One executive from an American League rival, however, injects a note of caution: "You can beat up on second-line pitching that way, but the problem is you see much better pitching in the postseason. I think they'll be in trouble."
Oakland general manager Billy Beane built his team this way out of necessity. Though he would prefer the old pitching-and-defense model, he says, "This is the most cost-effective way. You can get hitters for 50 cents on the dollar relative to pitchers. So we're going to try to outscore you."
Beane has expertly patched together a contender on $32 million, the sixth-lowest payroll in the majors. He has been able to keep costs down thanks to a productive minor league system that has graduated 10 of its players to the current roster. But the A's success owes as much to shrewd acquisitions as to a bountiful farm system. In three deals over eight days last July, Beane stole second baseman Randy Velarde, centerfielder Terrence Long, starting pitchers Kevin Appier and Omar Olivares and All-Star closer Jason (Baby Huey) Isringhausen for seven spare parts and lefthander Kenny Rogers, a pitcher he knew he could not afford to re-sign.
Beane also has struck gold in recent years with unwanted players from other organizations, such as designated hitter John Jaha, outfielder Matt Stairs and pitchers Gil Heredia, Doug Jones and Jeff Tam, plus Menechino, a minor league free agent Beane coveted because—surprise!—he takes pitches and gets on base. "It worked for the Yankees," Beane says. "If you make the pitcher throw enough pitches, you get him out of the game quicker and get into the other team's bullpen."
That philosophy is preached throughout the Oakland organization. Minor league players are taught, for instance, that they had better have one walk for every 10 at bats. No Oakland minor leaguer is eligible for an organizational award, such as player of the month, unless he has the right ratio of walks to at bats. "So even if you hit 30 home runs in a month, but you don't walk enough, you will not be considered," Beane says.
Third baseman Eric (Chavy) Chavez is a proud graduate of Oakland's academy of hitting. When he signed as the A's first-round draft pick in 1996, he says, "I had no patience at all. I was just up there hacking, swinging at everything."
In his first pro season at Class A Visalia, Chavez walked only 37 times and had 520 at bats. The Athletics' instructors drilled him on being more patient. Coaches would throw pitches to him in the batting cage on one bounce—forcing him to concentrate harder on what was a good pitch to hit and what wasn't. Sometimes during games they ordered him not to swing through an entire at bat, making him track the ball into the catcher's mitt. "I'm so much better than I used to be," Chavez says. At the All-Star break he had 38 walks and 261 at bats.
Chavez, 22, leftfielder Ben Grieve, 24, and Tejada, 24, are blossoming stars who at the break had combined for 44 home runs and 170 RBIs, batting behind Jason Giambi and picking up the occasional scraps he leaves them. Jason, at 29 four years older than his brother, sets the tone for this team; his personality in the clubhouse and approach at the plate are infectious. The longest tenured Athletic—the only player with the team since 1995—Giambi says his patience comes from having played with Mark McGwire, the former Oakland first baseman, who tutored and befriended Giambi. Last season Giambi attended the All-Star Game in Boston as McGwire's guest. This year he and McGwire, now with the St. Louis Cardinals, were voted starting first basemen in their respective leagues. The two buddies chat at least twice a week by telephone.
"When he was [in Oakland] is when people started talking about his at bats per home run and how amazing it was," Giambi says. "I learned from him how important it is to wait for your pitch and, when you get it, to slam it. It's an approach where you have to be confident. You don't always want to be in a hole, 0 and 2, but you have to know, Hey, I can hit with two strikes."
Giambi has learned well, as evidenced by the steady climb in his full-season walk totals: 51, 55, 81, 105 and—if his pedometer keeps clicking away at its current rate—an Oakland-record 147 this year. At the All-Star break Giambi also had a team-leading 22 homers. Moreover, he ranked first in the American League in walks (78) and second in on-base percentage (.474), was tied for fifth in RBIs (78), was eighth in slugging percentage (.624) and was 10th in batting average (.334).