Another Way the A’s Might Be Shifting Gears by Jeff Sullivan December 1, 2014 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.