Monday, October 02, 2006

Dugout Splinters: Oakland Athletics

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The Short Version
Whew! For a second it looked like the Twins would have to face the Yankees, and it’s so much better to face the Athletics, isn’t it? Wrong. With their rotation and bullpen, they’re arguably a tougher team to beat in a five game series. They kill you with their defense, their bullpen, and an occasional long ball from Thomas or Swisher.

Don’t Know Much Philosophy
Stop me if you’ve heard this someplace before.

A small market team has a multi-year run where they’re competing with the big boys. They make three straight playoff appearances, but fail to make much noise. More recently they’ve failed to make the playoffs, mostly because their division was so loaded.

This year, their young pitching staff, and particularly their bullpen, propelled them to an incredible second half of the year. They have a pair of great bats - one youngster and one MVP candidate - but most of the rest of the lineup needs to do the little things well to succeed.

With similar payroll limitations and similar success stories, the Twins and Athletics have become icons for opposing philosophies about baseball. The Athletics have been hailed as the progressive thinking organization, embracing the sabermetric community and a trend towards brash young executive outsiders. The Twins have been portrayed as the antithesis of this philosophy, emphasizing traditional scouting and a stable organization of baseball lifers. The two organizations have been endlessly compared and contrasted, but mostly contrasted.

So why are the end results so much alike?

What’s Working
Billy Bean’s Offseason Deals - This winter, in true Moneyball fashion, the Athletics tried to exploit a perceived market inefficiency – obtaining talented “clubhouse cancers”. First they traded for Milton Bradley, (yes, that’s his real name) who had been traded by the Indians and the Dodgers despite being a center fielder with speed and power entering the prime of his career. He missed a good chunk of the season with an injury, but when healthy he’s been the Athletics third best hitter.

The biggest offseason gamble was signing Frank Thomas, who wasn’t just a clubhouse cancer; he was a fragile clubhouse cancer. He hasn’t managed to stay compltely healthy this year, but he’s batted enough to qualify for the end-of-year awards, and will almost certainly win Comeback Player of the Year. In fact, with 38 home runs (including 10 in September) and 108 RBI (30! in Sept) in an otherwise anemic lineup, Thomas has a stronger argument for the American League’s Most Valuable Player than Derek Jeter. Best of all for the cash-strapped Athletics, he was only guaranteed $500,000 this year, though he’ll likely make almost $3 million when all his incentive bonuses are paid. That’s still a bargain for his production.

Youth - Oakland’s other power source has been second year player Nick Swisher. Swisher had a monster April and May, but has slipped significantly in the middle of the season before bouncing back with a strong September. He’s only hitting .254, but his 35 home runs and 95 RBI are second on the club. At just 25 years old, he looks to be a productive player whom Oakland can count on in the future.

The Defense – Oakland’s reputation is that of an over-muscled softball team, going back to the Bash Brothers and continuing through the Giambi Brothers. But this version is the polar opposite of that perception. They now live on pitching and defense, and if you think that’s playing the game “the right way,” you’ll love this team.

I’d like to spout some statistics about how fantastic Oakland’s defense is, but the statistics that are usually cited are mostly worthless, and the statistics that might be more useful are both obscure and lack obvious value. Nevertheless, in their May visit, they were clearly the best defensive team to come through the Metrodome this year. Watch and judge for yourself.

The Bullpen – Everyone is wondering how the Athletics ran away with the AL West. The answer is their bullpen. Barry Zito is one of the most highly regarded starting pitchers in baseball, and he leads the Athletics rotation in ERA. But there are seven members of the Athletics bullpen who have ERAs lower than him.

They’re led by closer and 2005 Rookie-of-the-Year Huston Street (3.23 ERA). Street did blow two saves in the Athletics’ last ten games of the season, but he also followed that up by striking out the side for his 37th save a couple days later.

The other dominant setup man the A’s will lean on is Justin Duchscherer, who saved eight games this season while Street was out with a groin injury. But there’s hope here, too. Duchscherer didn’t pitch this weekend because of a recurrence of back pain. He’s supposed to be fine for this series, but that might explain why he walked two batters in 1/3 of an inning in his last appearance.

How the Twins Win
There’s a reason that Twins fans wanted to play the Athletics instead of the Yankees, and isn’t just the bad Yankee juju that has popped up in previous playoffs. They can be beat if a team plays solidly. Scrape together some runs against their pitching and defense and then make sure you don’t let Thomas and Swisher beat you. The Twins have some experience with that, having beaten the A’s six times this year out of the ten games they played.

On the Hill
Athletics: Barry Zito (16-10, 3.83 ERA)

  • 2006: 221 IP, 211 H, 151 K, 99 BB, 27HR

  • 2005: 14-13, 3.86 ERA, 228.1 IP, 171 K

  • Zito is a left-handed Cy Young award winner. Read that sentence again and then remind me - why did we want to face these guys again?

  • He’s famous for his curveball. It’s so good that it’s not uncommon for the umpire to be fooled by it.

  • It seems like every year Zito is the subject of trade rumors. And yet, of the “Three Aces” that the A’s carried into their last playoff run, Zito’s the only one who hasn’t been traded.

  • This year the rumors started as soon as Loaiza was signed, and didn’t stop until the trade deadline had passed. The team most often rumored to be interested was the Mets.

  • He’ll be a free agent next year, and likely be the shiniest ring on the shelf. After all, the guy has won 148 games, has a career ERA of just 3.55, and is just 28 years old.

  • Not too surprisingly, most Twins have struggled against Zito, but Phil Nevin and Rondell White have hit him and hit him hard. Combined they’ve hit .354 with 3 homeruns in 31 at-bats.

Tuesday: Johan Santana (19-6, 2.77 ERA)

  • 2005: 16-7, 231.2 IP, 238 K, 2.87 ERA.

  • 2006: 233.2 IP, 186 H, 245 K, 47 BB, 24 HR

  • Led the league in wins, ERA, strikeouts and innings pitched. Here’s your 2006 Cy Young award winner. Unanimously.

  • So let me get this straight – he’s been a full-time starting pitcher for three seasons and he has two Cy Young awards and one third place finish? Seriously? We’ve spent a lot of time talking this year about how beneficial the trade of AJ Pierzynski has been, but don’t forget that Santana was acquired for NOTHING.

  • After two sub-standard starts in a row, he put any worries to rest by pitching eight innings and giving up just two runs in his last start of the year.

  • Right about now, you’re probably wondering how much longer he’ll be around. He’s signed through 2008. If he hadn’t signed a long-term deal before the 2005 season, he would be a free agent this upcoming offseason.

Thanks for stopping by. Tomorrow we'll have a Game 1 recap. See you then.


David Wintheiser said...

You know how much I love your stuff, Geek, but I have to point out a correction to your line on Santana. We didn't get him for much, but it was a little more than nothing - Florida actually drafted Santana in the Rule V draft back in 1999, then traded him to us for Jared Camp, the guy we'd drafted ahead of Santana.

Camp had originally been drafted out of high school in 1993 by the Mets, but couldn't agree to terms and headed off to community college. He was then drafted by the Brewers in 1995, dealt to the Indians as a PBTNL in a swap of minor leaguers in mid-1996, and put together an amazing season for Cleveland's affiliate in the New-York-Penn league in 1996 (10-2, 1.69 ERA in 15 starts; 99Ks and 68H in 96 IP).

The Indians watched Camp bounce from disappointing to promising over the next three seasons, at some point coming to the conclusion that Camp was better suited as a reliever than a starter, before losing him in the Rule V draft.

Here's where it gets weird - you'd think the Marlins would have traded for Camp in order to develop him, or at least give him a shot in their bullpen. But there's no indication that Camp ever pitched in the Marlin organization - according to The Baseball Cube, Camp pitched in the minors for Texas and Cleveland in 2000 before ending up in KC's organization, stayed with them in 2001, moving to Detroit in 2002, then dropping out of baseball.

Jared Camp never pitched an inning in the big leagues, yet even then I'd be hard-pressed to say he was the 'nothing' the Twins got Johan Santana for.

KEN said...

Santana's last start of the season still left me with a little doubt. 5 K's in 7 innings is not what I expect from him when he's really on.

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