A's Even Surprise Beane
“I thought we had a good group of players,” said the A’s general manager in a telephone conversation. “We just got killed by injuries early. We had no bodies. But the team stayed together and then they started playing well, but no, I certainly couldn’t have anticipated this. But, I’ll tell you what, I’m really enjoying it.’’
Beane has done some tinkering with the roster, strengthening the bullpen depth by adding Joe Kennedy and Jay Witasick and bringing in veteran outfielder Jay Payton, who has the consistency that fan favorite Eric Byrnes lacks. And, of course, he extended Mark Kotsay’s contract by three years. Now, he doesn’t anticipate any big moves before Saturday night’s trading deadline.
“This is really a good team,” he said, “and the best thing is, everybody’s coming back next year. Kotsay is only 29, so he could conceivably get a little better yet. He and Jason (Kendall) and Chavvy (Eric Chavez) in a quieter way are our leadership core.”
Manager Ken Macha and his coaching staff also deserve credit. Infielders coach Ron Washington is a marvel. Chavez came up with the reputation of being a poor fielder but his hard work with Washington has made him into a great defensive third baseman. He ranks with Brooks Robinson among those I’ve seen. At first base, Dan Johnson had a reputation as a poor fielder, but again, his hard work and Washington’s tutelage have turned him into an above average defensive first baseman.
Pitching coach Curt Young has done a masterful job with his young pitching staff. I always think a pitching coach can do more than a hitting coach because pitchers initiate the action. If a coach can get a pitcher’s mechanics right and get him in the right emotional frame, as Young has, he can make a big difference. Hitters, though, have to react to the pitches, and they often forget what a coach has told them when they’re at the plate. Still, Dave Hudgens has done a good job with the A’s hitters. After a very slow start, the A’s have scored more runs in the last 50 games than any team in the league.
Because he’s not a demonstrative person, Macha is often misunderstood by media and fans. He has a very clear idea of what he wants to do, and he doesn’t try to win popularity contests with his players. Art Howe kept Terrence Long in the lineup so he could sustain his consecutive games streak, even though Long was playing poorly. Macha benched Long and let players know, in both individual and team meetings, that he would play those who produced. He works closely with Beane but he is not cowed by him, as Howe was; when he calls for a bunt or stolen base, he’ll often joke about going against Beane’s philosophy.
It was always obvious that Beane was underwhelmed by Howe, and when Howe got an offer to go to the Mets, both men were happy. Macha is a different matter. He’s likely to have a long stay as A’s manager. Beane values stability – he attributes much of the organizational success to the longevity of key decision-makers – and now he has it in his manager, too.
THE A’S organization is a model one, not only successful with its minor league teams but pushing out a consistent stream of major league-ready prospects who either join the A’s, as Johnson did this season, or are used in trades to bring in other players.
One of the reasons is that the A’s have pitching and hitting styles which are taught throughout the organization. That’s not only good for the players but it’s one of the reasons Young was able to make a successful transition from a minor league pitching coach to the major league team; he is teaching the same principles he always has. Farm director Keith Lieppman works closely with Young and Hudgens on the pitching/hitting philosophies.
The A’s are not breaking new ground here. Branch Rickey set up similar programs with the Cardinals and Dodgers organizations as far back as 70 years. The Baltimore Orioles of the ‘60s were another great example of this.
The hitting plan is often characterized as the “Moneyball” approach, and there’s been a lot of nonsense written about it.
Beane did not invent the concept of concentrating on on-base percentage, as opposed to simply looking at the batting average. In the mid-‘80s, I sat in the stands one day with Sandy Alderson, then the A’s general manager, as he went down the league statistics to show the direct correlation between teams’ on-base percentage and runs scored – and the lack of correlation between batting average and runs scored.
Alderson didn’t invent the concept, either. When Earl Weaver managed the Orioles in the ‘60s, he had the same idea. He didn’t invent it, either. One day last year, my friend Marty Lurie showed me a Sporting News headline: “A’s Secret Weapon: Bases on Balls.” The headline appeared in a July, 1949, issue.
Some players resist the idea of plate discipline. Miguel Tejada swung at pitches over his head when he first came to the A’s, but when he became more disciplined, he became a fearsome hitter. “”Chavvy used to cover his ears when we talked about it,” Beane laughed, “but last year, he led the league in walks, so I guess he got it by osmosis.”
There’s an essential ingredient in that philosophy, though: Power. Weaver used to talk about getting a couple of walks and then hitting a three-run homer. In early season, the A’s were getting on base but not getting the extra-base hits to get the runners in and create big innings. Now, they’re getting those hits, and they’re scoring runs.
ITS UNREALISTIC to expect the A’s to continue playing at this pace, but they’re definitely in the race for the postseason. They lead the wild card race by a half game – six weeks ago, they were 12 ½ games back – and only trail the first place Angels by five games.
“We’re not even into August yet,” Beane pointed out, “so we’ve got a lot of season left. We’ve been further back. One year, we were eight games behind Seattle in August but still won our division.”
It’s been an amazing run, and all the more enjoyable because none of us expected it. Not even Billy Beane.
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