The Oakland Athletics aren't known as a defensively gifted team, but motivation and experience will lead to better play in the field—something they must have to repeat as AL West champions.
Looking at stats, it's head-scratching how this team won the division. It had to be heart and pitching.
The team batting average was third-worst in the league, and they set an American League record for most strikeouts in a season.
Oakland committed the eighth-most errors and, fittingly, had the eighth-worst fielding percentage as well. Yet oddly enough, the team ranked No. 5 in defensive efficiency ratio, according to MLB.com. Technically, the A's are tied for second here. Their .705 rating equals the Tampa Bay Rays and Atlanta Braves. The Los Angeles Angels and Seattle Mariners lead the pack at .708.
In 2013, Oakland's defense will surpass last season's and has a chance to best the rest of the West's too.
To improve, they must ride these concepts.
Last year, the A's bushwhacked the league by capturing the division title. Big hits in key moments, a plethora of home runs and top-notch pitching took them as deep as Game 5 of the ALDS.
To duplicate the end result, certain things must change.
There's certainly motivation though. The team no longer is one who experts will predict 100 losses for. Rather, now they are the defending AL West champions. And while the pieces they added were relatively hushed moves compared to the Josh Hamilton signing in LA, they'll still be expected to compete.
That motivation is two-fold. Win again and outplay a big-spending team in the process.
Then there's the motivation to better themselves.
Oakland played efficiently, sure, but the errors were too many. I can't say I know these players personally, but most competitive men wish to rectify past mistakes.
For example, Josh Donaldson committed 13 errors in 75 games. That's simply too many.
But to his credit, Donaldson transitioned back to third base after having spent his entire minor league career as a catcher. He received leeway in 2012. Now the position has to be locked down in 2013. With time and experience at the hot corner, he should hypothetically continue to get better. It's easy to assume he'll be extra motivated to qualm any defensive jitters that were present last season.
Offensive Upgrades Are Defensive Upgrades Too
Donaldson, Cliff Pennington and Jemile Weeks each registered 11 errors. Oakland traded Pennington, and Weeks will have to fight hard for his spot back. He'll have plenty of competition from Scott Sizemore, Grant Green and Jed Lowrie though, so it will be a difficult road.
Brandon Moss is next with nine. Chalk him into the aforementioned section of personal motivation. With Chris Carter gone, first base is now Moss'. You can bet he and the coaching staff will put in the necessary work this offseason.
Brandon Inge and Carter, No. 5 and No. 6 on the list, are also gone.
According to Susan Slusser of San Francisco Chronicle, there's questions of new shortstop Hiroyuki Nakajima's defense, but her sources expect him to be just fine. Anything less than 16 errors (Pennington's 11 plus Stephen Drew's 5) is improvement.
Jed Lowrie also adds versatility.
Oakland acquired Lowrie for his switch-hitting talent and ability to play anywhere around the horn. For a guy who has played four different positions, Lowrie maintains a fielding percentage of at least .960 at the corner spots and .977 up the middle. That can be tough to do when you're constantly on the move.
Chris Young adds depth to the outfield. When he is in, there's little worry from a defensive standpoint. He possesses phenomenal range and the propensity to avoid errors.
The Outfield Leads By Example
Josh Reddick earned a Gold Glove in 2012. He did so with a .982 fielding percentage, three double plays and 15 putouts. Reddick committed just six errors in 144 games.
Yoenis Cespedes was no slouch either.
The Cuban Missile maintained a .987 fielding percentage with nine assists. He kept errors down to three.
Coco Crisp's fielding percentage ended higher than the league average. His range factor is more than 40 points higher than the league average too. He too committed only three errors all season.
There are bigger named outfields in the AL West, but this group is easily one of the best.
Beatable Opponents (In This Category)
The Texas Rangers are in transition. They've just lost Mike Napoli, Josh Hamilton and Michael Young, though all three committed quite a bit of errors in 2012. Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus make a ton of errors as well.
The Angels infielders have been suspect at times. The average fielding percentage is .968, close to the A's. This isn't to say Oakland is miles ahead of LA on defense. The point is the mark is beatable. Outside of Mike Trout—a stud fielder in his own right—the Angels aren't known as a defensive unit.
Surprisingly, the Mariners are the team to beat in this category.
Seattle kept its errors down and its fielding percentage efficient. The team saved runs when it could and turned double plays at a great rate. With a young roster, the Mariners will be a question mark though. Can they maintain this efficiency? Only time can tell.
Regardless, if the coaching staff and experienced veterans put forth the effort to improve on the defensive side of the ball, the A's can outshine their divisional opponents.
The outfield is solid. They must lead by example. The coaches must work with the players around the infield to improve, and the players should be motivated to elevate their play as well. Donaldson has another year, Nakajima is touted as a hard worker and Lowrie and Young add legitimate depth.
Oakland may not out hit their opponents every night, but they have the players in place to out play them in the field in every single matchup.
Lucky for the A's, most of their starters on the hill are fly ball pitchers (h/t: Melissa Lockard of Scout.com). If the unit can maintain high strikeout numbers, combined with most of the opportunities for outs to be made in the outfield, Oakland can avoid infield errors and certainly increase its defensive efficiency ratio to No. 1.