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Interview: Cliff Pennington

February 2, 2012

At the Oakland A’s FanFest I was invited to join five other bloggers in a press conference style interview of five members of the Oakland A’s organization. They were manager Bob Melvin, starting pitcher Brandon McCarthy, shortstop Cliff Pennington and outfielders Josh Reddick and Seth Smith. While all six of us asked questions, I am going to just focus on the questions I asked on this blog. I suggest readers go to Athletics Nation where the interviews in their entirety are going to be posted. Thank you to the Oakland Athletics organization for this opportunity!

Cliff Pennington was originally signed by the A’s as a first-round draft pick in the 2005 amateur draft after playing collegiate ball at Texas A&M. The Corpus Christi native, just finished his second full season in Oakland and has a career slash line of .259/.324/.371 across 1,492 plate appearances in exactly 400 games. Pennington has been worth 6.0 WAR in his career, including a stellar 2010 campaign where he was valued at 4.0 WAR largely owing to his high defensive rating and strong baserunning. 2011 saw Pennington but up a decent campaign which closely mirrored his career lines save for some struggles on the base paths where he  had a miserable 60.9% success rate (14-for-23). Pennington was a tougher guy to think up questions for me because he is both so consistent and also doesn’t have any sort of stats that make me want to look at him from some sort of different perspective. The only statistical “anomaly” is that I feel there is a huge gap between his UZR and my eyeball test, but I am not sure how I feel about defensive metrics to begin with and can’t even begin fathoming how to calculate them. In the one question I asked him, I asked about his defense but in a different way than most (this question was posed to both Pennington and McCarthy who were both in the presser style interview so it should be familiar to readers of yesterday’s post),

Q: There’s a debate among us [bloggers] at least about whether or not pitchers can control the quality of contact on hitters. Last year, for instance, Guillermo Moscoso had a very low batting average on balls in play. As an infielder do you notice when a ball is hit at you that there are certain pitchers who you’re getting weak grounders instead of real line drives?

A: The balls in play batting average definitely I think plays in, I do think it matters some. The good pitchers it’s the softer contact. Like [Trevor] Cahill with his power sinker that he had, they would chop it in the ground. They might’ve squared it up but it was [hit] straight into the ground and a top hopper to an infielder and that’s a routine play. So definitely it plays in, the better guys are able to execute pitchers better to where you’re not squaring it up as well. You might be hitting it, but you’re hitting it off the end, or you’re hitting the top of it, or its a jamming you a little bit and it results in a softer contact. So they might not be getting twelve foot strikeouts but they’re getting balls that the defense gets a fair chance to make a play on.

Interesting stuff. It is impossible to separate Pennington the fielder from Pennington the hitter and I suspect you get a bit of both of those in this answer. He says that with the better pitchers you get softer contact. I suppose a line drive is a well squared up baseball so line-drive rate could be indicative of who is getting harder contact versus softer contact, but that doesn’t seem to equate with any sort of notion of who the A’s best pitchers are as among guys with at least 50 innings on the mound in 2011, Josh Outman leads the way with just 16.6% while Rich Harden (22.1%) is worst followed by McCarthy (20.9%). Overall there doesn’t seem to be any correlation among these guys for line-drives and BABIP. I wonder if then ultimately Pennington (and it seems this way to the end of his quote) is more speaking to the psychological difficulty of hitting against good pitchers and feeling that one struggles against them and doesn’t get as much on the ball as one would want or suspect. His answer is revealing even if it doesn’t necessarily get to the bottom of it in explaining this phenomenon.

Would’ve liked to have asked him about his baserunning and what was different and his reaction to his widely varying UZR ratings and whether or not he felt they were accurate, did he feel one year varied greatly from the other, etc. But alas, I had just one question.

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