Interview: Bob Melvin
At the Oakland A’s FanFest I was invited to join five other bloggers in a press conference style interview of five members of the Oakland A’s organization. They were manager Bob Melvin, starting pitcher Brandon McCarthy, shortstop Cliff Pennington and outfielders Josh Reddick and Seth Smith. While all six of us asked questions, I am going to just focus on the questions I asked on this blog. I suggest readers go to Athletics Nation where the interviews in their entirety are going to be posted. Thank you to the Oakland Athletics organization for this opportunity!
Bob Melvin became interim manager of the A’s on June 9, 2011 having previously been manager of both the Seattle Mariners and Arizona Diamondbacks – where in 2007 he was named National League Manager of the Year. He managed 99 games for the 2011 A’s finishing with a record during his tenure of 47-52. Notable differences were the lack of acrimony in the clubhouse that plagued Bob Geren‘s last few weeks on the job, as well as different usage of several players, most notably Hideki Matsui. Melvin, noted as a players’ manager was officially named manager on September 21, 2011. Here is the first of two questions I had for the A’s skipper:
Q: I’ve read in quite a few places that you’re a very big fan of both Conor Jackson and Hideki Matsui both of whom struggled last year – Jackson has struggled for a few seasons and Matsui is looking like he’s at the end of his career. What is it that makes you say, “hey I know they’ve had a bad year, or maybe more than one bad year but this is someone that I want to be a part of this club”?
A: You know they’re intangible guys. When you set a philosophy – you know Conor’s been with me for a while he was with me in Arizona and here and he knows what I’m all about – he is an example setter when he goes out there. I think if you really look, Conor after his sickness and some injuries never really got the momentum going like he had earlier in his career. It really was kind of a setback for him. If you look at his numbers in the second half last year until Brandon Allen got there it really looked like he was on the upswing to where he was starting to replicate some of his numbers from previous years. I just think it took him a while to get over one: the illness and two: some injuries and three: all of the sudden not being a starter anymore and having to deal with a different role. Conor brings a lot of intangibles. You say Matsui had a down year, for him, you look at his overall numbers. The time I got there to the end of the season he was pretty good. Now maybe not in his world but you creep a little bit older and the numbers are going to go down some. But he’s another presence guy who is just a winner. He is a guy that even if he is 0-for-10 and he’s up there in a situation where you want somebody taking that big at bat in the game, even if he is struggling a little bit you still feel good about him based upon his preparation and knowledge and all of those things. And he is a leader by example.
I liked Melvin’s answer here because I, unlike some of my brethren who also like sabermetrics, do believe there are intangibles that simply cannot be measured or teased out but that do exist and benefit the entire club. Earlier last year I had written that I felt that the illness Melvin referenced here – Jackson’s suffering through valley fever an energy sapping disease with long-term effects – had played a major role in his sudden lack of production. I made this argument prior to spring training last year,
“Most hits come from line-drives and his BABIP has fallen from a .722 pre-Valley Fever mark to a .674 post-Valley Fever mark on line-drives afterwards. It seems safe to assume these line outs are just looping ones as opposed to the scorchers of his earlier career. More muscle, stamina and strength should mean more of these fall for hits. Likewise his BABIP fell on grounders too, as hard ground balls through holes, clearly turned into weak ground-outs (.248 pre-VF versus .082 post-VF). This alone could be a big jumpstart for Conor’s numbers. This theory also explains his diminished power, as 8.0% of his fly balls resulted in home runs before acquiring Valley Fever whereas that number slumped to 3.0% in the two years since.”
Melvin seems to agree with that assessment and I also have to imagine that the change of roles can be a matter of adapting for a player who had been accustomed to playing every day. One gets into a routine and once it is disrupted it can be difficult to right the ship. While strong performances or weak ones are tougher to see deeper into the season than at the beginning when one good night can dramatically cause one’s batting average to rise, Melvin was right. Comparing Jackson’s pre-All-Star-Break and post-All-Star-Break (excluding time spent in Boston) numbers you do see a dramatic improvement:
If he is truly recovering from the lingering effects of the valley fever to me that BABIP number which is much more normal sort of goes along with my theory stated above. Line-drives become less loopy, grounders become harder and get through, fly balls turn more often into home runs. Melvin’s answer on Jackson was great because it illuminated something hidden in plain sight at a time when most A’s fans (myself included) were ready to part ways with him.
Regarding Matsui, there was a difference between Matsui before and after Melvin’s arrival. I think Melvin really did a good job of maximizing his abilities. For example Geren continually benched him against left-handed pitchers and didn’t let him go anywhere near the outfield (as a result he barely played at all when the A’s traveled across the Bay to AT&T Park). Melvin certainly used him well and whether or not the change of skipper aided him best or it was the warmer weather (Matsui being a notorious slow-starter) his numbers did indeed improve. If I had more time and an opportunity for a follow-up on this question I’d have loved to have asked how Matsui’s language barrier changes the way he is a leader. Is it all by example? Is it part-example, part-reaching out despite a barrier? I’d be interested to know how that dynamic works within a clubhouse.
The second question I had for Melvin was,
Q: Right now the closing role is somewhat up in the air. Brian Fuentes is someone who struggled with right-handed hitters – (Melvin cut me off) actually it was more against lefties last year – (I clarified incorrectly, I meant FIP) I think I was looking at the WOBA that didn’t look good for Fuentes – (Melvin now clarifies) it depends which stat you’re looking at – (I reply and continue) I think everything sort of falls into that way [of thinking that what is better or worse is dependent upon which metric one chooses]. But Fuentes is someone who has experience closing. Is there a favorite going in?
A: His numbers were good closing last year too. I think his best numbers occurred when he was closing so certainly he is an option, and certainly [Grant] Balfour based on performance is an option. Whether you want those two guys in more leveraged situations in the seventh or eighth is pretty much going to be the decision maker for me. If a guy like [Fautino] De Los Santos or [Joey] Devine or somebody like that you give them a clean ninth knowing that these guys are going to clean up the messes in the seventh and eighth thats certainly a way you potentially could go. But all those options are open and I think it’s going to be a little ways into spring training before we figure that one out.”
Melvin was correct in correcting me because I wasn’t clear as to how Fuentes struggled and also I bungled the stat I was referencing (first time so cut me some slack!). However Fuentes’ splits were indeed bizarre last year:
Did Fuentes figure out (sort of) how to handle the right handed hitters that befuddled him so often throughout his career? Probably not. The BABIP for him against left-handed hitters whom he typically dominates was a slightly high .308 whereas right-handed hitters chimed in with a .230 BABIP which could easily account for the difference in batting averages particularly since we are dealing with small sample sizes here (250 plate appearances) and lest we forget the classic line from Bull Durham,
“Know what the difference between hitting .250 and .300 is? It’s 25 hits. 25 hits in 500 at bats is 50 points, okay? There’s 6 months in a season, that’s about 25 weeks. That means if you get just one extra flare a week – just one – a gorp… you get a groundball, you get a groundball with eyes… you get a dying quail, just one more dying quail a week… and you’re in Yankee Stadium.”
Over the course of his career he has struggled against right-handed hitters, which makes me think he isn’t the best option as a closer. That said Melvin is correct in save situations Fuentes did something right, as hitters hit just .198/.274/.349 against him compared to the .263/.331/.346 they had in non-save situations. The thing is again BABIP sort of makes a mess of things with the save situations showing a .226 mark compared to the .286 in non-save situations. That said, unlike the other splits which were all where you’d expect them outside of the batting line, here he does indeed strikeout far more (8.2 K/9) in save situations than in non-save (5.3) while also improving his K/BB ratio from just 1.75 in non-save situations to 2.63 in save situations. With such small sample sizes I agree that Fuentes may be an option but don’t necessarily think that he is the best one. Later on in response to another question thrown at Melvin by Jason Wojciechowski of Beaneball Melvin talked about how leveraged situations are different depending on the situation. He talked about how Jose Valverde who pitched for him with the Diamondbacks would’ve struggled in the high leverage seventh or eighth inning position but that he was a ninth inning type who was a,
“clean inning guy who will get out of his own mess.”
That was an interesting answer and it shows to me that Melvin really does have a good grasp of a modern bullpen and unlike what appeared to happen with Geren, doesn’t just think that there are roles people are to be inserted into regardless of the situation. What he said about Valverde was interesting to me and it’ll be interesting to see how the bullpen is used in 2012 – though if a guy needs wiggle room does that really make him a good reliever? I don’t know. The saves stat creates so much noise here in how bullpens are used. What about getting a clean slate in the seventh with the 3-4-5 hitters due up?
All in all the interview with Melvin was a ton of fun, he was a really great guy who gave us good solid answers. He didn’t duck things and it was nice to get the chance to speak with him. You could tell right away why players love the guy because while acknowledging setbacks, he was very positive about all the players. Jackson had a rough year and Melvin found the positives, same with Matsui and Fuentes. One has to think that sort of positive reinforcement is just the sort of thing a player would need to gain back confidence and exit a slump or something. I left with a very good impression, our team is in good hands.