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”…..
And 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….
Short people got no reason
Short people got no reason
Short people got no reason
They got little hands
They walk around
Tellin’ great big lies
They got little noses
And tiny little teeth
They wear platform shoes
On their nasty little feet
Well, I don’t want no short people
Don’t want no short people
Don’t want no short people
Randy Newman would love this team. If ever there was a group of players that would inspire someone to write a satirical song called “Short People,” it might be this 2014 edition of the Oakland A’s. However, unlike the lyrics once penned by Newman, these vertically-challenged men are vital cogs “’Round here.” Take Coco Crisp for example. He may measure 5-10, at least in the eyes of the media relations staff, but his stature is much taller when he strides to the plate to lead off an Oakland first inning. And he’s not the only compressed compadre on the team. Check out the roster’s Sub Six Foot Club: Alberto Callaspo (5-9), Nick Punto (5-9), Yoenis Cespedes (5-10), Yoenis Cespedes (5-10), Eric Sogard (5-10), Sam Fuld (5-10) and Sonny Gray (5-11). Honorary member: third base coach Mike Gallego, who tops out at 5-8. Kind of makes you wonder whether our esteemed leader Billy Beane has found a new Moneyball matrix that might give the A’s an edge over the competition. Soon, he’ll be sending his scouts to amusement parks across America, looking for those special kids that will project favorably at a young age. You know, the kids who don’t measure up for the big rides yet. “Fellas, scour every inch of the country and find us the commodity no one else covets. We won’t settle for anything but short!” It appears that Nate Freiman (6-8), Michael Ynoa (6-7) and Jim Johnson (6-6) will be grandfathered in, however.
Remember when your parents said “Johnny, you should always eat a good breakfast in the morning”? Well, for outfielder Michael Taylor, already sporting a Greek God of a physique (6-5, 256 lbs.), that advice truly changed his life. And we’re not talking nutrition here. It seems that during his time in Arizona, he has made it a point to patronize a great breakfast spot on Scottsdale Road called U.S. Egg. A beautiful young lady named Addie would wait on him. Before long, Michael may have chosen that particular restaurant for breakfast more because of Addie than the egg omelets. And then this past offseason, the match-made-in-a-coffee-shop got married. I assume not in the restaurant.
Taking a page out of Japanese professional baseball, Bob Melvin employed two batting cages on the same practice field at our Papago training complex today. Using pitching machines against hitters, the new practice allowed the team to get more work in less time. It may be the first time a Major League team has utilized the Japanese setup, although the San Francisco Chronicle’s Susan Slusser reports that Sonny Gray told her that Vanderbilt and other colleges have used the two-cage format in workouts. Melvin and the A’s were exposed to this Japanese custom during their 2012 trip to Tokyo. And who knows, maybe the A’s skipper is cleverly campaigning for his club to be chosen to represent MLB in their Taiwan series next year!
And speaking of Sonny Gray, you can take your pick on how to describe his stuff this spring: (a) nasty, (b) filthy, (c) electric, (d) unhittable and (e) all of the above. And how great is it for A’s fans who visit our Papago training facility during our final year in Phoenix? Today, I saw a father and young son standing behind yellow ropes, not more than 25 feet away from Gray on the bullpen mound today.
Josh Reddick, looking fully recovered from his offseason wrist surgery and with few pounds of added muscle, got no favors from the coaching staff when it came to his early live BP sessions. First two pitchers he had to face: Jarrod Parker and Sonny Gray.
MLB Network, one of the best gifts ever to baseball fans when it came on the scene in 1999, announced that it will televise eight A’s games from Spring Training. So mark your calendars: Mar. 2 at the Angels, March 3 vs. the Dodgers, March 15 vs. Texas, March 18 at the White Sox, March 23 vs. the Cubs and March 24 at Texas. Comcast SportsNet California will also air our night game against Colorado on March 13.
“If you don’t have a bullpen, you ain’t got nothing.”
Dusty Baker, one of my all-time favorite people in the game, used to say that all the time. I think the lineage of that original quote was credited to either Casey Stengel or Yogi Berra, two sage baseball men in their own right.
For the past two years, there’s an irrefutable case to be made that the Athletics’ strongest component has been its relief. And maybe not so coincidentally, the small-market, low-payroll A’s have claimed back-to-back American League West titles. As pitchers and catchers report to Phoenix tomorrow for 2014 Spring Training, Bob Melvin calls this year’s bullpen perhaps his deepest and most talented. In fact, there are long-time baseball observers who rank the A’s relievers as one of the best groups in the majors.
That arms-arms-arms mantra filled the hallway outside of the offices of Billy Beane and his top lieutenants David Forst, Farhan Zaidi and Dan Feinstein during the offseason, resulting in a possible pen upgrade in the additions of new closer Jim Johnson, who has saved a major-league leading 101 games over the past two seasons, a pair of proven setup men in Luke Gregerson and Eric O’Flaherty (available at mid-season), and dart-throwing lefty specialist Fernando Abad.
Like the returning nucleus, all of these newcomers share a common thread. They all throw strikes. That’s a characteristic that must thrill pitching coach Curt Young to no end. It fits right into his keep-it-simple, make-them-hit-your-pitch approach. The quality depth and experience he will have at his disposal gives Young many advantages over most clubs in the American League.
He has more flexibility in utilizing relievers in the best possible matchups. And because he’s operating with so many star-quality arms, he can keep his bullpen fresh throughout the grueling campaign—much like he and Melvin did last season. That plethora of strike-throwers also creates healthy competition from within, which only pushes pitchers to reach their maximum potential. The A’s also have the luxury of at least five pitchers who can spell Johnson with an occasional save assignment. Returnees Ryan Cook and Sean Doolittle have both slammed the lid on Oakland wins in ninth-inning duty, while Dan Otero—he of the 1.38 ERA last year—was a lock-down closer at Triple-A Sacramento before dominating with the big club. Then add Gregerson and eventually O’Flaherty, and you should understand why there will be an air of excitement at Papago Saturday when these impressive arms start popping catchers’ mitts on multiple mounds in the Arizona sunshine.
Maybe the most significant impact our bullpen will have on opponents will be psychologically. Beyond saving our young starting rotation from high pitch counts, they essentially shorten the game. Opposing hitters will know that if they don’t score early and stake a lead, they run the risk of never seeing a lead. Any way you slice it, that spells i-n-t-i-m-i-d-a-t-i-o-n.
And that, A’s faithful, is a very good thing.
If you’re a died-in-the-wool A’s fan—you know, the kind that Bernie leans at the drop of a hat and waits in line three or four hours to claim their cherished new bobblehead giveaway—you have to be excited about the team’s new acquisitions this month. Time will tell just how successful each trade or free agent signing was. However, if you walked the lobby at the Swan & Dolphin Hotel in Orlando as I did this week, you heard universal praise from GMs, media and even a couple of agents about most of our player moves. And while the two deals we swung earlier today might be wait-and-see propositions, there appears to be big upsides for Colorado left-hander Drew Pomeranz, a former fifth overall draft pick, and mercurial leadoff man Billy Burns, the Nationals’ Minor League Player of the Year this season.
Yet, while we can look forward to an organization getting stronger with some shrewd additions, I can’t help but feel some remorse by two news developments that unfolded today.
A 10 a.m. news conference at the Winter Meetings was held by Brad Horn, the highly-respected PR man for the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. He announced that long-time Texas Rangers’ play-by-play man Eric Nadel was this year’s winner of the Ford C. Frick Award. Nadel, a friend and fellow blues enthusiast (we trade CDs and MP3s every time we see each other), is richly deserving of the Hall of Fame honor. He’s been a sports radio fixture in the Lone Star State for 35 years.
However, his selection also meant our beloved Bill King was passed over yet again by the voting committee. As a courtesy, Horn shared the news with me 10 minutes before the press briefing. While I was deeply disappointed—as was A’s Vice President of Broadcasting and Communications Ken Pries and A’s voice Ken Korach who authored the King “Holy Toledo” book—no one could be more disappointed than the thousands of Bay Area fans who cherished every broadcast Bill ever did and mourned his unexpected passing six years ago.
Earlier in October, I had sent a copy of Ken’s wonderfully-written book, along with a letter, to each member of the Ford C. Frick Award committee. There were glowing quotes from dozens of people in the book, including such sports icons as Hall of Famers John Madden, Rick Barry and Tony LaRussa, and a foreword by Jon Miller, whose plaque also resides in Cooperstown. In my letter, I told each voter we understood there were many worthy recipients, but while you may not be able to read Holy Toledo cover to cover before voting, I implored them to at least turn to page 111 and read the transcribed broadcast account of King’s remarkable call of Kirk Gibson’s World Series home run off Dennis Eckersley and the moments leading up to that historic clout. Due to the classic calls of Jack Buck and Vin Scully of the same play, I suspected none or very few of the voters had ever even heard Bill’s version on A’s radio. As usual, King’s description of the Series-turning homer was absolutely masterful. Not only did he capture the moment perfectly, adding his typical flair for the dramatic, he set the scene like no other broadcaster can. Other Hall of Fame broadcasters had to marvel how Bill actually anticipated that Eckersley’s 3-2 pitch to Gibson might be a back-door slider.
Unlike past years that Bill was eligible for selection and he finished in the top three in fan voting on the Hall of Fame website, this past month I received phone calls or notes from a number of committee members, including such legendary broadcast figures as Vin Scully and Bob Costas. They thanked me for sending Ken’s book and said they learned things about Bill they never knew. One member, who will remain nameless, also told me that King’s death may have delayed his chances of being selected, as the voters might not feel the urgency to vote him in when there are living candidates that would also be fine choices. That may be a bitter pill for some of us to swallow, but at the same time, there is validity to his comment. Now, under the new Ford C. Frick Award procedures where a different era of broadcasting is voted upon each year, we must wait until 2017 for the next time Bill’s era is on the ballot. If anything, the longer the wait, the sweeter it will be for A’s fans and King’s family and friends when he finally receives this long overdue honor.
And a second news story hit the Twitter World this afternoon, when it was announced that Jerry Blevins had been shipped to the Washington Nationals for Billy Burns. While we never should get too close to our players, knowing they are only a phone call away from being scratched off our roster, it’s no secret that Blevins was not only a clubhouse and front office favorite, he was also a great fan favorite. And this was a distinction that he plainly earned. Whether it was doing countless community outreach appearances on behalf of the A’s, collaborating with Coco Crisp on introducing the “Bernie Lean” song and dance to his teammates and the Coliseum faithful, or providing veteran leadership to a young and talented bullpen, Blevins demonstrated what a classy and team-oriented role model should be. His cerebral take on things, not to mention his at-times goofy sense of humor, will be sorely missed next season. And thanks to his dedication and work ethic, it was truly a pleasure to watch this string-bean-of-a-man develop into a strikeout artist who developed into one of the better left-handed specialists in the American League. It was that development which eventually made him a valuable commodity that today brought a coveted minor leaguer to Oakland in return.
When the Nationals visit the O.co Coliseum in early May, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear a few chants of “Jerry, Jerry!” when the former A’s favorite starts warming up in the bullpen. And if that’s the case, I think we’ll all understand. So long Jerry. You left a mark here in Oakland, and for that, we say thank you and wish you nothing but the best.
Well, I guess it’s finally time to exhale. It was masterful how Billy Beane and the A’s brain trust were able to swing so many deals in essentially a 24-hour period earlier this week. I think it speaks volumes about their advance preparation, decisiveness and vision for our club. As we approach next week’s Winter Meetings, we will certainly arrive in Orlando in a position of strength. The depth of our starting pitching and bullpen, and to a lesser extent, our middle infield and catching, makes us an attractive partner with other teams looking to improve their rosters for 2014.
Yet for Billy, it’s all about “pieces” to the puzzle. And a puzzle is a good analogy. When the MLB Executive of the Year begins hunting for new players, it’s not only talent he’s looking for. He’s also looking for the right fit and compliment. Whether it was John Jaso complimenting Derek Norris, or Eric Sogard serving the same purpose with Alberto Callaspo, collectively they fit into a baseball puzzle that has produced 96 wins and a division title last year. Now, with the inevitability that last season’s All-Star pitchers Bartolo Colon and Grant Balfour most likely will leave for greener ($$$) pastures, the A’s baseball honchos have addressed virtually all their needs to stock another winning club in 2014. Consider the new pieces:
- LHP Scott Kazmir—He helps balance our rotation as a lefthander and provides a veteran presence whose best years may still be ahead of him. His post-All Star Break ERA with Cleveland last year: 3.38.
- Closer Jim Johnson—As good as Balfour was the past two seasons, there’s a case to be made that Johnson was even better. Also in the prime of his career, he’s led the majors in saves each of the past two seasons (51 in 2011 and 50 in 2012) with a sub-3.00 ERA. And he did it in a hitter’s park, with a playoff-contending team and facing mostly the bats of the American League East.
- RHP Luke Gregerson—He’s been a workhorse in San Diego who established himself as one of the National League’s better set-up men. His 105 holds over the past four years are second most in the NL and tied for fourth-most in the majors over that period.
- OF Craig Gentry—This may be the sleeper of this week’s flurry of additions. If you look closely, Gentry could be the quintessential Athletic. He can play multiple positions—left, right and center field—can steal a base when you need one and hits well at the Coliseum (.333 lifetime). His rifle arm and range in the outfield is well documented, plus he gives Bob Melvin a great option for pinch-running late in a game. And also consider this: Gentry owned the third-best batting average (.280) on Rangers last year, and his .338 average after the All-Star Break ranked third best in the American League. And it should be noted he started 50 games over the last two months of the season.
- INF Nick Punto—Another veteran grinder who can play multiple infield positions and is a plus defender. And while his overall batting numbers may not impress, his success against left-handed pitchers places him in an ideal platoon situation. He hit .309 vs. southpaws last season and .302 in 2012.
- LHP Fernando Abad—He may not have captured the attention of the players acquired this week, but picking up Abad from the Nationals might be another sleeper. When you can find a left-handed reliever whose fastball is clocked in the 95-96 range and has a nasty sinker, you jump on it. And Billy did. This will be his fifth season in the big leagues. He might have been under the radar in D.C., but when you look at his numbers (3.31 ERA in 39 games, 32 strikeouts and 10 walks in 37 innings) from last year, they suggest he might have to change his name to Fernando Agood before too long.
One common thread to most winning teams, I have found, is this: excluding the Yankees, Red Sox and Dodgers and perhaps a couple more high-priced clubs, the key to a team’s roster is value. If you were to look at the A’s as they’re currently constituted, breaking down the “value” of each player if they were on the common market, you would have to say they collective worth of our team is much more than its $70-some million. While I won’t go into individual examples, suffice it to say that on the open market, this is a team with talent equivalent to a payroll almost double its current figure. I’ve experienced this before on other teams I’ve worked for. It tells you the baseball office is doing a fine job evaluating and spending its money.
THANKSGIVING LEFTOVERS: Great seeing A.J. Griffin and Sean Doolittle in our A’s offices yesterday. The two popular pitchers flew in to town Wednesday afternoon, and our Player & Media Relations Manager Adam Loberstein ran them through the gauntlet, first with studio visits to Comcast SportsNet and 95.7 FM The Game, followed by a corporate sponsor dinner Wednesday night. Yesterday, they greeted a couple hundred children at the Oakland Zoo and stayed busy handing out holiday gifts and feeding the animals. Griffin said his favorite animals were the giraffes. They also visited a children’s hospital before returning home to Arizona…Our skipper, Bob Melvin, has been spotted often at Warriors’ games at Oracle Arena. His love of W’s dates back to his childhood when he would follow the team, thanks to his godfather, Warriors’ long-time trainer Dick D’Oliva…Former A’s pitcher Dave Stewart continues to be a great role model in his hometown of Oakland. He and three-time Manager of the Year Dusty Baker, along with ABC7 news anchor Cheryl Jennings, are appearing at the 1000 Mothers to Prevent Violence gala next Thursday, Dec. 12 at the Jack London Aquatic Center. It’s a great cause, as recognized by Jerry Blevins, Doolittle and the rest of the A’s bullpen this past season, as they donated $3,500 of their own money to Lorrain Taylor, the founder and CEO of 1000 Mothers, which provides comfort and services to families who have suffered the loss of a loved one due to violence. The Oakland Police Department has begun to refer such families to 1000 Mothers to Prevent Violence as the best option in the City for care. There are still limited seats left for the dinner (dress is not formal) at $75 each, but you better hurry. The phone number for orders is 510-583-0100. Registration is from 5-6 p.m. with the program starting at 6:30.
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 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!
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.
As 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.
Unless, 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.
Well, since last I checked in with you, there is a pool of liquid that has formed at the white shoe tops of our Oakland A’s. It’s the last remains of a six-game lead that has melted away in the AL West. During a period when the Texas Rangers flexed their financial muscle with two significant acquisitions—a front of the rotation starter in Matt Garza and middle-of-the-order hitter in Alex Rios—that coincided with an Athletics’ 4-7 tailspin, there were those in the national media who suggested the A’s magic of a year ago may not materialize in 2013. One respected scribe on ESPN.com’s Grantland site, in fact, pointed to a downturn in Oakland’s young starting rotation as a red flag. He implied that Texas was the superior team, and that the majority of Curt Young’s rotation is struggling, with no reason to believe they will right the ship.
My first reaction to the article was, “this is a tad premature.” The sample size is way too small. This is not to imply that Texas is not a formidable foe. As we experienced last year, they certainly are. However, as soon it was suggested that our starting pitching was in demise, we rattled off three victories in our four-game wrap-around series in Toronto over the weekend. Not only did we rebound from two losses that opened the road trip in Cincinnati, but our starting pitchers performed splendidly against perhaps the most powerful lineup in the American League. The Blue Jays, led by José Bautista, Edwin Encarnación, Jose Reyes, Adam Lind and Colby Rasmus, are a bunch of mashers (as we saw recently when they launched a seemingly endless stream of home runs at the Coliseum).
On Friday night, Jarrod Parker allowed six hits and three runs in 6.0 innings. Saturday, rookie Sonny Gray made the first Major League start of his career and yielded only four hits and two earned runs in 6.0 innings. Sunday, A.J. Griffin—who was scorched for four Jay home runs in Oakland only two weeks earlier—limited Toronto’s behemoths to five hits and two earned runs in 5.2 innings. And in yesterday’s series finale, Dan Straily mowed down the Blue Jays to the tune of six hits and one run over a career-high 7.1 innings. Collectively, the foursome posted a 2.88 ERA and averaged 6.25 innings per start at the Rogers Centre.
To me, that is a very encouraging sign for this young team as we enter the final six-and-half weeks of the regular season. With Tommy Milone fine-tuning his pitches in Sacramento and Brett Anderson to begin a rehab assignment maybe within a matter of days, the A’s also have the luxury of two seasoned left-handers in their stable that will be ready when summoned. And of course, the A’s bullpen might be arguably the best in the American League. I’m not sure any other staff features a closer (Grant Balfour) with the top save percentage in the league, a right-handed set-up man (Ryan Cook) who just had a 75.2-inning homerless streak snapped over the weekend, and a left-handed set-up specialist (Sean Doolittle) who hasn’t allowed a run in his last 12 appearances.
With 26 of their final 45 games to be played in the pitching friendly confines of the Coliseum and sitting one game behind Texas at 67-50, I like our position. We’re certainly battle-tested from last year’s race, so there will be no surprises for this team down the stretch. Let’s all enjoy the ride. It promises to be another frenetic finish. Although I do think we might want to consider an office pool, with the winner correctly guessing which uniform—the Rangers or A’s—Adam Rosales will be wearing on the season’s final day.
During Saturday’s FOX telecast of the A’s-Angels game, one announcer reportedly said that the national audience cannot name three Oakland players. This is a very popular view by many people who do not follow Bob Melvin’s first-place club on a regular basis.
If they did, they might know that Grant Balfour saved 44 consecutive games, a 113-year franchise record and the sixth longest such streak in Major League history. They might also know that Josh Donaldson plays a Gold Glove caliber third base perhaps comparable to Baltimore’s Manny Machado, and that he owns an almost identical batting average (.296 to Machado’s .297), has hit seven more home runs and driven in 11 more RBI than the Orioles’ young phenom. They would also know that Jed Lowrie has the second-highest batting average (.299) among shortstops in the American League. They might even know that Bartolo Colón, who ranks among the AL’s top three in wins, ERA and complete games, has a legitimate chance at winning his second Cy Young Award to join a select group of pitchers. And they would be aware that setup man extraordinaire Ryan Cook has a 2.15 ERA in 45 relief appearances and owns the longest current streak of homerless innings (46) of any pitcher in baseball.
I do know this: there is a little girl from Modesto who can probably name every player on the A’s roster. Her name is Mykayla Herrera. She is eight years old and was born with Osteogenesis Imperfecta, which is a brittle bones condition that is genetic. Several months ago, I was contacted by a gentleman named Eric Wallace, the president and co-founder of an organization called the Sons of Baseball Foundation. Similar to the Make-A-Wish Foundation, they try to grant a wish to a deserving baseball fan. Mykayla is a die-hard A’s fan who watches or listens to every game during the season. She’s a very tiny girl due to her condition, but when she arrived with her parents, grandparents and other family and friends, her smiling face lit up the Coliseum. (Photo credit Luis Torres)
We hosted her on the field before Sunday’s game. The Sons of Baseball provided authentic A’s jerseys with “Herrera” on the backs to Mykayla and her family. Although there was not batting practice yesterday, her favorite player—Coco Crisp—agreed to come onto the field to meet her. He brought a baseball with him and signed it “To Mykayla, Coco Crisp.” The look on her face when he walked on the field was priceless. Her dream really was coming true. Little did she know her pre-game experience was just beginning.
Soon after Coco left, she watched Bob Melvin do “The BoMel Show” with broadcaster Ken Korach in the dugout. When the show was taped, both men walked onto the field to say hello to Mykayla. She and her family could not believe their good fortune. Once Melvin returned to the dugout to address the media, the A’s pitchers took the field to do their daily pre-game stretch. One of the stragglers was Balfour, who stopped by to say hello to the Herrera family as well. I’m not sure if Mykayla was more fascinated by meeting the A’s closer or listening to his Australian accent. Either way, he was a big hit. When the pitchers were finished, a large bear-of-a-man stopped by the dugout, where Mykayla’s mother had placed her next to the bat rack. The sweet girl’s grandfather yelled, “It’s Bartolo Colón!” Her eyes widened almost as much as her smile. He touched her face, said a few words in Spanish, and then in English told her to wait and that he had something else for her. Colón jogged back to the clubhouse and reemerged with one of the official All-Star Game baseballs he was given in New York. He signed it and handed it to her. Pretty cool scene.
Before long, Tommy Milone also joined in as I introduced him to Mykayla. “This is the guy who was the winning pitcher in yesterday’s game.” She quickly responded: “I knew that!” At this point, it was past noon and our little fan probably thought the meetings were over, and she could get rest before she threw out the game’s ceremonial first pitch—another part of her MVP Experience provided by the Sons of Baseball. However, just when she was about to leave the dugout, one final player made his way to see her. To crown her day, the 2013 Home Run Derby champion, Yoenis Céspedes, walked straight towards Mykayla with bat in hand. But before he could personally sign the bat, he bent over and gave her a kiss on the cheek. The Cuban outfielder literally took her breath away. But not for long. She was truly in heaven, as the bigger-than-life star sat next to her on the bench, as family members took photos that soon will be part of her bedroom in Modesto. Fellow Cuban Ariel Prieto, A’s coach and Yoenis’ interpreter, joined in the party, also giving Mykayla a peck on the cheek and sharing some warm thoughts in their native tongue.
Once the player and coach had returned to the clubhouse to get their game faces on, it was almost time for the first pitch. Her grandfather told me that Mykayla had been practicing for days. Held by her mother and barely standing on the patch of grass near home plate, the shortest person at the ballpark let the ball fly, and in an ironic stroke, it was the A’s tallest player, Nate Freiman, who caught the pitch. Then, it was time for the family to join a group of about 30 family and friends from Modesto in the stands to watch the game. Even when the Angels bolted out to a 5-0 lead by the second inning, the irrepressible Mykayla Herrera just knew her boys would come back and win the game. And that they did, rallying to post a 10-6 victory that widened their lead in the AL West to a season-high six games. I know for me personally, as well as our players, it was a day bigger than baseball and one we won’t soon forget. Something tells me Mykayla might just feel the same way.