AL WestAnalysis

Mark Canha and the chase for a .400 OBP

The Oakland Coliseum is a notoriously hostile stadium to hit in. With the most foul ground in baseball allowing fielders to convert outs on balls that would otherwise be in the seats, and the thick bay area air turning would be home runs into outs, a hitter’s slash line is depressed from playing in Oakland. So when an Athletics player is near the top of the league in traditional, non-park adjusted stats, it is always noteworthy. So when Mark Canha ranks 11th in MLB in On-Base percentage with a mark of .400, not only is he giving the bird to the coliseum’s unfriendly hitter environment, he is chasing a mark only eight other people have accomplished: a .400 OBP season while playing their home games in the Oakland Coliseum

Being built in an era where multi-purpose stadiums were the norm, the Oakland Coliseum has some of the most unique dimensions in baseball due to its design having to accommodate both baseball and football fields. The most obvious impact is the expansive foul ground it possesses, the most among all MLB stadiums. A’s players have made names for themselves chasing after seemingly impossible to catch foul balls and making highlight plays due to the extra space they are allowed, but it’s a double-edged sword. The coliseum foul ground giveth, in the form of highlight plays, and the coliseum foul ground taketh, by prematurely ending what should be prosperous at-bats by having routine foul balls converted into outs.

However, the Coliseum also impacts offenses in another, less obvious way. Not only does the Coliseum shred player’s averages, but it is also one of the most oppressive parks when it comes to hitting home runs – which seems weird at first. It’s 330’ down both foul lines and 400’ to center, by no means a deep park. To understand why the Oakland Coliseum is such a difficult environment to hit homers in, you have to go deeper into the park’s construction. While not directly next to the bay like the neighboring Oracle Park, the Coliseum is still extremely close to the San Francisco bay and deals with the same thick, salty ocean air. Unlike Oracle, however, the Oakland Coliseum playing field is 21 feet below sea level compared to Oracle’s field being 15 feet above sea level. This just exacerbates the issues caused by the ball deadening ocean air, and it becomes very easy to see why the Oakland Coliseum is so anti-hitter. Fangraphs gives the Coliseum a park factor of 96, with only Dodger Stadium, Citi Field, and loanDepot Park being lower. The Oakland Coliseum truly is a hitter’s nightmare. 

With advancements in baseball analysis and the rise of stats like wRC+ and OPS+ which are park and run environment adjusted, having to adjust for different parks when discussing players is a non-issue these days. But it remains a fact that the A’s almost never have a player lead MLB in any traditional stats, be it counting or rate. Since the move to the Coliseum in 1968, the A’s haven’t had a player lead MLB in OBP since Jason Giambi in 2000 and have had just three seasons where a player led MLB in OBP – the previously mentioned Jason Giambi in 2000, Mark McGwire in 1996, and Rickey Henderson in 1990. It’s not a coincidence Henderson and Giambi won AL MVP in their respective years while McGwire finished seventh, and all are in the hall of fame or borderline.

Even when looking at just Oakland A’s history and not comparing players to the rest of the league, traditionally dominant offensive seasons are still hard to come by. Eight men have combined for seventeen .400 OBP seasons in the east bay. Of the teams that were active in 1968, only the Cubs, White Sox, Tigers, Mets, and Rangers have fewer .400 OBP seasons. Of those seventeen .400 OBP seasons, eight were by hall of famers Rickey Henderson and Reggie Jackson, six were by borderline hall of famers Jason Giambi, Mark McGwire, and Sal Bando, and the other three were each done by Mitchell Page, John Jaha, and Jack Cust, who all had at least a 145 wRC+ in their three respective seasons. It’s a mark that hasn’t been reached since Jack Cust in 2007 and has been done only thrice in the 21st century. Despite the A’s success since joining Oakland, with four world series titles, 21 playoff appearances, and a .521 winning percentage, it is a surprisingly small and elite group that has reached this mark

So how does one become a member of what I will be calling the Oakland .400 club? We can look at past members and see how they accomplished the feat to see if there are any trends. What immediately stands out is the walk rate. In all seventeen .400 OBP seasons, no player had a walk rate in the single digits and almost all had a 15% walk rate. The only seasons where a player had a .400 OBP and less than a 15% walk rate were Mitchell Page in 1977 with a 13.2% walk rate and Rickey Henderson in 1981, with a 13.0% walk rate. Unsurprisingly, the two of them hit over .300 those years. Hitting for power is also key unless your name is Rickey. Rickey is the only member of the Oakland .400 club to have a .400 OBP season without having at least a .150 ISO, having put together five seasons of the sort in 1980, 1981, 1983, 1994, and 1995. Every other season, including Rickey in 1990 and 1991, had at least a .150 ISO, with 10 of them having an ISO of at least .200. What else is important? Not much else honestly.

Overall, the average Oakland .400 season looks like this:

.301 AVG.423 OBP.520 SLG.214 ISO17.1 BB%15.2 K%.319 BABIP

That’s an incredibly intimidating slash line for anybody without the surname Trout to try and replicate, but it’s important to keep in mind we only care about the second number in that row. Sal Bando had two Oakland .400 seasons where he didn’t even come close to a .300 average, and Jack Cust, the most recent man to join the Oakland .400 club had a 32.3% strikeout rate the season he put up a .400 OBP. Hitting at an MVP level is what’s important, not how you hit at one. 

So where does Mark Canha fit into all this? The titular player in this article? Why is a 32-year-old former rule 5 draft pick who’s never even made an All-Star game the most likely man to join a group composed of some of the greatest names in Athletics history? Overshadowed by the exciting young trio of Matt Olson, Matt Chapman, and Ramon Laureano, Mark Canha has quietly become one of the best offensive players in MLB. After averaging a 100 wRC+ in 319 games between 2015 and 2018, Canha underwent a radical transformation in plate discipline in 2019 and not only saw the best season of his career as a result, but firmly secured him a permanent spot in the A’s starting lineup. Over Canha’s last 242 games between 2019 and 2021, his wRC+ of 143 ranks ninth in MLB, and his OBP of .392 ranks seventh. The only people with a higher OBP than him over that span? Four MVP winners (Mike Trout, Christian Yelich, Freddie Freeman, Anthony Rendon) and two runner-ups (Juan Soto, Alex Bregman). Canha’s plate discipline has been unparalleled since his breakout in 2019, with his outside swing rate of 23.6% tied with Rendon and Justin Smoak for 13th in baseball and his swinging strike rate of 8.0% tying him with Whit Merrifield, Tommy Pham, and Daniel Vogelbach since then. What makes 2021 Canha’s best shot to join the Oakland .400 is his improved contact rate. Canha’s current strikeout rate of 20.5% is his lowest punchout rate of any year, save for his 2015 rookie season where he wasn’t a qualified batter. His contact rate of 81% is higher than his 2019-2020 average of 79%, and his swinging strike rate of 7.3% is the best it’s ever been. In a year where pitching seems to dominate, Canha seems to have been unaffected, and actually better than years previous.

His current stat line looks like this:

.259 AVG.388 OBP.477 SLG.218 ISO12.9 BB%20.9 K%.298 BABIP

Tantalisingly close to a .400 OBP, and extremely similar to a former Oakland .400 season, Sal Bando’s 1969 campaign which looked like this: 

.281 AVG.400 OBP.484 SLG.204 ISO15.1 BB%11.2 K%.282 BABIP

Aside from the average and strikeout rate, everything else is in the same proximity. If Canha were to have an Oakland .400 season, Bando’s is the blueprint.

But there is one other thing I haven’t mention, the one thing that sets Canha apart from his potential peers, and what will be what pushes him over the edge if he does join the Oakland .400 club. And that’s hit by pitches. Canha recently set the record for most HBP in Oakland history, smashing the record fittingly held by the previously mentioned Sal Bando in just 532 games, as well as passing Bando for second all-time in HBP in Athletics history. It should be no surprise that Canha’s 12 HBP for 2021 currently leads MLB, with second place Nick Solak being three behind Canha.

With all that in mind, it should be no surprise Canha is heads and shoulders above most Oakland .400 members when it comes to getting HBP:

2001 Jason Giambi13154
2021 Mark Canha1259
1969 Reggie Jackson12152
1969 Sal Bando11162
1999 John Jaha9142
2000 Jason Giambi9152
1996 Mark McGwire8130
1991 Rickey Henderson7134
1999 Jason Giambi7158
1977 Mitchell Page6145
1970 Bando6155
The top 10 Oakland .400 seasons sorted by HBP, plus Mark Canha’s 2021 season

The average Oakland .400 season had just 7 HBP, and only three even had double-digit HBPs. Canha is currently only one behind 2001 Jason Giambi’s waterline of 13 in a season. Not only is Canha one of the most disciplined hitters in baseball, but he is also willing to get on base by any means necessary

Canha is most likely not going to finish 2021 with a .400 OBP and join the Oakland .400 club. With the deadened ball and a completely different game environment compared to even just 2007, when the last Oakland .400 season was, it’s less likely than ever. Which is incredibly sad. The A’s are going to leave the Oakland Coliseum soon, be it for a new stadium at Howard Terminal or for another location outside of Oakland altogether.

The Oakland Coliseum is one of the most historic parks in baseball history, with unique factors that give us one of the most challenging single-season feats in all of baseball, one almost as rare as a perfect game. So I will root with all my heart, not only for Mark Canha to cement his name among the Oakland greats but for one last Oakland .400 season before the Coliseum’s gates shut forever. 

And I hope you cheer for him as well

Elizabeth Tsai

A lifelong baseball fan, I've supported the Oakland A's through good times and bad. A numbers geek, I love diving into the stats to find any fascinating stories not obvious to the basic eye test. Proud transgender woman

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