any other team, and coincidentally or not coincidentally, they’ve moved away from that thing, some. And they’ve taken calls on Josh Reddick, and Brandon Moss. We’ll see what else they elect to do with the infield.

As things stand, the A’s, as a team, are projected to hit about 37% fly balls. The roster still isn’t finished. That would still be a higher-than-average rate, but it would be less high than what they’ve posted lately, and it would be hard to turn things around all at once. It also remains to be seen what might happen under the watch of a different hitting instructor. These same players might end up with slightly different swings. I’m not declaring anything to be true. I’m just checking for a possible pattern, given that a different pattern previously existed.

Let’s say that Beane is moving away from fly-ball hitters. Why might that be? Could be, he understands that other teams have come to understand his team. There was that article where the Astros told Collin McHugh to pitch more up in the zone to counter a lineup like Oakland’s. Several pitchers have noted that they’re trying to fold in more high fastballs, as the league has increasingly geared up for pitches down. Alternatively or additionally, there’s the observation that something happened to raise the strike zone around the middle of the year. For a while, the zone had been steadily sinking. If baseball is trying to do something about that, pitchers would pitch down there less, so there would be less to be gained from building a lineup to attack them.

That’s making an awful lot of an awful little. That’s taking an acorn of an idea and storing it away to be the whole winter’s feast. There are little theories and big theories, and while I do expect the league to at some point do something about the sinking zone, there’s no proof that Beane is making these moves for any reason other than they seem like they’re okay to him. In isolation, he’s lost some guys, and he’s brought in some different guys with talent. It’s a hard job that he’s got. You can never see a pattern looking at one move at a time. Usually, there aren’t patterns to see. Yet the A’s are run anything but usually.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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BaseballGuy
7 years ago

I dunno about all this. From all accounts, it was the Blue Jays who went to the A’s about the Donaldson trade, not vice-versa. I suspect the A’s MO is much more meta than any sort of deep dive like this article. They just churn their roster. A lot. They feel there’s inherent value in churning more than their competitors, not least because the chances of someone blowing up and producing lots of wins on a pre-arb salary are higher if there are more people coming in and out. Donaldson in fact is the perfect example. So now they cash him in for four guys and hope that one of them blows up on the A’s watch. I think really that’s the whole thing.

Well-Beered Englishman
7 years ago
Reply to  BaseballGuy

Not to discount your broader point (maybe Billy Beane is reading this thinking “Damn that IS a good idea!”), but this was about much more than the Donaldson/Lawrie swap.

As noted baseball scholar Auric Goldfinger remarked, “Once is happenstance; twice is coincidence; three times is enemy action.”

Benjamin
7 years ago

I’m not really buying that the A’s were ever targeting flyball hitters to such an extent. I think it might have been primarily a fluke. This is such a tiny tiny detail in the evaluation of any one player – tough to believe that this stat would be driving the acquisition of so many players. If there were another version of Josh Reddick or Stephen Vogt or Chris Young or Alberto Callaspo or Jed Lowrie that was a superior hitter but had a higher GB%, are we to believe that the A’s would have bypassed him in favor the the flyball guy? Or are we to believe that it was such a significant market inefficiency (I feel dirty using that term) that the A’s were always right to choose the flyball guy?

Honestly, I think that the A’s guys probably pass articles like this around the office and have a chuckle.

Mountain Landis
7 years ago
Reply to  Benjamin

Totally with you.

Mountain Landis
7 years ago
Reply to  Benjamin

I can’t believe the extent to which some are contorting themselves just to figure out the Beane angle in this trade. The reality os that there is no “there” there.

The closest thing I’ve seen to a legit reason is Donaldson’s escalating salaries by his 3rd and 4th Arb years, but that still doesn’t explain why they had to deal him 2 yrs prior to that. Answer: they didn’t have to.

AK7007
7 years ago
Reply to  Benjamin

This is a “Beer or Tacos” situation. The A’s are in a situation where they can select from among multiple options that are have similar value, but differ in profile and how they produce that value. They then can decide how to maximize synergy among those players. So don’t ask “best players or synergistic players” – “both, you fool!”

anon
7 years ago
Reply to  Benjamin

You honestly think the As guys are doing very little, not running numbers on every player to determine what potential value there is and how it can be used, and just saying “Cheaper! Go for it!” Then laughing when other people suggest that they have actual full time jobs, because in reality they totally don’t.

That’s … a great theory. What do you do for living, by the way?

Fat Jonah Hill
7 years ago
Reply to  Benjamin

As a lifelong A’s fan and stat geek, I’m telling you right now that Beane & Co. absolutely sought out fly-ball hitters.

A’s hitters had a 41.1 FB% in 2014. The next highest teams in MLB were the Cubs and Orioles at a 37.1 FB%. When one of Beane’s teams hits 10.8% more fly-balls than the next highest-team in the league, there is no way that’s just a coincidence.

Agreeing with AK7007, good hitters and fly-ball hitters are not mutually exclusive. The A’s most likely determined at some point they wanted to pursue fly-ball hitters, determined who those hitters were, then sought out the best ones of the crop that fit in with their roster/budget/etc.

Ironically, Chris Carter was traded for Jed Lowrie before 2013 (I think the A’s liked Carter a lot, but he was expendable and they needed a middle-infielder), and Carter had a monster 2nd half of 2014 (.368 wOBA) while Lowrie and almost the entire A’s offense struggled at the same time. Carter’s FB% in 2014? 51.4%, highest in the league.

LaLoosh
7 years ago
Reply to  Benjamin

Carter also had the highest K rate in the league. How about just trying to add the best hitters whether that means FB or GB…?

Fat Jonah Hill
7 years ago
Reply to  Benjamin

…because of exactly what the article said? The trend of pitching was to go for ground balls, which fly-ball hitters were shown to be more effective against. Worked pretty well for the A’s the past few seasons considering they’ve had one of the top offenses while playing in a pitcher’s park.

What do Carter’s strikeouts have to do with anything that has been discussed here? Carter was 2nd in the league in HR and had the 42nd-best wOBA in baseball. Pretty sure most teams would be happy with that production.

Bipmember
7 years ago
Reply to  Benjamin

How about just trying to add the best hitters whether that means FB or GB…?

1. Because the cost of the player matters too. I’d rather have a 2-win guy at $5 million a year than a 3-win guy at $15 million. If there is an inefficiency favoring fly ball hitters, it could make sense to go for the worse guy if you you get more money value out of it.

2. Because how do you know who the best hitters are? Hitting stats vary widely year to year. In an environment favoring fly ball hitters, you might find that a fly ball hitter has a better projection coming off a hitting season of equal quality to a ground ball hitter.

LaLoosh
7 years ago
Reply to  Benjamin

shit. when exactly did so many people here become so belligerent?

Fat Jonah Hill
7 years ago
Reply to  Benjamin

Maybe don’t come in with weak, smartass comments that contain irrelevant points?

ben
7 years ago
Reply to  BaseballGuy

I dunno if you know what the word meta means.