Oakland A's: An Inside Look at Baseball's Hottest Team

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Oakland A's: An Inside Look at Baseball's Hottest Team
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The 2012 Oakland Athletics are living proof that history does indeed repeat itself.

The similarities between the 2002 A's and the 2012 A's are hard to ignore. Neither team was expected to do much due to super-low payrolls and a perceived lack of talent, but the 2002 A's ended up winning 103 games, and the 2012 A's are on pace to win about 94 games.

A 94-win campaign isn't as impressive as a 103-win campaign, to be sure, but the fact that the A's are on pace to win that many games this year is borderline absurd seeing as how they were a mere 43-43 at the All-Star break. They're 41-18 ever since.

Oakland's first postseason berth in six years is in sight, and the A's continue to erase doubts about whether they can get there every time they take the field. Things just have a way of working out for them, even if it doesn't make a whole lot of sense when you look at the team from afar.

I'll say this, though: After spending a day at O.Co Coliseum on Friday and speaking to various people from different levels of the organization, I can tell you that what's going on in Oakland makes more sense than a lot of people think. Just like there was when the A's were generating Hollywood fodder in 2002, there is a method to Oakland's madness in 2012.

Kelley L Cox-US PRESSWIRE
Veteran center fielder Coco Crisp is one of the players at the center of Oakland's team chemistry.

Take the team's frat house-esque chemistry, for example. Everyone is familiar with the general imagery of it by now, whether it's players in green and gold doing the "Bernie Lean" or walk-off wins that draw the notorious "Pie-derman" from his secret lair.

What few realize is that it's amazing that the A's have any team chemistry at all given how hard it was for the team to come together in the first place.

Bob Melvin, who is in his first full season as the manager of the A's, notes that the club had a lot of moving parts not just in spring training, but during the early portion of the regular season as well. There were only so many familiar faces in the clubhouse on a given day. In times like these, forming an identity is next to impossible.

"When you look at a big league roster, a 25-man roster, I think ours was more like 32 (in that) we were bringing guys back and forth depending on how they were playing at a certain time," said Melvin of the early days of the season.

Melvin says it was right around the middle or the end of June when Oakland's roster ceased being nebulous and became more concrete, particularly as it pertained to the club's offense.

Position players such as Brandon Moss, Chris Carter and others established themselves at the major league level, making it much easier for Oakland's regulars to settle into more defined roles.

This is precisely when the A's started to score more runs, and that's precisely when the wins started to come. The next thing anyone knew, the A's had a little something going.

Said Melvin:

Once we started to play better offensively, hitting some home runs and so forth, the team started to find an identity within itself. We always felt like we were a scrappy-type team, a team that played well and focused later on in games, played hard...But I think once we started to hit the ball out of the ballpark, we gained a lot more confidence. 

It's a baseball lesson that has been taught many times before: Wins beget chemistry, and chemistry begets more and more wins. It helps when many of the wins are coming courtesy of the long ball. Home runs are, after all, kind of uplifting.

For the record, the A's didn't just start hitting more home runs right around the time the roster began to take shape in June. They started hitting a ton of home runs.

They hit 34 in June after hitting a mere 22 in May. They then hit 36 in July, and 39 in August. All told, they're up to 86 home runs since the All-Star break, second in the majors behind the Chicago White Sox.

Ezra Shaw/Getty Images
No team in baseball has specialized in the walk-off win quite like the A's this season.

It's not just one guy providing all the power. It's someone different every night.

And unlike a certain high-priced pinstriped team, the A's don't need to hit bombs to win games. The big hit is something of a house specialty in Oakland, and seemingly every hitter who has donned green and gold at one point or another this season has come up with at least one big hit.

As such, Melvin really has no clue who the MVP of his own team is, raising his eyebrows and shaking his head when he was asked to pick somebody. The best he could do was insist that the award would have to be split three ways between Coco Crisp, Josh Reddick and Yoenis Cespedes.

"The guys who we count on are Coco the most, or Coco, Reddick and Cespedes," said Melvin, seemingly only half-certain of his selections. "I think at different parts and times of the season, they would be considered the MVP at the time. I couldn’t put my finger on just one."

Figuring out who the MVP of the A's is isn't easy. Pinpointing the ace of the team's pitching staff, meanwhile, is virtually impossible. The team's starters rank fourth in MLB with an ERA of 3.67, and establishing that number has been a true collective effort.

The A's have used 10 different starting pitchers this season, ranging from 15-year major league veteran Bartolo Colon to a host of rookies that includes Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, Dan Straily and A.J. Griffin. Remarkably, of the 10 starting pitchers the A's have used this season, only two of them have posted ERAs over 4.00.

The pitching depth that the A's have is not the result of blind luck. Their pitching staff goes so deep because the men running the team made it that way.

"We talk about this every offseason," said Farhan Zaidi, Oakland's Director of Baseball Operations. "We don’t build a five-man rotation; we build a 162-game rotation."

This is not to say that Zaidi, famed general manager Billy Beane and the rest of Oakland's front office knew exactly what they were going to get from the team's collection of rookie hurlers, who have been beyond impressive this season. Jarrod Parker, for example, established himself in the big leagues a lot quicker than Zaidi himself expected.

"He was a guy that we thought had a really, really high ceiling," said Zaidi of Parker. "But coming off Tommy John and spending most of last year in Double-A, it would have been a lot to ask for him to come up and do what he did."

J. Meric/Getty Images
Jarrod Parker has as many wins and a lower ERA than Trevor Cahill, the very man he was traded for.

Parker was sitting on a studly 2.40 ERA after his first eight starts were in the book. To date, all he's done through 26 starts is win 11 games with a 3.51 ERA. According to FanGraphs, the only rookie pitcher in the American League with a higher WAR than Parker is Yu Darvish.

As great as Parker has been, the pitcher who most perfectly encapsulates just how deep Oakland's pitching staff really goes is Dan Straily, who is 2-0 with a 3.42 ERA in four major league starts. Though he had a very good year at the High-A level in 2011, Straily went from being a solid organizational pitcher to a player who simply had to be used at the major league level seemingly overnight.

"He was a guy that I would have said at the beginning of the year, I could see him spending most of the year in Double-A," said Zaidi of Straily, "and if he had a similarly good year (to 2011), he could move up to Triple-A and then really be on the radar. A little bit like Parker, I think the most impressive thing about what he’s done is just the speed and (the way he's forced) the issue."

A.J. Griffin is another shining example of Oakland's pitching depth, but what makes Griffin unique from his rookie comrades on the A's is that he acted like he belonged in the majors from day one.

So says former A's catcher and current color commentator Ray Fosse, anyway. When Griffin made his major league debut on June 24 against the San Francisco Giants, Fosse says the 24-year-old right-hander's confidence began to show through immediately.

Upon returning to the dugout after surrendering a two-run home run to NL MVP candidate Buster Posey in the first inning, Fosse says Griffin turned to his teammates and said, "That’s all, guys. They’re not getting anymore."

Sure enough, they didn't. The Giants didn't score another run against Griffin, who walked off the field in the top of the seventh inning to the tune of a standing ovation. Instead of playing it cool—as rookies should do, damn it—Griffin tipped his hat to the crowd. Fosse insists it's the best thing he's ever seen from a rookie.

Oh, and the A's went on to win that game thanks to Derek Norris' walk-off three-run homer. Had Griffin not followed through on his promise, the stage for that home run would have never been set.

Griffin did little more than shrug when he was asked to explain his apparently sky-high confidence. He just credited Oakland's minor and major league coaches for making things easy for every pitcher on the staff to come in and do his job.

For his part, Griffin just tries to be positive. He helps himself by not freaking out about every little thing.

Harry How/Getty Images
A.J. Griffin is the first Oakland pitcher to ever start his career 6-0.

"I just try to go out there and just take one pitch at a time, execute the pitch, have conviction in it. Once it leaves my hand, there’s not much I can do about it. I’ve just been trying to do the best I can, give us a chance to win a ballgame every time I go out there," said Griffin.

A quote such as that is straight out of the "How to Act Like a Big Leaguer" handbook, but that doesn't necessarily mean Griffin is guilty of blowing hot air. His attitude fits with the low-key vibe surrounding the team's starting pitching staff this year.

You get the sense that none of the club's starters are trying to pitch a complete-game shutout every time they take the mound. They're just trying to keep things under control long enough for the A's to have a shot at a W.

But Oakland's starters aren't too relaxed. Brett Anderson—who, despite being only 24 years old, is something of an elder statesman in the team's rotation—says there's a friendly competition within the rotation. Nobody wants to be that guy.

"You see A.J. and Parker and the other guys go out there and have success and you don’t want to be the guy that goes out there and screws it up," said Anderson. "It’s a good thing to have when everybody’s pitching good. It’s a friendly rivalry, and you want to go out there and continue to (build) the streak they’ve had."

As such, good pitching can be just as infectious as good hitting. Good pitching is certainly infectious in Oakland right now, as the A's rank second in the American League with a 2.81 ERA in the month of September despite getting zero starts from Colon and only 3.2 innings of work out of Brandon McCarthy.

The role that good pitching—particularly good starting pitching—has played in the overall success of the A's this season reminds Ray Fosse of the 1989 A's, who won 99 games and ultimately the World Series against the San Francisco Giants thanks in large part to a tremendously deep pitching staff.

Jason Miller/Getty Images
He's not a classic "rah-rah" guy, but Melvin's players love playing for him.

That A's team had a pretty good manager pushing all the buttons in Tony La Russa, one of the great sages the game has ever known. Oakland's current manager doesn't quite have La Russa's resume, but virtually everyone you come across in Oakland insists that Melvin deserves as much credit as anybody for the hugely successful season the A's have had in 2012.

Melvin's no drill sergeant, and he's certainly not a lightning rod (see Valentine, Bobby). Brett Anderson says Melvin has a "calming presence," and Griffin says he appreciates how Melvin is a rock regardless of which way the winds are blowing.

"There’s a lot of confidence that he exudes, and it always feels like we’re in the ballgame no matter what the score is. He’s always got the same demeanor," said Griffin.

For his part, Melvin knows that he has to handle himself a certain way with the collection of players he has at hand. Most of them are young players who are experiencing the incredibly high highs and the incredibly low lows of The Show for the first time all at the same time, and Melvin knows that it's his job to make them feel comfortable.

Most important of all, Melvin realizes that it's important to let the players be themselves. He knows not to demand that they rotate around him. On the contrary, he rotates around them in a way.

"I try to learn from our players," he said. "It’s more about me acclimating to the players than the players acclimating to me."

This is not to say that Melvin never feels the need to police individual players. He will address players directly if he feels he needs to put his foot down about something.

Still, one wonders just how often he has to do that these days. Things are a little wild in Oakland at the moment, but it's a good kind of wild. The A's have a lot of a very special ingredient that is not as plentiful in Major League Baseball as it probably should be:

Fun.

Jason O. Watson/Getty Images
A's fans are also very much enjoying themselves these days.

"I don’t think I’ve ever had this much fun playing baseball," said Griffin. "It’s a great team chemistry that we have. Great starting rotation. Great lineup. Top to bottom, this team is very strong and we have a lot of fun just playing baseball and trying to put together some W's."

The A's are most certainly putting together some W's. A lot of them, in fact, and they still have a few more weeks to keep 'em coming.

Many people—including, if we're being honest, your humble narrator—figured the A's would be dead and buried in the American League playoff picture by now. No doubt many people still think the A's are going to fall short in the end.

At this juncture, none of us should be so sure. It's clear now that the A's are not unlike the star attraction from Weekend at Bernie's II that they've all taken quite a liking to. 

They're not about to sit still. And when they're alive and kicking, they're pretty damn entertaining.

 

Special thanks to Baseball-Reference.com for the key stats.

Unless otherwise noted, all quotes were obtained firsthand.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter.

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