Reinvented Josh Reddick fueling Oakland Athletics offense

If you sort the major-league leaderboards by runs scored for each team, you’ll find the Toronto Blue Jays at the top of the list. That’s probably no big surprise, given that they feature prodigious sluggers like Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion and Josh Donaldson; the Blue Jays have some serious thump in the middle of their order.

But you might be surprised to see that the Oakland A’s are not too terribly far behind the Blue Jays, with their 140 runs scored putting them in second place among all big league clubs. The A’s had a pretty good offense last year, but that was a very different lineup, including a half-season of production from Yoenis Cespedes, plus full years from the aforementioned Donaldson, the also-traded Brandon Moss and Derek Norris, and some good hitting from free-agent defection Jed Lowrie. After the A’s second-half fade and wild-card loss to Kansas City, Billy Beane spent the offseason shipping out most of his good hitters, putting together a younger roster that leaned more toward contact hitters than the homer-or-strikeout types that the team featured a year ago.

But it isn’t really the new guys leading the offensive charge for the A’s so far this year. Ben Zobrist is on the DL, and wasn’t great even before he had to start sitting out a good chunk of the season. After a hot start, Billy Butler has remembered that he’s Billy Butler and come back down to earth. Ike Davis has one home run, only one fewer than Lawrie. Instead, the lineup has been led by a couple of holdovers: Stephen Vogt and Josh Reddick.

Vogt has been a monster for the A’s, and has been perhaps the best player in baseball so far; his +1.8 WAR ranks among the league leaders. Eno Sarris tackled Vogt’s improvement, noting that while he won’t keep this up, there are reasons for optimism. Vogt might be the latest in a long list of guys who just needed a chance to play before finding their first opportunity in Oakland.

But that’s not Reddick’s story at all. He came up through the Red Sox system with plenty of hype, as Baseball America had him among the team’s top five prospects in 2008, 2009, and 2010. On their 2010 top 100 prospect list, Reddick ranked 75th overall, 10 spots ahead of some guy named Mike Trout. Reddick made it to the big leagues in Boston, and was traded to Oakland only when the Red Sox wanted to acquire All-Star closer Andrew Bailey from the A’s.

Reddick took over as the A’s everyday right fielder immediately after joining the organization, and had a breakout year in 2012, finishing 16th in the AL MVP voting thanks to a strong performance both on offense (32 home runs) and on defense (+17 UZR and a Gold Glove). But the injury problems that caused the Red Sox to trade Reddick sidelined him for significant parts of the past two seasons, and his power regressed even when he was healthy enough to play. He was still a solid enough player, but mostly contributed with average-ish offense and plus defense, and he appeared to be settling in as a solid role player rather than any kind of star.

But to start 2015, Reddick has not only looked like the star of his 2012 season, but actually something even better than he’s ever shown before. With the big caveat that he has had only 86 plate appearances, Reddick is flashing the combination of skills that could allow him to develop into an elite right fielder. Those skills? Simultaneous power and contact. Most players in baseball — the ones who aren’t just backup catchers or utility infielders, anyway — can call one of those two things something of a strength. Guys either major in hitting the ball hard or hitting the ball often, but very few can do both at the same time.

To begin this season, Reddick is posting an Isolated Slugging mark of .237 and has a contact rate of 87%. Here is the full list of players who posted an ISO over .200 last year while making contact on at least 85% of their swings: Victor Martinez. That’s it. That’s the list. If you go back to 2013, Robinson Cano did it, and Jose Bautista did it if you round his contact rate up from 84.6%. Albert Pujols has done it a bunch of times, though not lately. Peak Joe Mauer did it, as did Buster Posey. Troy Tulowitzki has done it twice. You get the idea.

Of course, we’re comparing full seasons to less than one month’s worth of performance, and it’s a lot easier to put up these kinds of numbers for 20 games than it is for 150. But it’s worth noting that even in a month’s time, this is a fairly rare accomplishment. This year, only five hitters — Vogt and Reddick, along with Matt Carpenter, Anthony Rizzo, and the surprising Zack Cozart — have posted an ISO north of .200 and a contact rate over 85%; only five players did it last April as well. This is just a difficult thing to do, especially early in the year when the ball isn’t carrying as well as it will later in the summer.

And in Reddick’s case, it does appear as though there might be a significant shift in approach that could lead to some of this improvement sticking around. In the table below, you’ll find Reddick’s plate discipline stats.

Year O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact%
2009 37% 64% 50% 72% 91% 84%
2010 36% 64% 49% 56% 89% 77%
2011 29% 65% 48% 71% 87% 82%
2012 33% 67% 50% 71% 85% 80%
2013 28% 61% 44% 68% 88% 82%
2014 31% 68% 49% 73% 87% 83%
2015 24% 56% 39% 77% 93% 88%
Career 31% 65% 48% 71% 87% 82%

The O prefix stands for outside the zone, and the Z stands for inside the zone, so you can see that historically, Reddick has swung at about 30% of the out-of-zone pitches he’s been thrown, and about 65% of pitches in the strike zone, both right around the league averages. He’s never really adopted the A’s take-a-pitch approach, and as a result, he swung at almost half the pitches he saw last year.

This year, Reddick has offered at just over 39% of the pitches he’s seen, a 10 percentage point reduction in his swing rate. That’s the fourth-largest drop of any hitter this season, and the three guys ahead of him on the list — Mike Aviles (13% drop), Charlie Blackmon (12%), and Manny Machado (11%) — are also experiencing significant upticks in power this month relative to what they did a year ago. While there’s a line at which you can absolutely be too passive, these guys all have a history of being overly aggressive, chasing pitches that resulted in weak contact; they each appear to be shifting toward a more disciplined approach, and laying off pitchers’€™ pitches is a good way to do more damage when you do put the bat on the ball.

Reddick has dramatically shifted his ball-in-play profile, moving from being an extreme flyball hitter to a guy who is hitting groundballs and line drives instead. This coincides with a greater emphasis on pulling the ball, and since Reddick’s power is almost entirely to right field — he only has two opposite-field home runs in his career — he’s migrating his contact from his weak side to his strong side. While he probably won’t keep hitting home runs at the same rate he has been earlier, a more disciplined Reddick who pulls the ball with more regularity is likely to be more productive than the one who was chasing pitches out of the zone and lifting the ball to left field too often.

It’s highly unlikely that Reddick will keep hitting as well he has, but the shifting approach suggests that Reddick might be making some actual improvements and could be stepping up as a legitimate offensive force for the A’s. While Vogt and Reddick weren’t likely middle-of-the-order hitters for the A’s coming into the season, the A’s might have found two more surprising sluggers who can help keep them in contention even after another offseason roster churn.

Now if the A’s only could get their bullpen to hold a lead, they might actually make a run at the playoffs.