By Jason Wojciechowski on January 30, 2012 at 10:45 PM
As I've mentioned here and on Twitter, I was lucky enough to be invited to participate in a blogger event at FanFest in Oakland on Sunday -- for an hour at the end of the event (from 1pm to 2pm), six of us were to have press-conference style meetings with three panels: Bob Melvin, Brandon McCarthy and Cliff Pennington, and Seth Smith and Josh Reddick. I didn't record the panels, because I've transcribed interviews before and I hate it. You'll find the transcripts at Athletics Nation, where the Brandon McCarthy one has already gone up.
Here, instead, are my thoughts and general observations, with some quotes sprinkled in.
(A's PR man Bob Rose spent about 15 minutes with us before the event really kicked off.)
Rose is really good. He gave us a postmodern spiel, circling back around multiple times on how he knows that we know that he's a P.R. guy, that his job is to spin things positively, but then he proceeded to spin things positively and I, for one, came away, if not convinced, then at least upbeat.
Rose was also really good at flattering us, talking about how happy they were to have us, how we're the future, etc. etc. I'll take it, though.
I liked Melvin's shirt. It was a nice windowpane check.
As Melvin's done in his interviews with the more established media, he emphasized that defense will be a priority in spring training, and gave a hint about how that will be done -- they'll spread out over their complex and do a lot of drills, it seems like. It should be noted (though I didn't mention this in the conference) that the A's turned batted balls into outs at a league-average rate last year despite the rash of ugly errors that stick in our minds as much as I'm sure they do in Melvin's. One can argue, perhaps, that with Cliff Pennington, Mark Ellis/Jemile Weeks, Coco Crisp, and David DeJesus, the team should have been better than average.
Some of this was prompted by the type of questions he was asked, but Melvin definitely seems to fit the "baseball man" type, talking about how Conor Jackson and Hideki Matsui are "intangible guys" (ghosts!) and how much he loves Collin Cowgill. (Amusingly, he told us that Cowgill is the type of player who can spend the whole game on the bench but still somehow get his uniform dirty. This is a fun line, but what makes it more fun is that Bob Rose specifically told us to ask Melvin about Cowgill because Melvin would use that line. It was word-for-word. Tremendous.)
On the other hand! Melvin did refer to the 7th and 8th innings as "more leveraged" situations. It was the phrase that struck me more than anything else. It seems fairly well-established that the 9th inning job is a clean-inning role, while the earlier, setup roles involve getting out of messes, low margins of error, etc. What seems to me less used outside the stat-nerd community is the word "leverage."
I followed up with Melvin on that point, asking him what he thought about the closer mystique, given his understanding of earlier-inning leverage, but he deflected, saying that he saw "both sides" of the issue.
What's clear to me is that Melvin protects his players, even when they're not his players anymore. Conor Jackson was just starting to recover from his injuries and illness in the second half of 2011. Brandon Allen is a "terrific talent" who just needs to be given the opportunity to work through a slump rather than be benched at the first sign of struggles. Hideki Matsui is an intangible guy, as mentioned above.
I don't really have a basis for comparison. Every manager protects his players to some degree, and the question is the degree. Suffice it to say that Melvin is no Phil Jackson in terms of motivating players by criticizing them in the press.
McCarthy was on time to his shared session with Cliff Pennington. Pennington ... less so.
McCarthy's presentation is fascinating -- he's candid and willing to engage with questions on a level that isn't mere cliche, he's funny, and he's clearly intelligent. But if you didn't speak English, you'd think he was saying nothing and showing no emotion, like any other player. He was nearly affectless with us, which was such a sharp contrast with the actual content of his words as to be startling.
He's really tall. I know that intellectually, but to be sitting down when he came into the room and walked to the front was something else, especially given how normal-sized a lot of baseball players tend to be.
McCarthy's uncertainty on the question of how much pitchers control the quality of their contact was great to see. You all know how big a fan I am of uncertainty and a willingness to express it.
McCarthy telling us that "it's really awkward" when players in a clubhouse think they're leaders but nobody else does was the best moment of the fifteen minutes, to my mind. It was a real look inside, I think, without throwing anyone under the bus in particular, a way to express that not everything in clubhouses in beer and roses and not every player is a well-respected warrior while not Boutoning himself.
He grew a beard. He was actually asked about it in the general, public Q&A. In our session, McCarthy joked that he had to grow the beard in order to assert his role as the veteran player on the infield. (This was in response to my inelegantly phrased question about what his approach might be to being not only the proverbial quarterback of the infield, but the longest-tenured player there, too.)
One of the senses I got from a variety of sources, but I'll put it here because I have a quote from Pennington on it: being a leader in baseball largely comes down to the question of "do you do everything you're supposed to do." I'm pretty sure I heard Bob Melvin, Chip Hale, and multiple players express variations on this theme. There is obviously a culture, at least on this team, though I'd guess it's true league-wide, of leadership being about process and effort. Somebody, I don't remember who, specifically mentioned the word "production" as something that leadership is not about.
(Though of course if you don't produce at some level, you can't become a leader because you won't stick in the big leagues long enough to have any credibility or even to just know the players on the team long enough to lead them well. That's not to undermine the point, though -- nobody mistakes Cliff Pennington for an All-Star, but he's good enough to play, so when you add that to his apparent personality and approach, he becomes a player who leads the clubhouse.)
I've noticed this on TV a little bit before, but Pennington's voice betrays, to my faulty ears at least, no hint of his Texas past.
I mentioned this on Twitter, but McCarthy has introduced Pennington to some of the statistical work on the internet. I didn't get a chance to ask which websites in particular (as Pennington mentioned McCarthy showing him some sites), but I got the sense that he might've been giving me a diplomatic answer. They did specifically mention Mike Fast's remarkable work on catcher framing at Baseball Prospectus, though (after I confirmed for McCarthy that it was Fast's work he was thinking of -- go me).
I know there are some worries about who the lumberjack on the team is going to be with Conor Jackson gone (hopefully), but let's not worry. Smith's beard and general demeanor are perfectly lumberjack for me. I don't think we need to worry about bringing Jackson back.
As you might expect of someone doing their due diligence, Smith talked to Jason Giambi and Mark Ellis, Colorado teammates, about what it was like to hit in Oakland. He's either legitimately not worried about the Coliseum or presenting very well -- he considers himself a line-drive hitter who isn't affected too much by any park. (Although the first five or six times he fouls out on a ball that would hit the crowd in any other park, he may change his tune.)
Reddick and Smith are both from the south, Reddick from Georgia and Smith from Mississippi, but Reddick has the much more noticeable accent. He doesn't sound like a cartoon character, but he's very clearly from the south. Smith's accent was more faint to me, to the point of not being immediately identifiable as southern.
Reddick described getting "to experience the Dallas Braden effect" in early workouts in Arizona already. We have that in common, I guess, because Braden flashed his man nipples at us in the tunnel after the interviews, while we were sort of milling about trying to figure out which way was the exit. (In fairness to Braden, it wasn't unprompted. One of our number shouted "209" at him. Lifting his shirt and yelling back was the only logical response.)
Chili Davis's style, per Reddick, is apparently pretty hands-on, but, as you'd hope is true with any coach, focused on finding the particular strengths of each player and helping him amplify and play to those strengths.
On a scale of one to ten, with one being least cliches, I'd rate the interviews like this: McCarthy 2, Cliff Pennington 5, Bob Melvin 6, Seth Smith 8, Josh Reddick 8.
Please don't take that as criticism of the players themselves, or of Melvin. It's not their job to be candid and tell us all their anxieties, to tell us candidly which players are crummy, and on and on. Players have to deal with each other every single day for hours at a time, and managers have to get those players ready to perform at their best. Cliche is not just a normal mechanism, it's a wholly valid one.
Cuss count: by my recollection, it's McCarthy 3, Melvin 1, and everyone else 0.