September 2013

MAKE NO MISTAKE, THERE ARE STARS ON THE 2013 A’S

In some of my past blogs this season, I’ve touched on many of the reasons this A’s team would eventually win 96 games and capture its second straight American League West crown.  Those reasons ranged from veteran players like Brandon Moss, Seth Smith, John Jaso and Chris Young buying into the platoon/matchup system with productive, selfless play that was one of the earmarks of this year’s club, to the depth and versatility of the roster making the 2013 A’s a sum much greater than its parts.

Yet, as I said recently to a network TV producer, it’s also become tiresome hearing so many national broadcasters and writers spew out the rhetorical comment:  “We haven’t yet figured out how this scrappy Oakland team does it with all their rather anonymous players, virtually none that are household names, but they’ve managed to win the division again.”

Well, I know I’m preaching to the choir here, but I’m here to tell you two things.  One, Bob Melvin’s players do hustle and are extremely competitive but 185 home runs—third most in the American League—doesn’t sound like scrappy to me.  And two, those that haven’t taken the time to learn more about our club are really doing a disservice to many of our players, many of whom are indeed stars.

Josh Donaldson was one of the most consistent, productive and clutch third baseman in baseball this year.  He batted .301 with 37 doubles, 24 home runs and 93 RBI, and arguably played Gold Glove defense in the field.  Some baseball writers have projected him a Top 5 finisher in the league’s MVP balloting.

Coco Crisp might possess the most unique skill set of any leadoff hitter in the majors.  He ranked sixth in the AL in runs scored (93)—maybe the best indicator of a great leadoff man—but also paced all leadoff men in home runs with 22, which tied him with the great Campy Campaneris for second all-time among leadoff hitters in Oakland history behind Hall of Famer Rickey Henderson (28).  Then add to that the fact that Coco stole 21 bases and ended the season on a 138-game errorless streak in center field, where he regularly stole extra base hits from opposing batters, and you can see why he’s one of baseball’s most coveted players.

Then there’s Jed Lowrie, who many believe might win his first Silver Slugger Award this year.  He hit .297 at shortstop, which ranks second in the American League at that position, with leader Jhonny Peralta (.306) missing 50 games due to his PED suspension.  Beyond that, Lowrie nearly chased down Manny Machado (51) in hitting the second most doubles (45) in the league.  He tied for second in the AL in three-hit games (17).

And Brandon Moss emerged as one of the best pure power hitters in the game this year.  Sure, he’s a platoon player at first base and in the outfield.  But when you finished tied for eighth in the American League in homers with 30, and drove in 87 runs in only 446 at-bats, you can pretty much take the asterisk off his accomplishments.  Despite his limited play, he hit more homers than Jose Bautista, Robinson Cano, Mike Trout and Adrian Beltre, and drove in more runs than Evan Longoria, Torii Hunter and Victor Martinez.  Moss, who owned the best power numbers in the American League during the final six weeks of the season (12 HR, 32 RBI), was also Mr. Clutch.  He tied for third in the league in hitting home runs with two outs (14).

And, beyond featuring five 10-game winners in their starting rotation, the A’s boasted some individual pitchers that compare favorably with any in baseball.

The ageless Bartolo Colón was Oakland’s anchor all season long, ending the regular season with the second-best victory total (18) and ERA (2.65) in the American League.  A former Cy Young Award winner and multiple All-Star—including this season—Colón has to be a serious candidate for his second Cy Young Award.  When you look at his stats, and then consider what he meant to a team that won 96 games and a divisional flag, there’s a strong argument to be made.

While his stats aren’t as flamboyant as Bartolo’s, Jarrod Parker was virtually unbeatable for much of the season.  Yes, his final stats were 12-8 with a 3.97 ERA.  But from May 22 to Sept. 16, Parker went unbeaten in 19 consecutive starts.  You have to go all the way back to 1931 to find an Athletics’ pitcher who duplicated that feat, and his name was Lefty Grove.

Admittedly his final month on the mound was probably more exciting than he—or you—would have preferred, but any way you slice it, Grant Balfour was one of the best closers in the league.  His No. 4 ranking in save percentage (92.7%)   and No. 6 ranking in total saves (38) would certainly suggest it.

And besides being an All-Star on Twitter, Sean Doolittle was the best relief pitcher in the majors when it came to stranding inherited runners.  In fact, his numbers in that category were astounding.  Of the 32 runners he inherited, only two scored all season.  That’s essentially 6% scoring.  Talk about clutch.

So I’ve named eight players, and haven’t even mentioned the potential biggest star of all, the Cuban Crusher, Yoenis Cespedes.  Even though he missed 27 games, mostly to injury, he still clobbered 26 homers and drove in 80 runs, while ranking among the AL leaders in outfield assists.  While his throwing shoulder has acted up of late, there’s hope that he can return to the lineup for Game 1 Friday and pick up where he left off during a torrid September (.314, 6 HR, 19 RBI in 22 games).  Of course, the nation is already familiar with his monstrous swings, thanks to him winning this year’s Home Run Derby during the All-Star exhibition.

While hopefully you agree with me about these A’s earning star status, there’s no doubt that real stardom is achieved on the biggest stage.  What is that I hear?  Is that opportunity knocking on the Coliseum front door?  I believe it is.

RANDOM THOUGHTS ON MILONE, DONALDSON, COCO AND MORE

Random thoughts and observations as we head into the home stretch…

Is there a better example of A’s depth and versatility than Sunday’s 5-1 victory over the Rangers that slammed the lid on a pivotal three-game series sweep in Texas?  Jarrod Parker, the club’s hottest pitcher, is scratched from his start an hour before game time due to an intestinal virus.   Yoenis Cespedes, the human power plant and hottest hitter on the team, bows out minutes before first pitch due to a barking shoulder.  So how does our team respond?   They collectively say in unison, “Not a problem.  We’re the Oakland A’s.”   Tommy Milone, maybe the only pitcher in baseball lodged in a Major League bullpen with double-digit victories, doesn’t even blink.  He merely goes out and limits the rival Rangers to one run and six hits in striking out five hitters in five masterful innings in the Lone Star heat.  Meanwhile, Josh Reddick and his ZZ Top beard replaces Yoenis in lineup and unloads on a Joakim Soria fastball for a two-run insurance home run in the ninth inning that was reminiscent of his 32-homer season last year…

Veteran baseball writer Jorge Ortiz was right on the money with yesterday’s article in USA Today.   He made a convincing case for A’s third baseman Josh Donaldson being a deserving candidate for American League Most Valuable Player.  For some, the case was closed months ago when the reigning league MVP Miguel Cabrera of the Tigers and Baltimore’s Chris Davis waged a two-man power display rarely seen in the game’s history.  However, with the new-fangled statistics available these days, the ones that measure everything from defensive range to percentage of batted balls that are line drives, Donaldson scores higher than just about everyone.  USA Today has this MVP Tracker formula, which includes a “Wins Above Replacement” index and how that compares with the team’s total WAR rating and its place in the standings, and J.D. is far away the AL leader with 18.7 points.   Cabrera is next with 13.9, followed by Max Scherzer of the Tigers at 12.1.  For those of us who not only watch Josh play every day, but also see his work ethic in the weight room and batting cage, we have known his value since the season started in April.   His hard-nosed and fearless approach to the game has inspired all of us, most importantly his teammates who marvel at his consistency and 110% effort on every play and every at-bat.  You have to go back 11 years to 2002 and Miguel Tejada to find a more complete season—both offensively and defensively—than the one Josh Donaldson has enjoyed this year.  Not bad for a guy who hadn’t ever played third base in a big league game until last season…

And speaking of hard-nosed, inspirational players, it should be noted that it was announced this morning that teammates voted Coco Crisp as this year’s winner of the Catfish Hunter Award, the team’s most coveted award named after the late Hall of Fame pitcher.  As any A’s fan knows, Coco is the igniter to our offense and has been for the past several years.  His skill set is somewhat unique, in that he is a leadoff hitter with power.  While the award goes to a courageous and competitive player, what resonates most about Covelli Crisp is he can beat an opponent in so many ways—with his bat, his glove, his legs, his superior baseball intellect, his ability to shine on the big stage.  It also nice to see someone who has played for five different MLB franchises during his 12 seasons of professional baseball and has truly found a home in Oakland.   He and our fans have a genuine love affair going on, something that may have taken full bloom last summer when they joined Coco in a group “Bernie Lean” every chance they got at the Coliseum.  Like Donaldson, what I love most about Coco is he plays hard on every single play.  The two of them really set the tone for everybody on our team, and theirfull-speed, never-give-up style absolutely fits the profile of a Bob Melvin player.  The value of that should not go overlooked or underrated.  Many of you saw on TV last weekend where Coco took up for Donaldson, his teammate, when a Ranger pitcher was somewhat taunting him by yelling out pitch types—fastball!—before letting the ball go.   That little I’ve-got-your-back outburst did not go unnoticed by other A’s players or the manager.   It’s that fighting spirit that epitomizes the 2013 Oakland Athletics.   So, congrats to Coco on an award well deserved…

Finally, as our regular season home schedule comes to a close this weekend, I want to personally thank all of you for reading my occasional blog, and also for your tremendous support of the team.   You have truly given us a home-field advantage, something we hope will serve us well in this final series against the Twins, as well as any playoff games in October.   Hope you can join in the fun this weekend.  You know our boys are trying their best to clinch a second straight AL West crown in front of the home fans.  Think good thoughts and feel free to yell at the top of your lungs!  Let’s all represent!

SOGARD, OTERO & FREIMAN HAVE BEEN 2013 REVELATIONS

Whether the 2013 Oakland Athletics make this season a memorable one, as they did during last year’s magical run, still remains to be seen.  However, for three A’s players, the 2013 campaign is one they will always remember.   Why?  Because for Eric Sogard, Dan Otero and Nate Freiman, it was 2013 when they truly established themselves as Major League players.

Beyond the “Nerd Power” persona and marketing slogan, Sogie has gained attention in the best possible way.  He has played his way into a semi-regular role with the team, starting at second base against right-handed pitchers in a highly-productive platoon arrangement with Alberto Callaspo.  After three seasons of shuttling between Sacramento and Oakland on I-80, the diminutive infielder seems to have finally found a home here.   Doing many of the “small things” that help win ball games, whether it be turning double plays, laying down a perfect bunt, or delivering a clutch two-out hit, Sogard has become a vital cog in Operation Oakland.  He’s currently batting .263 with two homers and 31RBI, but maybe most significantly, ranks third on the club in doubles (24) behind Jed Lowrie (40) and Josh Donaldson (29).  And in the process, he’s become one of the team’s most popular fan favorites.  When the Rangers’ Matt Garza recently barked at Sogard, whose boyish face looks more like an IT repairman than a big league player, for laying down a bunt, it only added to the Sogie legend.

Seattle Mariners v Oakland AthleticsAs for Otero, the 28-year-old right-hander has been a revelation in the bullpen this summer.  After toiling in the minors for several years, he saw brief action with the Giants last season.  He had hoped to make San Francisco’s roster again this spring, but ironically it was one nightmarish afternoon against the A’s at Scottsdale Stadium that may have led to his ultimate departure from the Giants.  On March 23, Otero entered the game in relief and hit the veritable buzz saw.   When the smoke and rubble cleared, he limped from the spring training game having been torched for five runs and five hits, including a home run by Adam Rosales—you remember him, the human ping pong ball–and retiring no one.  With that scenario, who could have guessed that five months later, Otero would become a fixture in Oakland’s stellar bullpen?  In fact, Otero—like Sogard—forced his way into a vital role with the team.  With his ERA gradually shrinking to a current team-low 1.19 (22 G, 30.1 ip, 29 h, 5 r, 4 er), the former River Cat closer is now being used in the back three innings of critical games. Maybe no one in the Oakland organization has come as far as Dan Otero has this year.

Chicago Cubs v Oakland AthleticsUnless, of course, if you consider the case of the Gentle Giant, Nate Freiman.  By now, you probably know the story.  Drafted by San Diego in 2009 out of Duke University, the 6-8, 250-pound first baseman was a RBI machine in the minors with a four-year total of 368.  However, the Padres never promoted him above Double-A.  And the Astros, another cellar-dwelling team who picked him in the Rule 5 Draft last offseason, also saw no need for a major league promotion when they acquired Chris Carter in the Lowrie deal.  So, one week before the season, the defending AL West champion A’s claimed the undervalued slugger off the waiver wire.  Considered a curious move at the time, Freiman wasted little time in rewarding his new employers.  He went 2-for-3 against Seattle in his big league debut April 3, and proceeded to bat .351 with nine RBI in 14 games in May to win American League Rookie of the Month.  Since that auspicious debut, he has hit consistently against left-handed pitching (.313) in a left-right platoon at first base with Brandon Moss and now Daric Barton.  Overall, he ranks fourth on the team with a .279 batting average, eight doubles, four homers and 23 RBI.  Not bad for a guy who skipped Triple-A.

So, no matter how this season ends, or how long their careers last, it’s safe to say that a collective smile will emerge when someone makes mention of the 2013 season to Eric Sogard, Dan Otero and Nate Freiman.  And for good reason.

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