'King of platoons' back at it in Oakland
Melvin able to mix and match in A's lineup while keeping egos in check
PHOENIX -- They were asking Bob Melvin about potential batting orders for the Oakland A's the other day, and the manager had to laugh.
"We're not set on who's playing where," said Melvin, "let alone who's hitting where."
And that's all part of the intrigue with these Amazin' A's, who defied convention and won the American League West last season for a variety of factors, not the least of which was their ability to rotate bodies in and out of their lineup, maximize the matchups and somehow piece together the Majors' most productive offense in the second half.
At year's end, the A's had platoon situations at no fewer than four of the nine positions on the diamond -- catcher, first base, second base and designated hitter. It was how they made the most out of their $55 million payroll. Guys like Jonny Gomes, Seth Smith, Chris Carter and George Kottaras bought into the benefits of the practice, not because they were content with a limited role but because they recognized that it worked.
A's batters faced a pitcher of the same handedness 2,151 times last season -- the second-lowest such mark in the AL. Only the Indians, who did not have an all-right-handed-hitting regular in their lineup last year, had fewer plate appearances in this scenario.
"We found out," said right fielder Josh Reddick, "that Bob is the king of platoons."
The platoon advantage is an idea espoused by those who analyze the game with a mathematical mindset. After all, it simply makes statistical sense to put your players in the best possible position to succeed.
But in the confines of the clubhouse, where egos are abundant? Good luck preaching the value of platoons to those adverse to anything other than an everyday job.
Look at the Phillies' touchy situation with Ryan Howard for one particularly prominent example. No matter the magnitude of Howard's staggering salary, there is simply no getting around the fact that the 32-year-old has been horrendous against left-handed pitching. His triple-slash line against southpaws over the last four seasons is a woeful .223/.295/.395. Pat Gillick's recent suggestion that manager Charlie Manuel consider sitting Howard against tough lefties was spot-on, but, clubhouse politics being what they are, benching a healthy guy making $20 million is much easier said than done.
Not a soul in the A's clubhouse has a Howard-like superstar status, obviously, and that's one reason why Melvin's penchant for the platoon works so well here. The comfort and convention of a stable starting nine is not in the A's budget, and 2013 will be another test of the time-shares, particularly after an offseason in which Billy Beane and David Forst added new layers of depth to the position player roll call.
"We have the ability to make some adjustments from day to day here," Melvin said. "We have a lot of players who we feel will be impactful. Over the course of spring, we'll look at the lineups and see who fits where."
The additions of Chris Young and Jed Lowrie -- a bona fide starting center fielder and shortstop, respectively -- complicate (in a good way) Melvin's daily lineup construction. He now has, at minimum, four would-be starting outfielders in Young, Reddick, Yoenis Cespedes and Coco Crisp, to say nothing of Smith, who turned in a respectable .259/.352/.454 slash line against right-handed pitching last season.
As problems go, it's a good one to have, and the designated hitter spot can obviously be utilized to rotate guys on and off the field. But how Melvin doles out the playing time in this athletic and potentially productive outfield will be a subject of intrigue both inside and outside the A's clubhouse.
"Bob is going to play his matchups," said Reddick, who had a .768 OPS in 673 plate appearances last season. "You might get two at-bats against a lefty, and then they bring in a hard-throwing righty and he's going to pinch-hit for you, especially if it's a big situation. We understand that, myself included. I know that if I'm struggling and a big right-hander like Chris Young has a day off and some tough lefty comes in, I have to be ready for him to pinch-hit for me. You have to understand the concept of it."
The concept could extend to the infield, where the A's are still sorting out their second-base situation. Between Lowrie, Brandon Moss, Hiroyuki Nakajima, Josh Donaldson, Daric Barton, Scott Sizemore and Jemile Weeks, Melvin has a potential logjam on his hands in the infield, too, though it's likely either Sizemore or Weeks will begin the season in Triple-A.
Melvin stressed that one key to this concept is communication, first and foremost.
"It's important for everyone to know where they stand at the time," he said. "They may not like what they're hearing, but they can prepare accordingly. ... We like to let our guys know that night who is playing the next day. Or for the role players, I'll tell them know three or four days in advance."
The A's made it work in 2012, in dramatic fashion, surging to the top of the standings with an offense that got better as time pushed on. To make it work again in '13, they'll need to maintain the mantra that what's best for the team isn't always what's best for the individual.
"Every athlete has an ego, whether he says it or not," Donaldson said. "If athletes didn't have an ego, they wouldn't be in the situation they are now. But you had big-time egos here last year that put it aside for the greater good of the team to go out there and help us win. Every time they stepped into the lineup, they produced. I think it's going to be the same way this year."