Are the Oakland Athletics Too Selective?
Tomorrow is an election day, and while this blog has nothing to do with politics (at least directly), I do feel the need to share (at my blog-adult content?) an outstandingly humorous clip from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia. After all, if it's not one politician, it's another.
Baseball Musings, run by David Pinto, is one of baseball's best online sites. He has what feels like hourly posts updating his readers of the ongoings of baseball. His analysis is consistently strong, and he has an outstanding database and tools for his readers to utilize. In other words, Pinto runs a site that I could only dream mine turns into.
A recent post has Pinto questioning if the Athletics' selectivity is a hindrance to their hitters. He recalls the Moneyball philosophy where hitters were rewarded for not going after tough pitches, even if it meant striking out looking, and being punished for going after bad pitches, even if it had a positive result. Teaching "good process" is ideal at low levels of baseball, but as Pinto points out, can be a negative at the major-league level.
However, there is somewhat of a flaw in Pinto's argument. Pinto creates the following table:
|008||Batting Avg.||On-Base Avg.|
While the table does tell a story, it misses on some key factors. The first, and most important, batting average, even slugging percentage, are secondary to on-base average, in terms of creating a winning ballclub. However, an on-base average of under .310 from a team's infield is not going to win anything anytime soon.
The next key factor is the reliability of batting average. According to Baseball Prospectus' "Baseball Between the Numbers-Why Everything You Know About the Game is Wrong", batting average has the least season-to-season reliability of any offensive measure (isolate power, walk rate, strikeout rate, and stolen base).
Thus, when we see a hitter with a .330 batting average one season, there is typically a reason to look into that number.
The same can be said when a hitter is so far below major-league average, we can simply ask "why?" Oftentimes, the answer is noted within a comparison of the players Batting Average of Balls in Play (BABIP) and their expected BABIP (xBABIP). A player's xBABIP is simply calculated by taking the player's line-drive rate, placing it into decimal form, and adding .11. While this is not an open-and-shut calculation, for arguments sake, it will suffice.
Let's now look at the aforementioned quad of Ellis, Cust, Barton, and Hannahan.
Mark Ellis had a rough 2008 season. While much of this can be blamed on a lingering injury (something that has consistently nagged Ellis throughout his career), we can also see that he fell victim to some poor luck. Ellis' 2008 line-drive rate of 20.1 percent is only marginally higher than his career average. One can assume this is a sustainable rate for season to season, and subsequently a viable figure to utilize when calculating xBABIP.
With a BABIP of .249, Ellis fell more then 50 points below his xBABIP of .311. Ellis' expected batting average is then .285, a 50+ point jump from where he finished in 2008. How many second basemen with a .374 on base average are there? Answer: five.
Jack Cust is a special case, as his strikeouts will keep his batting average down, no matter how high his line-drive rate is. That said, Cust's xBABIP was only eight points higher than his actual BABIP, hardly worth calculating. However, there is very little to complain about a hitter that gets on base over 37 percent of the time while providing a .245 ISO.
Interestingly, Cust's outstanding home-run rate of 29.7 percent was actually a dip from his 2007 total of 31.7 percent. That's an extra couple of points in a players batting and on base averages.
One of the biggest outliers from this list is Daric Barton, one of my favorite young players and a hitter who was underperforming his expected statistics by a large margin all season.
As a rookie, Barton has a built in reason for underperforming. The season started off miserably for Barton, as he appeared overmatched, struggling to provide a league average strikeout rate. However, as the season grew on, Barton's strong plate discipline eventually resulted in fewer strikeouts.
Also in this mess was Barton under performing his xBABIP by just over 30 points. This deviation resulted in Barton's batting average falling 23 points under his expected figure. When one considers that much of Barton's struggles can be tied in with a strikeout rate that dropped 10 percent from the first half (26 percent) to the second half (16 percent) and that his home-run-per-flyball rate was well under league average and expected rates, it is clear that Barton was a victim to poor luck and being a rookie.
However, even a .250/.350 line from Barton in 2008 would have put him around projected levels and at the American League average for first basemen. Not terrible for a rookie.
Similar to Barton, Jack Hannahan's BABIP fell over 30 points below his xBABIP. Simply achieving his xBABIP would have seen both his batting and on base averages approach league average. For a player that is more utility/quadruple-A, league average production is just fine.
While Pinto does bring up a valid point that the A's may be preaching over-selectivity, it certainly does not hurt them to the degree he asserts. I would expect the aforementioned players to approach, if not exceed, their expected values for the 2009 season.
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