Change-UpMay 13, 2008
A's & Rays Here to Stay?
By Patrick Sullivan

There are two standout, surprise teams in the American League thus far in 2008 and they are not your garden variety May 13 standout clubs. The Oakland Athletics sit atop the AL West with a 23-16 record, also good for the best mark in the junior circuit. If only we lived in a pythag world, the A's would find themselves staked to a 4.5 game lead. By just about any advanced peripheral measure of the brand of baseball they have played, Oakland has been head-and-shoulders above the rest of the West. As it stands, they sit a half game up on the Los Angeles Angels.

Tampa Bay is 22-16 and their record more or less reflects the quality of their play. While the Rays got off to a start that seemed to affirm at least somewhat the optimism that some showed before the 2008 campaign began (hat tip to BP's PECOTA who were all over Tampa Bay), they have really begun to turn heads over their last five games. In one game north of the border in Toronto, three against the Angels and last night against the Yankees, Tampa Bay has won five straight. In the process they outscored their opposition 27-9.

A good quarter season, while not meaningless, tends not to portend what fans of hot-starters would like to think it does. Still, there are some measures we can take a look at to try and determine if Oakland and Tampa Bay's level of play might be sustainable. Put more accurately, we can analyze the parts of their play to date in 2008 that can be attributable to luck and/or flukiness, and which positive elements of their team composition appear legitimate and sustainable.

So let's dig in a little bit:

         AVG   OBP   SLG   OPS+
OAK     .254  .340  .366   102
TBR     .258  .328  .395   101 

Both teams thus far have featured slightly above average offensive attacks, not excessively influenced by batting average, a figure that can tend to mask deeper problems as team batting average will tend to settle into a narrow band. There is nothing in here that would seem to be of concern. Both teams should be able to sustain their respective batting averages, and Oakland in all likelihood has some upside opportunity in the slugging column.

Looking a bit more closely at items that can prove to be artificial determinants when applied over the long haul, we see that the A's are sporting a red flag of sorts.

         BABIP   BA/RSP
OAK      .295    .309
TBR      .292    .277
AL       .292    .271

Oakland is hitting .254 as a team, the league hits .271 with men in scoring position and Oakland is hitting .309 in these situations. It's unsustainable and minus improvement in other areas offensively, Oakland's run scoring will suffer. Fortunately for Oakland, there are reasons for optimism. Their 172 walks are best in the American League by a healthy clip. This suggests their fundamental approach at the plate is sound.

As far as specific individual improvement candidates go, the one that stands out the most is Travis Buck. He hit .288/.377/.474 in 2007 but in 71 PA's has mustered just a .154/.197/.277 line. He is in Sacramento now, and in limited action there he has yet to find his stroke. Continues regular time in AAA might help speed up a return to form by Buck, which would go a long way in mitigating any impending regression from others. Another hitter in the A's lineup from whom we can expect more is Daric Barton, the highly touted rookie. Barton is hitting a respectable .237/.342/.348 but keep in mind, this is someone who slugged .639 in his first 84 MLB plate appearances as a 22 year-old. He slugged .459 in his Minor League career while playing the majority of that time in very hitter unfriendly Sacramento.

For Tampa Bay, catcher Dioneer Navarro will not continue at his .362/.397/.449 pace but then Carlos Pena will not finish 2008 hitting just .209. Eric Hinske figures to cool off as well, but then Tampa Bay has received no production whatsoever from a middle infield that should improve significantly. Add up the good with the bad for this club and it all nets out to a place where this offense stays about as good as it has been; hovering around league average.

On the run prevention side, both clubs have been remarkable. Below we can take a look at their ERA+, their Fielding Independent Pitching (FIP) numbers and their respective Defensive Efficiency Ratings (DER). Though I imagine many Baseball Analysts readers do not need this primer, here are definitions of the latter two statistics from The Hardball Times stat glossary:

Fielding Independent Pitching, a measure of all those things for which a pitcher is specifically responsible. The formula is (HR*13+(BB+HBP-IBB)*3-K*2)/IP, plus a league-specific factor (usually around 3.2) to round out the number to an equivalent ERA number. FIP helps you understand how well a pitcher pitched, regardless of how well his fielders fielded. FIP was invented by Tangotiger.
Defense Efficiency Ratio. The percent of times a batted ball is turned into an out by the teams’ fielders, not including home runs. The exact formula we use is (BFP-H-K-BB-HBP-Errors)/(BFP-HR-K-BB-HBP). This is similar to BABIP, but from the defensive team's perspective. Please note that errors include only errors on batted balls.
         ERA+   FIP    DER
OAK      118    3.49  .706
TBR      109    3.90  .713
AL       100    4.17  .699

As you can see, both teams look entirely legitimate with regard to keeping runs off the board. Their peripheral numbers look great and they both appear to play very good defense. Keep in mind, too, that Scott Kazmir has made just two starts for the Rays while Rich Harden and Justin Duscherer (ok, maybe to nobody's surprise) have both missed time. One potential regression area for Oakland may be their bullpen (do yourself a favor and have a look at the season Santiago Casilla is having).

It's hard to imagine but it looks to my eyes at least that both Oakland and Tampa are entirely legitimate. They will both have tough fights on their hands in order to qualify for post-season play in the highly competitive American League but they have started the season on the right foot and both sure seem to feature the make-up of clubs capable of fighting through to the end.


So both teams are legitmately league average?

Offensively it appears so.

I think the Rays offense will improve. I agree that both Hinske and Navarro will regress some, although I think both should remain useful hitters. But I also think we can reasonably expect improvement from Pena, Iwamura, Longoria, Bartlett, Crawford and in the power department, Upton.

In addition, the Rays have been playing without Floyd for most of the year. His bat replaces those of people like Haynes or perhaps Gross, who also may remain a useful reserve. There is even a possible upgrade offensively if they are able to find a spot for Aybar when he returns.

And also, this is a team with some depth to cover for injuries. At Durham are a number of experienced major leaguers with some history of success as fill-ins, players such as John Rodriguez. Even Dan Johnson could fill in with some reasonable hope of productiveness. So the Rays, who have managed so far through injuries to their ace, their DH and some important bench players have some buffers.

The A's as of May 13 have the best record in the AL, not second best. They are .005 ahead of Boston.

Good catch, Bob. I will make the change.

Have you noticed the 1st place Twins? I didn't expect them to be much this year but they're doing pretty well... hitting .316 RISP, and even .310 w/ RISP & 2 outs. But wait, that's not all... they're hitting .414 when the bases are loaded! (29 AB's) ...but the Twins big problem is road games. Typical. Still, have to admire that offensive output even if it's mainly because of the dome & division.

Carlos Pena might not continue to hit .209 for the season, but his 2008 numbers are closer to his career norms than his 2007 was.

Following his 20+ game call up in 2001, he has only hit above .250 twice.

In 2007 he hit .282/.411/.627. His career hitting numbers are now .249/.348/.491. He strikes out a lot and was prone to going into long slumps when he played in Detroit. It's not unreasonable to think that he could hit .250/.350/.500 the rest of the way which still isn't terribly great for a first baseman in the AL.

Sure, Dan. But .250/.350/.500 would be an upgrade and a significant one at that over and above the .209/.310/.396 Pena we are currently watching.

Yes, that is possible, and if so, the Rays are still in pretty decent shape offensively. He gets on base and hits home runs while playing an excellent first base. Assuming other players play up to expectations, the offense should be fine.

And chances are your projection is closer to a floor than a ceiling for Pena. It is more likely, I think, that he will do better than that for the remainder of the year than more poorly.

The concern with the A's is that a lot of their success is on young pitchers no one has seen at this level. Is it a truism that until the league sees a pitcher a second time around we don't know how good that pitcher is? And will young pitchers hold up over 162 games?