March 2014

A’S VALUE IQs AS WELL AS OBPs, ERAs AND WARs

Yes, the baseball wizards at 7000 Coliseum Way are smart guys. It’s well documented that Billy Beane spurned a Stanford scholarship offer to sign professionally out of high school, eventually returning to college to earn an economics degree at UC San Diego. David Forst played baseball and graduated Cum Laude with a B.A. degree in sociology from Harvard. Farhan Zaidi was a MIT undergrad who earned a Ph.D from UC Berkeley. Dan Feinstein, not to be outdone, brings a degree in Medieval European History from UC Davis to the table.

So it should be no surprise that their manager Bob Melvin is a Cal man. But the high IQs and academic pedigrees don’t end there. More than any season in recent memory, the A’s roster is bloated with baseball brainiacs. Shortstop Jed Lowrie, amateur photographer and world traveler, is one of three A’s who went to Stanford. The others are outfielder Sam Fuld, who writes book reviews in the Wall Street Journal in his spare time, and outfielder Michael Taylor, who already boasts “KNBR radio reporter” on his resume.

Then there’s first baseman Nate Freiman and relief pitcher Dan Otero who hail from Duke University. Both might be leaders in the clubhouse—literally—in another team pastime: crossword puzzles. Rice University, another bastion of higher education, has provided us with some estimable pitching depth in Joe Savery and Philip Humber.

And of course, the A’s erudite southpaw with the flowing beard—Sean Doolittle—was educated at the University of Virginia, where his writing skills were honed and borrowed by ESPN.com when national baseball expert Buster Olney is in need of a guest columnist.

Rounding out the Scholar-Athletics dean’s list is our Opening Night starting pitcher, Sonny Gray, the pride of Vanderbilt University, perhaps the South’s most elite academic institution.

Everyone marvels about the A’s clubhouse chemistry and the team’s fun-loving, frat-house vibe. But looking at this year’s club, there may be an actual chemist sitting at one of the cubicles. Now, do smart players guarantee a team will play smart baseball? That remains to be seen. In simplest terms, there still is much wisdom in Ariel Prieto’s award-winning TV commercial from last year. “See the ball, hit the ball.”

But judging from the academic pedigrees of the 2014 A’s, one thing is certain: Craig Breslow left us too soon.

A’S CATCHERS WIELDING HOT BATS

Eleven days from Opening Night and what do we know?  There’s an abundance of quality infielders and catchers. Our starting pitching depth will be tested right out of the gate.  Josh Reddick looks healthy.  Both Michael Taylor (.320, 5 doubles, 1 triple, 3 home runs, 10 RBI) and Sam Fuld (.304, 13 runs, 3 triples), a couple of Stanford products, have taken advantage of Craig Gentry’s absence to make strong bids for breaking camp on the 25-man roster.  And Jesse Chavez is giving every indication he’s ready to shine this season….

The A’s catching trio of Stephen Vogt, Derek Norris and John Jaso has terrorized the Cactus League this spring, combining to hit .355 (33-93) with eight doubles, one triple, four homers and 28 RBI thus far.  Norris ranks second on the team to Brandon Moss (.433) in batting this spring with a .407 average to go along with two homers and nine RBI. Vogt is close behind with a .394 average and owns the third best on-base percentage behind Daric Barton (.533) and Norris (.467) with a .459 figure, plus a homer and eight RBI, while Jaso has a homer and nine RBI to go with his .258 average.  Would we actually consider carrying three catchers this season?  Stay tuned….

While there’s no denying their talent and resumes, can you name another Major League team that could have a pitcher who won 14 games last year (A.J. Griffin), a pitcher who had 12 victories and a 19-start unbeaten streak last season (Jarrod Parker) and one of the premier set-up men in the American League (Ryan Cook) on the shelf, and still have ample arms to be one of the better pitching staffs in baseball?  You certainly can’t deny the talent, potential and resumes of Parker, Griffin and Cook, but with that said, the vibe in the A’s Phoenix Muni clubhouse remains upbeat and business as usual.  From the manager on down, no signs of panic whatsoever.  It helps to have quality arms the likes of Tommy Milone, Jesse Chavez, Evan Scribner, Drew Pomeranz and Josh Lindblom to summon as their replacements….

Eric “The Face” Sogard hasn’t even gotten to Opening Day and he’s already had a great season.  First, he rode Nerd Nation to an improbable runner-up finish in the Face of MLB online contest, blowing by the likes of Buster Posey and Jose Bautista and nearly upsetting the Mets’ David Wright in the championship round.  Then last night, the vertically-challenged infielder received another big honor, as his old high school retired the No. 9 jersey he made famous at nearby Thunderbird High School in Phoenix.  Sogie is the first baseball player in that school’s history to have his number retired….

A NEW BILLY BALL IS INTRODUCED IN THE DESERT

They say you can’t steal first base, but after watching Billy Burns I’m not so sure.  On the verge of setting land speed records every time he bursts out of the batter’s box, the Georgia Express is virtually a human blur on the base paths.  As veteran baseball scribe John Shea noted in his San Francisco Chronicle blog today, Burns ranks seventh in the majors in steals this spring.  Not individually.  As a team.  In other words, only six MLB teams have more stolen bases than Burns, who’s a perfect 7-for-7 on swiping bags.  Acquired in an offseason trade that sent the popular Jerry Blevins to the Nationals, the mercurial switch-hitter is also batting .318 with a .423 OBP in eight Cactus League games to date.  His blazing speed is reminiscent of Rickey Henderson, intimidating defenders who are becoming keenly aware of his rare gift.  Last weekend against Texas, you saw a Ranger second baseman drop a routine groundball because he knew he had to hurry his throw to first base.  In that same game, the Texas catcher mishandled a strike because Burns was already bearing down on second base and only a lightning-quick release would avert a steal.  Might he be a new version of Billy Ball?  At 5-9, 180 pounds, Burns is built like a bantam weight boxer.  His upper body suggests he might lead the clubhouse in the lowest percentage of body fat.  As media were wrapping up their questioning of Billy at his locker recently, I ended the session by announcing that “Billy has to run to the showers now”…..

AF3D6133And speaking of Billys, I always get a kick out of international fascination with our rock star GM Billy Beane.  The constant requests from around the globe remind me of when I was a youngster on vacation with my family.  Driving across the country, we would play the count-the-license-plates game, seeing how many different states we encountered on the highway.  I’ve been known to see Billy in the hallway and merely say, “Brazil today, Billy.  It’s their Time magazine.”  Earlier this week, it was Wejae Yi from the Chosun Daily News in South Korea sitting down with Billy in his Phoenix Muni office for a brief interview.  Prior to their meeting, Wejae asked me a tough question:  “Who’s older, Billy Beane or Brad Pitts?”  Being the conscientious PR man that I am, I told him that Billy is about a year older (51 to 50).  But knowing where my bread is buttered, I also added “I think Billy looks younger, however”….

So far, our spring training has been quite uneventful in a very good kind of way.  For the most part, we’re staying healthy (both Ryan Cook and Craig Gentry are nearing game activity) and our reservoir of pitching looks as good as advertised.  Probably the biggest news items of the early spring have been Eric Sogard’s rise to fame as the #FaceOfMLB runner-up in the recently completed MLB.com contest, and Josh Reddick robbing Mike Morse of not one, but two homers in the Cactus League opener at Scottsdale stadium.  The first catch, which I’m convinced might have been an optical illusion, aired on many network television shows including NBC’s Today Show.   While it came in an exhibition game, something tells me Josh might have earned a few early Gold Glove votes with his patented Spider-Man antics….

It’s interesting to watch our four catchers wage a battle for spots on our 25-man roster.  Stephen Vogt, who endeared himself to all A’s fans by delivering a game-winning walk-off single in Game 2 of the ALDS last fall, has been wielding a hot stick thus far this spring with a team-leading .538 average and four RBI.  Derek Norris (.273, 4 RBI) and John Jaso (.200, 2 RBI) have both homered, and newcomer Chris Gimenez (.250) owns a .400 on-base percentage and gives Oakland a veteran defensive presence behind the plate.  While all four guys know that one or two of them won’t make the Opening Day cut, it’s impressive to watch all four form close friendships that epitomize the team attitude of this 2014 club.   It’s what championship teams are made of….

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