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Scott Miller's Starting 9: Introducing the Oakland A's as MLB's Best Team

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Scott Miller's Starting 9: Introducing the Oakland A's as MLB's Best Team
Greg Fiume/Getty Images

1. "Oakland Tough"

So far, they’ve survived yet another sewage backup at Port-a-John Coliseum (or whatever corporate name it goes by now), the loss of two-fifths of their rotation, a closer meltdown, a rainout when they forgot to put the tarp on the field at home and multiple Manny Machado temper tantrums.

For their next trick, the Oakland Athletics will force even casual fans to actually learn their names.

Who knows, maybe third baseman Josh Donaldson will make the All-Star team after last year’s snub.

“I wouldn’t mind that,” says Donaldson, who finished fourth in AL MVP voting last season despite his mid-July vacation. “Especially if Derek Jeter is the starting shortstop. I think he will be. That would be very special for me.”

Baseball’s best team is well on pace for a third straight 90-win season and in line for a third consecutive AL West title. And wouldn’t you know it, the one club in the majors with a better winning percentage than Oakland’s .600 is the one team that perpetually casts a shadow over the Athletics: yes, the San Francisco Giants, with a 42-23 record, are at .646.

There are far worse things than the prospect of a Bay Bridge World Series (throwing your bat at people and sewage backups come immediately to mind), which would be a blast, and who knows what will happen over the next four months?

But that’s for sometime down the line.

For right now, at this moment, forget that the Giants’ overall record is three games better than the A’s. Nobody is better than these Swingin’ A’s.

They mash: Donaldson, Brandon Moss and Yoenis Cespedes have combined for 45 homers and 143 RBI, accounting for more overall production than any other 3-4-5 tandem in the majors.

They pitch: Even having lost Jarrod Parker and A.J. Griffin by the end of April, the A’s lead the majors with a 2.85 ERA. No other staff in the majors can hold a candle to the As in opponents’ batting average (.225), on-base percentage (.288), slugging percentage (.339) and opponents’ batting average with runners in scoring position (.194).

They run: Their 82.2 percent stolen-base rate is second-best in the majors, behind only the Washington Nationals (82.9 percent).

They walk: Nobody in the majors has more than Oakland’s 277 walks. Which is no small part of the reason why the A’s lead the majors in runs scored (329) and are tied with the Colorado Rockies for the lead in on-base percentage (.334).

They match up: No roster is better constructed for what an opposing team does, or tries to do. Manager Bob Melvin and his staff are the best in the game at the righty-lefty tango and using the entire roster for every strategic edge.

“It’s crazy,” impressed newcomer Kyle Blanks, acquired from the San Diego Padres on May 15, tells Bleacher Report. “Everything has its place. It’s like good housekeeping. If something is not quite right one day, then there’s something else in the pantry to use.”

Melvin’s pantry is extraordinary. Sean Doolittle, who ascended into the closer’s role after Jim Johnson and Luke Gregerson faltered, has thrown 44 strikeouts and only one walk. His strikeout-to-walk ratio of 44.00 is more than four times that of the next-closest reliever, Texas’ Joakim Soria (10.67).

That is not bad for a guy who was drafted as a first baseman in 2007, converted to pitcher in 2011 and entered the 2012 season with just one professional appearance on the mound.

“Everything happens for a reason,” Melvin says.

Around here, it sure does.

Jesse Chavez (5-4, 3.04 ERA), who started Monday’s series opener in Anaheim, is with his eighth organization. Some guys buy a Corvette as a mid-life crisis; Chavez, 30, instead developed a cutter, and it gave him new life.

The A’s are stocked with all kinds of versatile players. The other day in Baltimore, Melvin actually put three catchers into his lineup: John Jaso (DH), Derek Norris (behind the plate) and Steven Vogt (right field), and the A’s won 11-1.

Their run differential is downright comical: At plus-124, the next-closest team is…you guessed it, the Giants at plus-57.

Yet the A’s still have their detractors. As their series in Anaheim kicked off Monday, here is what Angels closer Ernesto Frieri told reporters on Sunday: “We’re going to beat [the A’s]. Get ready to write that. I hate to say this, but they have a little bit of extra luck. If you pay attention every play, it’s stupid how the game goes their way.”

Oh, really?

“I heard,” Donaldson says of Frieri’s boast. “Words are words. They don’t mean anything unless you put something behind them.”

Said Norris: “If he ends up coming into the game, I’m sure there will be some added initiative to get him where it hurts.”

They didn’t get him where it hurts on Monday, but these A’s usually find a way. It’s what they do.

 

2. Who Does Manny Machado Think He Is? Bert Campaneris?

Anybody attempting to apply the dog-eared “Unwritten Rules Book” to Manny Machado’s meltdown against the Athletics is overthinking things. Badly.

And as for his five-game suspension, it’s light. It should have been at least a week, say seven to 10 games, because throwing a bat should never be considered remotely acceptable.

Here are a few “revenge” tactics that are taboo, period, written or unwritten: Firing a beanball at a hitter’s head; hurling a bat at an opposing player, pitcher or third baseman; or “accidentally” hitting a catcher in the head with your backswing…and then smirking about it.

Two out of three ain’t bad if you’re Meatloaf, a friend of baseball and one-time frequent participant in the Celebrity Softball game at the All-Star Game, and you’re performing your encore.

But if you’re Machado and wantonly performing like a child? That's unacceptable.

GAIL BURTON/Associated Press

The bizarre thing is, before this, Machado’s reputation was that of a mature kid who does things right. So two things are very clear at the moment: He absolutely deserves a suspension for his out-of-control weekend, and we all should not rush to judgment based on a few misdeeds.

Several Baltimore Orioles players talked with Machado following Sunday’s series finale with the Athletics, and Machado’s public mea culpa came Monday.

“Words are words,” A’s third baseman Josh Donaldson said, echoing his similar sentiment regarding Angels closer Ernesto Frieri’s comments about the A’s. “You have to go out and prove yourself every day.

“It takes a long time in this game to develop a strong reputation as a player. It takes a very short time to ruin that.

“The only way to get that back is to go do things the right way. I’ve messed up in my career as well. You learn from that, and you move forward.”

Remember, Machado is a kid returning from a very, very serious knee injury that he suffered late last season, and he is not the same player. After leading the American League with 51 doubles last season, he's hit just three in 36 games in 2014. He’s batting just .222/.276/.326.

Maybe Machado is feeling insecure following his injury and continues to be frustrated with his slow comeback, which may be contributing to his hypersensitivity. This isn’t to excuse his behavior, but it is to say that it helps from time to time to remind ourselves that these guys are not statistical robots; sometimes things do get into their heads and affect them.

 

3. Run Differential Manager of the Decade

The A’s are the talk of baseball this year in part because of their astounding plus-124 run differential.

The 2007 Arizona Diamondbacks were the talk of baseball as they stormed to the NL West title and NLCS because of their minus-20 run differential.

Common denominator: Bob Melvin as the manager of both clubs.

“There is a lot to be said for run differential,” Melvin says. “Usually, it’s fairly indicative of where a team is going to finish. But there are instances where it is overplayed, and I think this might be one of them.”

Melvin points out that these A’s have won several lopsided games: They have scored in double digits 11 times, and they have won by 10 or more runs six times.

“What it means to me is that in the five or six games we’ve won by over 10 runs, we make the starter work, get him out of the game and then get into the lesser arms in the bullpen and add on,” Melvin says. “The organization has put together a group of guys who work on the starters and get them out of games.”

By Melvin’s recollection, the bullpen also played a run-differential role with his ’07 Diamondbacks.

“We weren’t as deep in the middle of our bullpen,” he says. “If you did get in it, you could beat us 9-2 really quickly.”

The Diamondbacks (90-72) finished that year just a half-game ahead of the Colorado Rockies (90-73), who had a plus-102 run differential. Colorado played Game No. 163 because it finished in a tie with the San Diego Padres (plus-75 run differential).

 

4. A Brief History of Run Differential

At a run differential of plus-1.91 per game, the Athletics currently have the largest advantage in this category since the 2001 Seattle Mariners went plus-1.9 over a full season—and that got them 116 wins. The 1998 New York Yankees, who won 114 games, were also at plus-1.9 over a full season.

The last team to finish at plus-2.0 or higher over a full season, with full credit to my former colleague/good buddy/crack researcher Danny Knobler, is held by the 1939 Yankees, who went plus-2.7 while finishing 106-45. The numbers posted by players on that team were astronomical. For instance, Joe DiMaggio batted .381/.448/.671—that’s right, a 1.119 OPS.

Associated Press

Four Yankees collected 100 or more RBI that year: DiMaggio (126), Joe Gordon (111), Bill Dickey (105) and George Selkirk (101).

Even more astoundingly, seven Yankees popped for 80 or more RBI: The aforementioned four, plus Babe Dahlgren (89), Charlie Keller (83) and Red Rolfe (80).

Other notable juggernauts and their run differential: The Big Red Machine in 1975 was plus-1.6, the 1969 Orioles were at plus-1.6, and the Gas House Gang Cardinals in 1942 and 1944 each went plus-1.8.

 

LM Otero/Associated Press

5. "Lonnie Baseball" and the Surging Indians

File this in the Best Trades Never Made Department. Last season, as Terry Francona’s Cleveland Indians were soaring toward their first postseason appearance since 2007, they attempted to acquire starter Matt Garza from the Chicago Cubs at the July trade deadline.

When the Cubs demanded third baseman Lonnie Chisenhall in return, the Indians said no thanks. They couldn’t see giving up Chisenhall for half-season of Garza before he became a free agent.

Surely, at some point during Chisenhall’s stunning five-hit, three-homer, nine-RBI night in Texas on Monday, those talks had to flash through general manager Chris Antonelli’s mind. And the guess here is that Antonelli couldn’t help but suppress a small smile.

On a Texas night to remember, Chisenhall became the first player in MLB history to record five hits, three homers and nine RBI in a single game during only five plate appearances. Three other players in history had five-three-nine nights: the Boston Red Sox’s Fred Lynn, in six plate appearances, in 1975 (five hits, three homers, 10 RBI); the Brooklyn Dodgers’ Gil Hodges, in six plate appearances, in 1950 (five hits, four homers, nine RBI); and the Cincinnati Reds’ Walker Cooper, in seven plate appearances, in 1949 (Cooper had six hits, three homers and 10 RBI).

Cleveland’s first-round pick in 2008, Chisenhall does not yet have enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. But he’s hitting .388, and the left-hander is hitting a rousing .500 against lefties after hitting just .111 against them last year.

This spring, it was no sure thing Chisenhall would even make the team. Now, manager Terry Francona is trying to find him at-bats at third base, first base and DH.

“What he’s turning into is fun to watch,” Francona told reporters. “It’s right in front of our eyes, and it’s fun to watch.”

And don’t look now, but the Indians, winners of eight of their past 10 games, are 33-32, just 2.5 games behind the Detroit Tigers in the AL Central.

 

6. Mary, Queen of Saves, Pray for Them

There is absolutely no reason the Tigers should not be playing deep into October again this year except, well, you know...

Carlos Osorio/Associated Press

“You hope,” embattled closer Joe Nathan said, via Matthew B. Mowery of the Oakland Press, after last Tuesday’s blown save opportunity against Toronto. “You hope. And then you start to go, ‘What is going on right now with me? Do I need to go to church more, say more prayers? What do I need to do?’ ”

Right now, Nathan and Detroit’s bullpen are spectacularly bad.

The Tigers had surrendered 46 runs in the ninth inning this season heading into Monday night’s series opener in Chicago. The next-worst ballclub? Three teams were tied at having allowed 32 ninth-inning runs: the Angels, Houston Astros and New York Mets.

The Tigers’ bullpen ERA (4.69) trails only the Astros for the worst in the majors, and Nathan alone has been charged with 18 of the 90 earned runs Tigers relievers have allowed. He’s surrendered 10 runs in his last 3.1 innings pitched, and that's after allowing 10 runs in all of last season with the Rangers.

At 39, Nathan is in a stretch unlike any he’s ever experienced. The Tigers knew his velocity was down some when they signed him, but they figured his veteran savvy would be more than enough for him to successfully navigate the ninth inning.

Currently, the Tigers’ ninth-inning ERA is 7.71. The closest thing to that miserable mark over a full season since 2000 was produced by the 2003 Pittsburgh Pirates’ bullpen, which produced a 6.53 ninth-inning ERA over a full season. Before that, you have to go back to the 1997 Mariners, who posted a 6.61 ERA.

 

7. Hey, Mary, These Guys, Too

Detroit doesn’t hold the monopoly on a closer crisis: In Tampa Bay, where the Rays’ season is going up in smoke, Cheech & Chong-style, manager Joe Maddon has moved to a closer-by-committee approach after Grant Balfour was torched for five runs in an inning on Sunday for the second time this season.

Nathan and Balfour are not alone on the island. Among the closers who have been removed, either permanently or temporarily, so far this season include: the Indians’ John Axford, the Angels’ Ernesto Frieri, the Athletics’ Jim Johnson, the Cubs’ Jose Veras, the Pirates’ Jason Grilli, the Orioles’ Tommy Hunter, the Mets’ Bobby Parnell (injury), the Reds’ Aroldis Chapman (injury) and the Chicago White Sox’s Matt Lindstrom (injury).

 

Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

8. The Twins Dream Big

“Why not us?” Minnesota Twins general manager Terry Ryan said so eloquently the other day upon signing designated hitter Kendrys Morales. And that’s a darn good question.

In his first game as a Twin on Monday night in Toronto, Morales started a ninth-inning, two-run rally by rapping a single against Blue Jays closer Casey Janssen.

“We’re certainly in the mix,” Ryan said, per Rhett Bollinger of MLB.com. “We’ve played pretty decent up to this point and have surprised some people. So why not us? We’re at the point in the season where there’s a lot of baseball left. So why not the Twins?

“I read a handful of teams were after Morales, but we were ahead of a lot of those clubs in the standings. So I thought why don’t we bring in a quality player who doesn’t cost us a draft pick, which we treasure here.”

I love to see clubs go for it, and it’s fun to see Morales go to a place nobody expected. But with a rotation that ranks dead last in the AL with a 4.90 ERA, the answer to Ryan's aforementioned question lies as much with the rotation as it does with Morales. Kevin Correia (3-7, 5.60 ERA) is killing them, and Ricky Nolasco (4-5, 5.70 ERA) hasn’t been much better.

 

9. Runs By the Barrel

If you’re looking for clean, well-pitched games, here are a few tips on ballparks to avoid.

From the desk of statistical guru Bill Chuck, who runs Billy-Ball.com and contributes to both GammonsDaily.com and the Chicago Sun-Times: Arizona starters lead the majors with 18 games in which they’ve surrendered five or more earned runs. The Twins are next at 17, followed by the Red Sox at 16 and the Orioles with 14.

 

9a. Rock ‘n’ Roll Lyric of the Week:

"Hey graduates, listen up!

Kiss a little baby.

Give the world a smile.

If you take an inch,

Give 'em back a mile.

Cause if you lie like a rug,

And you don't give a damn,

You're never gonna be

As happy as a clam.”

— John Prine, Big Ol’ Goofy World

 

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. He has over two decades of experience covering MLB, including 14 years as a national baseball columnist at CBSSports.com.

Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball here. 

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