Monday, July 1, 2013

Retired Numbers Series: Oakland Athletics

The Athletics have arguably had more identities than any other team in the Majors. With a history spanning three cities (and possibly counting), over 110 seasons, and several distinct eras, they should have numerous interesting players to honor. However, no original team, in the American or National league, has as few retired numbers as the A’s. What does the future hold for them?

Notes on the Numbers

Some quick notes on the stats: the two most prominent stats I used are similarly named. Both are called WAR, or Wins Above Replacement. They both try to account for every part of a player’s game, including, but not limited to: offense, defense, position, and playing time. So, it is a counting stat, like hits or home runs (with the small difference that bad seasons can actually decrease your WAR, if you are worse than a replacement player). WAR credits a player with how many wins they have provided to their team. They aren’t perfect, but for my purposes (a single number showing roughly how good a player has been), they work perfectly.

There are two major sites that provide WAR, Baseball-Reference (henceforth called bWAR) and Fangraphs (fWAR). The two are mostly the same, with the biggest difference coming from the different fielding stats the two use. Fangraphs has a fairly good summary of what makes up WAR and how it is calculated (for those wanting a more general summary, the introduction works just fine). Pitching is slightly different: Fangraphs’ WAR for pitchers, until recently (as in, after I started this series), only went back to 1974, so for my purposes, I stuck to just bWAR for them.

The Already Retired Numbers

The Athletics, as mentioned, have retired five numbers so far. Their earliest didn’t come until 1991, when they honored number 27 for Catfish Hunter. Hunter pitched a decade in Oakland (1965 to 1974), earning 26.6 bWAR and 24.6 bWAR in that time. Hunter’s career marks were 36.6 bWAR and 33.3 fWAR.

Rollie Fingers (number 34) would be retired next, two years later. His nine years (1968 to 1976), like Hunter’s, encompassed the 1972-1974 A’s three-peat, which saw Fingers serve as closer. 12.0 of his 25.0 career bWAR and 13.0 of his 23.1 fWAR came in those nine years, as well as 136 of his 341 saves.

It would be a little over a decade until they retired their next number, 9, in honor of Reggie Jackson. Jackson was yet another star from the 1972 to 1974 A’s; in total, he was with the franchise for ten years (1967 to 1975 with a return in his final season, 1987). The Hall of Fame slugger hit 269 of his 563 homers there and put up 48.2 bWAR and 45.1 fWAR. His 21 season career was worth 74.0 bWAR and 72.8 fWAR in total.

The year after that, number 43 was retired for Dennis Eckersley. Only nine of his twenty-four seasons came in the green-and-gold, totaling 15.9 bWAR and 18.6 fWAR. In all, the Hall of Famer was worth 62.5 bWAR and 63.3 fWAR.

And finally, just four years ago, number 24 was retired in honor Rickey Henderson. Henderson leads all Athletics position players in both forms of WAR, with 72.3 bWAR and 68.6 fWAR. Henderson had four different stints as an A totaling fourteen seasons, while in total, he had 110.7 bWAR and 106.2 fWAR across twenty-five seasons.

Compared to the League

I have three different categories I can look at to compare different team’s standards: I can compare fWAR with bWAR, career WAR with WAR while with the team, and the medians with the averages.

The Athletics are sort of all over the place. Reggie and Rickey rank higher among position players than the pitchers do in their group, so fWAR in general puts the Athletics higher (since I just looked at hitters for it). Every fWAR category has them in the upper half of teams (including first quartile placement in career fWAR rankings), while every bWAR category has them below the median. They again rank higher overall in career values, too, since all of the retirees spent time elsewhere.

The A’s have retired five numbers. That ties them for eighteenth in league, equal with their fellow Californians the Padres and Angels. This also puts them last among the original sixteen teams, although given their moves across the nation, this seems reasonable.

So Who’s Next?

Although Wikipedia doesn’t mention a team rule requiring Hall enshrinement, it seems reasonable to assume that they follow that policy, based just on their history. Additionally, every player they’ve honored to date has played primarily with the Oakland incarnation of the franchise. This doesn’t guarantee that they’ll continue with these policies, but it is worth keeping in mind when considering future honorees.

Just going down the position player WAR leaderboards, there’s agreement at the top-Rickey Henderson is the unanimous number one, followed by Jimmie Foxx. The Great Double X managed 65.1 fWAR and 62.5 bWAR from his time with the Philadelphia A’s (1925 to 1935). And he actually wore a uniform number for them, too (several different ones, but primarily 3). However, as mentioned, playing in Philadelphia probably dooms his chances. Maybe someday, the team will go back to honor those players, but I don’t see much of a reason to do so. Not now, at least, so Foxx will probably hold on to his title of Best Hall of Famer with a Non-Retired Number.*

*I made a Sporcle Quiz about the best players without retired numbers, but I apparently never wrote anything for it like I meant to. Maybe I should revisit it?

Unanimous third place Eddie Collins and Al Simmons (fourth in fWAR, fifth in bWAR) run into the same problem. Well, Collins also has the problem of never having worn a uniform number, but the location is presumably a bigger issue, seeing as other number-less players got retired symbols. Collins spent thirteen of his twenty-five seasons in Philly (1906 to 1924 and 1927 to 1930, although four or five of the “seasons” are of debatable length) and totaled 52.7 bWAR (124.0 total) and 56.3 fWAR (121.4 total) while there. Simmons, in contrast, wore a plethora of different numbers for many different teams, including just four for his different times with the Athletics. His twelve seasons there (1924 to 1932, 1940 to 1941, 1944) saw him manage 50.8 of his 68.6 bWAR and 52.2 of his 69.9 fWAR. With Philadelphia A’s stars, though, the line probably starts behind Foxx (and a certain other pitcher, soon to be named).

The final member of the top five actually was an Oakland player-third baseman Sal Bando. He’s yet another member of the 1972-4 teams that they have drawn from previously (his full eleven-year tenure in green and gold lasted from 1966 to 1976), so there’s that going for him too. And on top of that, he was actually really good. Like, Hall of Fame-snub-level good. Third base is historically underrepresented in Cooperstown, and Bando is one of the better players not in. With 61.6 bWAR (52.2 as an A) and 56.2 fWAR (47.4), he rates as one of the better players not in the Hall. The Hall of Stats gives him a Hall Rating of 118, well above the 100 mark that serves as the borderline (and even then, the Hall of Stats has even higher standards than the Hall of Fame). If the Veterans Committee ever gets around to inducting third basemen (or if the A’s decide they won’t follow a Hall of Fame rule for retired numbers), Bando could very easily see his number retired.

Another underrated infielder from the ‘70s joins Bando in the top ten: shortstop Bert Campaneris. It’s almost a shock that team hasn’t produced more retired numbers. Think about it; a lot of above-average players locked in for the long term (thanks to no free agency yet) who ran off a dynasty just a few years after moving to a new city? That seems like the kind of team fans would get nostalgic about. Anyway, Campaneris’s thirteen-season tenure (1964 to 1976) saw him stake his claim as best shortstop in the game (for a little while, at least). Those thirteen years saw 42.5 fWAR and 49.2 bWAR. Campaneris didn’t do much after departing Oakland, but since we’re talking about a team-specific honor, it’s debatable how much that matters. Either way, he’s probably in the same boat as Bando; Sal’s underrated-ness might hurt himself, but he does have a better Hall case than Bert. I’d still say Bando is the more likely of the two.

Also in the top ten are Bob Johnson and Home Run Baker. I think my reasoning on Philadelphia players is pretty clear, so after the top ten, I’m going to stop mentioning them specifically. Johnson and Baker were both pretty good, though, even if they are a little buried on the history depth chart.

Rounding out the top ten (both versions have the same players, just a different order) are Reggie Jackson and a modern comparable player, Mark McGwire. Like Jackson, McGwire was a Three True Outcomes* (walk, strikeout, or homer) slugger with over 500 home runs and a memorable career moment coming after leaving Oakland. For Mark, twelve of his sixteen seasons, 42.8 of his 62.0 bWAR, and 44.4 of his 66.3 fWAR came as an A. He also played for three pennant winners in his stretch (1988-90), which isn’t quite the ’72-4 dynasty, but it’s still good. I think he does stand a good chance of making the Hall eventually, too; I think the public perception of players tied to steroids will warm up eventually. So long-term, I feel pretty comfortable estimating that Mark will eventually see his number 25 retired.

*Over 45% of McGwire plate appearances ended in a home run, walk, or whiff. This blows my mind. Reggie stands at just a hair under 40%, which is still pretty incredible. Off the top of my head, I wouldn’t be shocked if those rates are 1-2 in history.

A couple more Philly stars follow, then we get to our first Moneyball-era hitter, Eric Chavez at fifteen (on both lists). Chavez will go down as one of the greatest “what-ifs” in baseball lore, I think. In his youth, he was a two-way threat at the hot corner, with a golden glove and a solid bat. But his “thirteen” seasons (1998 to 2010, with four of those consisting of 33 games or fewer) had only 1320 games in them, just over 100 games per season. Despite only having about nine seasons worth of games, Chavez still managed 34.8 bWAR and 32.1 fWAR. If he had stayed healthy, this would be an easier question. I’m not sure he has a better case just based on straight data than any of the 1970s players who are unretired, but he does represent a different era; if you want to tell a full team history, you would need someone from that A’s team. And although Miguel Tejada and Jason Giambi were more famous, neither took a discount to stay with the team like Chavez did. It’s complicated; if there is, in fact, no rule on the Hall of Fame for A’s retired numbers (or if they ignore that later), a groundswell of support may push Chavez over. At the same time, one of the Big 3 (all coming up later) may also better represent that time. Also, I may just be a little too sentimental about Chavez (odd, since I’m not really an A’s fan); I may be overestimating his chances.

Dwayne Murphy immediately follows Chavez on both lists (31.5 bWAR, 30.4 fWAR). Murphy seems like the type of player to be underrated and forgotten (and I admit, I had never heard about him until now, at least, not that I can recall). A lot of his value comes from his defense-the center fielder’s decade in Oakland (1978 to 1987) saw him win six Gold Gloves, something backed up by modern numbers. He also had a great batting eye (14.3% walk rate), which added to his batting value. However, glove-and-walk guys are traditionally underrated, and I struggle to think of a reason to retire his number and not Sal Bando or Eric Chavez. They both had solid control of the strike zone and above-average gloves too, but were better hitters overall (as well as more notable in team history). And on top of that, Murphy awkwardly straddles the 1970s and 1980s boom periods, which probably robs him of any theoretical bonus points.

The next two Oakland hitters are Jason Giambi and Jose Canseco. Both were there for shorter lengths of time than more or less every player mentioned so far, so longevity is a knock. Also, neither were on McGwire’s level of play, but have the steroid stigma, meaning any number retiring for them would have to come after him. Giambi is more well-liked than Canseco (I don’t have any hard data on this, but I feel like that’s a fair assumption), and he definitely had the better career (51.9 bWAR to 42.3 bWAR, 50.1 fWAR to 41.8 fWAR). Their time with the A’s was pretty equal, though, with Giambi posting 28.8 bWAR and 27.9 fWAR in eight years (1995 to 2001, 2009) to Canseco’s 27.1 bWAR and 27.6 fWAR in nine years (1985 to 1992, 1997). I’d say Giambi is more likely, but I don’t think either is very likely right now. Maybe time will help Giambi some (especially if his stays around the game and builds up more good will); Canseco has kind of missed the boat on that account.

After those two, the lists start to differentiate more, meaning we’re getting more into players that didn’t stand out as much as those I’ve already listed. At this point, it’s probably better to turn the approach around; rather than look down the list’s best players and see what else is going for them, it might be better to just list other notable hitters and see if they measure up. I can think of two examples like this: Miguel Tejada and Gene Tenace.

Both had their runs during high points of the team. Tenace severed as Oakland catcher for eight seasons, again covering the 1972-4 teams (1969 to 1976). Like Bando, Tenace may have a better Hall case than you realize, especially once you account for the scarcity of Hall of Fame catchers. Even then, he’s still not even on Bando’s level, and as mentioned, there are other players from those years that probably have an even better case. Baseball-Reference puts his time in Oakland at 23.6 wins above replacement, while Fangraphs has him at 22.6 wins.

Tejada, meanwhile, won an MVP (a questionable choice for the year, but that still counts) for the early-2000s teams. Like Giambi, though, he’ll probably be docked for leaving for other teams as well as steroids, meaning he’s fairly low priority. Really, Giambi was better both in Oakland and overall, meaning Tejada starts at least below him, priority-wise. From 1997 to 2003, Tejada was worth 22.0 bWAR and 16.8 fWAR.

We’ve pretty much covered the team’s batting history, so we can probably move on to the pitchers. Unsurprisingly, the unretired number list is led by a lot of Philadelphia A’s. With respect to Eddie Rommel, Rube Waddell, Chief Bender, Rube Walberg, and all the other aces of that era, Eddie Plank and Lefty Grove are the only pitchers who will likely have any shot to be honored right now.

Plank is the pitchers’ answer to Eddie Collins, in that he doesn’t have a number to actually retire. Combining the lack of a number with the team’s moves means that, for as good as he was, he probably won’t ever be considered. From 1901 to 1914, Plank pitched for the A’s, amassing 73.7 bWAR and 61.6 fWAR. Both marks lead the franchise.

Lefty Grove, then, is the equivalent to Jimmie Foxx.He actually wore a number (10), and was one of the transcendent stars of his era, with 109.9 bWAR and 93.3 fWAR in his career. Some of that did come after a trade to the Red Sox, but even then, from 1925 to 1933, he put up 54.8 fWAR and 65.2 bWAR for the Athletics. Foxx and Grove are probably the only two pre-Oakland players with any shot of getting a retired number, but it’s not much of a shot.

The A’s have covered a lot of their more recent pitchers, between Fingers, Eckersley, and Hunter. Surprisingly, though, none of those three are even in the top three in either WAR for the post-move team. Baseball-Reference puts Tim Hudson at the top of that group (31.0 bWAR), while Fangraphs puts him second (27.9 fWAR). Either way, both put him sixth overall. That came in only six seasons, too (1999 to 2004), giving him fewer innings than any other pitcher in the franchise top ten; basically, he was really good in his short time there. He’s managed some surprising longevity in Atlanta too, recently notching his 200th career win. If he gets Hall support, it wouldn’t be too out of place for him to get a retired number like Eckersley or Hunter; I’m just not sure that he’ll get any. He’s sort of in no-man’s land right now.

Vida Blue is the Oakland pitcher leading Hudson in fWAR, as he managed 33.0 from 1969 to 1977. He also managed 29.1 bWAR, which falls behind Hudson and another Oakland pitcher. Blue would be the third 1972 to 1974 dynasty pitcher with a retired number, but he lacks the Hall of Fame point that worked for Hunter and Fingers. Unlike Hudson, whose candidacy is still an unknown, or McGwire and Bando, who have an argument that they’re undervalued, we know how Blue’s Hall case turned out and there isn’t much of an argument that he deserved different. He’ll pretty much require a change in the retired number rules. I don’t see him as more likely than Hudson, and I would even put Hudson behind several of the batters.

The other pitcher trading top-three spots with Hudson and Blue is Hudson’s fellow Big Three member, Barry Zito. Zito had a solid enough start to his career; his seven seasons as an Athletic saw him produce 30.9 bWAR and 24.9 fWAR. His San Francisco career has more or less derailed any Hall hopes though, and I don’t know if he stands out as more notable or deserving than his ex-rotation mate Hudson or former-MVP Blue. Maybe if those Zito-led A's had won a little more, he could have gotten a better case built up on nostalgia, or on being honored with Hudson as part of a group. As is, he’s sort of just on the same level as Blue, I would say.

Really, I suppose that’s it for pitchers. I may as well bring up Mark Mulder to complete the Big Three discussion, but his time was the shortest of the group. Mulder started in 2000, but was out of Oakland after 2004 and out of baseball after 2008 due to injuries. His short time was great (19.7 bWAR, 18.1 fWAR), but just not enough. He would more or less require a group ceremony with Hudson and Zito, and I highly doubt that happens.

Dave Stewart may also merit consideration, as the ace of the late-80s/early-90s teams. He lasted longer than Mulder, playing parts of sixteen seasons (1986 to 1992, 1995 as an A), but his peaks weren’t quite as high (19.0 bWAR, 21.2 fWAR). And like Mulder, his time as an Athletic was really the only notable part of his career. There just really isn’t any reason to consider him while so many other candidates remain.

Managers are a bit more of a gray area, but Tony La Russa may be the first manager to have his number retired by the Athletics. The Cardinals have already retired his number, but he wouldn’t be the first person with his number retired twice, or even the first manager. La Russa managed from 1986 to 1995, going 798-673 (a .542 winning percentage) while winning a World Series, two additional pennants, and two Manager of the Year awards. That sounds like about as strong of a case as you can build for a manger. We’ll probably get a resolution within a year, as La Russa should be up for Hall voting this winter, meaning the 2014 season would be an ideal time to make a move.

That just leaves us with the current team. however, the current group seems a little light on franchise players, so to speak. The team’s done a great job at building a winning ensemble cast. However, few of the players are the type of young, rising star who will stay with the team for ten or fifteen years. When adding in the club’s current financial situation, we aren’t even sure how long they would retain such a player (although a move to San Jose or Sacramento may change that, since we’re talking extremely long-term). Yoenis Cespedes is talented, but already 27 and only signed for two more seasons after this one. 26-year-old Josh Reddick has struggled after his breakout 2012. Same goes for 24-year-old pitcher Jarrod Parker. 25-year-old A.J. Griffin has been good, but still doesn’t even have 200 innings under his belt between this year and last. There really just aren’t many players you can dream on.

So, In Closing...

As of right now, the players that I think are most likely to get their numbers retired by the Oakland Athletics in the future are, in order:

Tony La Russa-10
Mark McGwire-25
Sal Bando-6
Bert Campaneris-19
Tim Hudson-15
Jason Giambi-16
Eric Chavez-3
Jose Canseco-33
Gene Tenace-18
Miguel Tejada-4
Vida Blue-14/35
Barry Zito-75
Yoenis Cespedes-52
Dwayne Murphy-21
Mark Mulder-20
Dave Stewart-34
Jimmie Foxx-3
Lefty Grove-10
Al Simmons-7
Eddie Collins
Eddie Plank

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