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Athletics 2014 season review: The Legend of Sam Fuld continues

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Here I come to save the daaaay!
Here I come to save the daaaay!
Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Sam Fuld started the season wearing jersey No. 29 for the Oakland Athletics. He moved to the Minnesota Twins in late April and took on No. 1. When he returned to the A's in July, though, both No. 29 (Jeff Samardzija) and No. 1 (Nick Punto) were taken, so he switched once again to his third jersey number of the year, No. 23. That makes him the next on our season review list.

Player profile

Name: Sam Fuld, aka Super Sam
Position: LF, CF, RF
Stats: .209/.275/.332, 60 games, 3 HR, 4 3B, 9 SB (1 CS)
WAR: 1.0 bWAR, 1.3 fWAR
How he got here: Signed as free agent prior to 2014*
2014 Salary: $800,000 (full season)
2015 Status: 2nd-year arbitration, under team control
2015 Salary: Estimated $1.5 million

* lost on waivers to Minnesota Twins on April 20, re-acquired from Twins on July 31

Season summary

The A's signed Sam Fuld in February, and at the time I figured that he was a contingency plan in case any of Oakland's fragile outfielders needed to open the season on the DL, or in case one got hurt in the early-going. That very thing turned out to happen, as Craig Gentry missed the first 10 games of the year while recovering from a strained back that had cost him all of spring training. Even better, Fuld was a perfect replacement for Gentry as a similarly light-hitting speed-and-defense outfielder.

Fuld didn't waste any time making an impact. He batted .200/.273/.433 in 33 plate appearances over seven games, making up for the low average with a few walks, a pair of triples, a homer, a stolen base, and some impressive outfield defense. However, on April 12, Gentry returned from the DL and Fuld no longer had a place on the roster. There was room for Daric Barton and Alberto Callaspo, but not ol' Sammy. He was designated for assignment and claimed off of waivers by the Twins.

In Minnesota, Fuld played some of the best ball of his career. He batted .274/.370/.354 in 53 games, thanks to a generous BABIP and a big bump in his walk rate. He usually makes up for sub-par hitting with strong defense, but when he's getting on base consistently he can be quite valuable indeed. He swiped a dozen bags for the Twins and Fangraphs credited him with 1.5 fWAR in what amounted to about one-third of a full season. He wasn't just a fringey 25th man anymore; he was playing like an above-average fourth outfielder. He was playing like Gentry.

The trade deadline came on July 31. Coco Crisp was banged up with his season-long neck injury, and Gentry had gone on the DL again three days prior, this time with a broken hand. Furthermore, Yoenis Cespedes was sent to Boston to shore up the top of the starting rotation. Suddenly, the outfield depth was depleted and center field was a wasteland of injury. A fresh set of legs was needed, and Billy Beane knew just where to find one.

The price was steep. The A's had to give up four years of left-handed starting pitcher Tommy Milone just to re-acquire a guy whom they had waived only three months prior. But they got the help they needed, and the initial returns were good -- Fuld did the things Oakland needed him to do, and Milone was a disaster in a handful of games for the Twins.

Fuld's second go-around with the A's was more like his first stint in Oakland than his renaissance in Minnesota. He batted .210/.275/.312, with a handful of extra-base hits and steals and plenty of diving catches. He played in 53 of the team's final 55 games and started 39 of them, filling in wherever he was needed in the outfield that day or entering as a pinch-hitter. As is normal for him, his contributions weren't always visible -- a catch in left that other fielders wouldn't have made, or a walk to spark rally, or a well-placed bunt to grease the wheels of a scoring opportunity. The (small-sample) defensive metrics loved his work in left and center, though not his time in right, and he graded out better in Oakland than in Minnesota. Don't dwell too much on the exact splits, though; the important bottom line is that he came out as comfortably above-average overall in just over a half-season worth of innings, by both UZR and DRS, which matches what he's done the rest of his career.

In the Wild Card game, Fuld drew the start in left field. Bob Melvin could have used Adam Dunn as the DH and put Brandon Moss in left, but he opted to go with a stronger defensive lineup. The move worked out, for the most part; Fuld made at least one run-saving play early in the game, and he ended up reaching base three times in six plate appearances anyway (2-for-5 with a walk); his single to lead off the sixth inning started a five-run rally that should have put the game away for Oakland. And to further justify Melvin's decision, as soon as Fuld had to vacate left field to cover for the departed Coco in center, the inferior defense of Jonny Gomes in left kinda-sorta cost the A's the game when Eric Hosmer's drive was allowed to bounce-around in no-man's land for a triple. It's a bummer that Dunn didn't get to play in his only career postseason game, but there's no question that starting Fuld was the right call -- his defense helped, and he ended up contributing at the plate as well.

Fuld showed us what all the fuss was about this year. He showed us why he's always so adored by fans despite his lackluster numbers. He gives his absolute heart and soul on every single play, he maximizes his physical talent as well as anybody, he can be counted on to make the smart play at the right time, and he's just plain fun to watch. In February, I titled my article, "Athletics sign Sam Fuld for some reason." It turns out that the reason was because he's simply a good ballplayer.

2014 season grade, relative to expectations: C+ ... He was supposed to be a stopgap in center, and that's exactly what he was. He didn't hit much in Oakland (72 OPS+), but he did enough things right to be worth a full win in under half a season of playing time. He could have earned a B by getting that OPS+ into the 80-90 range, and he could have earned an A if he'd kept hitting like he did on the Twins -- heck, he might have been an upgrade over Coco and Gentry at that point.

2014 season grade, overall: B ... This grade counts his time in Minnesota. He was a one-win player for Oakland, but overall for the season he was more like a two-win fourth outfielder; Fangraphs gave him 2.8 bWAR for the season, which would have ranked second on the A's behind only Josh Donaldson (Norris was the next position player, at 2.5). Granted, a lot of that value comes from defensive metrics and you might not fully buy into that segment of WAR, but the eyeball test is enough to confirm that Fuld makes a big difference in the field. When he adds a decent bat to that glove, he becomes an above-average player.

Video highlights

If there's one thing Fuld is good at, it's making highlight-reel plays. Let's start with his defense. Here's one from the first week of the season.

In this one, he comes out of left field instead of right.

May as well complete the set with one from center field.

I'm not sure if Alexei Ramirez's drive would have left the building or not, but the point is moot because Fuld ran it down.

He threw this ball so hard that his body was temporarily airborne.

When he can find an outfield gap, Fuld is always a threat to leg out a triple.

And every now and then, he can muscle up enough to get it out of the park. This homer gave the A's the lead in the ninth and proved to be the game-winner.

But of course, power isn't a consistent part of Fuld's game. He often has to find other ways to make things happen, and on more than one occasion he used a squeeze bunt to successfully drive in a runner from third. The one in this video isn't the best bunt in the world since it hangs in the air a bit too long, but it finds enough open space to do the job and the defenders have no chance of a play at the plate.

Fuld made the playoffs with the Rays in 2011 and '13, and he got four total plate appearances in those two trips. However, it wasn't until this year that he notched his first postseason hit, as the starting left fielder during the Wild Card game. The hit in this video was actually his second of the game, and it set the table for what turned out to be a five-run inning for the A's. He ended up going 2-for-5 with a walk.

***

It's not a lock that Fuld will make the roster in 2015, but that's nothing new for him. He's always fighting and scrapping to keep himself in the big leagues, and he bought himself some playing time somewhere with his strong performance this year. Hopefully he will find his way onto the A's again, because baseball is just more fun to watch when Sam Fuld is involved.

Sam Fuld specs