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A’s Are Finally Practicing What I Preach

MLB: Oakland Athletics at Tampa Bay Rays
Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

No, not the 2 error, walk and wild pitch-a-thon, 6 run monstrosity of an inning. I am on record as having adamantly opposed the concept. I am speaking of a practice that falls under the “art of winning an unfair game” principle and which takes place on the bases.

I always thought it was odd that a team forced to find every advantage, due to low payroll, made so few opportunities for itself on the bases. especially when you have a team — and the A’s usually have one — that knows how to get on base but it’s not very efficient help filling up the hit column. Teams that walk a lot, and hit for a low average, need all the more to find ways around the bases.

Yet it seems every year Oakland teams are very conservative, afraid of doing more harm than good. and in fairness, it’s easy to do more harm than good because research confirms you have to steal bases at over a 70% rate for the practice to be worthwhile. and it doesn’t take too many times watching Ramon Laureano get picked off 2nd with a 3-2 count to Jed Lowrie to make you want to build a stop sign with bright colors and wave it wildly.

But I am a huge proponent of the “take what they give you” philosophy and the 2021 A’s are the first team in a while that seems to be fully embracing this mantra. How do you overcome low payroll and win an unfair game? You remember that a slow runner, like Matt Olson or Stephen Piscotty, when ignored by the pitcher, can get a large walking lead and steal second base pretty easily.

Yes there have been a few reckless moments, but what I have seen in this year’s team is opportunism. It takes the form of going first-to-third on base hits to left field against poor throwing outfielders. It looks like Mark Canha, not seen as a threat, stealing five bases in April without getting caught before the league figures it out. It leads to picking spots well enough to go 20 for 25 as a team, an 80% success rate that absolutely does more good than harm.

Good thing too, because the A’s are batting all of .214 while ranking third in the American League end drawing walks. They get on base okay, but need to add opportunism and aggressiveness in order to move guys around.

Stolen bases are not the only way, of course. Good secondary leads can allow a runner to advance on a short wild pitch, and we have seen this multiple times as well. The A’s may not be able to afford five-tool players or elite high OBP speed burners, but they can create opportunities as well as take advantage of the ones that appear in front of them.

One notable example, where the A’s played it safe, was the ninth inning Friday night when Sean Murphy and Matt Chapman opened the inning with singles in a game the A’s trailed 3-2. Vimael Machin was the pinch runner at 1B when Chapman stroked a clean single through the vacated right side. It was a base hit off the bat, arriving on two hops to right fielder DJ Stewart, who was playing deep to respect Chapman’s power to all fields.

Could Machin have tested Stewart’s arm and tried to go first-to-third? We will never know, nor will we know whether the A’s would have scored had they gotten Machin to 3B with nobody out. (Seth Brown did hit a deep fly ball two batters later, on which Machin tagged and went to 3B.) We only know that the tying run perished at third base, a reminder of how hard it is to navigate all 360 feet from home plate to home plate, and how creative, resourceful, and aggressive — yet not foolhardy — a team like the A’s needs to be.

The 2021 A’s have, to my eyes, in one of the best recent A’s teams both in taking and creating opportunity. Especially with the alleged deadened ball, and certainly so long as the team collectively struggles just to hit above the Mendoza Line, these practices take on added urgency.

“Small ball” is never, on its own, enough. But it is an important weapon to have in your toolbox for the right moments and this year’s A’s appear to be embracing a diversity of approach based on the opportunities afforded them. It’s also fun to watch, and today I will be attending my first live game since the 2019 wild card game — also started by Sean Manaea, but in front of a slightly larger crowd. Let’s bunt against the shift, scamper to 2B on a short wild pitch, steal 2B and 3B on a napping pitcher, and get back into the win column. 1:07pm first pitch, see you there!