Thoughtful, skillful A's riding wave of success
Baseball could not duplicate last year's Walk-off Wednesday, but it didn't have to. Sitting there watching Evan Scribner stroll to the dugout to a standing ovation and Brandon Moss jack a Robbie Ross pitch up the alley and what seemed like Woodstock Nation twitching and shouting like 30,000 Peter Garretts when Grant Balfour brought his power and passion to end an incredible week, we were reminded why we love baseball.
There are all the improbables that made the Oakland Athletics the 2012 champions of the best division in the game, the American League West. We marvel at the fact that on June 30, they were 13 games behind the Texas Rangers, who for most of the season were considered the team to beat come October. We marvel at four rookies in the A's starting rotation and more rookies -- including a Cuban refuge named Yoenis Cespedes who so impacted this team that he should show up in the AL MVP Award and AL Rookie of the Year Award voting -- spread all over the diamond. We think about the $59.5 million payroll and halfway expect Brad Pitt to join Rickey Henderson in throwing out the first pitch Tuesday.
But, most of all, we celebrate that while the Yankees, Red Sox, Phillies and Angels remain the wealthiest, all but the Yankees are home today, waiting to watch the Orioles and the Athletics on television. Most of all, the Oakland Athletics proved that baseball is not the sport of the one percent. They proved that a team with intrepid baseball operations and a thoughtful, skillful manager with extraordinary people skills and minimal ego can contend, and when it finds the perfect wave, ride it to shore.
It is a great story, but the fact is that from June 2 on, the A's were the best team. From the All-Star break on, they led the Major Leagues in home runs. Following the break, the A's pitchers were 51-25 with a 3.59 ERA. The Rangers and Angels were each 41-35 with ERAs of 4.29 and 4.48, respectively. Cespedes' OPS for the season was .861. Pujols' was .859.
A novel thought: The Athletics finished first in the AL West with pitching and power, just as Earl Weaver and Billy Beane always believed was a winning formula. Think about Oakland leading the Majors in homers after the All-Star break, then consider this: In the history of postseason baseball, teams that outhomer their opposition are 630-187, 484-144 since divisional playoffs began in 1969.
Was this some Beane master plan, as he traded Gio Gonzalez, Andrew Bailey, Kurt Suzuki and Trevor Cahill for what turned out to be his two winningest starters -- Jarrod Parker and Tommy Milone -- as well as his homer-hitting catcher (Derek Norris) and 32-homer Gold Glove-playing right fielder (Josh Reddick)? Of course not, any more than was losing his third-winningest starter (Bartolo Colon), his No. 1 starter (Brandon McCarthy) and his potential ace (Brett Anderson).
But the A's have created a culture that allows players to be themselves, often in the privacy of the ballpark left behind. But, most of all, scrambling on a budget that is rivaled only by the Rays, they have proven that assistant GM David Forst, director of player personnel Billy Owens and all the people in the organization can evaluate talent, and thus when they pick the right moments to trade Gonzalez, Bailey and Cahill, they get the right people in return. Parker was one of the league's best down the stretch. Milone won 13 games. Ryan Cook pitched five days in a row to close the season, and so did Balfour, whom they decided to keep.
No one better personifies the bold creativity of the Beane/Forst administration better than Cespedes. The A's flocked to scout him in the Dominican Republic and saw the tool shed of raw power and explosive running-back speed. But they also did extensive background checks and were convinced his makeup was off the charts, that he was not a watch-me showoff, and that he was intelligent enough to make adjustments.
I remember the snickers when Oakland signed Cespedes for $36 million for four years. Howyalikehimnow? "We were amazed at how quickly he got acclimated," says an A's official. "How he made adjustments on the fly, how strong he is for the long haul." The cross-culturalization process was never complicated, a credit to Melvin. Cespedes' strikeout rate dropped by a third the past two months. His contact rate improved constantly. In the end, his OPS+ and WAR resided in Josh Hamilton's neighborhood.
And in games Cespedes started, the A's were 82-46. In games he didn't start, they were 12-22. To repeat, Cespedes finished with an .861 OPS. Pujols finished at .859.
Hey, there are few master plans in baseball, or in show business. The original title of the Beatles' second movie was "Eight Arms to Hold You," then in the filming, Ringo shouted "Help!" and they had the title. And on the last day of the regular season, Evan Scribner -- of Washington, Conn., and Central Connecticut State -- was out there pitching for first place against a team that had won the last two pennants.
History will show that Scribner won the game, and the Oakland Athletics have their ticket to ride into the AL Division Series.
Peter Gammons is a columnist for MLB.com and an analyst for MLB Network. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.