Programming note: For comprehensive A’s coverage from Arizona, watch SportsNet Central tonight at 6 p.m., 10:30 and midnight on Comcast SportsNet Bay Area
MESA, Ariz. – After watching teams run wild on the bases last season, the A’s are making it a point of emphasis this spring to better control the opponent’s running game.
“We’re going over these game awareness things, and they’re specifically centered on the running game,” A’s manager Bob Melvin said Monday afternoon. “When you’re deficient in an area, it’s my job to make sure we concentrate on that.”
The 78.1 percent stolen base success rate that Oakland allowed in 2014 was third-worst in the American League. It was a season-long problem, but it was magnified in the American League Wild Card loss to Kansas City, when the Royals stole seven bases that helped them mount a comeback from a four-run deficit and end the A’s season.
The A’s will have a different look behind the plate this season. Derek Norris and John Jaso were traded to San Diego and Tampa Bay, respectively. Stephen Vogt, the best thrower of Oakland’s trio of catchers last season, couldn’t catch over the season’s final three months due to a foot injury that required offseason surgery. He’s expected to be full strength by Opening Night, and that should be a boost defensively.
Josh Phegley, one of four players acquired from the White Sox in the Jeff Samardzija trade, is expected to platoon with Vogt, and his throwing arm is considered a strength. So the A’s might have the defensive personnel to better limit opponents on the bases, but the responsibility doesn’t rest solely with who’s catching.
A’s pitchers as a group weren’t great at holding runners close to the bag, so all areas are being addressed when it comes to remedying the problem. It’s worth noting that two AL West teams ranked in the league’s top five in steals last season. Houston was second (122) and Texas fifth (105).
“Whether it’s pitchers being quicker to the plate, being aware of who’s on base, (who’s) stealing in what counts …” Melvin said. “There’s so much involved with technology these days that they can pick you apart as a pitcher, even guys that are quick to the plate. It’s something that we’re paying particularly close attention to. Once we get into games it will remain that way.”
CAMP BATTLE: Relievers Eric O’Flaherty and Fernando Rodriguez each are entering their second season back from Tommy John surgery, and the general thought is that pitchers take a big leap forward in their second year removed from the procedure in terms of velocity and pitch sharpness. For O’Flaherty, who joined the A’s bullpen last July when he got healthy, this will mark his first full season post-surgery, and he said every facet of his daily routine is easier and filled with less doubt. Rodriguez, who is not on the 40-man roster but will battle for a bullpen spot, said he expects his stuff to improve over 2014.
LIGHTER SIDE: Sean Doolittle is squaring off against Giants catcher Buster Posey in the semifinals of the MLB Network’s “Face of MLB” contest. Though admitting he hasn’t paid close attention to the contest, Melvin praised A’s fans who have advanced an Oakland player to the semifinals for the second straight year (Eric Sogard made it all the way to the 2014 finals). A’s fans have flocked to Twitter to rally support for Doolittle, photoshopping the reliever’s head into every imaginable pop culture scenario. One fan superimposed Doolitte’s face on each of the Beatles for the “Abbey Road” album cover.
Fan voting runs until 6 a.m. (PT) Tuesday, and as of early Monday evening, Doolittle trailed Posey 56 percent to 44 percent.
BOTTOM LINE: Tuesday is reporting day for A’s position players, and though players aren’t required to physically show up until Wednesday, it will mark the first time the majority of the full squad will be in the same room together. And that alone gives spring camp more of a realistic, in-season feel.