By Jason Wojciechowski on January 27, 2013 at 10:07 PM
As they did in 2012, the A's invited a group of bloggers to FanFest this year, letting us in with a "press" badge and giving us the opportunity to do press conference–style question-and-answer sessions with players and coaches. Last year was almost a pilot, as there were, I think, six of us in attendance. This year the number expanded to 15 and included an application process, presumably so that under-the-radar-but-still-legitimate bloggers could get in on the action. I'll be honest: I didn't know there were 15 A's bloggers out there. I follow on Twitter everyone I'm aware of who writes about the A's, but apparently I missed a few.
Anyway, FanFest was as nutty and crowded as it was last year, which is to be expected: it's held in Oracle Arena, the hallways of which are made to get people from one area (the door, the bathroom) to another (the main bowl, the nacho stand). It isn't made to contain hundreds/thousands of fans waiting in line to have their photo taken with World Series trophies.
I got there pretty late because I was attempting to have breakfast with my friends -- we did finally end up successful, but it took finding out that Jodie's in Albany was closed for vacation and that the wait for Bette's Oceanview Diner in Berkeley was an hour before we ended up at Tacubaya (across the street from Bette's) -- and because I'm, to the eternal frustration of Adam Loberstein, A's Media Relations Coordinator, utterly unable to follow directions as far as how to actually get in to an event (no, Jason, do not go to the regular entrance -- go, as it says in the instructions, to the Re-Entry/Exit gate). By the time I made my way to where Billy Beane and Bob Melvin and Chris Young and Josh Reddick were answering audience questions moderated by Casey Pratt, I couldn't find a seat and I could only listen for about 15 minutes before I had to go back outside to meet the blogger group anyway. (I learned about what I expected to learn from the full-group Q&A, which was: Josh Reddick's beard is majestic, Chris Young seems nice, and Billy Beane's voice is deeper than you might think.)
Once the 14 other bloggers (who included Nico, Alex Hall, and Cuppingmaster/Alan from Athletics Nation, dude from newballpark whose name I've still never managed to catch, Tamara and Sean Davis (from Oaktown Breakdown and Swingin' A's, respectively), Bill Moriarty from A's Farm, and others to whom I failed to introduce myself because I'm a pajamas blogger, dammit, not a meet 'n' greet guy) and I gathered at our designated Gathering Point, we moved to the bowels of the stadium (mmm) and awaited, in turn, manager Bob Melvin, assistant general manager David Forst, and coach Mike Gallego. (Jarrod Parker was scheduled but called in sick.)
Here, then, a few notes from these three Q&A's -- I'm sure Athletics Nation and other blogs will have full transcripts up in relatively short order, but I'll just direct you there for those. These are my impressions and such.
As he did last year, Melvin impressed me with his relative forthrightness (noting, for instance, that Daric Barton is not only going to have to perform to earn a spot on the team, but somebody in front of him is going to have to fail) as well as his obvious intelligence and openness to variations on traditional ideas about baseball (pointing out that Coco Crisp's on-base percentage is not ideal in the leadoff spot and identifying John Jaso as a potential leadoff man should something happen to Crisp). He's no rebel, but the respect he garners in the clubhouse, his extreme attention to positive energy and reinforcement, and his aforementioned awareness that the way he learned the game in the 1970s may not actually be the way the game is best played seem to make him an ideal 21st century manager, at least as far as any of us can tell from our far-outside position. He'll get fired eventually because nearly all managers do (he'd have to manage, what, 20 years to get to retirement?), but I suspect he's a legitimately good man for this job.
As for specific things Melvin talked about:
He offhandedly referred to being able to coach and teach and work on things with players when they had days off and stated that a benefit of not being a 162-game player is that you can get yourself out of ruts better than you otherwise might be able to. This is not something I'd ever considered before as an advantage of having platoons and redundancies across the roster, but it's an interesting idea.
Melvin is campaigning hard for a cushion for Scott Sizemore in terms of not being too quick to evaluate how he looks and performs early on in the spring. He stated that he should be expected to need time to regain his feel and his comfort level, especially since it's now been two years since he played second base.
Here's a surprise: David Forst is a really smart guy. There is and surely always will be a boy's club in baseball, but it's harder and harder to break in. You've really got to have chops, and you've got to have absurdly good chops to get to Forst's level (assistant general manager, and a guy who has drawn interest as a general manager from other teams). Also, it was only 15 minutes, but he's clearly articulate and comfortable in front of an audience on top of being intelligent -- these qualities don't always come in the same person, but they're vitally important for the public face of a front office.
Forst and Melvin said (independently -- they weren't at the table at the same time) that defense is the hardest thing to evaluate when scouting international players. They also both argued that players who have been known as leaders have adapted better in the United States. Melvin sort of just tossed it into his remarks on Hiroyuki Nakajima, but Forst elaborated, pointing out how a player is not only adjusted to new baseball, he's also adjusting to language, food, culture, being thousands of miles from his family, and so forth. It doesn't necessarily take leadership to stay focused on baseball through all that, but leadership and the ability to withstand the adversity of the situation appear, to the A's, at least, to be correlated enough that it was apparently a fairly important factor in their decision to sign the shortstop.
Forst was asked about rating defense, and he did mention that the A's make use of FIELDf/x. He also said that they'll tend to rely more heavily on their scouts when the stats don't agree than when they do. (This strikes me as potentially a mistake, assuming that the team is looking at the various publicly available defensive stats (which I think is not an unfair assumption given that Forst specifically mentioned UZR), because it's not clear to me that UZR and DRS, for instance, average out in any meaningful way. It seems highly possible that a given fielder could "fool" both systems in exactly the same ways. Then again, I suspect that if the publicly available metrics all say someone is a +7 but the scouts come back saying "he doesn't move well, those coaches are doing a magnificent job of positioning him," this front office would have no trouble at all reconciling those things in favor of the scouts. The issue, after all, is always projection -- teams could care less what a player has done in the past except insofar as it informs them about what he will do in the future. (As opposed to, for instance, writers voting on MVP awards, who care about what happened in the past for its own sake.) Projection can be done with stats, but stats have a limited ability to explain, especially hitting and fielding. Scouts can fill the gaps of whether a possible trend in increasing hitter strikeouts is a result of cheating on fastballs, for instance.)
Forst admitted that the team doesn't have as much pitching in the system as they like right now. The MLB staff looks good, but this could be an area of focus in the draft if the opportunity presents itself.
Apparently the scout who signed John Jaso after he was drafted by the Rays is now a pro scout for the A's. Also, Billy Beane knew that Mike Rizzo really liked A.J. Cole and wanted to get him back, so he saw an opportunity to use that chip to acquire a player who had been on his target list for a while.
There won't be strict innings limits on the young starters like Jarrod Parker (who threw 200+ counting the minors and the playoffs), but they will be monitoring them and their pitch counts, both game-to-game and in three-game cycles. Curt Young and the training staff stay very focused on these issues.
The A's didn't talk to Shaun Marcum.
Melvin, as I mentioned, was at last year's blogger event, and is in any case the manager and is thus interviewed on television with some frequency. I saw Forst answer questions in the big Q&A last year and have also read interviews with him at blogs and such. Gallego, by contrast, was a mystery to me, in the sense that I had no idea how he'd speak, what he'd say, what his voice was like, or just how short he'd be in real life.
So let me just state for the record that Gallego is legitimately short. Like "how on earth did he have a double-digit major league career" short. Guys like him and David Eckstein and Luis Polonia and even Chone Figgins just impress the hell out of me. Obviously they have physical tools -- nobody who signs a professional contract at any level doesn't -- but the gap between, say, Barry Bonds and Mike Gallego feels as large as the gap between Seth Smith (to pick a nice, solid, average player) and me. That Bonds and Gallego shared a sport (strike that, a field) boggles my mind.
Gallego was also funny and engaging. He very much wants to manage (he told us that he called Bill Geivett of the Rockies about their opening) and, while I don't know anything at all about his motivational skills, his organization, his tactics, and so forth, I think he'd do just fine under the lights and mics.
Unlike Forst and Melvin, Gallego didn't talk around Nakajima's defense -- he doesn't think very much of it. The arm is "average at best" and the range is "not the most expansive" around. All three men think he'll hit, though.
Gallego did say he has some ideas for how to help Nakajima maximize his physical tools on defense. This is something Gallego would know a lot about.
Finally, not to fuel the fire here, but Gallego thinks that Yoenis Cespedes is absolutely capable of playing shortstop. He didn't say "right now" and there'd be a learning curve, I'm sure, but physically, he gave an enthusiastic recommendation. Gallego noted that he was the one hitting him ground balls at the position, the event that triggered the phenomenon (such as it is) of speculation that Cespedes could well play there. (Or maybe it's more begging that he be given a shot.)