There’s no question quality defense is an important factor in winning regular season games and making a deep run in the playoffs. Completing double plays, cutting off runners trying to advance or simply faking a throw to keep a runner honest is crucial to regular season and postseason success. The A’s have struggled with defense this season, with the only saving graces being timely hitting and outstanding pitching. To continue to reach the postseason over the next couple of seasons the A’s will need to address this problem sooner rather than later. The Green and Gold finished 23rd this season in total team defense finishing the regular season with a .982 fielding percentage. Compare this to the 2006 ALCS run when they finished with the 3rd best fielding percentage in the regular season at .986% and you can see where the team will need to improve to repeat this year’s success. It may only seem like .004% but with over a thousand innings in a season and thousands of attempts this number is magnified exponentially causing it to be a concern.
Fielding percentage certainly is not an absolute way to value a team’s defense or their overall performance on the season. An example would be this year when the A’s won the AL West and finished 23rd in team defense. The reason why fielding percentage is not perfect is because it does not take into account different variables that can cause the percentage to move up or down. A team who has great defenders with big ranges (ability to reach the ball) can sometimes have lower fielding percentages because of the higher number of attempts they make. An example more closely related to the A’s would be Cliff Pennington. Pennington’s range at shortstop led him to have chances at balls more often than other players. Sometimes he misplayed them which led to errors. The problem is a normal player would not even have even had a chance at that ball and therefore it would end up being a hit.
The reason why I chose to look at fielding percentage is because for the most part the A’s do not have great range (especially in the infield other than Pennington) and therefore the number is as viable as any others. It may not be perfect but it is a simple way to look at a very visible problem.
The real problem lies within the scouting of a player’s value. Defense is a vital part of a player’s value that the A’s research. GM Billy Beane mentioned a couple seasons ago that he measures a player’s value in terms of runs on a continuum. To give an example: Player X produces 50 runs offensively but costs his team 40 runs defensively, a difference of plus 10 runs. Let’s say he has a 4 year $40 million deal since offensive players make more money than defensive ones. Player Y produces 30 runs of offense but helps his team by saving his team 10 runs defensively, a difference of plus 40 runs. Since Player Y is considered a “defensive” player his contract is 2 years $10 million. Even though teams generally take Player X he is not the better value. Player Y is on a short contract making $5 million less per year and adding 40 runs to the team overall by producing 30 runs and saving 10 runs.
What does this mean? This means that Beane looks at players defensive numbers more closely than that of other teams and therefore can get players with value at a discount. The problem is that the A’s have finished 29th and 23rd in defense the last two years respectively. This does not mean that Beane has lost his touch by any means, but it does mean it needs to be monitored more closely. Even though the first two games of the ALDS against the Tigers is a small sample size the A’s have made some game changing errors that could end up sending them home early this postseason. It cost them Game 1 when Jarrod Parker misplayed a grounder back to him and it cost them Game 2 when George Kottaras misplayed a ball in the dirt as well as Coco Crispmisplaying a fly ball in centerfield.
The A’s major concern defensively is in the infield. With Yoenis Céspedes, Coco Crisp (even with his bad arm see The Coco Crisp Effect), and Josh Reddick in the outfield the A’s have three gold glove quality defenders. The infield defense will be improved if Stephen Drew’s contract option is exercised (along with a healthy offseason) and Cliff Pennington seeing a full season at second base. It will be interesting to see how third base works out with Brandon Inge wanting to return and Josh Donaldson playing so well offensively. The wild card in this scenario is top prospect Grant Green who is at Triple-A Sacramento.
Gm Billy Beane is extremely intelligent when it comes to finding players that fit the needs of the team. He obviously takes into account defensive numbers along with the offensive ones. However, it seems lately that defense has taken the back seat to offense. I don’t think A’s fans will complain with this changing of adding players but it does need to be looked at a little more closely. Offense is great but when your team depends on its pitching as a crutch the defense needs to be a more important factor. Finishing 23rd in team defense is no longer excusable. This is a playoff team. Let’s hope sloppy defense it does not cost the A’s Game 3 and their 2012 playoff hopes.