Billy Beane, Bob Melvin, Yoenis Cespedes; Jason Kidd; Lebron James, Michael Jordan, Wilt Chamberlain; Al Davis/Mark Davis
ANOTHER WAY to imagine how amazing the A’s are is to ask this question: Since the Giants payroll is roughly $100 million more than the A’s, who would they cut to get down to the A’s level? Obviously, the cuts they’d have to make would reduce the Giants to the Astros/Marlins level, which is to say, one of the very worst teams in major league baseball.
From the top down, here are the main reasons for the A’s success:
--General manager Billy Beane and his assistants, including his scouts.
--Manager Bob Melvin.
--Pitching coach Curt Young.
Beane has never been reluctant to take a gamble with his trades, and that has brought him frequent criticism; one of my readers has never forgiven him for trading Carlos Gonzalez. But he has also brought in many position players and pitchers who have been surprisingly good. How many of you thought that Brandon Moss would be as dangerous a hitter as he’s become?
Though the fictional “Moneyball” portrayed the A’s success as the result of special mathematical formulas they used to evaluate players, the A’s success, then and now, has always been based on good scouting. Beane gets good reports on players, many relative unknowns, and he trades for them.
There is no better example of how the A’s work than their pursuit of Yoenis Cespedes. There were many teams who scouted Cespedes but, as a recent Sports Illustrated article showed, none who pursued him as relentlessly as the A’s. Though the A’s have kept their team salary level very low under the Lew Wolff/John Fisher ownership, they were willing to commit more money than anybody else was. It was a gamble because the Cuban baseball leagues are regarded as no better than Class AA minor league by American standards, but the A’s scouts were convinced Cespedes would become a star in MLB. They were right.
Over the last two years, Beane has made a bewildering number of trades, and he admitted some of them – as, for instance, the trades that shipped out Gio Gonzalez and Andrew Bailey – were made to help shore up a minor league system that had deteriorated. Now, the A’s farm system is strengthened, while the largely unknown players Beane brought to the A’s have produced, too.
If the Yankees are a “Who’s Who” of baseball, the A’s are a “Who’s he?” But, as of this morning, the Yankees were 32-25 and the A’s were 35-24.
Now, Beane has a manager he not only likes but is very good, too. The change from the woefully inept Bob Geren to Melvin has been dramatic.
One of Melvin’s strengths is his quiet confidence, which is transmitted to his players. The A’s have absolute confidence they’re going to win every game, and that has carried them to many walk-off wins. They never get down. Sunday’s game against the White Sox was a classic example Chicago starter Chris Sale was on a roll, giving up just seven earned runs in his previous six games, two of them shutouts. He was tough on Sunday but the A’s got two runs, which was enough to win.
Like Ken Macha, Melvin plays those who have been playing well, not always those with the big reputations. But unlike Macha, Melvin is easygoing, very popular with the players. He goes on results, not reputations, and there have been surprises since he’s been the manager. Perhaps the biggest is Josh Donaldson, a converted catcher who has been playing a great defensive game at third base and coming up with some clutch hits. More than anybody else, Donaldson kept the A’s offense going when Cespedes, Coco Crisp and Josh Reddick were on the DL. All are back now, and Crisp was the whole offensive show in Sunday’s game when he scored both runs because of his baserunning skills.
Melvin has juggled his infielders, emphasizing versatility in using some at either shortstop or second base. Jed Lowrie seems set at shortstop, but don’t bet that Hiro Nakajima won’t play there when he’s recalled from Sacramento. The A’s signed Nakajima in the offseason with the belief that he’d be the shortstop but he struggled, in the field and at bat, in spring training, and originally, with the River Cats. In part, that was probably also a problem with adjustment to a foreign culture. Whatever, he seems to have finally settled in, hitting over .300 with Sacramento, including a home run in last night’s game.
Moss had been an outfielder before he was acquired by the A’s but Melvin tried him at first base and he’s been fine there. His all-out style of hitting, going for the home run even if it means frequent strikeouts, fits the A’s. Because of the huge foul areas at the Coliseum, hitters often foul out on pop fouls that would be in the stands elsewhere, especially at AT&T Park. So, they don’t get extra chances, which makes it difficult to mount long rallies with hits that stay in the park. The A’s chances rest on frequent walks followed by home runs.
And, of course, their offense is backed up by great pitching. As I’ve said before, Curt Young is the best I’ve ever seen at working with young pitchers. He encourages them to use the pitches that work the best for them and throw strikes, preferably on the corners.
Year after year, he takes young pitchers with no particular reputation and makes winners of them. Tommy Milone, who beat the Brewers in Milwaukee last night and even got two hits, is a prime example. The first time I saw Milone pitch was against the Giants in a preseason game at AT&T last March. When I saw his assortment of slow and slower pitches, I had no confidence that he’d be a winner for the A’s, but he has been. Of course, it probably helps that Young was the same kind of pitcher years ago.
Of the young pitchers Young has developed, I’d say only Brett Anderson, and perhaps the departed Bailey, have great natural talent. But even Anderson is flawed because he is not a good athlete and he continually injures himself by stepping wrong or trying to field a ball hit up the middle. When I see that, I’m reminded of the constant injury problems faced by the very talented Rich Harden. When I talked to Young about that, he told me that Harden’s motion caused those injuries, but that his motion was also what made him successful. There was no solution to that problem.
So, despite their low payroll, the A’s are the top team in the area now. I’ll write on the Giants problems in the Friday Examiner.
WHEN JASON KIDD was a sophomore at St. Joseph’s High in Alameda, my friend Sam Spear said, “You’ve got to come out and see him. He’s a great player.” My reply was that I hadn’t seen high school basketball since I’d left Watsonville and didn’t intend to ever watch it again.
But as those of you who know Sam know, he doesn’t give up easily, so he kept working on me. When Kidd was a junior, I finally went to see him and I was blown away. I also thought, as I wrote at the time, that he would be even better as he went up the ladder and played with better players on the college and pro level. At St. Joseph’s, many of his amazing passes just whizzed by teammates. C. W. Nevius saw Kidd at that time and wrote that he was successful only because he was bigger than most of the other players and that he wouldn’t be successful in college ball. Oh, well.
Kidd went on to Cal and coaching legend Pete Newell compared him to Magic Johnson. He always had an ability to see an opening that nobody else could. I felt guilty that I enjoyed him so much in a Cal uniform because I knew very well that he wasn’t there to get an education. He stopped going to class completely after the first semester of his sophomore year because he knew he’d be turning pro that year. But I still remember that as the most exciting period in Cal basketball in the post-Newell years.
It wasn’t until he reached the NBA, though, that he finally was working with players who could anticipate his unerring passes and playmaking, so he was even better, lasting until he was 40, which few players ever do.
And I’m happy that I was able to see him when the Jason Kidd legend was just beginning.
WITH THE Miami Heat back in the NBA Finals, there’s renewed talk that Lebron James is the best ever. I don’t like to get in the “best ever” discussion because the conditions surrounding the game change so much, but I can understand why fans think this.
I’ve seen many great basketball players over the years. The first who made a great impression on me was Elgin Baylor, when we were both in college. In 1958, Baylor’s team, Seattle Pacific, played a qualifying game at Cal to get into the NCAA Regional, which was played at the Cow Palace. There were no televised games then but all of us in the sports department of The Daily Californian had heard about Baylor’s exploits. He didn’t disappoint. He was the first to play as they all do now, going to the air to shoot or pass. He’d come down the floor with the ball on a three-on-two fast break and go into the air at the foul line, then deciding whether to pass the ball left or right – or take the shot himself. None of us had ever seen anything like that.
I also saw Wilt Chamberlain when I was at Cal, when his Kansas team came west to play the Bears. He was awesome then and equally so when I later saw him with the Warriors. He got a bad rap when writers said Bill Russell was better because Russell’s Celtics usually beat Wilt’s teams. But, though Russell was a great rebounder, shot blocker and passer for the fast break, he didn’t have to score much because he had great teammates. When Wilt had similar teammates, with the 1966-1967 Philadelphia 76ers, the team was regarded by many as the best in NBA history. At the end of his career, he played on a Lakers team that had Baylor, Jerry West and Gail Goodrich, so he played the Russell role, playing tough defense, rebounding and starting the fast break. That team won a still-record 33 straight games.
Now, I’d think the consensus would be that Michael Jordan is the best of all time, because of all his championships. James, though, is impressive because of his versatility.
I’ll retreat to my earlier position: Players should be judged within their era, not over several generations of play. James is unquestionably the best in this era.
THE APPLE doesn’t fall far from the tree: Mark Davis fired the Raiders PR director, Zach Gilbert, for a Sports Illustrated article which detailed the horrible details of the Al Davis regime. Most of the information was old news to those of us who had been covering the Raiders in recent years, but apparently, Mark was upset because now every SI reader knows the awful truth, too. Of course, firing the PR director doesn’t change anything, but logic has been in short supply in the Davis family for years.
Al Davis started out as a brilliant strategist, both in football and the political world surrounding it. I saw that when I was a beat writer for The Chronicle on the Raiders. He also had people around him whom he listened to. John Rauch and Scotty Stirling lobbied for the Daryle Lamonica trade before the 1967 season; Davis didn’t want to give up receiver Art Powell, but he relented. Ron Wolf pushed for the drafting of Ken Stabler; Davis went for Eldridge Dickey on the first round but took Stabler on the second round.
Shortly after Davis moved the team to Los Angeles, though, Davis decided he didn’t need any advice. You can plot the team’s downfall since then, after a Super Bowl win in the Raiders second year in Los Angeles. After 1985, there were only three winning seasons, all under Art Shell. Shell got the Raiders to the AFC championship game in 1990, only to be demolished, 51-3.
The malaise continued when the Raiders returned to Oakland until Jon Gruden arrived. Gruden was the only coach Davis hired after the Raiders return who would dispute his judgments. Gruden argued forcibly for the players he wanted and built a team that went to the Super Bowl, but by that time, Davis had “traded” Gruden. He would never again have a coach who talked back to him and the Raiders fell into an abyss, setting an NFL record with seven consecutive years with double digit losses.
There were many comparisons of Davis and Howard Hughes, and they were relevant. Hughes was brilliant in his younger years but became increasingly eccentric as he got older - just as Davis did.
The story is out there and can’t be changed, no matter what the Davis family thinks (I suspect Mark’s mother, Carole, influenced him in this decision.)
General manager Reggie McKenzie has been dealing with the problems, completely overhauling the organization and putting it on a firm basis. Part of that was dealing with the media on a professional basis. Previously, the PR director’s primary job was to call up writers or announcers who had displeased Davis. McKenzie hired Gilbert to deal professionally with the media, which he did in giving SI’s Jim Trotter access. It’s a shame that he got fired for doing his job right but he handled it well with a classy e-mail to the media thanking the Raiders for giving him an opportunity. I’m sure he’ll get another job soon but the stink of this decision will hover for some time.
What do YOU think? Let me know!
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