AL Manager of the Year Bob Melvin has a hard act to follow.
The Oakland A's caught lightning in a bottle in 2012 and then weaponized it, using their electricity to scorch all comers in one of the most improbable late-season surges in recent memory.
It wasn't until the A's came across the Detroit Tigers in the ALDS that they finally ran out of juice. But even in defeat, the fans at O.co Coliseum still treated their beloved A's like winners, giving them a standing ovation mere minutes after Detroit ace Justin Verlander had finished off a shutout in Game 5.
That's the kind of season it was for Oakland's local nine. One for the books, indeed.
A new season is upon the A’s, and the circumstances couldn't be more different from what they were this time last year. The A's will enter 2013 not as an afterthought, but as reigning AL West champs.
This is both a blessing and a curse. There are actual expectations for the A's this year, and that means they can only be one of two things: What they're supposed to be, or a disappointment.
A's manager Bob Melvin, who was named the AL Manager of the Year for 2012, thinks the trick will be for the A's to not take it for granted that their electricity will carry over into 2013 just because.
"That can be difficult," said Melvin in the depths of Oracle Arena, where the A's were holding part of their annual FanFest, on Sunday. "You don’t want to fall into that trap. You’ve seen plenty of teams over the last 10 years have a breakout season and then take a half a step backwards."
The "trap" Melvin spoke of would seem to be a sense of entitlement, a danger that has eaten many a surprise contender alive the following season over the years.
"Certainly we want to bring the success and the confidence that we gained in 2012 forward, but knowing just because you did that doesn’t mean you throw your glove out there and just play, and that things are going to work out for you," said Melvin.
Melvin wants his team to strike a balance in 2013. They can't forget what's past, but also must continue to move forward. He and his coaches will show the way, and the players will hopefully respond and pitch in in their own way.
"We’re going to try to push them a little bit more this year and try to remain with a constant upbeat enthusiastic attitude like we had last year," said Melvin. "It’s up to the coaching staff and some of the players that are returning to create that mantra and move forward with it."
One thing that should help is the fact that Melvin and his staff won't be dealing with many new faces in 2013. Famed GM and Brad Pitt lookalike Billy Beane indicated early in the offseason that he had no intention of breaking up the band, and he and the front office have largely followed through on that promise. The A's look a lot right now like they did at the end of the 2012 season.
Given the organization's reputation, this could be taken to mean that the roster the A's have is a legit winner in the eyes of the endless number-crunching of the "Moneyball" way. The front office must think the A's can win in 2013 because their calculations say so.
But there was more to the decision of wanting to keep the band together than what the statistics had to say. Assistant GM David Forst said there's "no doubt" that clubhouse culture is important, and that the front office very much wanted to retain the culture that was established in 2012.
"We like the mix we have, the personalities combined with guys who take it seriously on the field," said Forst.
The human element played a role in Oakland's offseason dealings, such as the signing of Japanese shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima. Melvin got good reports on Nakajima (he'll go by "Hiro") from Hideki Matsui and Ichiro Suzuki, and both he and Forst like the leadership qualities of their new shortstop.
"He seems to have a great personality," said Melvin of Nakajima, "and I’ve said before that it seems like the guys that were leaders in Japan have the best chance of succeeding over here."
Nakajima has a perfect personality for Oakland's clubhouse, which is equal parts place of business and frat house (or dance club). He made that clear enough when he referred to Beane as being "extremely sexy and cool" at his introductory press conference.
Exactly what kind of production the A's are going to get out of their new shortstop, be it on offense or defense, is something that they're not entirely certain of. They expect him to be a quality hitter, but the jury is still out on Nakajima's glove.
There's more certainty about Oakland's returning players. While Beane, Forst and the rest of the club's front office sincerely wanted to keep 2012's clubhouse culture intact, the numbers do indeed suggest that good things await the A's in 2013.
"We have a bunch of guys who should continue to get better, whether that’s about age or getting a chance to play every day or what guys have done performance-wise," said Forst. "This team should not have guys who necessarily regress. They should continue to trend upwards."
The numbers project good things to come for some of the new guys as well, such as the recently acquired John Jaso. Forst admitted that Jaso had been on the club's radar for a while, which comes as no surprise given Jaso's .359 career OBP that was boosted by a .394 OBP in 2012 with the Seattle Mariners. He also hit 10 home runs in only 361 plate appearances.
"He’s certainly the kind of guy that, historically, we’ve coveted," said Forst of Jaso, a nod and a wink to Moneyball's love of OBP and power.
Melvin referenced numbers when speaking of Chris Young, who the A's traded for in October. Young will be more of a part-time player for the A's, but Melvin likes the idea of playing him against left-handers, a notion supported by Young's .860 career OPS against southpaws (.718 vs. righties).
Advanced defensive metrics also likely played a role in Oakland's acquisition of Young. Forst spoke of how important it is for there to be consistency in the advanced metrics when evaluating a player's defense, and there is consistency in Young's case. Since 2010, he's rated as an above-average fielder in the eyes of both Ultimate Zone Rating and Defensive Runs Saved (see FanGraphs).
In general, both Melvin and Forst spoke of 2013 with conspicuous optimism. They are confident that 2012 was no fluke and that the new additions will have no trouble fitting in or being productive.
The A's surely won't be able to enjoy the element of surprise like they did in 2012, but Melvin isn't worried about teams gunning for them this year. He gave credit to the Los Angeles Angels and Texas Rangers for having "some guys that get your attention" and he also opined that the Mariners are a better team, but he remarked that the door swings both ways. The pressure not to underestimate anyone will belong to everyone in the AL West.
"I think if you ask those teams about us, they might have a little different view of us this year than they did last year," said Melvin.
Third base coach Mike Gallego spoke a little more openly about the world outside Oakland than Melvin did. Whereas Melvin is always taking care to be the calm, cool, collected center of the A's, Gallego came out sounding more like a boxing promoter.
"Where do they have us picked?" said Gallego in reference to the "geniuses" out there, a smirk fixed on his face. "Where are they picking us? Third, maybe. Stay right there. Low-key."
Gallego thinks the A's can prove the doubters wrong all over again, mainly because there are no doubts whatsoever within Oakland's close-knit clubhouse:
No expectations from anybody else, but I guarantee you the expectation’s in that locker room. The expectation’s on that field. And the expectation that we have is: We expect each and every one of us to do our job and do it properly...There’s a group of guys in there that want to play the game hard and play the game right.
Then there are the fans. Gallego said he doesn't recall Oakland ever being as electric during his playing days with the A's (1985-1991, 1995) as it was in 2012, and that the fans deserve credit for the magic that was conjured last season.
"Every day, we came out the underdog to the ballpark and beat some butt," he said. "[The fans] made it fun to come to the ballpark every single day. And what the fans did for the group to motivate them, to get them going, to believe in themselves."
As for whether A's fans will show up in the same numbers they were showing up in late last season, well, that remains to be seen. The A's haven't drawn over two millions fans out to O.Co Coliseum since 2005, according to BallparksofBaseball.com, and there's only so much that winning can do to help the A's get past certain obstacles.
Among those are the fact that the Coliseum is among MLB's very worst stadiums, and that there's a highly successful team with a beautiful ballpark just across the bay. In the power struggle for the hearts and minds of Bay Area baseball fans, the A's are up against a very formidable opponent in the San Francisco Giants.
The A's, however, can allow themselves to hope for the best. Oakland's FanFest—hardly the most exciting of occasions in recent years—was sold out this year.
The fans haven't forgotten about what happened in 2012, and they obviously can't wait for baseball season.
Note: Quotes obtained firsthand. Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.
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