ALDS Preview and Predictions – Oakland Athletics vs. Detroit Tigers

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Oakland Athletics (96-66) vs. Detroit Tigers (93-69)

Keys for the Athletics: Do their “thing”; keep the Tigers in the ballpark; get into the Tigers’ bullpen.

When I say “do their thing,” I mean the A’s game is based on hitting home runs and their pitchers throwing strikes. As long as they’re hitting home runs and their pitchers are throwing strikes, they win. If they don’t hit home runs, they don’t do much of anything else worthwhile.

Brandon Moss, Coco Crisp, Josh Donaldson and Yoenis Cespedes all had big power years. Other players in their lineup – Jed Lowrie and Josh Reddick – hit the ball out of the park as well. But if they don’t hit homers, they won’t score.

The Tigers are a power-laden team that hits a lot of home runs in their own right. With Miguel Cabrera dealing with a spate of injuries, the A’s can’t fall asleep on him because he can still manipulate the pitcher like an aging George Foreman used to with his, “I’m an old man, I’m not gonna hurt you, I’m not gonna hurt you, I’m not gon…” BANG!!! Then they’re watching the lights in the sky from their backs. It’s a similar situation as watching a Cabrera homer.

The Tigers’ bullpen is shaky and if the A’s force their way into it, Jose Veras and Joaquin Benoit aren’t accustomed to the roles they’ll face as post-season set-up man and closer.

A’s’ boss Billy Beane makes an impassioned self-defense of his methods not working in the playoffs because the playoffs are a “crapshoot.” It’s the exact type of excuse to which Beane would reply arrogantly and obnoxiously if someone else were to give it. If he’s supposed to be finding methods to bend baseball to his will, isn’t it time he finds a way to win in the playoffs?

Keys for the Tigers: Get something from their warhorses; get depth from their starters; hit the ball out of the park; keep the A’s in the park.

Cabrera is injured and Justin Verlander has been shaky. The playoffs tend to send a jolt into veteran players who’ve grown accustomed – and perhaps slightly bored – by the regular season. Adrenaline could help Verlander regain his lost velocity. Max Scherzer has been great this season, but the Tigers’ chances may come down to Verlander.

Leyland doesn’t like having an untrustworthy bullpen and while Benoit has adapted well to being a closer, there’s no way of knowing whether he’ll be able to do the job in the playoffs until he gets an opportunity and does it. It’s best to have the starters go deep into the games and score plenty of runs to not have to worry about it.

The Tigers’ pitchers keep the ball in the park. That has to continue.

What will happen:

Every year, the A’s are the “feel good” story and every year they get bounced in the playoffs. There’s a desperation to have Beane win that ring to somehow shut out any remaining simplistic Chris Russo-style, logically ludicrous argument of, “I don’t wanna hear what a genius he is. Win a championship.” If he wins, where can they go?

The problem is that Beane has never figured out how to use his “card counting” skills in the draft (also a fallacy) to handle the dice in the “crapshoot” that is the playoffs. One would think he’d have done it by now. Maybe he should show up for the playoffs in a mask and declare himself “Billy Bane” while telling the A’s to take control of his genius.

The Tigers are deeper and their defense has been shored up by the acquisition of Jose Iglesias. The shift of Jhonny Peralta to the outfield gives them an even deeper lineup.

Not hitting home runs is the death knell for the A’s and the Tigers aren’t going to give up the homers the A’s are used to hitting. On the mound, the Tigers and A’s are evenly matched top-to-bottom, but the Tigers all-around offense gives them the advantage.

The A’s are trying to validate their backstory, but all they continually do is validate the criticism of it.

PREDICTION: TIGERS IN FOUR




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Billy Beane As Doctor Doom

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billybeanegeniusdoompic

It’s amazing how Billy Beane’s “genius” fluctuates based the Athletics’ record. While the A’s were consistently losing despite his best efforts at being a “genius” from 2007 through half of 2012, there weren’t many lusty articles, stories, poems or manuals written as to his management style. His followers were lying in wait for the opportunity to restart their version of the Crusades and they got it with the unlikely, almost inexplicable comeback from 13 games out of first place on June 30 to win the AL West.

With the combination of the early 2012 release of the movie version of Moneyball and the A’s comeback, he’d reacquired the title of “smarter than the average bear” or whatever other adjectives his supporters and those who benefit from the perception of “genius” want to use. Of course there was no connection between Moneyball and how the 2012 A’s were built, but that doesn’t matter when appealing to the casual baseball fan—some of whom decided, “Hey, I went to Harvard. Even though I never watched or played baseball, it’ll be a fun thing to do!!”—and actually managed to get jobs in the game as the new era of “experts” who came late to the revolution.

The 2013 A’s are under .500 after losing to the Mariners yesterday and without their 6-0 record against the historically dreadful Astros (Bo Porter does know the rules regarding wins and losses, right?) and 5-1 record against the staggering Angels, they’re 8-19 against the rest of baseball. Will the “genius” mysteriously return if and when the A’s start winning again?

Beane, a fan of English Premier League soccer/football, said in an NBC Sports piece with fellow stat-savvy writer Joe Posnanski that he’d like baseball to adopt a system similar to the one used in the Premier League in which the team with the best record gets the title. It’s a idiotic idea for baseball based on the fantasy of accruing that ever-elusive championship that he’s yet to achieve in spite of the best efforts of his biographers, mythmakers, and “check your brain at the door” worshippers, but why not? Truth was twisted at Billy’s and Michael Lewis’s combined mighty hands, maybe they can alter the fabric of what’s made baseball what it is today and eliminate the post-season entirely to suit the flesh and blood Billy and the fictional “Billy.”

When he uses the term “gauntlet of randomness” he sounds like Doctor Doom who, in Marvel Comics, is a power-hungry megalomaniac who speaks as if he’s narrating his own life because he is narrating his own life and referring to himself in the third person said, “Every utterance of Doom must be preserved for posterity.”

Maybe it’s because the public version of Beane is a fictional character whose exploits are neither realistic nor real. Those who took Moneyball and transformed it into the stat geek’s New Testament treat is as a basis upon which to live their baseball lives and consider any who protest to be infidels to the new order. Except it’s just a story.

The comic book character analogy is appropriate because Beane uses whatever the situation currently is to determine how he’ll present himself. The A’s were losing, so he became the everyman who was just trying to make his way in the world. They started winning again with a supernatural timing to coincide with the movie being released on DVD and he’s able to turn water into wine, stone into bread, and Brandon Moss into Jason Giambi. There seems to be the impression that Beane was sitting in his darkened office late at night in May of 2012 with his fingers tented and an evil laugh slowly building from his diaphragm on up and in a Dracula voice saying, “Mwaahahhaaa!!! De vorld iz ah-sleep. Ven dey leest expect it, I vill unleash de terrrifyink weh-pohn ov….Brrrrandon Mossss!!! MWAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!!”

Except the longtime journeyman Moss was in the minor leagues for the first two months of the season while the A’s messed around with Kila Ka’aihue and Daric Barton at first base. If Moss was such a known contributor, why was Beane hiding him while the team was floundering? No answer is given because the answer doesn’t suit the narrative, so the question is ignored but for the results: Moss has played great as an Athletic, therefore Beane is a genius for “discovering” him.

The 2013 A’s are struggling because as a team they’re not hitting home runs with the frequency they did in 2012 in large part because Josh Reddick—32 last season, has one this season and is now hurt. The 2013 A’s are struggling because the starting pitching was very good last season and hasn’t been good this season. You want math? Here’s the math: 12th in home runs and 12th in ERA=one game under .500 in 2013; 6th in home runs and 2nd in ERA=a division title and the GM being called a “genius” in 2012.

The A’s may have a similar second half hot streak as they did in 2012 (and 2002 and 2003 for that matter), but there’s no connection between that and any mystical foresight on the part of the GM. They had a lot of high draft picks, traded for other clubs’ high draft picks, found players who fit certain roles, and they got lucky. If they make a movie about that however, expect it to be more of the same Lewis Moneyball nonsense with the only thing salvaging it is to put Beane in a Doctor Doom costume and having the Fantastic Four put an end to its production before the world is engulfed by the terrifying wrath of the dramatization that people who know nothing about baseball or reality think is all too real.

Thingclobberintime

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Beane and Zduriencik: Mirror Images

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Who would play Jack Zduriencik in the movie version of the Mariners rise if it were to occur and one were to be made? I’m thinking Paul Giamatti with glasses and a shaved head. Right now, though, it won’t matter unless they choose to make Moneyball 2 and have Zduriencik as a character in a supporting role. If they really decided to make an accurate version of Moneyball 2, it would center on the amount of luck that Billy Beane had in becoming the worldwide phenomenon he did and why the opposite end of the spectrum is exemplified by Zduriencik and what’s happened with the Mariners.

Zduriencik is running out of time. In his fifth year on the job, the Mariners may have a better farm system than the one he inherited; they might be cheaper; but they’re still losing and he’s in the last year of his contract. An 8-15 record is bad enough, but when the record is accompanied by losing 2 of 3 to the historically horrific Astros; by the offensive players they acquired to improve their run totals failing to produce; and by their home attendance hovering between 10,000 and 15,000 per game, it’s not hard to see what’s coming next: a new regime to enliven the fan base. If a change is made, I could easily see a Pat Gillick return as a short-term solution for two years with Mike Arbuckle as his heir apparent.

When this is going to happen depends on how antsy Chuck Armstrong gets and whether ownership tells him something needs to be done to make it look like they’re doing something. The Mariners are better than this, but unless it shows on the field, that won’t matter. The downfall for Zduriencik that has him heading toward being fired stems not from the Mariners’ poor record and dwindling attendance, but that the expectations were driven upward due to his status as a scout who was also willing to use the new metrics. This led to the hapless columnists like Joel Sherman to refer to him as a “truly Amazin’ exec” in an attempt to bash the Mets while simultaneously bolstering his skewed and ignorant view of how a team “should” be run. Zduriencik’s potential for success was made worse by the Mariners’ leap from 101 losses in 2008 to 85 wins in 2009. That it was a byproduct of luck didn’t matter when penning the narrative. He won, therefore he is a “genius.” It was puffery to further a stat-based “revolution” that created the legend of Jack Z and it’s the reality that it’s not so simple to find players based on sabermetrics that will bring him down. Sometimes the numbers don’t result in players performing.

This relates to Beane in the following way: Beane’s “genius” was crafted by a clever and crafted storyline, Moneyball, that eventually wound up being a movie of the same name starring one of the most bankable stars in the world, Brad Pitt. That the book was twisted and the movie was ludicrous doesn’t make a difference to the lay-fan who believed every word and screen movement as if it were coming from the mouth of God himself and if Michael Lewis is that God, I’ll pull a maneuver straight out of Paradise Lost.

Ironically, when the movie was released, the A’s were tumbling and spiraling like a wounded bird. At that time the only people still clinging to the “Beane as genius” narrative were those who had something invested in it still being seen as accurate. Beane has taken the portrayal and adapted it to the front he puts up. He’s an actor in a show. When his stock was down, he became the passive, “aw shucks,” everyman who did little more than take advantage of market inefficiencies and happened to be the subject of a best-selling book that he didn’t have anything to do with other than allowing Lewis access. It was rife with significant dramatic license, but Beane still took full advantage of his newfound fame. While the team lost, no one wanted to hear it from him other than the aforementioned Beane-zealots. Then when the team started winning again, out came the blustery, Type-A personality to shove it in the faces of those who doubted him and his fickle “fans” reappeared. He’s out there again and is the go-to guy for quotes and validation on subjects aplenty, and they don’t just have to do with baseball.

Beane’s reputation was gone by mid-season 2013. He wanted to go to the Cubs after the 2011 season, but the Cubs preferred Theo Epstein over him. He was with the A’s and stuck with the A’s. Beane and the franchise were like a longtime married couple maintaining the pretense for mutual benefit, to save face, and because there was nowhere else to go. They’d settled into a comfortable, mundane day-to-day existence hoping to win the lottery with their young players and cheap free agent signings. Then, like a family in debt and on the verge of bankruptcy and divorce, they inexplicably did hit the lottery.

How else do you explain Brandon Moss? Beane saw it coming with the failed-with-four-franchises journeyman Moss? Then why was he in the minors for the first half of the season while the A’s messed around with Daric Barton and Kila Ka’aihue? Was he saving Moss as a secret weapon?

Of course not.

It was luck.

The young players they acquired in gutting trades from the previos winter—Ryan Cook, Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, Josh Reddick—all developed and contribued at once.

Luck.

They came back from 9 games under .500 on June 10th and 13 games out of first place on June 30th to win the division.

Luck.

They were talented, but they took advantage of a Rangers team that had grown complacent and whose main star, Josh Hamilton, was in the midst of a dreadful slump in which he looked like he didn’t want to play.

And they were lucky.

The public doesn’t want to hear the details of how a baby’s made or about genetic good fortune to make said baby into a handsome 6’4” star athlete and number one draft pick like Beane or the same genetics that made Zduriencik a 5’11” infielder who never got above A ball, hit .140 in a brief minor league career, and grew pudgy as he aged. The public just wants to see the baby. With Beane, he’s had an endless stream of good fortune to maintain this veneer; with Zduriencik, he hasn’t been so fortunate. That’s what it comes down to.

The flickering memories of the days of Zduriencik as the next “great” GM are dimming as rapidly as the desperate leaping from the caravan those who created the myth. Now the same people who called Zduriencik the new breed of GM, spending his formative years in scouting and eventually educated in stats, are calling for his dismissal.

If the Mariners start hitting and the back of their rotation pitches better, they’ll play better. If they don’t, they won’t and Zdruiencik is likely to be out of a job at the end of the season or sooner.

It’s better to be lucky when one is closer to the end than at the beginning because if it’s at the beginning, it will be expected; if it’s at the end, it was just luck. And you might save your job.

The A’s sudden rise in 2012 might buy Zduriencik some time as an example of what can happen if a little patience is exhibited, but given the way his tenure has mirrored Beane’s, the luck won’t be present in Seattle and unless they make a drastic turnaround, nor will Zduriencik for much longer.

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Keys to 2013: Oakland Athletics

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Starting Pitching Key: Jarrod Parker

With the departure of Brandon McCarthy and the questionable status of Bartolo Colon (he’s getting blasted in spring training following his suspension for PED use), the A’s need Parker to step in and be a top-of-the-rotation starter with 200 innings and ace-level performance to match his abilities. Once he harnesses control of his live fastball and gets his changeup over the plate, he can be a star. He has to mature sooner rather than later if the A’s have any chance to repeat their success from 2012.

Relief Pitching Key: Ryan Cook

Grant Balfour is streaky as the closer and in 2012 lost his job to Cook. He regained the job and held it during the team’s magical run to the division title. While Balfour will start the season as the closer, he’s a free agent at the end of the season and will be looking for more money than the A’s are willing to pay. Maybe something can be worked out that’s agreeable to both sides for Balfour to stay. Balfour must be cognizant of the crashing market for closers and understand that the A’s aren’t married to the concept of the highest paid arm automatically closing based on his salary. Cook is the cheap closer for the future if Balfour’s gone and maybe even if Balfour’s still there.

Offensive Key: Josh Reddick

Anytime there’s a player who surpasses what could reasonably have been expected in a realistic scenario, it’s unwise to think he’ll repeat it. That could be said of Brandon Moss and it could be said of Reddick.

In spite of Billy Beane playing up the journeyman Moss and refusing to discuss him in trades, the sudden display of power from Moss might disappear as rapidly as it happened. With Reddick, the A’s got him for his superior outfield defense and figured he’d hit 15-20 homers if he played every day. Instead, he hit 32. They’ve bolstered the offense with the acquisitions of Jed Lowrie, Hiroyuki Nakajima, John Jaso and Chris Young. Even with that, they need at least 25 from Reddick in 2013 to mitigate Moss’s unavoidable fall to earth.

Defensive Key: Hiroyuki Nakajima

It’s unfair to pigeonhole Japanese imports because of the failures of their predecessors, but if something repeatedly happens, it has to be factored into the equation. Neither Kazuo Matsui nor Tsuyoshi Nishioka could play shortstop well enough defensively to stay there. Matsui could hit a bit and was moved to second base, having a few productive years after he left the Mets; Nishioka was a disaster for the Twins.

Nakajima will get the first shot at shortstop for the A’s, but they acquired Lowrie because they know he can handle the position defensively. If Nakajima hits but proves to be another Japanese player who can’t cover the ground on grass that he did on the preferred surface in Japan, turf, he’ll play at third or second with Lowrie taking over at short. How long the A’s stick with him at short if he can’t play the position adequately is the question. Given the way Beane runs the team, it won’t be long before a move is made if Nakajima can’t do it.

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2012 Award Winners—American League Manager of the Year

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A few weeks ago, I listed my picks for the Cy Young Award in each league. Along with that, I listed who I picked before the season and who I think will actually wind up winning. You can read it here.

Now let’s look at the intense debate for Manager of the Year in the American League.

The two candidates for the award are the Orioles’ Buck Showalter and the Athletics’ Bob Melvin. You can’t go wrong with either. For my purposes, I have to go point-by-point to see if I can find an advantage to tip the argument in the favor of one or the other and come to a conclusion that makes sense.

The Orioles started the season with an $84 million payroll; the Athletics started with a $52 million payroll. Showalter had more proven veteran talent. With Matt Wieters, Adam Jones, Nick Markakis, J.J. Hardy, and Mark Reynolds, the Orioles’ lineup was going to score runs. Their question marks were in the starting rotation and with bullpen depth. Showalter worked his way around not having one starting pitcher throw 200 innings. It was his deft use of the bullpen that carried the Orioles through.

Melvin was working with a patchwork quilt of pitchers comprised of youth (Jarrod Parker, Dan Straily, A.J. Griffin); journeyman veterans (Bartolo Colon); and the injury prone (Brandon McCarthy). The bullpen was also in flux as he bounced back and forth between Ryan Cook and Grant Balfour as his closer. The lineup was similarly makeshift with unknowns (Yoenis Cespedes); youngsters who’d never gotten a chance (Josh Reddick); and other clubs’ refuse (Brandon Moss, Brandon Inge).

Neither team had any expectations before the season started. Both clubs were in divisions where they were picked—across the board—to finish in or close to last place. The American League East and American League West had powerhouses with massive payrolls, star power and history behind them. But the Orioles and A’s overcame their disadvantages to make the playoffs.

Is there a fair way to break what is essentially a tie in making a pick?

Yes.

The one method I can think of to determine who should win is by looking at the managers, but switching places and determining whether Showalter or Melvin would have been capable of replicating the success they had with their club and mimicked it with the other club.

Could Showalter have done the job that Melvin did with the Athletics?

Could Melvin have done the job that Showalter did with the Orioles?

Showalter has long been a manager who maximizes the talent he has on the roster with his attention to detail, flexibility, and perceived strategic wizardry, but his teams have sometimes wilted under his thumb and tuned him out. Showalter’s unique maneuverings have invited quizzical looks and accurate criticism. One example was the decision not to hold Mark Teixeira on first base in the fifth inning of a scoreless tie in game 5. Teixeira stole second and scored on a Raul Ibanez single. Under no circumstances should Showalter have done that. Teixeira was running well on his injured calf and the risk wasn’t worth the reward to let him take the base. It cost them dearly, and because he’s Showalter, he gets away with it. It was a mistake.

In every one of his managerial stops, Melvin has been an underappreciated manager to develop youngsters and let them have a chance to play without scaring or pressuring them into errors, physical and mental. His strategies are conventional. He lets his players play. The players like playing for him and play hard for him. Every time his teams have underachieved, it hasn’t been Melvin’s fault. That’s not the case with Showalter as the Diamondbacks and Rangers grew stagnant with him managing their teams. On that basis, Melvin’s style would’ve translated better to the Orioles than Showalter’s to the Athletics.

In the end, it comes down to who was faced with the bigger disadvantages to start the season and overcame them; who had more proven talent on his roster; and who held the ship together when the circumstances were bleakest. The Orioles were never under .500 in 2012; the A’s were 9 games under and 13 games out of first place in June and came back to win the division.

Based on these factors, the Manager of the Year is Bob Melvin of the Oakland Athletics.

In the preseason I picked Manny Acta of the Cleveland Indians to win the award.

Before any laughter, it gets worse. The following is 100% true: Prior to making a last-minute change, I had initially written that the Indians were going to be a disappointment after positive preseason hope and hype and that Acta would be fired and replaced by Sandy Alomar, Jr. But I changed my mind and picked the Indians to win the AL Central (mistake number 1), and selected Acta as Manager of the Year (mistake number 2).

I believe that in spite of Melvin’s slightly better case as the recipient, Showalter is going to win.

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Detroit Tigers vs Oakland Athletics—ALDS Preview and Predictions

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Oakland Athletics (94-68; 1st place, AL West) vs Detroit Tigers (88-74, 1st place, AL Central)

Keys for the Athletics: Get depth from their young starters; maintain their magic; mitigate Prince Fielder and Miguel Cabrera; don’t be “happy to be here”.

The A’s young starters Jarrod Parker, Tommy Milone, and A.J. Griffin have shown no fear in becoming acclimated to the big leagues and carrying a team that no one expected to be contenders to the playoffs. That said, unless they’re successful in keeping runners off the bases ahead of Fielder and Cabrera and putting themselves in a position to use the multiple lefties in their bullpen late in the game against Fielder, they’re not going to win.

With the veterans Jonny Gomes, Grant Balfour, Coco Crisp, and Seth Smith, it’s not as if this is a purely young club that will be shell-shocked by the post-season. They’ve been freewheeling and feisty all season long in direct contrast to the outwardly calm and patient manager Bob Melvin.

They hit a lot of home runs and they pitch. If they fail to do one or the other against the Tigers, they’re going to lose.

Keys for the Tigers: Win Justin Verlander’s starts; receive contributions from hitters other than Fielder and Cabrera; get runners on base in front of Fielder and Cabrera; hope that Jose Valverde is able to close without incident or Jim Leyland smoking seven cigarettes at once in the runway while Valverde is on the mound.

A team with a pure ace such as Verlander holds a distinct advantage in a short series, but Verlander hasn’t pitched well in past post-seasons. For him to truly validate his place in history, he needs to go further than being a regular season horse and Cy Young Award/MVP winner, he has to come through in October. If Verlander is able to give the A’s pause early in the first game and make them think that the have to win the three games he’s not going to pitch, it could be a blow to the solar plexus for a young team that, for the most part, has not been in this situation before.

Contrary to perception, the Tigers offense is not limited to Fielder and Cabrera. Austin Jackson had a breakout season; Quintin Berry provided a spark and speed; and Delmon Young has a penchant for hitting homers in the playoffs.

Valverde is shaky and gets himself into trouble seemingly for the sake of getting himself out of it. It’s devastating to any team when they get a lead to their closer and their closer blows the game, and it happens remarkably often in the playoffs and World Series.

What will happen:

2012 was meant to be a rebuilding year for the A’s, but this season has been about inexplicable (statistically and otherwise) leaps for both the A’s and the Orioles. The A’s rode youngsters Parker, Milone, Ryan Cook, Josh Reddick, Yoenis Cespedes, and Griffin, along with veteran journeymen Balfour, Crisp, Brandon Moss, and Gomes to a shocking AL West title.

Can the young pitchers who reveled in the pressure during the regular season continue that trend in the playoffs? Parker is starting the opener against Verlander. Because of the new playoff rules, the team with the inferior record is beginning the playoff series at home. It’s a bizarre set-up but home field is generally overrated in baseball.

The A’s need their young pitchers to maintain their fearlessness against a Tigers’ lineup that houses Fielder and Triple Crown winner Cabrera. But that won’t help them if they don’t account for Jackson, Berry, and Young.

The A’s don’t have a long history against Verlander. Crisp is the only player on their roster with more than 20 plate appearances against him (8 for 22). They have a lineup of bats who like swinging at fastballs, but Verlander is more than just a near-100 mph fastball. He has a feel for pitching and gets better as the game wears on; if the A’s are going to get to him, it has to be early. If it gets to the fifth or sixth inning and Verlander gets his groove, the A’s are in trouble.

Max Scherzer isn’t scheduled to start for the Tigers until a possible game 4 after a shoulder injury put him on the sideline and an ankle injury set him back. I’d be concerned if the Tigers enter game 4 down 2-1 in the series and are relying on a rusty Scherzer.

The bullpens are similar with somewhat shaky closers who’ve lost their jobs at various times in their careers. It wasn’t long ago that Balfour wanted out of Oakland for having the job taken away from him in favor of rookie Cook. Valverde is unreliable at best.

The Tigers can hit for power with the Athletics and have the starting pitching to shut down the A’s offense. The bullpens are even; the starting pitching is an edge for the Tigers with Verlander looming for two games in the series.

The A’s magic ride was contingent on production that couldn’t have been crafted into believable fiction. The experience of the Tigers will show and they have star power that the A’s currently don’t.

PREDICTION: TIGERS IN FOUR

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The 2012 Athletics Are A Great Story That Has Nothing To Do With Moneyball

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Going to Michael Lewis for a quote about the 2012 Oakland Athletics because he wrote Moneyball as the author does in this NY Times article is like going to Stephen King for a quote on time travel and the Kennedy assassination because he wrote a novel about time travel and the Kennedy assassination. Lewis’s book was technically non-fiction and King’s is decidedly fiction, but the “facts” in Lewis’s book were designed to take everything Billy Beane was doing to take advantage of market inefficiencies and magnify them into an infallibility and new template that only a fool wouldn’t follow.

Lewis had an end in mind and crafted his story about the 2002 Athletics and baseball sabermetrics to meet that end. It’s not journalism, it’s creative non-fiction. Beane went along with it, became famous, and very rich. None of that validates the genesis of the puffery.

The intervening years from Moneyball’s publication to today were not kind to Beane or to the story…until 2012. The movie’s success notwithstanding, it was rife with inaccuracies, omissions, and outright fabrications such as:

  • Art Howe’s casual dismissal of Beane’s demands as if it was Howe who was in charge and not Beane
  • The portrayal of Jeremy Brown not as a chunky catcher, but an individual so close to morbidly obese that he needed to visit Richard Simmons, pronto
  • The failure to mention the three pitchers Tim Hudson, Mark Mulder, and Barry Zito
  • That Scott Hatteberg’s playing time was a point of contention and Beane traded Carlos Pena to force Howe’s hand to play Hatteberg—Hatteberg was still learning first base and wasn’t playing defense, but he was in the lineup almost every day as the DH from day one

There are other examples and it wasn’t a mistake. The book was absurd, the movie was exponentially absurd, and there are still people who refuse to look at the facts before replacing the genius hat on Beane’s head as “proof” of the veracity of Lewis’s tale.

This 2012 version of the Athletics is Beane’s rebuild/retool number five (by my count) since 2003. The Moneyball club was blown apart and quickly returned to contention by 2006 when they lost in the ALCS. That team too was ripped to shreds and the A’s traded for youngsters, signed veterans, traded veterans, signed veterans, traded for youngsters and finished far out of the money in the American League from 2007-2011.

Then they cleared out the house again and are now in the playoffs. It has no connection with Moneyball nor the concept of Beane finding undervalued talent. It has to do with the young players succeeding, as the article linked above says, and winning “in a hurry”.

Let’s look at the facts and assertions from the book/movie followed by the truth:

The A’s, under Beane, were “card-counters” in the draft

The only players on this Athletics’ team that were acquired via the draft and have helped the club are Jemile Weeks, Cliff Pennington, Sean Doolittle (drafted as a first baseman and converted to the mound), Dan Straily, and A.J. Griffin. The A’s drafts since Moneyball have been mediocre at best and terrible at worst, so bad that Grady Fuson—along with Howe, one of the old-school “villains” in Moneyball—was brought back to the organization as special assistant to the GM.

The hidden truth about the draft is that the boss of the organization probably pays attention to the first 8-10 rounds at most. After that, it’s the scouts and cross-checkers who make the decisions and any player taken past the 10th round who becomes a success is a matter of being lucky with late development, a position switch, a quirky pitch, or some other unquantifiable factor. Beane’s “new age” picks like Brown, Steve Stanley, and Ben Fritz, didn’t make it. The conventional selections Nick Swisher and Joe Blanton did make it, were paid normal bonuses of over $1 million, in line with what other players drafted in their slot area received. Brown received $350,000 as the 35th pick in the first round and his signing was contingent on accepting it.

Beane “fleeced” other clubs in trades

In retrospect, he took advantage of the Red Sox desperation to have a “proven” closer, Andrew Bailey, to replace the departed Jonathan Papelbon. Bailey got hurt and, last night, showed why it wasn’t his injury that ruined the Red Sox season. He’s not particularly good. Josh Reddick has 32 homers—power and inexpensive youthful exuberance the Red Sox could have used in 2012.

The other deals he made last winter? They were of mutual benefit. The A’s were looking to restart their rebuild and slash salary waiting out the decision on whether they’re going to get permission to build a new park in San Jose. They sent their erstwhile ace Trevor Cahill to the Diamondbacks for a large package of young talent with Collin Cowgill, Ryan Cook, and Jarrod Parker. They also traded Gio Gonzalez to the Nationals for even more young talent including Tommy Milone and Derek Norris. The Diamondbacks got 200 innings and good work (that hasn’t shown up in his 13-12 record) from Cahill and are also-rans; the Nationals got brilliance from Gonzalez and won their division. The A’s slashed payroll and their young players, as the article says, developed rapidly.

Sometimes it works as it did with this series of trades, sometimes it doesn’t as with the failed return on the Hudson trade to the Braves in 2004.

They found undervalued talent

Yes. We know that Moneyball wasn’t strictly about on-base percentage. It was about “undervalued talent” and opportunity due to holes in the market. That argument has come and gone. Was Yoenis Cespedes “undervalued”? He was paid like a free agent and joined the A’s because they offered the most money and the longest contract. He was a supremely gifted risk whose raw skills have helped the A’s greatly and bode well for a bright future. The other signings/trades—Jonny Gomes, Bartolo Colon, Seth Smith, Brandon Inge, Brandon Moss—were prayerful maneuvers based on what was available for money the A’s could afford. They contributed to this club on and off the field.

Grant Balfour was signed before 2011 because the A’s again thought they were ready to contend and all they needed was to bolster the bullpen. They’d also signed Brian Fuentes to close. Fuentes was an expensive disaster whom they released earlier this year; Balfour was inconsistent, lost his closer’s job, wanted to be traded, regained the job, and is pitching well.

The manager is an irrelevant figurehead

Howe was slandered in Moneyball the book as an incompetent buffoon along for the ride and slaughtered in the movie as an arrogant, insubordinate jerk. What’s ironic is that the manager hired at mid-season 2011, Bob Melvin, is essentially the same personality as Howe!!! An experienced manager who’d had success in his past, Melvin replaced the overmatched Bob Geren, who just so happened to be one of Beane’s closest friends and was fired, according to Beane, not because of poor results, managing and communication skills, but because speculation about his job security had become a distraction.

Melvin and Howe share the common trait of a laid back, easygoing personality that won’t scare young players into making mistakes. Melvin’s calm demeanor and solid skills of handling players and game situations was exactly what the A’s needed and precisely what Moneyball said was meaningless.

The 2012 Athletics are a great story; Moneyball was an interesting story, but they only intersect when Beane’s “genius” from the book and movie melds with this season’s confluence of events and produces another convenient storyline that, in fact, has nothing at all to do with reality.

The A’s are going to the playoffs and might win the division over the Rangers and Angels, two teams that spent a combined $170 million more in player salaries than the A’s did. It’s a terrific life-lesson that it’s not always about money, but it has zero to do with Moneyball and Michael Lewis is an unwanted interloper as the Beane chronicler since he knows nothing about baseball and is a callous opportunist who took advantage of a situation for his own benefit.

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Billy Beane And The Ka’aihue Caper

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Which do you want?

Do you want the Moneyball (the farcical book and ridiculous movie) version of Billy Beane where he’s a ruthless Gordon Gekko-like corporate titan who treats the players as chess pieces and moves them regardless of feelings or personalities according to what’s best for the team and winning?

Do you want a hard-edged and intelligent architect who also has the empathy and understanding that is similar (again in the farcical book and ridiculous movie) to Beane’s relationship with his young daughter? A man who triumphed in the face of adversity and and achieved a success in the baseball front office he couldn’t achieve on the field while simultaneously slaying his own demons from that failed playing career?

Make a choice.

The stories about Beane are nonsense. He’s not a genius. He’s not an idiot. He’s not overrated or underrated. He is what he is and what that is is a mediocre GM who found a way to win for a brief time by using statistics and techniques that had yet to become widespread in use or understanding.

As other clubs have taken the successful aspects of stat-based techniques, paid for on base percentage and found other ways to win without spending the money of the Yankees and Red Sox, Beane’s clubs have fallen back to what they were in the mid-late-1990s before Beane stumbled onto his “secret” by luck, necessity or both.

Now the A’s are a haphazard mix of young and old; of players from the past and players for the future; of has beens and never weres; of players who he found and players who he overpaid for. It shows on the fields as, after a surprisingly quick start, they’ve staggered to where most observers thought they’d be at 26-32 and promising to get much worse as the season moves along.

But there won’t be a Major League-style, Barbra Streisand “There’s A Place For Us”, island of misfit toys victory for this group. They’re going to lose 90+ games by the time the season is over and again Beane and his bosses will be pleading MLB for a new ballpark; the freedom to move to San Jose; or some lifeline to save baseball in Oakland.

There is no happy ending here.

But that doesn’t mean that Beane is the epitome of evil or a beacon for the unsung upstarts in the administration of his club.

There’s a large controversy as to the treatment of first baseman Kila Ka’aihue because the A’s designated him for assignment yesterday while he and his wife are awaiting the birth of twins. You can read the story here on Fox and read about the reaction of his teammates at the “injustice” in this slanted, twisted and intentionally inflammatory piece on Yahoo.

Is it injustice? Did the A’s do anything wrong?

Ostensibly Ka’aihue was dumped because Brandon Moss is in Triple A, had an out in his contract if he wasn’t in the big leagues by next week and they were going to need his bat for the upcoming games.

Let’s look at the perceptions of this decision in comparison to reality.

The A’s dumped a player with no concern about him personally or his family.

The implication is that because they designated Ka’aihue for assignment that they left him hanging with twins on the way, no job and no means to pay for their care.

Of course it’s nonsense. Ka’aihue is still technically a member of the Athletics organization. The designating for assignment is to create space for Moss by removing Ka’aihue from the 40-man roster. A team might claim him, he might clear waivers or the A’s can release him. I doubt any team is claiming him, so that leaves a release or going to Triple A. If he’s released someone will pick him up.

But Ka’aihue continuing his playing career is irrelevant in the context of what would happen if the CBA allowed his medical coverage to be gone once the decision was made to remove him from the 40-man roster.

Here’s news: he’s still covered and will still be paid based on his big league contract. He won’t have to leave Oakland for 10 days and if his babies are on the way any day now, I’m sure the A’s—if they’re going to send him to Triple A—will let him stay in Oakland until everything is settled.

The A’s gave Ka’aihue a chance to play that the Royals never did.

On an annual basis in the minors, Ka’aihue put up absurd on base numbers with power. But the Royals never gave him a legit shot to play. The closest they came was in 2011 when he started the season as the regular first baseman, received a month and was sent to the minors when he didn’t hit.

The A’s let him play in 39 of their 58 games and the left-handed batting Ka’aihue was consistently in the lineup when there was a righty pitching against the A’s. He got a chance and hit just as poorly as he did in his brief opportunities for the Royals. He, his teammates and the stat-loving people who worshipped his minor league numbers cannot say he didn’t get a chance. A 28-year-old minor league veteran who posted a .234/.295/.398 slash line with 4 homers and below average defense at first base can’t complain about being dumped after 139 plate appearances.

What else could the A’s have done?

They’re not going anywhere this season so I suppose they could’ve kept him on the roster until the Moss deadline of June 15th and/or waited until Ka’aihue’s kids were born. They could’ve given him more time to see if he started hitting. Or they could’ve done what they did. It’s not as if Moss is a youngster who’s killing Triple A and waiting for a chance to play and Ka’aihue was blocking his path. Moss is a 28-year-old journeyman as well and, as mentioned before, the Athletics’ season is going nowhere.

But this isn’t the monstrous treatment of a player with no leverage it’s being portrayed to be. The A’s needed a roster spot and Ka’aihue was the prime candidate at the position from which they needed to cut some dead weight. His A’s teammates can complain about it but if they look at it objectively, there’s no arguing with the decision because the player wasn’t playing well and this isn’t a charity. The A’s don’t owe him any more than what he’s gotten and will continue to get based on the basic agreement.

He’s still getting his benefits. His family is covered.

So what’s the problem other than the stoking a visceral reaction by twisting facts and tugging on people’s emotions and suggesting that Beane is kicking a pregnant woman out on the street to fend for herself as she’s about to deliver twins or that Beane is hiding behind his assistant David Forst?

There is none.

If you’d like to pick on Beane, there are plenty of other reasons—milking the Moneyball farce; using his “genius” as a shield to do what he wants while wrecking his team; contradicting exactly what he was supposed to be but never was—but the Ka’aihue caper isn’t a reason to attack him. Ka’aihue didn’t hit and he’s getting dumped. It’s as simple as that.

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