Winning A's meshing disparate parts beautifully
Blocked, undervalued, overlooked players find opportunity in Oakland
CLEVELAND -- The A's have scored 95 more runs than they've given up -- a Major League-best differential that was, entering Monday, 40 runs higher than that of the "second-place" Tigers.
That's the statistical argument that the A's, who mercilessly dismantled the Indians over the weekend and are now headed to Tampa Bay, are the best team in baseball.
But how about a subjective argument?
"Hands down," a scout said, "the most intelligently put-together roster in all of baseball."
At the moment, it's difficult to argue with that claim. The A's continue to amaze with a well-rounded roster financed by a purely pedestrian payroll.
What's eye-catching, though, is the specific manner of assembly.
Just two members of the current pitching staff -- Sean Doolittle and the spectacular Sonny Gray -- and zero position players were originally drafted and developed by the A's. Oh, sure, they signed Yoenis Cespedes out of Cuba. But it's fair to label that a special circumstance, given his immediate immersion at the big league level.
Every other member of this platoon-loving, walk-drawing, homer-mashing Oakland lineup -- a lineup in which eight guys with at least 100 plate appearances have weighted runs created plus (wRC+) marks at or better than the league average -- got his first professional exposure elsewhere.
And in most of those cases, those players were blocked or undervalued or overlooked.
In the wake of injuries to Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin, the 30-year-old Jesse Chavez (4-1, 2.54 ERA) has been a godsend, helping to rescue the rotation after all those years of struggling to nail down a big league bullpen role in Pittsburgh, Toronto, Kansas City or Atlanta. Derek Norris and Brandon Moss have put up All-Star caliber numbers and become must-starts, despite entering the season in time shares. Josh Donaldson, the onetime catching prospect who flamed out with the Cubs, is in the process of putting up another MVP-caliber year at third base.
This is what the A's did in the "Moneyball" era and this is what they do in this current run of American League West crowns that's probably worthy of its own book treatment: They bring guys together in an environment in which their skills and personalities mesh in handsome harmony. Bob Melvin's daily lineup machinations work because he's a great communicator and because his players understand the big picture.
"I guess in a way you could say we all have something in common in that we were all traded over here kind of in the same way," Norris said. "We were all in a position where we were a piece that wasn't quite a fit for that [previous] ballclub at that particular time, but we were a piece that could fit into a mold over here."
The mold presents a matchup nightmare.
The A's bat with the platoon advantage more than 70 percent of the time (only the Indians, who have three switch-hitting regulars, have a higher platoon rate), and Melvin's faith in his bench is such that he's called for a pinch-hitter more than any other AL skipper, often in high-leverage situations.
"He's gotten them to buy into, 'Hey, when we pinch-hit, it's a team concept,'" Indians manager Terry Francona said. "You've got guys like Josh Reddick hitting eighth. [Melvin] is doing something right where the kid is not hanging his head."
To this kind of talk, Melvin simply shrugs.
"It's not that hard to do, really," he said. "Sometimes guys are hearing things they don't want to hear, but, if you communicate well, at least they can prepare for them. That's what we're trying to do as a coaching staff here is have these guys prepared."
When reporters ask Melvin about Donaldson, about Moss, about Norris, the first word out of his mouth is often "opportunity."
"When players come to the A's," Melvin said, "they know they're going to get not only an opportunity but an extensive opportunity. They come in knowing we're not afraid to play younger guys and not afraid to do things differently. It probably lightens the load for these guys."
Norris, with his .354/.441/.552 slash line, has taken on a heavier load behind the plate in recent days, though certainly not because John Jaso (.841 OPS) has slacked any. In the past, Norris has experienced firsthand the importance of patience on a club that prioritizes tandems and matchups and hot hands, sometimes at the expense of an individual player's personal pride. Norris admitted there were times when that bothered him last year (Norris had 71 starts behind the plate in '13, while Jaso had 42 and Stephen Vogt had 40), but he's adjusted.
"We don't have room for egos here," Norris said. "In the time that you have here, if you have time to build up an ego, more than likely you're probably gone and off somewhere else."
The lineup tends to gel no matter its exact concoction -- and Melvin has already used 29 of them in 44 games. The A's are averaging the most runs per game (5.34) of any Major League team that doesn't play its home games a mile above sea level. Meanwhile, Gray's continued maturation, Chavez's surprising output and Scott Kazmir's arrival have helped Oakland post the third-best rotation ERA in the game, while Jim Johnson's troubles are the only major blip in an otherwise solid bullpen.
"They've got it going right now," Francona said Sunday, after the A's had finished outscoring his club 30-6 in a three-game set.
Indeed, they do.
Now, given Gray's youth, Chavez's potential for fatigue (he pitched just 87 1/3 innings, primarily in relief, between the Majors and Minors last year) and the injury risk posed to Kazmir, you could make an argument that Oakland ought to be in the market for a top-flight starter (Jeff Samardzija?) this summer. The Division Series defeats at the hands of Detroit the last two years have demonstrated the value of depth in top-flight starting options.
But if the A's augment from the outside, it certainly wouldn't be the first time. They've built a concoction of perfect parts from disparate places. And in roster and run differential, they have an argument as the best team in baseball at the moment.