TDG’S Triple Play: Oakland Athletics!
The Triple Play is back for a sixth season! This regular feature is broken down by senior writer Phil Barrington and he is joined by a rotating panel of some of the best Dynasty Baseball writers in the business. If you’re new to the Triple Play, this series breaks down an arm, a bat, and a prospect within each organization for your reading pleasure!
This week I (@barrington_phil) am joined by Greg Hoogkamp (@GregHoogkamp) and Drew Klein (@aok_fan) follow us on Twitter and send us any questions, feedback, disagreements, what have yous, in the comments.
JJ Bleday, Age: 25, Position: OF
Analysis by: Drew Klein
Running Down the Dream
Just four years ago JJ Bleday was the fourth overall pick in the 2019 MLB draft. He was taken after Adley Rutschman, Bobby Witt, and Andrew Vaughn, and before Riley Greene, CJ Abrams, and Josh Jung. In that same draft, Gunnar Henderson was the 42nd overall pick (so your favorite team passed on him at least once, but I digress).
At the time, it made perfect sense that Bleday was picked so high. All projections had him going in the top ten, and most had him in the top five. Bleday had been a star at Vanderbilt, where he started as a two-way player, then stopped pitching to focus on hitting. He started emerging as a hitter his sophomore year and went to the Cape Cod League in 2018 where he was named the Outstanding Pro Prospect. In his junior year at Vandy he led Division 1 with 27 home runs, which was also the school record, and was named SEC Player of the Year.
Workin’ on a mystery, goin’ wherever it leads
At the time, there was a lot to like. The scouting reports considered him one of the best pure hitters, with a quick swing, noting his control of the strike zone and ability to drive the ball to all fields. There are multiple reports praising his plus hit tool, excellent walk-to-strikeout ratio, and ability to tap into his raw power.
A deeper look, however, reveals that even before the draft, some of the cracks were showing. His setup at the plate, brushed off as “quirky” in one description, gave some analysts cause for concern. He would dip his head as pitchers began their windups, and he had a pronounced hitch in his swing. His compact swing and strong hands overcame these flaws at the college level, but there were concerns that at higher levels pitchers would be able to take advantage. ESPN’s Keith Law may have been particularly prescient when he wrote:
Hitch or not, Bleday has never had trouble tracking the ball at any point in his college career. He has even added a bit of loft to his swing, which would explain the significant jump in power. However, if it leads to any contact issues as he faces better pitching at the pro level, it would put a bit of a damper on Bleday’s overall ceiling.
Felt so good, like anything was possible
After being drafted, Bleday was assigned to High A where in 151 plate appearances he posted a respectable .257 batting average but only managed to hit three home runs. I can’t say how much losing the 2020 season may have hurt him, but he did struggle in 2021 in Double-A, posting a .212/.323/.373 stat line. Although he started to show some power with 12 home runs, he had a 21.6% K rate and 13.7% BB rate; very different from his college ratios. The bright spot to this inconsistent season was his performance at the Arizona Fall League where he was named the co-Hitter of the Year.
In 2022 the Marlins promoted him to Triple-A where he found his power stroke. In 368 plate appearances he hit 20 home runs, but still struggled with a .228 batting average and his K rate jumped to 27%. The power surge earned him a promotion to the majors where he struggled mightily, posting a .167/.277/.309 slash line and a career-high 28.2% K rate. After the trade to Oakland this year, he’s had a similar season, hitting well at Triple-A (.316/.429/.643 slash line and a career-low 12.6% K rate), then struggling in the majors with a .240/.296/.480 slash line and 25.9% K rate, a slight improvement over his major league stats in 2022.
It was always cold, no sunshine
So what’s going wrong? He’s not doing a lot of the things that made him successful in college. In 2021 and 2022 his flyball rate was around 50%, resulting in low BABIP and average. In 2023, his flyball rate is down below 40%, however, the line drive rate hasn’t changed and he’s replaced his fly balls with ground balls. He no longer hits with power to all fields, as his pull rate is over 50%, and even with shift restrictions, that’s a lot of ground ball outs to the right side of the infield. The numbers indicate his plate discipline is at league averages (O-swing, Z-swings, and contact rates are all at league average), so either he’s pressing too hard trying to pull with power, or pitchers are tying him up.
There’s something good waitin’ down this road
It’s hard to say exactly what the fantasy outlook is, but it’s safe to say he is not the can’t-miss player you expect from a fourth overall pick. The potential is still there, and it’s likely that major league coaching will help him put all the pieces together and help him develop into a major league hitter who will provide solid left-handed power. It’s also quite possible that Bleday is destined to be a 4-A player. He’s a bit too risky for me to stash him in all but the deeper leagues, but he is on all my watch lists, and if and when he starts to pull it together, I’ll be adding him. It’s too early to give up completely on this post-hype prospect.
J.P. Sears, Age: 27, Position: SP
Analysis by: Phil Barrington
John Patrick Sears Jr. hails from South Carolina where he attended the Military College of South Carolina, also known as The Citadel. He had a successful three-year career there, which led to him being drafted in the 11th round, lucky 333rd overall, by the Seattle Mariners in 2017. Only pitching 27.2 innings for the franchise, the left-hander was dealt to the New York Yankees that November in a forgettable trade. The Yankees brought him up through their system and he made his big-league debut for them in 2022.
Sears’ time in the Big Apple could not have gone better; he pitched 22 innings to a 2.05 ERA and 0.86 WHIP, and what did he win? An all expenses paid trip to the Bay Area!…along with three others (two of them fellow members of the current A’s rotation) in the deal that sent former ace Frankie Montas to the Bronx. The A’s put him right in the rotation, though it was a bit rougher; in nine starts he pitched to a 4.69 ERA and unsightly 1.48 WHIP. 2023 has not trended in the right direction thus far, but there’s hope, if you’re into that sort of thing.
In college he struck out 20 hitters in one game and 19 in another; 317 in total over 252 innings in three seasons for The Citadel. Sears did the same in the MiLB, striking out 346 batters in 282 innings. He has a 9.43 K/9 thus far in 2023 over nine starts, including one game striking out 11 Texas Rangers, and three other games with 6+ Ks. So, while he doesn’t have the size of a Kershaw or Verlander, coming in at 5’11”, 180 pounds, Sears can still strike guys out at a high level with upside.
Sears relies on three pitches, a 4-Seam Fastball, a Sweeper, and a change-up. Note that Fangraphs is not using the Sweeper pitch, calling it his slider, as the Sweeper pitch name comes more into fashion. Kyle Gibson described it as “a slider with more side-to-side.”
Maintaining a low walk rate has been a hallmark of Sears for years, as he walked only 76 batters in 282 MiLB innings pitched, good for a 2.39 BB/9. This season Sears is sporting a well below average of 1.85 BB/9; he is doing his thing and not walking anybody. Where Sears is getting hit hard is on his change-up, as hitters are batting .341 against it, compared to only .250 against his heater and .231 against the sweeper. Hitters are sitting on that change it appears. Sears is also in the bottom 15% of Barrel %, which means when guys are getting a hold of his pitches, they are not missing.
Rostered in 35% of Fantrax leagues and only 5% of Yahoo ones, wins are not going to be there for Sears this season (and probably the next few, as he will cost the A’s a relative pittance and he does not reach free agency until 2029). Yet to take an at-bat at the big-league level, Sears is a rare type, batting right-handed while throwing left-handed (the best one that did this, of course, is Rickey Henderson. As I do the same, I keep track of these guys).
Upcoming games at the Mariners, home versus the Braves, then on the road for a while, with starts at the Pirates, the Brewers and the Rays. Two out of those he should be started, and with the home park he pitches in (for now, who knows what ridiculous bandbox they will build in the desert) should provide solid ratios. Quality starts (three out of nine thus far in 2023) are also attainable. With the investment cost so low currently (and free in many leagues) why not jump in for those two starts against the Pirates and Brewers at minimum?
Denzel Clarke, Age: 23, Position: OF, Level: Double-A
Analysis by: Greg Hoogkamp
“Search and Rescue”
Being a fellow native Canadian, I had to write about Denzel Clarke as our prospect from the A’s system. Clarke hails from Thornhill, Ontario and was drafted in the 36th round of the 2018 draft by the Mets out of Everest Academy. He ultimately decided to pass on starting his professional career and instead chose to go the college route and attend Cal State-Northridge. He raised his draft stock significantly during his time as a Matador slashing .298/.416/.531 in 404 plate appearances while slugging 16 home runs and stealing 32 bases. After his Junior year, Oakland selected him in the 4th round of the 2021 draft. Clarke is a toolsy athlete who is listed at 6’5, 220 lbs with even more projection in his frame. He runs well (55 current/50 future on Fangraphs) for someone his size and has a lot of raw power (60 current/70 future on Fangraphs). The athletic bloodlines are strong in his family; his Mother Donna competed as a heptathlete in the 1984 Olympics in Los Angeles. He is also cousins with Josh, Bo, and (soon to be drafted) Myles Naylor.
“Started from the Bottom”
Clarke played a handful of games late in his draft year to get his feet wet, but had his first full season of pro ball in 2022. He split the season between Low-A Stockton and High-A Lansing where he put up a respectable .248/.365/.469 with 15 HR/30 SB line in 411 plate appearances. He did a good job getting on base as well, walking at a 13.6% clip. Where Clarke struggled was with his strikeouts; his K rate was 32.8%. What’s interesting, is that the high strikeout rate is not due to an elevated chase rate; 26.2% is pretty good for a slugger like Clarke. The main culprit is his poor zone contact rate of 67.6%; he’s whiffing at pitches in the zone at a fairly regular clip. This is fairly common for a player of his stature. He has a big strike zone and it’s natural for tall players to have longer swings. Staying short to the ball will still allow him to use his power to his advantage; he can hit the ball out to any field in any park. His 90th percentile exit velocity sits at 103.6 mph which would put him in the top half of major league baseball. He still has plenty of time to continue growing into his frame and learn how to tap into his massive power potential.
Clarke is a very patient hitter (40% swing rate) and is clearly comfortable working deep into counts which can be both a blessing and a curse. It’s great because you can get on base to help your team and wait for that perfect pitch. However, when you’re in 2-strike counts so often, you’re sometimes at the mercy of the pitcher who can throw their best “strike to ball” pitch. As he moves up in the system, pitchers become much better at executing these pitches and swing and miss tends to increase. Some selective aggression early in the count on pitches he can handle might be a good strategy to take for Clarke going forward.
Early on this season the results have been fantastic. He is slashing .274/.400/1.003 with four homers and a steal. His contact rates have improved slightly; it’s a great sign that he’s aware of and actively working on improving his weaknesses. If he can get his zone contact rate into the mid 70’s all of the other things he does will make him an extremely valuable player both in fantasy and real life. Scoop him up in your dynasty leagues if he is available.