Tuesday, August 09, 2005

The Kids Are Alright

Brian Murphy this week on the Swingin' A's:

A brief review: The Oakland A's were 17-32 in May. Now, they're 64-47. That's 47-15, in case your abacus is broken.

The best part is, the A's have done it by playing energetic ball, marked by youth, clutch hitting, a hang-loose attitude, with Zen-Man Zito back in form, and a closer in Huston Street who a year ago at this time had to hang out in front of the 7-11 and have older guys buy him beer. I'm telling you, I watch these guys in the Bay Area: They fear nobody, and sport very long hair, with lots of facial scruff, too. This is no small thing. I read where Alan Embree, upon signing with the Yankees, had to shave his goatee, first-thing. With the A's, when you sign, they tell you: Dude, grow it out.

That should be the A's marketing slogan: Young, Hairy and Winning.

I believe it may have last been used by the Cro-Magnon Beer League Softball Team in the Pleistocene Epoch.

Torii Hunter on the State of the Twins, June 26, 2005:

"We've got some young guys. That is the hand we've been dealt, and we've got to deal with it, no matter what. We can use it as an excuse, but I still think we can go out there and win. But with the inexperience we've got, it's tough."

All season, as the Twins struggled to keep pace with Chicago and then gradually fell to the margins of the Wild Card race, the youth and inexperience of the team has been the easy excuse, openly stated or implied, from the manager to so-called team leaders like Torii Hunter to local sportswriters who are all too happy to peddle the company line.

It's awfully tough to compete when you've got so many kids in the infield, don't you know? And when Ron Gardenhire has seen novice mistakes, or just feels unsettled about the state of his team for whatever reason, he's been quick to criticize the kids in the press or jerk them out of the lineup in favor of veteran utilitymen--who may not hit much, but they sure do know what they're doing, anyway. When the postmortem on the season is finally written by the professional scribes who set the conventional wisdom, bank on it: Youth and Inexperience will take the blame as the cause of death.

Meanwhile, here are the Oakland A's: Young, Hairy, and Winning.

You know the A's, the team put together by that guy who wrote Moneyball with Bill James, the idiot who doesn't believe in stealing bases or bunting, that overrated GM who was just lucky to have Hudson, Mulder, and Zito all come along at the same time for him. He couldn't keep Giambi or Tejada, and you might have laughed when he traded away Hudson and Mulder last Fall like he was holding a liquidation sale. Hah-Ha! In the same week in December, he gave up two of the league's best pitchers, the 1-2 punch in his starting rotation. He traded away the foundation of his club's success for unproven kids! Who does that?!? Surely, this had to be a rebuilding year for Oakland, right?

Instead, the A's are winning with these Seven Key Youngsters:

Nick Swisher
The Moneyball draft pick and rookie RF taking over for Jermaine Dye is hitting .254/.330/.476 with 16 HR and 57 RBI, despite missing half of May on the Disabled List. He struggled to adjust early on, batting just .212/.274/.327 through the end of May. Yet the A's stuck with him, and he's hit .274/.355/.535 ever since.

Bobby Crosby
After batting .239/.319/.426 last season--and winning the Rookie of the Year award by default after Joe Mauer's knee abdicated the honor--he has improved his sophomore line to .293/.361/.456, despite missing two months this spring after breaking a rib. If he had the innings to qualify, his .989 Fielding Pct. and .882 Zone Rating would also lead AL Shortstops in the field.

Dan Johnson
The rookie from Coon Rapids, Minnesota, came up from AAA in late May to replace Erubiel Durazo, and all he's done is mash out a line of .321/.405/.546 in 58 games. This week the Rotowire carried praise from his manager, who marveled at the young man's plate discipline: "It was impressive that he was getting all those walks, being patient enough to take those pitches." Dig that. The rook gets praised by his manager for drawing walks. Johnson's .134 walks per plate appearance leads the A's (Bobby Kielty is 2nd), and of course it would easily lead the Twins, as well. Growing up in Minnesota and watching the Twins, how did he learn such a skill?

Rich Harden
At 24, and 44 major league starts under his belt when the season began, it was his task to replace either Hudson or Mulder this year. Will the Twins have that kind of faith in Scott Baker or Francisco Liriano to replace Brad Radke after next season? Eh, we'll see. Harden has responded to his tall order by posting a 9-4 record and 2.54 ERA, which would be the 2nd best ERA in the league except he doesn't qualify because he missed a month after pulling a stomach muscle. Injuries and youth... how does a team get by with so many injuries, so much youth?

Danny Haren
Acquired from the Cardinals in the Mulder deal, all eyes have been fixed on him to see if he could fill Hudson's or Mulder's shoes, too. He's not an Ace yet, but he has been a solid #3 with a 10-7, 4.08 mark. His 116 strikeouts lead the A's and rate 6th in the AL.

Joe Blanton
Another of the characters in the famous Moneyball draft, the rookie is 7-9 with a 4.10 ERA in 22 starts. After an encouraging April, batters hammered him in May as they hung a 13.25 ERA on him for the month. Through his first 10 starts of the season, he was 0-5 with a 6.66 ERA. Can you picture Gardy sticking with him through that? Yet Ken Macha kept Blanton in the rotation, and he's responded with a 7-4 record and 2.55 ERA in the 12 starts since.

Huston Street
Oakland's 1st round pick last year, the A's threw him in the bullpen mix to start this season, and after Octavio Dotel was lost for the season with an elbow injury, Street emerged as the team's new closer. From the U of Texas to Single-A, Double-A, and Triple-A all in 2004, to taking the job of closer for the hottest team in baseball in 2005. At age 22, he's the man with a 0.93 WHIP, .181 opp avg, and 1.31 ERA. Now run tell that!

We're talking about three pitchers in the rotation, a starting Rightfielder, 1st baseman, Shortstop, and the team closer. Four rookies, the other three in their second or third year in the majors. Yet nobody out of Oakland is complaining about inexperience. The A's have streaked to the top of the Wild Card standings and just caught the Angels for a share of the AL West lead, too. Their youth is seen as a virtue. "The best part is, the A's have done it by playing energetic ball, marked by youth, clutch hitting, a hang-loose attitude... they fear nobody," writes Murphy. How exciting does that sound?

Here in Minnesota, the poohbahs are scolding us for even getting our hopes up about unproven youngsters, for burdening the kids with absurd nicknames like "The M&M Boys" when we should know they'll never be half as good as Mantle & Maris, for thinking the team could ever stand a chance with a rookie Shortstop and so much inexperience in the infield. For shame, you. Go turn your attention to the Vikings, already.

Are you buying the local line?

I say the respective company attitudes come from the top, and they're reflected accordingly on the field. We reap what we sow.


At 8/09/2005 6:51 AM, Blogger frightwig said...

Btw, I know that Billy Beane did not actually write Moneyball with the help of Bill James. I'm sure he's capable of writing the book all by himself. Please, no angry letters. I hope you know a joke when you see one.

At 8/09/2005 8:22 AM, Blogger SBG said...

How dare you question Torii Hunter's leadership? That's my turf!!! Seriously, very good analysis. While the local nine is looking for excuses, the A's are winning. We sure miss Corey Koskie. Funny, the A's don't miss Mulder and Hudson.

At 8/09/2005 9:11 PM, Blogger frightwig said...

And another thing about Beane: he's turning over his roster every year. Since the Twins got good again in 2001, TR hasn't lost a single player who compares to Giambi, Tejada, Hudson, or Mulder, yet the Twins seem to feel so sorry for themselves when anybody has to leave the fold. Besides those four stars, how many outfielders, middle infielders, catchers, and closers has Beane been through in the last 5 years?

The Twins look at roster turnover as an affliction to be minimized; the A's look at it as an opportunity to keep the team fresh.

One other thing to admire/envy about Gang Green: there isn't anybody like Castro or Mulholland on their roster, some older useless part who was signed only because he's cheap "veteran experience." Imagine!

At 8/10/2005 1:29 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

To be fair, the 2004 A's did have Mark McLemore (age 39 and useless at the plate), backing up Scutaro at 2b. And I've never been a big Scott Hatteberg fan. When you are a 1b/DH and your top comparable is Tim Teufel, you are not what I'd call a major threat at the plate. But he's got the veteran leadership thing to contribute.


At 8/10/2005 4:04 AM, Blogger frightwig said...

Yes, but you didn't see McLemore turned into a regular at 2B or SS whenever Macha got a notion to jerk around Scutaro or Crosby. They signed him to play utility backup, and that's what he did. The A's don't have a Mulholland pitching the 9th inning of tie games because the manager thinks his veteran experience is an equal substitute for actual talent.

I think Hatteberg is like Mientkiewicz. In his good years, he hits for a solid avg, takes a lot of walks, and can hit 30 doubles and 12-15 HR. But some years are better than others. Without a young masher in the organization ready to take the position, signing someone like Hatteberg or Dougie for $2.5m isn't such a bad way to plug a hole.

At 8/10/2005 12:33 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Re: Hatteberg. I think the Dougie M comparison is very apt. Decent glove; decent OBP, mediocre SLG for the position.
Interestingly, however, Dougie is nowhere to be found on Hatteberg's list of most comparable players over at BP's PECOTA stats
(1. Bruce Bochte; 2. Wally Joyner; 3. Tito Francona; 4. Mark Grace; 5. Mike Hargrove....). I guess his fall off a cliff last year is responsible....


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