The M’s 2015: The Upside
The variance around projections doesn’t just run one way. While it may seem hard to believe for M’s fans since 2003, the team could just as easily outpace its projected win total as undershoot it. Similarly, their divisional rivals have the same sorts of risks that we talked about yesterday. By the projection systems, the AL West is a tight three-team race, with ZiPS/Steamer showing the M’s about a win in front of the Angels, while BP’s PECOTA has the Angels on top by a bit. Clay Davenport’s projections look quite a bit different, with the A’s a game up on the M’s, with the Angels further back). ESPN’s “Experts” projections show the M’s as the clear favorite, with the Angels in 2nd. So, *people* tend to like the M’s more than the projection *systems* and there are a number of reasons for that. It’s also worth remembering that while the M’s were good last year, the Angels won 98 games and still employ Mike Trout. Still, just as there are areas where the M’s are vulnerable, there are specific projections that the M’s have a good chance of surpassing. Here are a few areas where the M’s might get more production than forecasted:
1: Tai. Juan. Walker.
It’s not that Walker’s forecast is *bad* so much as the walk rate pushes his from “excellent” to “average-y.” Last year in the Majors, Walker’s walk rate was near 4 per 9 IP. In AAA, Walker’s walk rate has been near 4 per 9 IP as well. Sometimes projections use complicated regression and aging algorithms, and some times they just look at what a pitcher’s put up in the past. This is a sensible way to project young pitchers, and arguing against it on the basis of spring training stats or 90th percentile wishcasting is generally a bad idea. And yet…Walker’s unrecognizable from the guy who debuted in 2013, and he’s changed markedly from last year too.
His new mechanics (going from the stretch exclusively) seem to have simplified his entire motion and given him much better control. Carlos Carrasco made a similar change, and had even more dramatic results last year, and while no one’s projecting *that* from Walker, it’s extremely easy to see him put up a BB rate nearer to 2 per 9 than 4. That said, it’s not just about control improvements. While the stretch doesn’t seem to provide more deception by itself, there’s something deceptive about a 96mph fastball from such an easy delivery. In the spring, his whiff rate is up slightly, but it’s his ground ball rate that’s up significantly. A sneaky-fast four-seamer and a ground-ball machine split are a good way to keep Walker’s GB rate up and his HR rate down.
The focus coming into spring was the change in his cutter/slider, but he hasn’t thrown enough of them to say much about that. Instead, the story is that he simply hasn’t needed it – simplified mechanics and a simplified arsenal have positioned him well, and a healthy, effective spring have positioned him well going into the season. ZiPS and Steamer see an ERA/FIP nearer to 4, but with half his starts in Safeco and another chunk in Oakland/Anaheim, even the occasional grooved fastball won’t hurt as much. With lower walk rates, it’s easy for biased fans like ourselves to see him beating that projection handily. At 150 IP with lower walk rates, even a HR rate above last year’s can get him closer to 3 WAR than 1-1.5 he’s looking like now.
James Paxton would work here too, as the lefty has similar projections to Walker. The difference is that those projections are based on some regression in Paxton’s HR rate; there’s nothing odd about his K:BB projections. And while Paxton’s been great at limiting his HRs thus far, I’ve been stunned at just how few fly balls he gives up. It’d be easy to see that continuing, but since I have no idea how he’s doing it, I can’t complain too much about the projections. If I had to bet, I’d take the over on Paxton too, but I think Walker has the best chance to blow his projection out of the water.
2: OF Depth
Thanks to the black hole of CF and a down year in LF, the M’s posted the worst OF batting line in the AL, and finished 29th in MLB last year. As a team, they had issues with left-handed pitching for the second consecutive year. While Lloyd McClendon hates to use the word, the M’s are positioned well to use platoons to their advantage, especially in the OF corners. Seth Smith and Justin Ruggiano aren’t great players, but they can be quite useful. This alone puts the M’s in a much, much better position than they found themselves in last year.
But don’t platoon players introduce a problem of their own? Now when someone has an injury, the replacement isn’t really geared to playing every day. Having a healthy right-handed platoon OF doesn’t really matter if you’re facing a righty that day. It’s true, and in years past, the club’s lack of OF depth has been a serious issue. With Michael Saunders hurt, the M’s turned to everyone from Cole Gillesie to Stefen Romero to Endy Chavez in the OF corners, and they simply weren’t up to the job. In 2013, when Michael Morse went down, they turned to Jason Bay, Carlos Peguero, Franklin Gutierrez and, of course, Endy Chavez, and the results were similar. The starters have underwhelmed, but the back-ups have been atrocious. It’s not like having an every-day OF protected the club – injuries have forced them to use sub-standard filler, and they’ve paid the price for it.
For the first time in a while, the M’s upper-minors depth is concentrated in bat-first corner defenders. Ketel Marte aside, the M’s have DJ Peterson and Patrick Kivlehan in the high minors this season, and while neither has played much in the minors, I think we’re all ready to move on from the Endy Chavez contingency plan (evidently, so was Chavez, who declined an assignment to Tacoma and became a free agent). These are inexperienced players, particularly in the OF, and neither is a franchise savior. What they are is very different kind of players than Romero, the last IF-to-OF conversion the M’s tried, and very different from Carlos Peguero, whose K% and swing made him hard to comp to just about anyone. Peterson offers big-league power and solid all-around bat to ball ability, while Kivlehan has completely re-made himself from a mistake hitting 3B with huge K% issues to a solid all-around bat. It’s not the Kivlehan’s stats are eye-popping, it’s that the trend line is going up. Even last year, his wRC+ went from 123 in high-A to 140 in AA (and it stayed there in the AFL). Let’s be clear, it’s not like the either is – or should be – projected to out-hit Michael Saunders, and ZiPS doesn’t even see them outpacing Stefen Romero. If you were *counting* on one or both of them contributing in 2015, that’d be a big problem. But with additional seasoning in the minors, the M’s can see first how they fare in the OF, and second how their bats are faring against tough pitching.
Beyond that, the M’s have pieces to deal for short-term help. They can move Marte, who realistically has no shot at a big league job in Seattle. If the price is right and his wrist checks out, they could deal Chris Taylor (or Brad Miller). If Paxton and Walker look good and guys like Jordan Pries look good, the M’s could move Roenis Elias. And that’s only if one or both of Smith and Ruggiano are hurt, Kivlehan, Romero and possibly Peterson fall on their face *and* the M’s are still in the race. The M’s have options in the OF, and for the first time in a while, they’re not bad ones.
3: The M’s rivals have down-side risks, too.
We’ve already gone into great detail about the areas the M’s are vulnerable to underperformance, but the A’s and Angels have plenty of their own. The Angels, for example, had surprisingly good starting pitching last year, with a top-10 staff by FIP – a few spots ahead of the Mariners. Garrett Richards led the staff, but the team stayed hot after Richards’ injury thanks to Matt Shoemaker and veterans CJ Wilson and Jered Weaver. Shoemaker was the most successful of the three, but the trio combined to go 45-22 and stabilize a staff rocked by injuries to both Richards and Tyler Skaggs.
At home, the three had very different approaches, but each had tremendous success in keeping the ball in the ballpark. Shoemaker was a revelation, with more than 5 strikeouts for every walk, and a HR/9IP rate of 0.66. CJ Wilson’s slide into mediocrity continued, but he kept up appearances at home, with more than 2 strikeouts per walk and a low HR rate producing a FIP in the mid-high 3’s. For a back of the rotation guy – never mind his salary, that’s Wilson’s role – that’s not awful. Weaver fell somewhere in the middle, with a solid K:BB ratio (though not the equal of Shoemaker’s) and an exceptionally low HR rate. While his velocity has continued to slide, Weaver’s home stats showed some reasons for optimism – that his arm angle and FB rotation might allow him to continue to be successful. Unfortunately, the Angels, like every other team, play road games.
Shoemaker’s HR rate doubled from 0.66 to 1.32 – while he continued to pound the strikezone, batters exacted a much higher price. CJ Wilson was below replacement level, with a walk rate over 13% compounded with 1.47 HR/9IP – this resulted in a FIP just about 5, and an ERA that was worse. Weaver’s HR/FB magic failed completely, and batters teed off to the tune of over 2 HR per 9IP. Weaver’s road FIP was 5.59, and while his ERA was better than that, it wasn’t good. As solid as the Angels rotation was at home, it was Richards and then a lot of slugfests on the road. The Angels offense was a potent group, but even they couldn’t salvage many of these starts, and thus the Angels, who had the same road record as the M’s, finished 11 games ahead.
Of course, huge splits of any kind aren’t some iron-clad guarantee that the Angels got lucky somehow in 2014. They’ll play half their games in Anaheim in 2015, too, and they still get to visit Oakland and Seattle several times – a good thing if your problem is home runs. For years, Weaver’s game has been based on dominating at home for whatever reason, and being average-to-a-bit-better on the road. When he was great, like in 2011, Weaver was a near-ace on the road, and nearly-unhittable at home. Since then, his road numbers have fallen quickly, while he’s managed to keep him home stats decent. In a tight division, the Angels can’t afford to just punt road games, and if Weaver’s FB falls to Zito-level velocity, then his remarkable string of “beating” his expected HRs allowed might not continue. CJ Wilson has pitched around poor platoon splits and HR issues for years, but at 34, it’s not clear he’ll be able to do so forever, especially not if he continues to walk so many batters. Matt Shoemaker, of all people, showed more pure bat-missing stuff last year, and it’s possible he could be effective in a poor-man’s-Iwakuma sort of way even if his home run rate regresses. But it’s also possible that a guy who hasn’t yet succeeded at the AAA level and dominated teams who’d never seen him before returns to earth the way Kris Medlen did in 2013.
The projection systems can see this too, for the most part; no one’s simply taking Shoemaker’s rate stats and extending them out to 200 IP in 2015. Still, there’s the potential here for a more systemic collapse, particularly if Weaver’s home form falters. Jeff had the great idea to tailor Weaver’s schedule to maximize his home (and daytime) starts, and the Angels could try that – but they can’t do it for all three of these guys. Shoemaker and Weaver already had more home starts than road ones, but if anyone needs their schedule moved around, it looks like it’s Wilson. The Angels attempted to build some depth behind the vets by trading Howie Kendrick for Andrew Heaney, and they hope to get Skaggs back at some point, but while Heaney’s a solid prospect, the loss of Kendrick means there’s less offense to help bail out the rotation. The Angels could get regression in the right direction and see the troika’s road stats move back towards average, Wilson’s control could improve a bit, and Shoemaker could do…no, he couldn’t, the entire idea of Matt Shoemaker is already the most Angels thing in history, or at least since Scott Spiezio was good. But if they don’t, the Angels may not be the good-to-very-good club ZiPS and PECOTA see, and that’d open the door to Seattle.
For Oakland, the problem’s really on the offensive side. If anything, the projected pitching WAR for the A’s looks low, though they once again rely on a number of young, untested arms. But after dealing their biggest offensive threat for a decent buy-low candidate and a promising teenage SS prospect, the A’s new look offense looks much more suspicious to the eye than the projection system. To me, the A’s have issues at 1B, SS, 3B and the OF. This isn’t to say all of these positions will be black holes, or even below average. Rather, it’s that the projections seem bullish on players with some red flags, particularly injury issues.
At 1B, the A’s have ex-Met Ike Davis penciled in. Davis famously hit 32 HRs in 2012 and then suddenly misplaced his power, accumulating 20 HRs total in the two seasons after that. His playing time slipped, which explains part of it, but then, the fact that he wasn’t hitting also explains the lack of playing time. One of the things the Mets seem to have concluded is that Davis is an extreme platoon hitter. In his career, Davis has a .577 OPS against lefties, and thus in his almost-sort-of-bounceback campaign last year, Davis had only 35 plate appearances against lefties compared to nearly 400 against righties. We talk about Ruggiano as a platoon OF, but Ruggiano can actually hit righties a bit, and *actually faces them occasionally*. While the projections don’t love Davis (and given the NL-to-AL move, the power-sapping ballparks in the AL West, and the glut of lefty pitching teams can throw at the A’s, that’s understandable), they like him enough to give him 490 PAs, with Billy Butler getting most of the rest. If Billy Butler playing defense is a better option, something’s gone wrong.
The A’s picked up Marcus Semien in the deal that sent Jeff Samardzija to Chicago, and seem to have installed him as their starting SS. Their IF coaches have done a tremendous job, but while Semien’s young, this seems like a stretch. For the White Sox, Semien split time between 2B and 3B and didn’t seem like an obvious candidate to move up the defensive spectrum. While he played SS quite a bit in the minors, he was shifting to 2B and 3B often, beginning in the Carolina league. Eno Sarris had a good article at Fangraphs about the A’s confidence in Semien, but many of the other players who’ve moved from utility-guy to SS were clear defense-first guys, from Adeiny Hechevarria to Brendan Ryan. If Semien is more of a 2B-pressed-into-SS, and if Butler gets more reps against lefties than assumed, the A’s defense as a whole could struggle. Meanwhile, even with the positional adjustment, Semien’s bat has question marks following a year in which he K’d 27.5% of the time, and hit for less power than his MiLB numbers would suggest. Since 2013, Semien’s had surprising pop for a middle infielder, and while he hasn’t been Brendan Ryan-esque, he’s played in a very hitter-friendly park and put up a .140 ISO. He’s obviously developing, but playing half his games in Oakland isn’t ideal.
That brings us to 3B, and perhaps the biggest deal of the winter. The A’s had 5-win 3B Josh Donaldson heading to arbitration, but instead flipped him for a package built around 3B Brett Lawrie and SS Franklin Barreto. The latter won’t be in the bigs for a few years, so the A’s ability to challenge the M’s rests in part on Lawrie bouncing back from two sub-par, injury plagued seasons and replacing Donaldson’s production. Right now, Lawrie’s projected for 3.5 fWAR in 560 plate appearances, shockingly close to Kyle Seager’s 3.9 in 616 plate appearances. Is Lawrie Seager’s equal on a per-PA basis, but we’ve just missed it because he’s been hurt? The short answer is no, and the longer answer is hell no. First, Lawrie’s slash lines are aided both by his home park and generated in very few games. Lawrie’s never made it to 560 PAs in the bigs, and hasn’t done so at all since AA in 2010. The A’s are confident that they can contain his hyper-aggressive style in order to keep him healthy, but they can’t change where they play. In his career, Lawrie has a .183 ISO and a 119 wRC+ at home compared to a .139 ISO and an 89 wRC+ on the road. Given his aggressive approach at the plate, Lawrie needs to hit for enough power to make up for a lack of walks. Like Semien and Davis, that’s a tall order given his new park and division. I think Lawrie’s a solid player, and a good buy-low candidate (though why you need to offer an all-star, borderline MVP candidate to get back a buy-low candidate is another question), and I can see him staying healthier than he’s been and putting up league-average or better numbers. What I can’t see is him challenging Seager’s production.
The A’s OF has seen a lot of turnover, but it’s been a solid group in recent years, with Josh Reddick and Coco Crisp anchoring the group. Crisp has aged surprisingly well, and given the A’s a better-than-league-average bat in CF in each of the past three years. Reddick has been more volatile, but produced a sneaky-good 2014 after a down 2013 campaign. The issue here is somewhat obvious given recent headlines – both Crisp and Reddick start 2015 on the DL, and injury problems are starting to mount up for both players. The A’s have some depth in Craig Gentry, and neither Crisp nor Reddick injury will keep them out for long, but the A’s are getting an early preview of what it looks like to lose both at the same time. With Sam Fuld playing CF, Craig Gentry is essentially the back-up for all three OF slots. He can’t play everywhere, so the A’s may open with Gentry, Fuld and Zobrist in the OF. Zobrist’s versatility covers a multitude of sins, but ideally, Zobrist plays on the IF, obviating the need for Eric Sogard starts. They could play Mark Canha in the OF, but Canha is both a 1B by trade and someone who’s hasn’t played a big league game as of today. They’re the A’s – they’ll figure it all out by late May, and maybe Crisp and Reddick play the rest of the games without incident. But a bad start may prove difficult to overcome if the Angels and M’s play up to their potential, and if the A’s fall behind, they could opt to trade Zobrist for prospects instead of trading Barreto for big league reinforcements.