Bob Melvin Earns All A's, Wins Manager Of The Year
When you lead a band of underdog rebels, you have to be a little different. You must be creative, flexible and adapt quickly to the changes around you.
Bob Melvin is just that way. The perfect manager for an imperfect team. The Athletics will never be the perfect team. They cannot outbid others for top free agents, then bring them into their obsolete ballpark. They must build from within and find a few bargains. And then they must use that mix to find a way to contend in the rugged American League West.
Melvin did all that in 2018. With one of the lowest payrolls in baseball and a rotation in physical collapse, he guided the A’s into the postseason and earned the Baseball America Manager of the Year award.
The A’s finished the regular season 97-65 to earn the second AL wild card despite losing nearly all their Opening Day starting pitchers to injuries. Melvin and his staff guided an ever-changing roster through continual obstacles.
“Bob is the most prepared person I’ve ever seen on a baseball field,” pitching coach Scott Emerson said. “He puts all the players in the best position to have success in every game. He knows what they are doing.
He knows what they have done. He knows the game innings before it happens. He’s very good at reading the analytics and reading the best matchups of what a player can do to help us win a ballgame. He has counter moves before the other manager makes his counter moves.”
From the end of the 2017 season, there was a sense that the A’s were an organization on the rise. They had young stalwarts on the corners in third baseman Matt Chapman and first baseman Matt Olson, slugging DH Khris Davis, a solid supporting cast and enough promising young pitchers to expect an improving future. The big question was whether that future might come as soon as 2019.
The pitching began falling apart before the end of spring training. Jharel Cotton and A.J. Puk both needed Tommy John surgery. Other potential starters went down.
Melvin and Emerson pieced things together as best they could, managing to tread water well enough to post a 21-22 record on May 17. Even with the season seemingly falling apart around him, Melvin never showed fear.
“You’re going to have stretches during the season when things don’t go your way,” all-star second baseman Jed Lowrie said. “I don’t think it was a matter of doing anything. He continued to focus on the things we needed to do to get better. He has a very calming presence. That allows the players to have a little leeway. If you play poorly one game, he’s not going to come in and blow up the clubhouse
and tell everybody how bad they are. He has good timing on when to do something and when not to do it.”
General manager David Forst hit the market, hunting for available starting pitchers. He came up with three unsigned veterans: Edwin Jackson, Trevor Cahill and Brett Anderson.
“No one really panicked,” Emerson said. “We brought in veteran guys who, in my opinion, still have a lot left to their game. Jackson’s still got a great arm. Cahill the same. Brett came up with a much better changeup. These are guys who have put in the seasons and gone through the fire. I think the starters did a hell of a job because (Melvin) was able to put these guys in a position to have success.”
Melvin relied on the veteran starters and a very good bullpen to put together enough pitching to keep the team competitive. New catcher Jonathan Lucroy did a terrific job of handling the pitchers, and the team flourished, going 76-43 the rest of the way.
Melvin said he usually airs out his teams about twice a year, but this year there was no reason to do so. They played hard and battled through the entire season as the young players continued to mature and improve.
The season ended with a wild card playoff loss to the Yankees, when Melvin tried to use relievers to pitch the game. Desperate times, desperate measures.
While Melvin’s tactics shined in 2018, his ability to guide a team has shown over his eight seasons managing the Athletics.
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“He does a good job keeping a finger on the pulse of the clubhouse,” Lowrie said. “There’s still something to be said about a manager being able to have a feel for the clubhouse and let guys be themselves, while demanding a lot from them, especially in the age of analytics. He allows for that freedom. He allows guys to be themselves but has a high standard. He expects guys to be professional, but he allows them to have a personality. It isn’t as strict as other clubhouses I’ve been in.”
What was most striking about Melvin’s 2018 season was that he ran the operation so differently than he did in his previous wining seasons with the A’s from 2012 to 2014. In those years, he relied on continuous platooning to build an offense where the whole was better than the individual parts. This year, he had more of a set lineup built around power.
“I’ve gotten that question over the years. What kind of manager are you? Do you like power hitting teams? Do you like to run? Do you like to force the issue?” Melvin said after the season had concluded. “It’s based on the personnel you have. So it is my job to adjust to the group that we have any particular year.”
And that may be the key to Melvin’s success. The players buy into his program.
“Bob is a great communicator with guys,” Emerson said. “I think the team bought into (the idea) that winning the game is the most important analytic. We don’t play for numbers. We don’t play for the analytics. We play to win the game.”
And that is what makes Melvin excel. He adapts to a situation, then convinces the players to embrace what is needed to succeed. It is not so much about analytics as it is about leadership, and Melvin is a leader for all situations.