Athletics

Khris Davis working hard to improve his throwing in left

Khris Davis working hard to improve his throwing in left

MESA, Ariz. — Everybody knows the impact Khris Davis makes in the middle of the A’s lineup, but this spring the left fielder is working to improve another aspect of his game.

Davis and A’s outfield coach Mike Aldrete are working regularly on improving the strength and accuracy of Davis’ throwing arm. Opposing base runners have gotten bold in taking the extra base on Davis, and while he acknowledges he’s never going to develop a cannon, he and Aldrete both believe there’s room for improvement that can make a difference throughout the season.

“We’re not looking for him to throw like Roberto Clemente,” Aldrete said. “What we’re really working on is trying to stop guys from taking extra bases.”

Davis takes the task seriously, and he’s frank in his comments about wanting to become a better outfield thrower.

“Nobody’s harder on themselves than me, and when I hear I throw like a girl, that (stuff) doesn’t feel good,” he said. “But at the same time, where I lack somewhere, I gain somewhere else. Just because I have a weak arm doesn’t mean I’m a bad left fielder. I can still cut balls off and get it in.

“It’s just a matter of minimizing bad throws.”

He’s got a good mentor in Aldrete, who played 10 years in the majors and admits that he had a weak arm in left field when he initially moved from first base with the Giants. But he made gradual improvement over time, and though Aldrete never struck fear in opponents with his arm, he says that part of his game became adequate.

“To me it’s a lot like speed,” Aldrete said. “No one’s ever going to make me a 100-meter Olympic champion. But whatever I’ve got today, if I can work on it and be faster than I am today, that’s a good thing.”

Helping Davis become a more well-rounded defender would benefit the A’s. He’s their best power hitter, one of just seven players in franchise history to notch a 40-homer season, so he needs to be a daily fixture in the middle of the order. One option would be to use Davis more at designated hitter. But the A’s want to cycle other players through the DH spot too, including Ryon Healy, who doesn’t have a regular defensive position right now but whose bat needs to be in the lineup somewhere.

If Davis improves his throwing, it might make opponents alter their scouting reports a bit, where a ball hit toward the left field line doesn’t automatically have a hitter thinking “double” out of the box.

Davis and Aldrete are putting in extra work two or three mornings a week, with Davis logging time in the batting cage on other days. As he points out, there’s a balance to strike between working on throwing and making sure he keeps his swing grooved.

“Honestly, I have to work on (throwing) a lot more than my hitting,” Davis said. “But at the same time, it’s a fine line because I don’t want to take away from my hitting, because there’s times I’ve got to work on my swing too.”

Aggressive by nature, Matt Chapman learns patience to become A's star

Aggressive by nature, Matt Chapman learns patience to become A's star

Sean Manaea walked into the Oakland Athletics locker room carrying a FedEx box Monday evening. The A’s starting pitcher was all smiles as he removed a nerf basketball hoop from the package and hung it above his locker. 

Khris Davis and Matt Olson instantly jumped in on the action, shooting low line drives from around the room to avoid the duct work overhead. 

It was a dream atmosphere. The young A’s were loose coming into their all-important three-game stretch with the Seattle Mariners. The fact that Seattle was nipping at their heels in the standings was palpable once the team hit the diamond, but in their own space, the feel was relaxed and fun. 

The current version of the A's is working. It’s a well-oiled machine that continues to win at a startling pace. They took two out of three from the Mariners to improve to 72-49 on the season. Following a day off on Thursday, they’ll host the first-place Houston Astros Friday evening at the Coliseum with an opportunity to reel in the reigning champs. 

There is plenty to like about the club. Davis hits monster home runs. Jed Lowrie is the seasoned vet having a career year. The patchwork starting rotation continues to compete and Oakland’s bullpen is likely the best in baseball. 

It’s a versatile roster that allows manager Bob Melvin to mix and match his lineups every game. They hit, pitch and play defense. 

The A’s also have a star. 

Matt Chapman is earning his way into the upper echelon of MLB players, and he’s doing it with his glove first. His diving stop in the series opener saved a run. In game two, he sprawled out on the rolled up tarp to snare a ball, a la Josh Donaldson.

“I just want the ball hit to me and I want to make every play that is near me and I just try to go for every ball and just kind of leave it out there,” Chapman told reporters following Monday’s win. 

You can see it in his eyes. This isn’t lip service. The 25-year-old third baseman plays with the intensity that you would expect from a more seasoned player. He literally wants every ball hit his way. 

There are times when he goes too far. He’s stepped in front of shortstop Marcus Semien multiple times this season, gunning down runners on the move as he approaches the second base bag. 

Chapman is not selfish. He wants to win. He wants to make a play and get onto the next hitter. 

“He takes pride in it,” third base coach Matt Williams told NBC Sports California. “He’s certainly dynamic and athletic, but I think the biggest thing for me is his work ethic. He genuinely loves to make a great play. All of those things combined make him an elite guy at the position.”

Williams knows a few things about manning the hot corner. He spent 17 seasons in the league, winning four gold gloves at third base. The five-time All-Star sees a bright future for Chapman, but continues to preach one thing to his young prodigy. 

“I think he’ll get better. I think there’s a lot for him to learn. Certainly, I think he can learn some patience,” Williams said. “He’s so aggressive by nature that sometimes it gets him in a bad position. He’s able to make up for it with his hand-eye coordination.”

When asked about Williams’ critique, Chapman agreed. His passion for playing sometimes gets him in a tough spot. 

“I have a good base right now, I feel like I’m confident, but there’s always room to work,” Chapman said. “(Williams is) right, the last error I made against the Angels, was me rushing to the baseball. I feel like sometimes I want the ball so much I get like, a little antsy and I try to go get everything when I have time.”

That was evident in the A’s loss to Seattle on Wednesday. Chapman scooped a ball and then airmailed all 6-foot-5 of Olson at first base. The error was his 14th of the season.

The A’s coaching staff will live with the occasional gaff from Chapman. His defensive WAR (wins against replacement) ranks first in the entire league at 2.9. He’s top 10 in overall WAR, in large part due to his work with the glove.

At the dish, Chapman has steadily improved over the season. He’s made a habit out of hustling out of the box and he’s not your conventional 3-bagger on the base paths. 

His slash line on the season is .279/.367/.509 with 50 extra base hits, including a career-high 16 home runs, 28 doubles and six triples. He plays the game hard every game and he’s quickly becoming a catalyst for a team pushing for their first playoff appearance since 2014. 

Chapman is starting to put it all together. His development happens to coincide with the A’s becoming one of the best stories in baseball.

The comeback of Billy Beane: A's architect reminds us he still knows how to play

The comeback of Billy Beane: A's architect reminds us he still knows how to play

OAKLAND -- The A’s were snoozing through a mediocre season, wins with losses in equal amounts, when they snapped awake in mid-June, putting boots to backsides, barging into the playoff picture, forcing Major League Baseball to take note and wonder.

Is Billy Beane still in Oakland?

This was, given the quiet despair of recent A’s seasons, not an unfair question. The answer, yes, has been ringing through the halls of baseball in recent weeks but is incomplete without elaboration.

Back in October 2015, shortly after the A’s finished at the bottom of the AL West, Beane was promoted from general manager, a job he held for 18 seasons, to executive vice president of baseball operations. His longtime assistant, David Forst, was elevated to GM. The A’s then repeated their last-place finish in 2016 and made it three straight in 2017.

The A’s never made three straight trips to the cellar while Beane was GM. No matter the payroll restrictions imposed by ownership, he wouldn’t stand for it. He so detested losing that he committed to finding creative new ways to win, spawning enough success to generate a book and a movie.

But now Beane was rolling into middle age. He and his wife had toddlers at home. He’d received a small share of A’s ownership, was making speeches here and there and feeding his passion for soccer. The perception among some was that the game’s hungriest wolf might be distancing himself from the action.

Well, no. Billy was laying low, plotting and planning, positioning himself to pursue a prey within reach. The prey materialized last month in the form of a potential postseason berth, and he has been sprinting after it ever since.

“I don’t think it’s fair to say that he wasn’t engaged before,” Forst says of Beane. “I don’t subscribe to that narrative. He’s been just as engaged as since the day I got here. There’s this myth out there about him not watching games, or doing soccer or whatever. A lot of that is nonsense.”

A “lot” of it was nonsense, but not all of it. After spending his early GM years continuously sprinting at burnout pace, Billy had dialed it back and become more judicious about those moments of blowtorch intensity.

Then came morning of June 16, when the A’s leapt out of bed and responded to a four-game losing streak that dropped them to 34-36 by winning 12 of 14 over the rest of the month. As they prepare this weekend for the defending champion Astros, who led the division by two games over Oakland, the A’s have won 38 of 51.

The activity on the field has been impressive, as has the action upstairs, where the big chair still belongs to Beane. There may be nothing in any front office in American sport more fascinating, at least from the outside, than Billy finding inspiration in midseason. He is in his element, prowling, scouring the landscape for talent, and capturing it.

Beane went straight after pitchers, mostly relievers, specifically closers. On July 21, he snagged Mets closer Juerys Familia. Two weeks later he grabbed Nationals reliever Shawn Kelley, and then trapped Tigers starter Mike Fiers the next day. Three days later, Beane hauled in Twins closer Fernando Rodney.

“The opportunity is precious,” Forst says. “We just went through three years where we didn’t have that opportunity. And you know Billy’s personality. As soon as he sees it, he’s going to jump on it.”

Several contenders needed bullpen help, but Billy’s raid, over 19 days, emptied most of the field and did so without immediately giving up even one major leaguer.

Beane refashioned a decent bullpen into the deepest in baseball. Adding Familia, Rodney and Kelly to a ’pen anchored by filthy Lou Trivino and filthier closer Blake Treinen effectively allows manager Bob Melvin the comfort of bringing his hook to the mound anytime a starter shows the slightest sign of faltering.

“The bullpen has been so good, and now it’s even deeper, the starters know they can just go out and pitch,” Melvin says. “They’ve got a lot of arms behind them.”

The Kansas City Royals rode bullpen depth to back-to-back World Series appearances in 2014 and 2015. The New York Yankees once had John Wetteland and Mariano Rivera as a devastating 1-2 combo.

No team relied on its ‘pen more than the 1990 Reds, whose World Series sweep of the A’s featured “The Nasty Boys” -- Norm Charlton, Rob Dibble and Randy Myers -- in starring roles. The seventh, eighth and ninth belonged to them.

“We didn’t invent this formula,” Forst says. “ We’re using a blueprint that has worked. It doesn’t work for every team, but we’ve got starters who can give us five or six innings. We know the script.”

The A’s under Beane have yet to reach a World Series, much less win one. But questions about his gusto fading are answered. He still knows how and when -- and what -- to chase. The 2018 A’s are ahead of schedule, yet it didn’t prevent him from taking a few days to modify it in the fly.