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Behind Enemy Lines: How do the A’s field a winning team?

Teach us your ways, Oakland!

Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim v Oakland Athletics Photo by Lachlan Cunningham/Getty Images

The Tigers are moving their way towards the end of their season, and one of the final road trips of the year, which will see them play a four-game series in Oakland (one is an away “home” game).

Oakland is a team that gets made fun of frequently for their old stadium and Moneyball famous rigidity about spending. Admit it, at least one person in your life knows what on-base percentage is because of the A’s.

Going into the series we wanted to know how they’ve bee successfully building good teams inexpensively, and what voodoo magic they worked on Mike Fiers to turn him into a rotational ace. Josh Iversen, deputy manager of the SB Nation A’s blog Athletics Nation, was kind enough to answer our questions.

BYB: The A’s are well known for being a low-spend team, but they’ve successfully managed to make bids for the postseason the last two years. What do you think is the key to that success?

JI: I’m not sure there’s just one key to it all, but it certainly helps having franchise players on the corners in Matt Chapman and Matt Olson. Those two have been incredible to watch on both sides of the ball, and they’re the heart and soul of the team. Beyond that, Oakland has done a great job of finding pitching. Last year, it was the bullpen, led by reclamation project Blake Treinen and fringe prospect Lou Trivino. While the unit has taken a significant step back this season, DFA-turned-All-Star Liam Hendriks has been a godsend, and the rotation has been surprisingly consistent.

Is Bob Melvin really that good, or is he just lucky?

Melvin isn’t perfect. Some consider bullpen management his weakest point (although, I think most teams’ fans believe that about their manager, and the Oakland bullpen’s poor performance this year certainly hasn’t helped Melvin’s reputation). The team has also shown been slow at times to move on from struggling veterans (as seen with Fernando Rodney, Kendrys Morales and others this season) and that could certainly be on Melvin to an extent.

But that being said, I’m personally a huge fan of the work Melvin has done for the A’s, especially in recent years. He does a great job of blending analytics with traditional management. By all accounts, his players love him and he keeps the clubhouse loose and fun. He also encourages professionalism - the team doesn’t get involved in many brawls or bean wars, even in situations when other teams might. They let their bats do the talking, and I think Melvin is a huge part of that.

TL;DR - Melvin probably isn’t the best manager in baseball. But I think he’s up there, and the A’s are lucky to have him.

Which injuries this season do you think hurt the A’s the most?

Top prospect Jesus Luzardo’s injury-riddled season has been incredibly disappointing. After his hot spring, there were talks of the lefty breaking camp with the team, but a shoulder injury kept him out until June. Then, when he looked like he was only a start or two away from his MLB debut, a lat strain set him back another month. Now, a young gun that could have been an impact starter all year might not even make it to the majors until 2020.

It’s not an injury, but losing Frankie Montas to a PED suspension back in late June also hurts. He was one of the best starters in the league through his first 15 starts, and really looked like the ace Oakland needed. It would have been so nice to be able to start him in a potential Wild Card game, but his suspension leaves him ineligible for the postseason.

Which player surprised you most?

I don’t think anyone expected Mark Canha to break out the way he has. He has a higher wRC+ than Freddie Freeman! He’s always had pop, but he’s already set a career high in home runs and now he’s walking a ton, too. He’s been awesome in the middle of the A’s lineup, behind Chapman and Olson. Not bad at all for a 2014 Rule 5 pick.

On the other side of things, there’s Khris Davis. He looked like his normal .247 self through April, but then he ran into a side wall while playing left field in Pittsburgh and injured his hip. He hasn’t been the same since. He’ll have to get hot just to finish with half of the 48 home runs he hit in 2018. It definitely doesn’t help the optics that his huge slump came just after the A’s handed him a big two-year extension. At this point, it’s hard to tell if his struggles are physical, mental, or a combination of both. But either way, it’s really tough to watch.

What did you guys do to Mike Fiers and can you teach us your ways?

It’s really weird to say, but Fiers has been the A’s ace this year - thanks for sending him over! There’s certainly been a lot of luck involved, but he’s just been pounding the zone and throwing nothing but quality innings since the start of May. Oakland’s infield defense eats up ground balls like no other, and the Coliseum really helps hide his home run issues and amplify his infield fly ball tendencies. Really, Fiers and the A’s are a match made in heaven. So, thanks again!

Do you think there will ever be a new stadium, and how do you think it will change things for the team and fans?

I’m cautiously optimistic about the A’s ballpark plans - emphasis on ‘cautiously’. I’ve certainly been fooled here before, but it really seems like the team is closer to getting a new home than it’s ever been. There’s a new legislative victory almost every week, and I have a lot of confidence in team president Dave Kaval.

As far as the new ballpark’s impact, it’s tough to say. You would hope a new ballpark opens up the payroll a bit and allows the team to lock up a superstar like Chapman, but I have a hard time trusting the A’s current ownership to open up the checkbooks. But as soon as there’s a shovel in the dirt, it will be a huge sigh of relief for the fans. They’re seeing the Warriors and Raiders skip town now, and if the A’s really get their new stadium done, it will be a huge commitment to the city of Oakland and the East Bay as a whole.

Speaking of the A’s and their fans, what lessons do you think the Tigers could learn from the A’s about filling their seats? Oakland seems to have a pretty good grasp on excellent promotions.

This goes back to Kaval and COO Chris Giles. Since joining the organization they’ve been really open and responsive to the fanbase. Whether it’s minor upgrades to the Coliseum or the complete overhaul of the season ticket program, they’ve really changed the outlook of a lot of fans. A’s Access includes general admission to all home games in addition to the traditional season ticket plan, as well as discounted concessions, merchandise, parking, and more. They’re also allowing free admission to kids under 12 for the month of September. They really seem to understand that, to grow the fanbase long-term, they need to target families. They’re doing a great job of every aspect of the game affordable for them.

(Of course, winning also helps - the Tigers should really try that some time!)

Thanks so much to Josh for taking the time to answer our questions and rub in that dig at the end there. You can read more of his work over at Athletics Nation.