Series Preview #28: Arizona Diamondbacks vs. Oakland Athletics

The Oakland Athletics hold the distinction be the only franchise in professional sports with a general manager who has more name recognition than anyone else in his organization.  As you probably already know, Billy Beane is at least partially responsible for the baseball phenomenon of "Moneyball," which has spawned a book, an upcoming blockbuster movie, and has forever changed the way that baseball would be evaluated.  So yeah, apologies to Kurt Suzuki and Daric Barton, but Billy Beane is the most famous name involved with the A's.  Maybe when one of those two get played by Brad Pitt in a movie, I'll reconsider.

For all of the hubbub surrounding it, "Moneyball" has a fairly simple premise: find players who are underrated and underpaid based on traditional metrics (Batting Average, RBIs, ect.) and use them to have success without spending a ton of money.  In 2004, when Moneyball was published and the A's were in the midst of their greatest period of success, two of those undervalued traits were the ability to take walks and the capacity to hit home runs, which the A's exploited to build teams that made the playoffs five times from 2000 to 2006 despite always having a payroll that was among baseball's lowest.  Though Beane is criticized for never winning or even making a World Series, the fact that his teams even competed against big-market teams with payrolls two or three times the size of the Athletics' is noteworthy no matter where you fall in the ongoing sabermetric debate.

However, it isn't 2004 in Oakland any more (or anywhere else, for that matter).  Other, richer teams caught on to the value of walks, and the end of the so-called Steroid Era meant that sluggers ceased to be a dime-a-dozen commodity.  Other small market teams like the Rays made their own advancements in statistical analysis, and the A's faded into mediocrity for the rest of the decade. 

The A's haven't exceeded 81 wins since 2006, and though they've done their best to build around a core of talented young pitching, injuries and lack of payroll have slowed the process somewhat.  Indeed, the A's appear destined for another middling season in 2011, as a slew of injuries and generally abysmal offense have conspired to derail a promising season in Oakland.  It certainly appears that Billy Beane is running out of tricks.

What the Stats Say (According to Fangraphs)

                           Arizona (44-38)                                Oakland (36-45)                                      Edge

Hitting (wRC+):    97                                                      82                                                    Arizona

Pitching (FIP):     3.95                                                   3.50                                                 Oakland

Fielding (UZR):   23.3                                                   11.9                                                  Arizona

A lot of internet ink has been spilled, both here and elsewhere, regarding just how terrible the Giants' offense has been this season.  Well, it's entirely possible that those Giants don't even have the worst offense in their own metropolitan area.  SF and Oakland currently have an identical wRC+, and the A's have a worse wOBA, OPS and offensive WAR.  They've also scored four fewer runs on the season that their Bay Area compatriots. 

While their pitching has been impressive this season, they've had to deal with injuries to starting pitchers Rich Harden, Dallas Braden and Brett Anderson, as well as relievers Andrew Bailey, Tyson Ross and now Grant Balfour.  To lose that many pitchers at around the same time is simply terrible luck, and it makes that FIP look even more impressive.

Starting Lineups:

Arizona Diamondbacks

Ryan Roberts 3B
Kelly Johnson
2B
Justin Upton
RF
Stephen Drew
SS
Chris Young
CF
Miguel Montero
C
Wily Mo Pena
DH
Juan Miranda
1B
Gerardo Parra
LF

Oakland Athletics

Jemile Weeks, 2B
Cliff Pennington, SS
Coco Crisp, CF
Hideki Matsui, DH
Conor Jackson, 1B
Ryan Sweeney, LF
Kurt Suzuki, C
David Dejesus, RF
Kevin Kouzmanoff, 3B

The Athletics made some moves in the offseason that they assumed would help their offense substantially in 2011.  In their defense, most of them even made sense at the time.  David Dejesus had a slash line of .318/.384/.443 for the Royals in 2010, he played about as well defensively as you could expect from a left fielder not named Gerardo Parra, and he was only 30 years old.  Surely the A's could squeeze a couple more good years out of him before he began to decline, right?  Hideki Matsui has played eight seasons, and he had never had an OPS+ below 100.  No reason to think that he would in 2011 either, right?  Josh Willingham was a fairly solid slugging outfielder for the Nationals, it would make sense for him to keep that up in Oakland, right? 

Wrong.

David Dejesus has an OPS of .646 this season.  Matsui who, as a designated hitter, is not paid to do anything other than hit the baseball, has an OPS of .639.  Josh Willingham is the only one who has been anything close to league-average offensively, and even he only has an OPS of .718.  Plus, he's injured now.

And the worst part is that these performances are pretty much par for the course on the A's in 2011.  There are two players on the A's with an OPS+ above 100.  One of those is Scott Sizemore, a backup third baseman with 66 Plate Appearances.  The other is Jemile Weeks, a 24-year-old backup middle infielder who just got handed a starting job when Mark Ellis was traded to the Rockies.  Other than that, it's not really even worth going through the lineup and pointing out who is playing the worst.  Trust me, they bad.

Side note: remember how much everyone hated it when Conor Jackson played first base for the D-Backs?  He was terrible there and generally preferred playing the outfield.  Yet here he is again.  Rumor has it that Bob Melvin took the managing job in Oakland just so he could mess with CoJack again once Geren got fired.

Pitching Matchups:

Friday: Josh Collmenter (4-4, 2.71) vs. Rich Harden (0-0, N/A)

Insightful Commentary: Collmenter's last three starts: 0-3, 7.00 ERA.  And it doesn't feel like he's just getting unlucky, it feels like opposing hitters are beginning to figure him out.  It's interesting to note that during the first time through the order, Collmenter holds opponents to an OPS of .350.  The second time through, that OPS more than doubles, to .747, and the third time through it jumps all the way to .819.  The D-Backs' decisions at the deadline are a lot easier if Collmenter produces.  But if he keeps this up, the team is going to have to make some hard choices.

It wasn't too long ago that Rich Harden had some of the best stuff in baseball.  Back in the day, he had a mid-90s fastball, a biting slider, a wicked changeup and a K/9 rate above 10 to go with it.  But he always struggled with arm injuries, as he has never thrown more than 200 innings in a season.  After being injured all season, Harden will be making his first start in 2011 on Friday, already washed-up at the age of 29 with a fastball that has lost almost 5 miles per hour from his prime.

Saturday: Joe Saunders (4-7, 4.14) vs. Josh Outman (3-2, 3.10)

Insightful Commentary: Just like Zach Duke probably isn't as bad as he's been playing (he really isn't, I promise), Joe Saunders probably isn't as good as he's looked in his past few starts.  His BABIP on the season is only .287, and his LOB% is higher than normal, at 77.9%.  Chances are, Saunders and Duke will meet somewhere in the middle of their ERAs, and end the season with fairly similar results.

Josh Outman isn't anyone's first choice to be starting for the A's, but given all the injuries to their pitchers, he's done a pretty good job of holding the fort down.  He's made seven starts in 2011, and 3.10 ERA is only slightly offset by a 3.70 FIP.  His BABIP and HR/FB are both absurdly low, however, so it's probably fair to say that he'll do some regressing going forward.

Sunday: Ian Kennedy (8-2, 3.01) vs. Gio Gonzalez (7-5, 2.38)

Insightful Commentary: Oooooohhh...this is gonna be fun.  We all know what Kennedy is capable of, but Gio Gonzalez has flown under the radar in 2011.  He's always been a big strikeout guy, but his problem in his first three seasons in the majors that kept him from being a mainstay was his walk rate.  His BB/9 is still over 4, but his strikeout rate (8.76 per nine innings) is impressive enough to offset it. 

Luckily for D-Back fans, the 25-year-old isn't as good as that 2.38 ERA would suggest, as evidenced by his .276 BABIP and his 80.9 LOB%.  Think of Gonzalez as an AL version of Jonathan Sanchez: a left-hander with good, occasionally dominating, stuff who struggles mightily with walks.

Final Verdict: The Diamondbacks aren't playing well enough to be assured of a series victory against anyone right now, especially on the road against an American League team.  But the A's have the definite feel of a team that's going in the wrong direction, with their banged-up rotation and impotent offense.  I'll say Diamondbacks two games to one.

Visit the blog that started it all (for SBNation's baseball coverage, at least) over at Athletics Nation.

GO D-BACKS!


Current Series

3 game series vs Athletics @ Overstock.com Coliseum

Arizona Diamondbacks
@ Oakland Athletics

Friday, Jul 1, 2011, 10:05 PM EDT
Overstock.com Coliseum

Josh Collmenter vs Rich Harden

Clear. Winds blowing out to center field at 10-15 m.p.h. Game time temperature around 75.

Complete Coverage >

Sat 07/02 9:05 PM EDT
Sun 07/03 4:05 PM EDT

All batting data courtesy of Baseball-Reference unless otherwise mentioned, all pitching data courtesy of Fangraphs.

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