Five Questions: Oakland Athletics

It’s a mis-named series, since I’ve only got four questions. Still, on behalf of all Oakland partisans, I ask:

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We’ll see if Oakland fans are so forgiving (Icon/SMI)

Who’s going to be “your boy” this year?

Every year, I dub an Oakland Athletic “my boy.” Whenever that player does something good, I run around the house screaming like an idiot, “That’s my boy!” Past recipients of this dubious honor have been Bobby Crosby, Nick Swisher, Chad Gaudin, and—most embarassingly—Esteban Loaiza. My track record may not be great, but in sabermetrics it is the process that matters more than the result. Soldier on, I must!

This year, my boy is going to be Dallas Braden. Despite having been on the radar seemingly forever, Braden is only 25 years old. Over the last two years, he has struck out well over a batter per inning at Triple-A while walking about 2.2 batters per nine. His stuff is dubious, except for a mysterious screwball that he may or may not throw, but he deserves a shot at the rotation. He’ll likely get one this year, and while he’s not an All-Star, he could be worth up to two wins if he starts full-time. Getting that type of production from your non-prospects means not having to overpay for a guy like Oliver Perez.

Are the A’s collecting the 2002 All-Star team?

If so, Jason Giambi and Nomar Garciaparra are a nice start. Oakland also made an ultimately unsuccessful play for Randy Johnson.

Remember when plugging holes with declining veterans was sabermetric anathema? Times have changed. Three or four years ago, multi-year deals for a guy like Jason Giambi would have been the norm. Think of the contracts that Jay Payton and Kevin Millar got. One-year contracts mitigate a lot of the risks involved with veteran gambits.

For the A’s, Garciaparra is a non-Hannahanian hedge against the never-quite-right Eric Chavez. Orlando Cabrera, while nothing special, won’t tilt the scales at zero wins above replacement, which once-and-future-MVP Bobby Crosby is liable to do. The A’s, hoping to compete this year while they have Matt Holliday under contract, are doing the right thing. The downside is that, come next offseason, the A’s will again be scrambling for solutions on the left side of the infield.

Has Jason Giambi ever been to Oakland?

The Giambi signing makes a little less sense. Daric Barton isn’t nearly the hitter Giambi is, but there’s a decently-sized defensive gap. I wasn’t a fan of the Giambi signing initially, considering it a lateral move at best, but I’m starting to come around. A little time at Triple-A could do Barton some good, and it’s not likely that Giambi and Travis Buck are going to be healthy all the time anyhow. Barton will get a chance to contribute this year, and the Giambi signing is more about depth for the inevitable rash of injuries than it is an end to Barton’s Oakland career.

And Giambi gets to follow in the footsteps of Mike Piazza and Frank Thomas, two other late-career sluggers the A’s signed in the past few years. But Giambi is also very different than those two because of his previous history in Oakland. He was the central figure on the early-decade Oakland juggernauts. No Oakland fan will forget his walk-off homer against Mike Stanton, capping a late-August sweep of the dreaded Yankees and putting the exclamation mark on an 11-game winning streak. Giambi was supposed to the lead the A’s to the promised land, past the Yankees, and into the World Series. Instead, he signed with the enemy. He went on Letterman and said bad things about Oakland. He was booed mercilessly in Oakland. I was there. I booed, too.

There’s a certain bit of karmic retribution, then, to have Giambi come back to Oakland, ringless as the day he left for New York. Get on the field and earn your way back into my heart, G.

Do the A’s seriously think they can catch the Angels?

They do, and they’re not crazy to think so. The answer has little to do with the individual team rosters. Excuse me for a minute while I totally geek out.

Teams have some level of true talent, and analysts try to determine what that talent is. That true talent could be dynamic. That true talent might be calculated exactly by BaseRuns and Pythagoras, or it might be hard to know because a team has the clutchiest players who ever did clutch. It doesn’t really matter how a team wins game, as long as we recognize that some teams are better at it than others.

When we look past the homers, the drama, and—yes—the fun, the baseball season is just a collection of weighted coin tosses. In any given 162-game trial, a 90-win team could win 90 times, and on average it will. But sometimes it will win 95 or 100 games, or maybe only 85. If a 90-win team wins only 85 games it doesn’t mean that it is unlucky or unclutch. It just is, and it’s something that a lot of baseball fans have a hard time accepting. By the same token, an inferior team—say, an 81-win team—can win 90 games in a 162-game trial.

So, there’s a possbility that a .500 team out-wins a .550 team over the course of a season. How likely is it? I worked this problem out a few years ago, and I’ll spare you the details, but the answer is about 1-in-6.

Are the Angels a better team than the A’s? Probably. How much? That’s up for debate. A reasonable estimate is that the A’s are between four and six games worse than their rivals to the north. In that case, the A’s stand about a 30 percent chance of winning the division.

Maybe you think all the numbers make me a killjoy. I beg to differ. The numbers show that, even when one team is clearly better, there’s still a pretty good chance that we get the unexpected result. When teams are within a few games of each other, we’ve officially entered too-close-to-call territory. And, to me at least, that’s what makes it so much fun.

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