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9:58AM

A’s Beane: Analytics have turned baseball into a chess match

By Art Spander

OAKLAND, Calif. — Billy Beane is an early-to-bed guy. He was asleep at 11:10 on Friday night, which of course meant the Oakland Athletics exec missed the last few innings of the marathon, the longest World Series game ever, 18 innings, 7 hours and 20 minutes — or 12:30 a.m. PDT, more than an hour after Beane dozed off.

But the man is wide awake when it counts. He knew the Dodgers won that game 3-2, on Max Muncy’s home run. OK, there are videos, the Internet, newspapers. But he also knows why games are running so long, if not quite as long as that one. And how to build a winning team.

“No doubt analytics really contributed to the length,” said Beane. “It’s turned baseball into a chess match. Offenses are built to see a lot of pitches. They don’t swing at the first pitch. They’re built to wear out pitching staffs.”

And, one might surmise, wear out fans. Hey, it was 3:30 a.m. in Boston when that game ended Friday night/Saturday morning with the only Dodgers win in the Series.

Beane, the executive of baseball operations; general manager David Forst; and manager Bob Melvin were brought together at the Coliseum on Monday to discuss both their recently announced contract extensions and the great season of 2018, when Oakland won 97 games.

If that was 11 games and one World Series championship fewer than the Red Sox, well, as Beane affirmed, “Boston had a great team.”

A team that not only was dominant from opening day but also made it successfully through the postseason, which Oakland over the years, with its roster including Miguel Tejada, Barry Zito, Jason Giambi and other stars, couldn’t do against the Yankees.

That’s when Beane, properly downhearted, referred to the playoffs as a crapshoot, which in a sense they are because teams built for 162 games can be eliminated in five games. And even though the Red Sox were a deserving winner this year, Beane has not altered his opinion.

In the 2001 best-of-five American League Division Series, Oakland won the first two games. In New York. But in Game 3, the Yankees won 1-0, when New York shortstop Derek Jeter, who shouldn’t have been there, went to right field to relay a throw to home plate that cut down Jeremy Giambi.

The train couldn’t be stopped. The Yankees won the next in Oakland and the last in New York. The A’s were out.

Just as this year, in the American League division and championship series, defending champions Houston, New York and Cleveland were out.

“The Dodgers,” said Beane, “could make a quantitative augment they were the best team in the National League. In the American League, there really were four good teams. Cleveland gets booted out by Houston, which is a really good team. The Yankees get beat by Boston. And we won 97 games.”

Enough to get into the wild card against the Yankees — and lose the one game.

“But Boston was the best team,” Beane restated. “I was glad Mookie Betts hit a home run the last game. This guy’s as great a player there is. He was 0-for 13.”

Beane reminded that Barry Bonds hit .292 in the regular season with Pittsburgh in 1991 and .148, 4 for 27, in the playoffs that year, which, naturally the Pirates lost. The crapshoot.

“But it was a fun World Series," said Beane, taking the broad view. “Baseball has been turned into a science, but it’s still an art, too.”

What the A’s turned it into the past season was a joyful blend of hitting and pitching. And defense. Four A's, Matt Chapman, Matt Olson, Jed Lowrie and Marcus Semien, were Gold Glove finalists. Some of the names were different two years ago, when the balls the A’s didn’t bobble they threw away.

“These guys, especially Marcus, put in a lot of work,” said Melvin. “It feels pretty good based on where the defense was previous to that. We completely turned the page.”

The A’s knew they were good when they finished two series against Houston, the Yankees and the Blue Jays at .500.

“And we won the season series from the Red Sox,” said Melvin, “That certainly makes us think that going forward we can be there. We have confidence.”

And a GM who doesn’t like to stay up late.

9:59PM

A’s oblivious to everything except winning

By Art Spander

OAKLAND, Calif. — Yes, gone. With only a few traces. The baseball diamond still was there, most of all the dirt infield that the NFL teams despise, the last one. But already, an hour after the A’s home stand had ended, the scoreboard was showing the Raiders, who won’t be there until Friday.

That’s the way it is for the Oakland Athletics, second-class citizens of the Coliseum. The best baseball team in the Bay Area, in California — at least the California team with the best record — the fourth-best record in the major leagues, and to borrow that ancient but poignant Rodney Dangerfield comment about himself, they get no respect.

You think a few minutes after the conclusion of a Raiders game in Oakland the scoreboard would be flashing an upcoming A’s game? Not a chance.

But the A’s seem oblivious to slight, as they are to everything else, small crowds, a ballpark that’s really a football stadium, the leaking toilets — since repaired — and an occasional defeat, as was the case Wednesday, when Oakland fell to the Texas Rangers, 4-2.

The A’s are thinking big, as in big picture, as in the World Series. Baseball is a sport of percentages, not of perfection. You’re going to lose games, a lot of them when you play 162. The key is to win two-thirds of the time; especially when, as for the A’s, it gives a team one series after another — for Oakland, 18 of 19, virtually unheard of. Other than the Red Sox.

And going away for a week doesn’t faze the Athletics. “We’re one of the best teams in the league on the road,” said catcher Jonathan Lucroy, “and we have a built-in home field advantage here because it’s a graveyard. Teams don’t like playing here.”

He apparently was referring to the way balls don’t travel well, other than for day games, not to a burial location, although there is something about the stadium that makes its occupants think of final resting places. Long ago, players for the great A’s teams of the 1980s called it the mausoleum.

Into the mix for the A’s is the announcement from president Dave Kaval that the team has hired a Danish architectural firm, Barke Ingels Group (BIG), to design the new ballpark that someday may be constructed someplace. Maybe it will look like a pastry or a hunk of smoked salmon.

What the A’s look and sound like is a team brimming with self-belief, which is understandable. The more you win, the more confidence you have, and the more confidence you have, the more you win. That is if you have pitching, of course.

In the previous two games of the series, the A’s shut out the Rangers. Wednesday quickly ended any thought of that occurring a third straight time when the first man up for Texas, Shin-soo Choo, homered.

The Rangers built the margin to 4-0, but in the ninth, the crowd of 13,139 having shrunk, Oakland loaded the bases without a hit. A bit of excitement, but not a victory.

“It would have been nice to finish off the third one,” said Bob Melvin, the A’s manager, about the last game in this series and the Houston series, “but looking at the home stand, and the series, we’ll take two out of three.

“It’s gotten to the point where we know who we are and what’s going on around us. We’re not looking down the road. We are just trying to win the game at hand. I think that’s what this team does best.”

Lucroy offered affirmation. “We shouldn’t scoreboard watch," he said, "just worry about the game we’re playing."

They lost that game on Wednesday. And then, as the players headed to the airport, the Coliseum was being reconfigured for a Raiders exhibition game.

8:45PM

Good team, bad crowds: A’s really need that ballpark

By Art Spander

OAKLAND, Calif. — For the Oakland Athletics, every home game breaks down to two stories: how they do on the field, which on Thursday was excellent, a 4-3 win over the Seattle Mariners; and how they do at the gate, where, well, on this afternoon it was better — and, yes, you are allowed to ask, “Better than what?”

For a start, better than Wednesday evening, when the A’s drew an announced attendance of 6,991. On Thursday, the total was 12,663, which admittedly isn’t all that much, but the weather has been lousy, the kids still are in school and the Bay Area seems obsessed with the Warriors, understandably.

The A’s aren’t the only team with great blocks of empty seats. Click the TV remote and you see that various stadiums, including Cincinnati, have plenty of unfilled seats.

But every other team has its own ballpark, and as we are too aware on this 50th anniversary of the Athletics moving here from Kansas City, the A’s do not.

Technically, they have a place to play, the Coliseum, which for a long while, until the Raiders returned from their first departure, was satisfactory, if not charming.

Then, the city and county, on Al Davis' behalf, had that huge stand erected in center field, or the east sideline if you prefer, and the Coliseum, unwanted by anyone, became — taking into account the A’s color, their mascot and the adage — a huge green elephant.

Management has tried to make the best of a bad thing, creating a tavern in upper left field known as the Tree House and devising other ideas to attract people. So far, no luck.

The A’s just don’t resonate, even though they are above .500 and have players who are both competent and interesting.

One of those is Blake Treinen, who Thursday as the fifth of five A’s pitchers — manager Bob Melvin again doing his sleight of hand to overcome injuries — recorded his sixth multi-inning save, highest in the majors.

“This was a great team win,” said Treinen. More specifically, it was a great bullpen win, with Josh Lucas, Chris Hatcher, winner Yusmeiro Petit, Lou Trevino and Treinen coming and going out of necessity. Starters such as Andrew Triggs and Brett Anderson, meanwhile, are on the disabled list.

“We had to do this a few times,” said Melvin of his rotating pitchers. “We’ve had some practice at it.”

And too many times, when at the Coliseum they’ve had to play in front of crowds too small for a major league team, leading a journalist to ask Treinen his opinion of the team’s struggle for spectators. I mean, 6,991? In a stadium configured for some 35,000, that can’t be any fun for a guy in the bigs.

“I don’t know if it’s anything that relates to us,” Treinen said diplomatically about the athletes. “We’re just trying to play baseball and win games. That (drawing fans) takes care of itself. We have marketing for that.”

What they don’t have, however, is a fan base, a mass of season-ticket holders. There was a sellout early in the season of seats that weren’t sold, freebies for one and all. The hope was that people would come back. For some games, they have. For many others, they have not.

We keep hearing that the new ballpark is the answer. But it’s been like a pot of gold at the end of the rainbow, a promise that's never fulfilled.

The A’s had a plan for a place near Lake Merritt, at Laney College, but of course it was rejected because anything logical and beneficial gets trashed in Oakland and Berkeley. Yet Berkeley is a nuclear-free zone, as if people drive around with plutonium in their back seat.

Now the thought is to erect a ballpark on a dock of the bay, the Howard Street Terminal. A lot of negatives: no BART line close by, cold weather — it was 57 degrees at first pitch Friday, real balmy. But build it, presumably, and they will come.

Year after year the A’s, on the figurative poverty line, keep winning games and keep losing stars, Oakland unable to give young players the salaries that match their skills. “As soon as we get that ballpark,” we’re told repetitively.

Well, get it. Or at the least show us for sure that you’re going to get it.

Look, in 1979, before the Haas family saviors bought the team from Charlie Finley, the A’s once had a crowd of 695. So it’s been worse. But 6,991 is bad enough. It’s time to get something done.

8:54PM

Tough teams ahead, but A’s Melvin wants to savor a sweep

By Art Spander

OAKLAND, Calif. — So there was Bob Melvin, a few moments after Oakland beat the Baltimore Orioles 2-1 Sunday at the Coliseum, sweeping the three-game series, getting an earful.

Yes, the pitching had been excellent, the defense effective. But, Bob, that was the O’s, who are “O-ful,” or worse than that. Now you’ve got some real major-league teams to play, starting Monday night with Houston, the World Series champion.

And after three games against the Astros, you go on the road, Bob, to play the Yankees, Red Sox and Blue Jays, the three best teams in the American League.  

That ought to bring you back to reality, if not back to the lower reaches of the standings.

“I was going to try to enjoy the win today,” said the A’s manager, “before I get to that.”

The Orioles are a bad team — only eight wins in the last 34 games, 17 games behind the Red Sox and we’re barely into the merry month of May.

Still, as the axiom advises, wins over the patsies count as much as wins over the contenders. And a year ago, the A’s were the patsy.

Now, they’re two games above .500, capable, respectable.

In the last two games against the O’s, Oakland pitching allowed one run total, which was necessary since the A’s only scored four. Yet good teams find a way, especially if they have pitching. 

“We didn’t swing the bats all that well,” agreed Melvin after the last two victories, 2-0 on Saturday, on Khris Davis’ two-run homer in the 12th, then 2-1 on Sunday. “That happens during the course of the season. But the pitching was there. It’s all a matter of timing.”

Someone asked about the sweep, unusual in baseball, where two out of three gets you to the postseason. “You go into the series looking at each game individually,” said Melvin, “but once you win the first two, you obviously want to sweep the series.”

A matter of timing. And control. In his last start, Andrew Triggs went 4 2/3 innings and gave up three walks and four runs. On Sunday, Triggs pitched seven innings and didn’t allow a walk and just the one run, a homer by Pedro Alvarez in the second.

“He went deeper in the game than I’ve seen him go,” said Melvin. Well, since he hadn’t gone past the sixth this season, deeper in the game than anyone’s seen him go.

“He kept his pitch count low,” said Melvin of Triggs, who threw 96 pitches. “And he kept batters off balance both sides of the plate.”

Lou Trivino, up from Triple-A Nashville only a few days ago, pitched the eighth and was no less efficient than Triggs, retiring three batters in order.

Then things got interesting in the ninth when, with Blake Treinen having replaced Trivino, pinch hitter Trey Mancini hit a ball that went too far but not far enough and, before A’s catcher Jonathan Lucroy could field it, became an infield hit.

“It took a high hop and came back,” said Melvin, “like a sand wedge shot.”

Help! Send in Tiger Woods or Phil Mickelson. Nah, Treinen could handle it. After a fashion.

A Treinen wild pitch got Mancini to second. He then was sacrificed to third. After Jace Peterson grounded out, Mancini holding, up came Manny Machado, who at .354 (with 9 homers) literally was one of only two Baltimore starters bating above .209.

Melvin, no dummy, ordered Machado walked. 

Then — exhale — Chris Davis (not to be confused with Oakland’s Khris Davis) flied out. 

“You don’t want to be in that situation,” Melvin said of the ninth-inning troubles, “but if there’s anybody with the weapons to get the ball down on the ground, it’s Treinen.”

Triggs said his previous game, against the Mariners, “stuck in his craw.” It’s now unstuck, and the A’s are creeping forward.

Which certainly is better than the reverse.

8:45PM

The week that was for the suddenly relevant A’s

By Art Spander

OAKLAND, Calif. — The problem was irrelevancy. The Oakland Athletics seemed less in danger of dropping in the standings than dropping out of sight. Or out of mind.

Virtually the only stories about the A’s were negative, dealing with the search for a ballpark location and attendance woes. What, only 9,157 against the World Series champion Astros? Even fewer against the Rangers and White Sox?

Then came the Week That Was, the week the A’s made noise and made news, from a let-’em-watch-for-free capacity crowd of 46,000-plus at the Coliseum to that 14-inning, nearly six-hour win, to a no-hitter by Sean Manaea, to a series victory over the supposedly unbeatable Boston Red Sox.

Yes, after Sunday’s 4-1 win over Boston, the A’s had won six of seven, one at Seattle (that was Manaea’s also) and then five of the six at Oakland; had evened their record at 11-11; had a clubhouse full of media asking how all this happened and had manager Bob Melvin agreeing as the team prepared to fly to Texas, “This was a nice home stand.”

Absolutely. This was a home stand when the pitching caught up with the hitting. In the last two games, the Red Sox scored just two runs. It’s well understood in whatever sport you choose, if the opponent doesn’t score you can’t lose.

Fans? After the Tuesday freebie — if nothing else, that proved there are people out there who will come to A’s games, night or day, warm or cold, short or long — the gate slipped to 13,321 in that marathon on Wednesday, then 23,473 on Friday night against Boston, 25,746 for the no-hit night against Boston and 29,804 on Sunday against Boston.

True, a decent percentage were those semi-obnoxious New England expatriates who fled the weather and congestion back east and show up in California as if they’re the only people who know the difference between Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio (both California natives, of course). But as Oakland management understands, a ticket sold is a ticket sold, no matter the buyer’s personal preferences.

This is what the A’s got on a Sunday when the first-pitch temperature was in the 70s and the post-game music as the kids (and not a few parents) ran the bases was from the Beatles:

  • A beautiful job of pitching by starter Daniel Mengden (he of waxed mustache and fine curve) and, after he came out after 6 1/3 innings, by relievers Yusmeiro Petit, Ryan Buchter and Blake Treinen (the winner).
  • Great leadoff batting by shortstop Marcus Semien, who began the first with a single and scored, then with one out in the eighth singled and scored. “He hits anywhere in the lineup,” said Melvin. “Leadoff against lefties, and he has power.”
  • A big blast by Khris Davis, whose home run over the left field fence scored Semien and Stephen Piscotty, who had followed Semien’s single with one of his own. ”Khris hammered the ball,” said Melvin, sounding like a TV producer. “He’s a three-run homer waiting to happen.”

Have to use that line. Hello sweetheart. Get me rewrite.

What Davis got was his sixth home run of the season. “That was one of his biggest,” said Semien of Davis. “I’ve seen him hit walkoffs, grand slams. He has real power.”

What the A’s now have is a feeling of confidence. The Red Sox arrived with a 17-2 record. Accolades were being flung like tea into Boston Harbor back in colonial days. Then poor little stepped-on Oakland takes two out of three, including Sunday's defeat of lefthander David Price, who entered the game with a 1-0 record and a 2.25 earned run average.

Mengden started the day at 2-2 with a 4.50 ERA. It’s now 3.86. ”He’s able to go deep in the game,” said Melvin of Mengden. “He’s learned over the last year not to drown the strike zone.”

Pitching, pitching, pitching.

“It started with us holding them down,” said Melvin. “We know we can score. When we get pitching, our chances are good.”

They got pitching. They got hitting. No less important, they got attention. What a week.