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July 24, 2012

Western Front

Walk-off Wins are the New Market Inefficiency

by Geoff Young

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Before the season, a popular narrative in some circles held that Billy Beane had lost his touch. His A's hadn't finished with a winning record since 2006, and Moneyball had run its course. Once Brad Pitt plays you in a movie, there's nowhere to go but down.

Beane traded away young pitchers Trevor Cahill, Gio Gonzalez, and Andrew Bailey. He signed aging veterans like Bartolo Colon, Johnny Gomes, and Manny Ramirez (since released). He picked up guys off other teams' junk piles: Brandon Moss, Brandon Hicks, and Brandon Inge. If your name was Brandon and nobody else wanted you, Beane would give you a shot.

He did Billy Beane things, looking for value where others didn't see it. And his moves were met with skepticism or worse. Perhaps the biggest splash came in February, when the A's inked Cuban outfielder Yoenis Cespedes to a four-year, $36 million dollar contract. The marketing of his workout video led some to believe that he was a novelty act, a bust-in-the-making that savvy investors would avoid.

As we've noted previously, Beane surprised the baseball world by not avoiding Cespedes. This was the nail in Moneyball's proverbial coffin. Whatever magic Beane once wielded in Oakland had dissipated, replaced by a willingness to throw millions at a 26-year-old viral video star built like a fire hydrant.

Investing in Cespedes has proven to be a smart move so far, as has dealing Bailey to the Red Sox for outfielder Josh Reddick. Despite getting little production at catcher, second base, third base, or shortstop this year, the A's find themselves in the thick of a pennant race in late July. They are in third place in the American League West as of this writing, 5 ½ games back of front-running Texas.

Oakland remains a long shot to win the division, but given that the Rangers are coming off back-to-back World Series appearances and the Angels signed Albert Pujols this past winter, a long shot is better than no shot. If nothing else, the A's are making powerful people nervous by clinging to wild card hopes nearly 100 games into the season despite spending comparatively little money.

And they are doing so in dramatic fashion. After another walk-off win on July 22 against the Yankees, the A's had won an MLB-best 11 games in their final at-bat. Cespedes has gotten into the act, as have the Brandons. In fact, 10 different players have driven in the winning run; none are household names.

April 11: Johnny Gomes vs. Jonathan Broxton
The A's led, 3-2, until the seventh, when Brian Fuentes surrendered a solo homer to Alex Gordon. Neither team scored again until the 12th, when the Royals rallied with two outs to take a 4-3 lead. Broxton came on to seal the victory but couldn't find home plate, missing with 14 of his 24 pitches.

After Daric Barton struck out looking at a full-count 95-mph fastball that caught (or possibly missed) the outside corner, pinch-hitter Seth Smith grounded a ball to shortstop Alcides Escobar, who booted it when the ball didn't come up the way he expected. Jemile Weeks and Eric Sogard then walked, bringing up Coco Crisp, whose grounder to second drove in the tying run.

Broxton threw two more pitches in the game. First, he plunked Cespedes, who responded with an epic staredown. Then he plunked Gomes, who had given the A's their previous lead with a two-run homer in the fourth, driving home Weeks for the winner. As walk-offs go, a hit by pitch might not pack the excitement that a home run does, but it's no less effective. Or as Gomes put it, “You can hit me four times if we win.”

There have been two walk-off hit by pitches in 2012. There were three in 2011. Gomes has been the recipient once in each of those seasons. According to Baseball-Reference, he is the only batter to win a game on a hit by pitch more than once since at least 1973, possibly much longer (full list is here; the search goes back to 1948, but according to the accompanying disclaimer, “Event data is complete back to 1973 and mostly complete back to 1950.”). Plus he's from nearby Petaluma, film location of American Graffiti and Pleasantville, among many others.

April 25: Kila Ka’aihue vs. Hector Santiago
Ka'aihue, whose last name means “difficult to spell” in Hawaiian, was the hero in this 14-inning affair with the White Sox. Oakland scored two in the sixth to break a scoreless tie. The visitors responded with one in the seventh and another in the ninth, the latter coming on Paul Konerko's 400th home run.

After the White Sox plated two in the top of the 14th to make the score 4-2, the A's got to work. With one out, Reddick fisted a single to center field against the southpaw Santiago. Cespedes followed with a homer to left-center on a 2-2 changeup down and away. Seth Smith and Kurt Suzuki each singled, bringing up Ka'aihue, who blooped an 0-1 fastball out over the plate just inside the left-field line to score Smith for another 5-4 victory.

Journeyman reliever Jim Miller, yet another of Beane's scrap heap finds, notched his first big-league win after being recalled from Sacramento earlier in the day. Sabermetric orthodoxy holds that pitcher wins don't mean much, but don't tell that to a 30-year-old right-hander who has made more than 400 minor-league appearances over the past nine seasons. As we said of Miller in BP2012:

Every once in a while there is a pitcher who enjoys a fair amount of success at the minor-league level but who doesn't get a shot in the big leagues until relatively late, if at all. Joel Peralta, Brad Ziegler, and Rafael Betancourt are current examples of guys who have succeeded despite being overlooked for too long. Miller might be another.

Sure, Ka'aihue was the hero, but it's nice to see a guy who keeps toiling away year after year finally rewarded for his efforts. Of course, Miller served up the go-ahead runs in the 14th, so he actually vultured the win. Given his path to the big leagues, we won't hold that against him.

May 8: Brandon Inge vs. Francisco Cordero
And here is our first home run. This game was tied, 2-2, headed to the ninth. The Blue Jays scored in the top half to take the lead, but the A's responded with a run of their own on a Cliff Pennington single to right field through a drawn-in infield.

After Pennington stole second, Cordero intentionally walked Reddick to set up the force play. After a passed ball removed the force, Cordero intentionally walked Gomes, bringing up Brandon Inge, who just needed to hit a fly ball deep enough to score Pennington.

Inge lined a 1-0 thigh-high slider on the inner half 366 feet to left field for a grand slam (video) and a 7-3 win. Suffice to say, it was deep enough to score Pennington.

This was Inge's sixth career grand slam (he hit another two nights later against the Tigers, who drafted him in 1998 and released him toward the end of April) and seventh career walk-off homer. The list of pitchers who have allowed grand slams to Inge is, well, about what you'd expect:

This also was Inge's first game playing for the A's in Oakland. Dude knows how to make an entrance.

June 21: Yoenis Cespedes vs. Josh Lindblom
After their longest streak of the season without a walk-off win, the A's got back to business against the Dodgers. With the score tied, 1-1, Coco Crisp led off the bottom of the ninth with a full-count walk. After a wild pitch and an infield single put runners at the corners with no out, Cespedes came to bat. He took a 91-mph fastball from Lindblom for strike one. The next pitch came in over the inner half of the plate and went out over the left-field fence (video), giving Oakland a 4-1 victory. Cespedes hooked the ball just inside the foul pole. Like Inge's blast, it didn't clear by much, traveling 364 glorious feet.

June 24: Derek Norris vs. Santiago Casilla
Three days later, it was Derek Norris' turn. Norris, acquired in the Gio Gonzalez trade and recalled from Triple-A Sacramento on the same day Cespedes hit his homer, launched a 395-foot three-run blast with two out in the ninth. The Giants scored twice in the first, with the A's answering with a single run in the bottom half. Then nothing but zeroes until Oakland was down to its final strike.

Cespedes led off the frame with a ground-ball single to left. Smith struck out swinging, Inge singled on an 0-2 curveball that caught way too much plate, and Moss struck out swinging. Norris, who was 2-for-11 with three strikeouts in his big-league career to that point, worked the count full against Casilla. After fouling a 94-mph fastball off his counterpart Buster Posey's mitt and mask to stay alive, Norris homered over the auxiliary scoreboard in left-center field, stunning the Giants.

As an aside, all of these guys are jumping onto home plate at the conclusion of their trots. Have we learned nothing from Kendrys Morales?

July 3: Coco Crisp vs. Alfredo Aceves
The fireworks went off a day early in this one. Because Independence Day, get it? Anyway, as in the June 24 contest, the A's trailed, 2-1, headed to the bottom of the ninth. After two of the first three batters reached via singles, Brandon Moss stepped to the plate against his original team and grounded an 0-2 changeup down and away back up the middle, driving home Chris Carter for the tying run. Boston center fielder Ryan Kalish tried to throw before securing the ball, which skipped past him, allowing Cliff Pennington to advance to third.

The next batter, Crisp, fell behind in the count, 0-2. Aceves then left a fastball up in the zone and Crisp lofted it to deep right-center, plating Pennington and giving the A's their sixth walk-off win of 2012.

July 6: Chris Carter vs. Steve Delabar
After a comeback win (game-winning hit in the seventh, yawn) against the Red Sox on July 4 and an off day the following day, the A's were up to their old tricks on a Friday night. The visiting Mariners clung to a 1-0 lead until the eighth, when Oakland tied it on a double by Brandon Hicks and a single by Jemile Weeks.

Fast forward to the 11th. Reddick led off with a bloop single to left against Oliver Perez. One out later, Smith beat out a check-swing roller to third, bringing up the left-handed hitting Brandon Moss. A's skipper Bob Melvin lifted Moss for the right-handed Chris Carter, prompting Eric Wedge to summon righty Steve Delabar.

Delabar threw two pitches, both 95-mph fastballs down the middle. Carter took the first for strike one. He hammered the second over the left-field fence, 416 feet away, for a three-run homer (video). Perez took the loss, his first in the big leagues since 2010. This is important because of what happened two days later.

July 8: Josh Reddick vs. Oliver Perez
Here's where Perez lost his second game of the year. The A's led, 1-0, after five. Seattle tied it in the sixth on three straight singles. The game remained deadlocked until the 13th. Weeks led off with a single to right. Reddick then smoked Perez's first pitch to deep left-center for a double that drove home Weeks to end the contest.

The lefty-lefty matchup probably seemed like a good idea to Wedge, but Reddick has disrupted that strategy a lot in 2012 (like, for example, two days earlier against Perez):

Split

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

HR

vs RHP

271

.267

.354

.513

14

vs LHP

125

.281

.339

.561

7

Actually, this isn't a new phenomenon for Reddick, a rare lefty who has hit southpaws better throughout his career:

Split

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

HR

vs RHP

619

.253

.313

.455

23

vs LHP

180

.280

.341

.524

8

Something to contemplate the next time you consider summoning the lefty against Reddick.

July 18: Brandon Hicks vs. Michael Kirkman
There is a songwriter based out of Santa Rosa (70 or so minutes north of Oakland, home at various times to Rebecca De Mornay, Guy Fieri, Julie London, and Charles Schulz) named Dan Hicks whose band is called The Hot Licks, which is cool because it rhymes with Hicks and also is a double entendre. Or maybe it's a pun. He has been around forever (his first album came out in 1969, the same year Reggie Jackson hit a career-high 47 homers for the A's) and he sings songs like “How Can I Miss You When You Won't Go Away,” which is probably how Michael Kirkman feels about Brandon Hicks.

You'd be hard-pressed to find someone on the A's roster less likely than Hicks to end a game with a home run, but that's just what he did. Prior to ruining Kirkman and the Rangers' evening, he owned a career .100/.156/.150 line, with 24 strikeouts in 64 plate appearances.

That's, like, bad.

In fairness, Hicks homered in four consecutive games at Sacramento just before being recalled at the end of June. Also in fairness, most of the pitchers he faced there are in Triple-A for a reason.

The A's trailed, 3-1, at the seventh-inning stretch. That inning, Brandon Inge led off with a double to left, and Chris Carter walked on five pitches. Hicks pinch-ran for Carter and scored two batters later on a Reddick double that tied the contest.

Hicks remained in the game at shortstop, replacing Cliff Pennington, who had been lifted for Carter. After Ryan Cook navigated into and out of a Rangers rally in the top of the ninth, Hicks led off the bottom half against Kirkman. With the count 1-1, Kirkman delivered an 85-mph changeup thigh-high on the outer half, which Hicks hit 420 feet to right-center (video; bonus points to Kirkman for pointing skyward as though someone on his side of the fence had a chance to catch it). Hicks' first big-league home run won the game for the A's, which doubtless made him feel like singing.

July 20: Brandon Moss vs. Cody Eppley
This completes our trifecta of Brandons. It required extra effort by the Oakland bullpen, which blew a 2-0 lead for Tommy Milone by surrendering leadoff homers to Russell Martin in the eighth and Robinson Cano in the ninth.

But the A's were unfazed. After lefty Clay Rapada (not to be confused with lefty Clay Zavada, who has the killer moustache) fanned Reddick to start the bottom half, sidewheeling right-hander Cody Eppley entered for the Yankees. Cespedes singled to center, his fourth hit of the game. Gomes followed with an infield single, and then Moss worked his magic. More specifically, he drilled Rapada's first pitch into right field. Andruw Jones fielded the ball cleanly and came up throwing, but Cespedes scored with ease, leading to a dogpile and subsequent pie in Moss' face during the attempted postgame interview.

July 22: Coco Crisp vs. Cody Eppley
So, what else is new? I had finished this article on Sunday afternoon and was ready to enjoy what passes for a life around these parts. Then Seth Smith hit a solo homer to dead center off Rafael Soriano with one out in the ninth to tie the game.

Seriously?

The A's fell behind early, trailing 4-0 after three. Brandon Inge and Kurt Suzuki homered in the fifth (Suzuki's first of a long and disappointing season) to cut that in half. Oakland scored again the next inning and then Smith happened.

The Yankees put two on in the 10th and again in the 12th but couldn't score. Then, with one out in the bottom half, Derek Norris worked the count full against Eppley before dumping a single to left. After Jemile Weeks laid down a sacrifice bunt that Eppley almost threw past Robinson Cano and into the A's bullpen, Crisp—who entered in the eighth—stepped to the plate. He offered at Eppley's first pitch, a sinker down, and golfed it over Cano's head to end the contest and complete the four-game sweep of a bewildered Yankees team.

As Crisp said of his game-winner on Sunday, “It wasn't a pitch I should have swung at.” To his credit, he finished the interview despite being covered in water and shaving cream.

* * *

If you're keeping score at home, that's five homers, a double, three singles, one hit by pitch, and one sacrifice fly. Also, three of the five Brandons to play for the A's in 2012 have driven in the winning run, with only Allen and McCarthy missing.

This isn't the sole reason the A's are performing beyond expectations, but it might be the most fun one. In the process, Beane is looking less stupid with each passing day.

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