Thursday, April 10, 2014

The misunderstood Oakland A's

It's long been amusing to listen to the Twins broadcasters talk about the Oakland Athletics. Dan Gladden has been known to foam at the mouth at the thought of Billy Beane and "Moneyball" -- it's pretty clear from listening to him on the subject that he hasn't read the book, not that a lack of knowledge has ever stopped Gladden.

(Near the end of the movie, after the A's have been defeated in the 2002 playoffs by the Minnesota Twins, there is a vocal montage of criticism of Beane. I'm pretty sure that one of the voices is Gladden.)

Gladden has stopped ripping Beane the last couple of years, no doubt because the A's are a 90-plus win team once again and even Gladden recognizes that he'd look silly continuing to insist that Beane doesn't know what he's doing.

On Wednesday I was watching the game before heading to work and Dick Bremer started babbling about how the A's win with "starting pitching." Then he started claiming that they had no MVP-type player, caught himself by noting that Josh Donaldson came in fourth in the MVP vote last year (.301/.389/.499) and trailed off.

No, the A's are not really built around their rotation. Their three top starters last year are either injured (Jarrod Parker, A.J. Griffin) or pitching elsewhere (Bartolo Colon). They've remade the rotation and moved on.

Their real strength is the depth of their position players. The A's were third in the American League in runs scored last season, this despite playing their home games in a park noted for suppressing batting average. And indeed, their team batting average (.254) was below league average (.256). But they were third in home runs, third in walks, second in doubles and resolutely refused to give away outs (21 sac bunts, second lowest in the league).

No, there aren't a lot of big name stars in their lineup. Donaldson was a second-year regular, and he hit only .241 in 2012. Brandon Moss, who clubbed 30 homers, had bounced around (Boston, Pittsburgh, Philadelphia) without making an impact before landing in Oakland.

It's a lineup of platoons and castoffs, and Bob Melvin (and no doubt Beane in the background) mixes and matches to get more out of his no-names than most of us knew they had.

I enjoy this kind of thing; I discovered baseball in an era when such managers as Earl Weaver, Gil Hodges and Gene Mauch platooned as readily as they breathed. The A's built their roster (this is Moneyball at its essence again, looking for what everybody else undervalues) with the intent of platooning in an era when almost nobody platoons.

The A's are a strong team once again, strong in ways that most fans (and at least some broadcasters) don't recognize. They had the highest defensive efficiency in the AL last year (percentage of balls in play they turned into outs); they allowed the third fewest runs in the league; the scored the third most runs.

There's a lot there. And it does everyone a disservice to fall back on the "starting pitching wins" cliche in describing a team of such broad ability.

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